Paint by Heart, Revise by Numbers

Creating anything is hard work. Most of us—no matter how practiced—regularly fill with self doubt throughout the process. It gives us pause. In the middle of creating, we stop to assess our creation. We question whether to tweak it, pivot a new direction, or throw it out entirely. The more confident the creator, the less frequently this happens. But it still happens to all of us.

To brute force through creative insecurity, many amateurs follow formulas. They read how-to books, take classes, follow instructions, and paint by numbers. Thinking twice about it, we all can guess how work created that way turns out: formulaic, contrived, familiar, and dishonest. You can smell it from a mile away.

So throw out all those formulas and numbers? No, of course not. But if you have any hope of making an impact with your work, you cannot start with these things. They’re simply too clean, too easy, and too uninspired. You need to start completely free, without rules or boundaries, and from the soul. Instead of painting by numbers or coloring within the lines, you ditch the numbers and lines altogether to pour your heart out onto a blank piece of paper. Pour and pour and pour, then squeeze some more until every last drop of heart and unbridled creative energy escapes you to be sculpted. Only then are you working with the proper palette and honest materials to do profound work.

The instant you bring formulas and numbers into the equation, the insecurities set in. Rightfully so, because you then have something to challenge your work against. If you do this too soon, you might stir up your insecurities too soon before the truth gets out. After you’ve gotten everything out and exhausted the possibilities, only then should you reference the numbers. Compare and contrast. Use the formulas to help you understand what’s working and not working about it for you. The numbers can help you tidy up the mess by employing more conventional tools and creative logic to help make your work more accessible.

That said, you really know for sure that you are sculpting something with a measure of truth when you deliberately choose to break the rules to keep it the way that it is. The more you break rules to fight for truth (rather than just breaking rules for the ignorant sake of breaking rules), the more original and genuine your work will be.

We should all try to achieve such profound honesty in everything that we do. To do that, we must first paint by heart, then revise by numbers. With luck, we’ll have created with so much heart that we fight the numbers, build confidence in our work, and deliver something great.