The fear of getting started, the pressure of the empty page

The anxiety of getting started, we all have it to a degree. Those involved in the visual arts will certainly recognize the confrontation with that virgin white piece of paper, canvas or block of stone. For me, and I’m guessing for many others, it’s a bit of a mixture in reality, anxiety yes, but mixed with the sense of possibility.

blank paper

That nervousness and the feeling that something good might result is also a quality I recognize all too clearly in those I teach. This goes for the twelve year olds in my first year lessons right through the most elderly in the courses for adults that I lead. The edgy excitement that a blank canvas, immaculate sheet of white paper or other yet to be touched material presents us with is, I think, one of the driving forces behind creativity. It is the alchemy of turning neutrality into something of value.  But with this process of transformation comes pressure and responsibility. If you start something, can you finish it? Pressure indeed!

From my early days at art school I can remember tutors offering me and other students strategies to overcome this anxiety and to bypass that white paper confrontation stage. We were encouraged to splash paint across the sheet before we started or to screw the paper up into a ball, flatten it out and then start to work. Interesting approaches and ones that I too might from time to time also suggest.

A few weeks ago I tried an experiment with the group of fifteen adults that I work with every Thursday evening. It also produced a more experimental and open approach to drawing, an approach that also seemed to go quite a way in reducing the pressure the participants felt about the impact of their mark making.  Perhaps more interesting to me though, was the way this fed through to produce some very engaging drawings.

The set up was simple, fifteen people, fifteen pieces of paper and a variety of drawing materials on offer. I had a list of simple terms, the first was “water”. I gave them three or four minutes to draw something that for them was connected or associated with “water”. After an initial four minute drawing session the drawings were then passed on to the person on their left and I then gave them a new drawing theme for a further four minutes of drawing, “sweetness”, “Vermeer”, “five straight lines” followed.  Each time the drawing was in part a reaction to the word, but also a reaction to what was already there. The series continued with terms such as “window”, “red”, “1920s/30s” and “journey”. The final block was simply to look at the drawing that you now had in front of you and to add something that you feel the composition needs.

group drawings

Art with diminished responsibility

My initial worry was that the result was going to be either a mess or one person just obliterating the work of another. However, slowly in most (although not quite all if I am honest) a sense of order started to appear. One of the participants observed that it was kind of art with diminished responsibility, you had a part to play, but the knowledge that you would soon be passing the drawing on, having made a small contribution, was in a sense quite liberating, you didn’t feel the pressure that this sheet of paper was somehow representing you. The ownership lay with the whole group. It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see if I can persuade some in the group to take up the challenge of working one of the drawings into a truly ‘own’ piece of work.


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