When you paint, does it resemble baking a cake?
When you sculpt, is it like digging your garden?
Are your poems filled with bold sweeps of Turneresque colour, or the tiny dots of Seurat?
That 'other' activity that your creative process resembles, holds important clues to the way you work best - and how to optimise your creative energies.
I make art like an author writes a story. I have an idea, a starting point, but no idea how the story will end. The excitement for me lies in this not-knowing.
The few times I have tried to create an image based on a completed picture in my mind’s eye, I became bored very quickly and often gave up on the piece altogether.
I’ve always been attracted to the writer’s workflow. Perhaps that’s why I have developed a process that mirrors it - flexible enough for lots of ‘edits’ and an uncertain outcome. (It's also why I LOVE coaching writers!)
Like a writer, I begin with a draft. This might be:
a sketch in my sketchbook
an existing piece that I want to rework in a new form
an abstract, textured ‘drawing’ laid down on the support
This is the beginning of my story. Now I must let it unfold.
In the way that an author might assemble snippets of overhead conversation, a hastily scribbled description of someone’s unusual appearance and some plot notes, I gather elements that reflect the tiny nugget of an idea I have inside:
Previously painted collage papers
Pieces of fabric
Found elements such as small pieces of rusty metal or flowers I’ve pressed and dried
Words I’ve written or torn out
An old line drawing from my collage box
Or even an image I have imprinted on my brain through a lot of staring.
I may move these elements around on the support to see if they spark further ideas. I may just leave them next to my workspace to whisper to me. I may include all or none of them in the final work.
We find the rhythm of our process - the dance between knowing and not knowing - and we discover, along the way, how best to see the work clearly for what it is.
Dani Shapiro: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Maybe there’s a heroine in my story. I draw the figure. I cut her out of paper and stick her down on the support with matt medium. Perhaps then I add some of the other elements I’ve gathered.
But then after a while, just like the writer, I need to edit what I’ve done so far: I want that figure bigger or more to the left; or I want another element behind the figure; I want her legs in a different pose.
This is the old cut and paste school of editing. No word-processing here. I have to prise that figure off the support again. It isn’t easy. Matt medium sticks very well. (There’ll be traces of paper left behind that I’ll have to rub off with a wet sponge.) Eventually the original figure will be pretty much gone. If I have painted colour under the figure, I’ll have to patch up the bit where the figure is. More matt medium, then some paint.
Now I redraw the figure, cut it out again, and put it in its new position. Oh yes, so much better! I can immediately see what needs to happen next in the story. I go at it for a while. Paint, found elements, stitching...a theme is beginning to emerge. It’s all about fire, or reaching, or breaking out of confining limits. The piece takes on more coherence as I begin to see how to tie the disparate elements together.
Things may go smoothly from here with me adding paint and pieces until the story is told. Or there may be false starts and stops, more editing (scraping and moving of elements), a sudden plot twist (change of colour scheme requiring me to overpaint most of what I’ve done so far) or a new character or scenario might present itself.
The important thing is that my process is adaptable enough to allow for me to paint my story in this way. I couldn’t do this in watercolour. The opaque nature of acrylic paints lets me easily cover up parts of the piece that I’ve changed. Each layer of matt medium I apply, fixes the layer underneath and allows me to smoothly add new layers of paint. Infinite editing possibilities!
My process and the development of my creative ideas are deeply intertwined. I can’t have one without the other. My process is mine and almost certainly wouldn’t work for you.
So what is your creative process LIKE?
Do your photos resemble sewing gossamer fabrics?
Do you make pots the way programmers write code?
Do you write a novel as if you were deep sea diving?
Do you compose music the way a chef prepares a gourmet meal?
Knowing what your process resembles, gives you whole new layers of insight into how you work best.