Urban Sunrise, 9 x 9″ Acrylics & Ink
“But the artist who is more interested in creating deeply than in ridding herself of anxiety will refuse to know too soon.”
– Eric Maisel
In his fascinating book, Fearless Creating, Eric Maisel talks about the necessity for the artist to invite in and deal appropriately with anxiety. While not dealing properly with anxiety at any stage of the creative process can create a block, refusing to allow anxiety in at all dries up the creative juices. You probably know this double-edged sword well – if everything feels too comfortable and familiar, you likely aren’t feeling at your creative peak.
One of the ways that we control our anxiety is through knowledge – when I’m trying to explore new territory with my art, there is a definite feeling of anxiety caused by not knowing what I’m doing. It’s easy to fall back on familiar techniques, styles, mediums, etc. Sometimes at the end of a session I’m confronted by work that isn’t at all what I intended to do and looks alarmingly reminiscent of past work. I fall into the trap of wanting to know too soon what I am doing in order to relieve the anxiety inherent in not knowing.
Albert Camus said in his last published lecture, Create Dangerously:
“On the edge of where the great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure,
an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of art.”
I’m often aware of the delicious tension I feel inside between the anxiety that pushes my creativity and the anxiety that stalls my creativity. I’m constantly doing things to tap into the former while also avoiding the latter. The space between these two states is where the freedom Camus talks about exists. It’s where I feel the most alive and energized and where I do my best work.
Crimson Angel, 9 x 11″ Acrylic
“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”
– Joseph Campbell
How oddly reassuring.
As artists we all struggle with knowing if we’re on the right path. There are usually obstacles looming ahead of us on that path – bumps we stumble over, forks we are stymied by, hills we tire of climbing, forests which block the light of day so we cannot see.
Surely we must eventually reach a point on the path where it is suddenly clear sailing. And, indeed, when someone else looks at our path, they often claim to be able to reach higher ground, from which they can see where our path is leading us with great clarity. They are eager to describe where we should go. I certainly have done so for others.
We can become frustrated with our path and impatient to have it cleared ahead of us. But we have to find our own way – what makes it our path, and thus our art, are the very difficulties we encounter and engage with.
So the next time I run into something on the artistic path that I don’t understand I will know that the next steps I take are surely my own and are taking me where only I can go.
“The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.”
– Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy
It’s an intriguing thought to view art as not the work itself but the means by which the work is created. Art becomes something much more complex and interesting – the various internal forces within you that enable you to produce the “work of art”. Even “work of art” takes on a new meaning – the piece created is the work of the art within you.
This makes the answer to “what is art?” take on a much more personal meaning – instead of looking outward and saying this piece is art and that piece is not, we instead turn inward and look for the measure of the art there. Art becomes much more than technique, composition or style – it is the unique combination of experience, intention, insight and creativity that only you have. Art becomes inseparably intertwined with the life force within you.
“The art remains in the artist” – I can think of no better companion.
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”
– Miles Davis
It’s all too easy to play what’s there – to take another photograph, paint a painting, write a story, compose a song, much like the ones you’ve done before. There are lots of reasons to do so – creating a consistent body of work, improving one’s skills through practice, recreating a past success, fear of making a mess.
It takes lots of imagination, courage and discipline to “play what’s not there”. To take the next step and create something new is exciting, seductive, frustrating, uncomfortable – and ultimately very rewarding.
I’ve been focusing lately on some abstract acrylic paintings – my intention to stick with non-representational work makes it a little more difficult to “play what’s there” since I’m not trying to make it look like anything else. During the period when I was doing landscapes in pastels, I found I was focusing on improving technique and much less on being creative. The explicit nature of the subject matter weighed me down. My focus was more outward.
When painting non-representationally I find myself listening to the pieces more. I start a piece and put it aside, come back and sit with it, trying to understand where it wants to go next. Since there are no external landmarks to direct me, the marks I’ve made so far must be my guides. I enjoy these private conversations immensely.
“There isn’t any method of improvement inherent in abstract painting. There is no challenge.”
– Daniel E. Greene
As you might expect, I don’t agree at all with the sentiment expressed above. I find it interesting that a prominent artist would make such a statement – Daniel Greene is one of the most respected portrait artists out there. His style is certainly not abstract, but such a “partisan” point of view is surprising.
That said, he does raise an interesting question, which is how does one gauge “improvement”? First, there is an assumption that, as an artist, we are trying to improve. Is this always true? Is “improvement” just a sly euphemism for “more successful”? We know what a twisted thicket trying to chase success leads us into.
Or does improvement mean that we are better able to express whatever it is we are trying to express in our art? One might argue that there is no need for “improvement”. As long as we’re enjoying making the art, who cares? Do we need to strive for improvement or should we be more concerned about enjoying the process and expressing ourselves freely wherever that leads us? Does trying to “improve” actually hold us back?
I believe what Greene is referring to is probably more technique oriented – as a fairly realistic painter or portraits, he can gauge improvement by the work’s closer and closer resemblance to the subject. Not just how photo-realistic the painting is, but to what degree the character of the subject is captured. For an abstract artist, it is certainly harder to measure improvement because there is no external reference against which the piece can be compared in some way.
But I cannot agree with Greene. I think in abstract art there is room for improvement and there are real challenges we face. The measure of improvement is more internal to the artist and thus more difficult for others to measure. But you probably have had the experience of looking at two abstract pieces and seeing that one is clearly better than the other – if these had both been done by the same artist, one would have to conclude that improvement had occurred (I’m assuming it wasn’t a one-off stroke of luck!). If such a leap in quality can be recognized there must be a method of improvement behind it.
“Specialization is for insects.”
– Robert Anson Heinlein
I’ll admit it, I’ve got an art problem.
My art-making interest far exceeds my capacity to make art. It’s mostly a lack of time – I have a full time job, not to mention two teenagers, a couple of mothers to care for – you get the picture.
But I’m the restless type with lots of curiosity thrown in and I just love to start something new and learn about it. I’m really bad about finishing or perfecting things. I must drive my piano teacher crazy – just when I’m getting a handle on a new piece of music I want to move on to something new. I’m terrible at practicing a piece of music until I’ve mastered it – truth be told, I’ve never practiced a single piece of music to the point where I feel I could comfortably play it for someone else. But I can muddle through a pretty large repertoire!
I’ve spent a lot of time on photography, pastels, monoprints, acrylics and alternative digital printing processes over the years. I feel I might be better served by focusing the little time I have to make art on one, or maybe, two of these (or something new??). But I want to do them all, as well as continue to explore new processes and mediums. This isn’t the most cost-effective model – I’ve spent a lot of money on and accumulated a lot of art supplies over the years, much of which sits in storage now. I could open my own art store!
We’ve discussed before the pros and cons of a consistent style or technique and creating a coherent body or work versus exploring new processes. But usually artists are flailing around within just one medium. I seem to be flailing across a wide range of mediums. Same problem, larger scale.
I’d be interested in hearing how others have dealt with similar promiscuous art tendencies. Success stories welcome…
“Every tree and plant in the meadow seemed to be dancing, those which average eyes would see as fixed and still.”
I am aware that as an artist I have been given a great gift for which I am profoundly grateful. The world around me has become animated and alive in a way for which I had no appreciation prior to becoming an artist. Everything now is more than what it seems. It has the potential to become, through the alchemy of art, something new and transcendent.
A great photographer, Minor White, said “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” The mystery and magic occurs when we contemplate what else something is or could become. This is the creative act and makes the world an endlessly fascinating place – we can never exhaust it’s potential.
I didn’t start making art until I was 40 years old – prior to that, a tree was just a tree. Now a tree can be a silent sentinel rising through morning mist with delicate grace, or a solitary beacon of ancient natural wisdom. The tree is a tree, but what else?
The desire to answer this question is the gift I have received.