A large number of people end up as adults who have little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators. This blog explores the idea of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.) and starts with the question 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?'
Every object has natural properties.
For the moment, I will use the words painting and object interchangeably. The painting is,
after all, an object. The natural properties of the object are determined by
the materials, and by the size, shape, and function of the object. These
properties are true of paintings, as well, and one can add to the properties of
the painting, the painting’s character, which has emerged as the painting
appeared in the studio. That character is not only a matter of style or
figuration. It is also a matter of the limitations of the function of the painting.
A painting cannot do everything that we would expect of images in life. It is allows
for a specific range of tones, gestures and shapes. These limitations give
it its character as much as any painterly elements.
Myth of Control There are two myths about painting that need to be exploded. The
first of them is the more obvious. It is the myth that the artist controls the
painting. This myth is, of course, supported by numerous catch phrases in our
language and culture:He’s
so talented, what skill she has, she’s a natural creative . All suggest that the artist makes the painting do
whatever he or she wants. Although some artists do try to impose their will on
the objects of their art, most know that this is a disservice to both art and to
the painting. Our job, ourart, is to bring the painting to life. To impose
control over the object is, in both spirit and practice, the opposite of this.
As painters, it is,
job to impose our intent on the painting. It is our job to discover what the paint
can do and what it seems to want to do. It has propensities. We want to find
out what they are, and support them. We are, in this sense, less like tyrants,
and more like nurses to these objects. How can we help them? They are built for
a purpose. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive at those
A simple example: What are the
properties of a ball? It rolls, and sometimes it bounces. To put a ball onstage
and have it never bounce or roll is a denial of what that ball is. Even if the
ball does nothing, it can be said to be waiting to roll or bounce. A painting’s
properties may not be quite so obvious, but they are there, and so is its
character. Analyzing the character will not get us very far. We have to
discover who our two-dimensional partner is. This is true of its shapes, gestures,
and its voice. Our cleverness in thinking of great things for the painting to
do or say will not help the painting live. They will only draw attention to
ourselves. If we try to impose them on the painting , what we produce will not
be about the painting at all. It will be about us, the manipulator. Or it will
be about the conflict between us and our painting.
The practice of our art, then, requires
that we be the exact opposite of a controller. In fact, it requires that we
step back and allow our paintings to perform their shapes, their tones,
their moments of life in the world. It requires from us a generosity. If we try
to dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.
This practice of
discovering the painting’s intentions can take a long time. Often we make a
painting to play a role in a script we
have written. If we are sensitive to our work, we may take the painting and
propose the actions and text of that script. But it is very likely that
something will not fit, that the painting does not seem to embody those actions or text
easily. It might seem as though the painting is fighting us. What can we do? Start
the painting again? Rewrite the script that informs our intention? Possibly a
little of both, first one, then the other, until we find the place where
everything fits together. This can be a long process. The art of the painting has
very little to do with what wewant, and everything to do with what we allow ourselves
to discover, support, and follow.
Myth of Manipulation This brings us to the second myth. This myth is more illusive. It
is the myth that we manipulate the paint with the skill and technique of our hands.
What is manipulation, after all, than the moving of an objectwith the hand? This word does not serve us well.
For a moment, let’s
look at a bigger picture. We come to the art gallery. To see what? The painting?
I don’t think so. I think that we come to the art gallery to experience the
world that the painting gives form to. That world is a reflection of our world,
so it is of great interest to us. We come, then, not to see the painting, but
to seethroughthe painting, and out into its world.
About thirty-five years ago, I did a
performance in a beautiful Zen temple in Rochester, New York. I remember the
temple as having been built without nails, but rather with wooden pegs. As I
and the rest of our ensemble entered the temple, we saw a very large drum lying
horizontally on a high stand, like a huge barrel suspended in the air. The drum
had two skins, one at each end, with the barrel in between. A monk was playing
the drum and its sound was deep and reverberated through our bodies. I asked
the monk if he would let me play the drum. He generously handed me the two
sticks and stepped aside. I took my stance at one end of the drum, raised my
sticks above my head and began to beat, trying to emulate what I had seen the
monk doing. Very quickly, he stopped me and said, “You are doing it all wrong.”
Wrong? What was I doing wrong? “You are playing the skin of the drum.” What
should I be playing? “You should be playing through the skin, through the
second skin, and out into the world.”
mysterious statement is not so mysterious as it seems. For me, it is the same
with painting. We should not, in fact, be painting at all. We should be playingthroughthe painting, and out into its world. We do not
manipulate the painting at all. It is a means to evoking its environment. And
that environment, that world, is not a material world. It is a sensory one, and
we, the audience, can only experience it through thesensesof the painting. How can our hands manipulate
In fact, our hands are only the middle
men in this transaction, like the paintings themselves. Our hands are sensors,
not actors. The are transmitters of our breath. Like all artists, like
musicians and dancers and even good lighting technicians, it is in our breath
that the living response is found.
Through Our Hands Breath is how we experience the world. Everything that we
experience we breathe in. We pass, for example, a window of a shoe store.
There, in the window, we see that pair of shoes that we have been dreaming
about. We gasp. In a sense, we inhalethe
shoes. If we do not inhale, we do not really see them. It is the same for
nature. We inhale the sunset, the vast sky. We inhale the view of the
mountains, the distant skyscrapers approaching a city. Our inhale connects us
to the world.
Even in our dreams,
our breath connects us to the world of our imagination. We dream we are being
pursued. In our dream we are running. We awake, suddenly, panting, gasping for
breath. And yet our bodies have not moved. We have been asleep in bed. But ourimaginationshave been running. Whatever we imagine, our breath
And so we have an equation: It is not
our hands manipulating the paint that brings the painting to life. It is our breath corresponding to the
world of our imagination. Between our breath and the imagined world, our hands
take up the paint. We allow our breath to go through our hands, through the painting,
and out into the world. And we allow the imagined world to go through the painting,
through our hands, and into our breath. If we assert more than the minimal
amount of effort needed to support the painting, we lock the piece into being
about our hands and the paint. If we keep our hands receptive, to let our
breath flow through them, and through the painting as well, we have the
potential to unlock a richer content, and a richer experience.
Our first act of
generosity is to let the painting be about the painting, not about us. Our second
act of generosity is to let the piece be about a greater world outside the painting.
This is where our breath and the breath of the audience meet to make meaningful
art. Ultimately, a painting is abouthowthe piece is offered and received, rather than the intention of the marks. In painting, we can choose to impress the audience with our muscle,
skill, and technique; or we can choose to invite them to follow an inanimate
object into a world that reflects their own. We meet our audience there.
In my case it is not so much perfectionism that stuffs me up, but self-conciousness. The initial lines of this drawing were done on the first day that I moved into my new studio. I wanted to just carry on as I had been doing, making my large drawings, but after these lines appeared I immediately realised that something was wrong.
It took me some weeks to work out that I couldn't transplant my whole work process to a new space over a few days and expect to just carry on. And then, in a curious second version of this attempting to just carry on, the first thing I did when I reclaimed my home work space was to pull out this badly-begun drawing and see what I could discover by working into it.
Well, I've had some interesting adventures with it. But in the end, the self-consciousness of those first lines seemed to set the scene for something that was compositionally doomed from the start. No matter what adventures I may have had, the beginning wrongness set the conditions for something that was never going to be overcome.
The motto from the struggle this drawing represents seems to be, 'never start an improvisation with any kind of self-consciousness'.
It occurs to me this morning that one of the things that most disturbs me about 'the art world', or even just 'art' as a general idea, is the obsession with product. Now, before you say, oh, god, here we go, process v. product, yawn, I'm off to make a cup of tea, I would like to pause on this a while. The question, and my at least imagined reactions to it, reminds me of some of my experiences with social science research. If you stopped to ask a few questions about HOW actually people had got to their conclusions about, for example, 'how adults learn' I soon found out that on the whole such questions were dismissed. They appeared to be regarded as being the provenance of the beginning academic, the PhD student, and it seemed to be taken for granted that once you had done your PhD, you didn't have to bother with the (in fact very troublesome and unresolved) questions in this area.
And so it seems to be with art process. Where, in the online groups I belong to, is any kind of discussion about HOW people work? About what blocks them and stuffs them up, about what frees them and helps them reach out beyond what's safe, about what goes on behind the scenes of the 'finished work' which is proudly signed, and posted along with information about how it can be purchased?
Classes and workshops are advertised where 'expert' practitioners offer to guide the less experienced, but where is the exploration of the processes of the experienced professional? For myself, at least, I am really far more interested in how these processes occur than in what they produce.
I think one of the reasons the obsession with product and sales bothers me is that the lack of discussion of process disguises a great deal, and, amongst other things, perpetuates the (culturally-based) illusion that 'there are those that can, and those that can't'. If someone liked the image above, for example, they might think, mmm, like that, wish I could do that, pity I'm not creative. And yet if I actually explained how I produced this image, step by step, anyone in the world could make their own version of it. What interests me is not the perpetuation of some kind of mystery around the production of an image that might create an effect in someone (and whether that effect is 'I like it' or 'that's shite' doesn't matter from this point of view) but to explore the processes by which objects like this appear in the world. Or are prevented from appearing. I'm interested in this because I believe that the appearance, or otherwise, of such things is vital in terms of both individual and collective health and resilience.
For some reason this idea is connecting in my mind to an article I've just finished reading in the New Scientist, about rampantly developing antibiotic resistance beginning to force people to look back at older approaches and research. An experiment done in the late 60s, for example, which showed that bacteria on a roof which were exposed to moving outside air were almost entirely killed off over a 24 hour period, whereas those kept in an enclosed box on the same roof in the same conditions were all still happily living and developing. Florence Nightingale's light and air-filled wards, compared to today's sealed rooms.
More and more time, money and words are spent discussing the mechanisms and biochemical correlates of physical and psychological/ emotional 'illnesses', but every now and again the research says something like (...the day before yesterday on Radio 4...) 'maybe we just all need more sleep'.
I would suggest that maybe we also all need more time, space, and belief in our capacities to move, dance, sing, draw, paint and play. All of us. Artists, musicians, 'non-artists', 'non-musicians', everyone. The processes involved in these things happening, or not, are what interests me.
Why do you want to get up and dance but stop yourself? What was it like to be you in the four years leading up to the day you completed that painting, which happens to have just sold? The questions are the same for everyone, in my book. I'm happy if you just sold a painting, but I'm much more interested in why all of your paintings look like versions of the same thing (and of course I'm not exempt from this observation), despite the fact that you've been painting for years. What's going on behind your scenes that stops you from taking a greater risk; from risking yourself in the world in a new way?