Monthly Archives: April 2008


Having said that I intended to explore and disect my own creative process, I realize that so far I haven’t actually talked about my own art at all. So here goes….

A few weeks ago I decided to doodle in my sketchbook. I used different colored fine-tipped markers. As usual I was bouncing around the idea of things being “unfixed”, impermanent and ungraspable. But mostly, I was just doodling, enjoying using shapes and lines.

Then the following week Sammy and I went to Buckeye Hot Springs in the Eastern Sierras, and I took my sketchbook remembering that I felt quite inspired by the weird algae and sulphur deposits last time we went.

So, once we’d relaxed for a while, I pulled out my sketchbook and pens and started to absorb what was around me, finding shapes, lines, colors, textures that expressed my response to the environment. While I was busily scribbling, editing and manipulating my ideas, water from the spring spattered onto the drawing I had done a week earlier – it had fallen out of my sketchbook and was lying on a nearby rock.

Initially, when I saw what had happened, my response was along the lines of, “aw crap”.
Not that I was particularly proud of that drawing. I was more concerned that it was now wet and would have to be babied back to the car instead of just jammed into my sketchbook.
Then I heard a little voice say “Well, maybe this is an opportunity to go off the beaten path”. The sketch was no longer “mine” and this was freeing. Chaos and nature had conspired to take me down a different path, and they left their watery trail all over my work. So, I decided to follow.

Here’s what happened:

And from there a whole world of possibilities opened up. I spent the rest of the day drenching drawings in the sulphuric water. Most of what I did I hated. Here’s a piece I wasn’t very excited about because it didn’t actually look like Sammy, but I certainly learned a lot about the potential for using this technique with portraits (i.e. don’t overdo it on the water smudging, and let the water carry the ink where it will, rather than trying to control it).

My point?  Well, I suppose, that part of my process requires harnessing factors that are beyond my control.  Much like in science, some of the greatest discoveries are made by accident.  Not that I’m claiming to be on a par with Alexander Fleming, or anything.  Just, leaps are made when your mind is forced in a different direction other than the one it habitually goes down.  Then comes the hard part – trying to recreate and use your discovery to make great art.  Still working on that bit.

See What I Mean?

So, here’s what my 4th grade kids did when I gave them a bunch of marbling inks and a tray full of size. Obviously, I picked some good ones. There were far more crappy ones than amazing ones, but that’s how experimenting goes. All that work, all that mess, for just a few gems. But MAN, you should see them light up when they pull the paper off the surface of the size and find something like this:

Once their marbled papers were dry, I let them loose to make whatever they wanted. I suggested looking at their designs until they saw something – a landscape, a creature, a flower etc. This is the next stage of creativity: engaging and trusting one’s imagination. For kids, this tends to be pretty easy. As adults we’ve generally stopped seeing fairies, imaginary worlds and spaceships everywhere we look (unless we’re sitting opposite a psychiatrist with a bunch of suggestive ink splats). For kids, it’s second nature. Not that I’m suggesting imagination should be concerned with the whimisical, fanciful, fairy-cake-filled worlds of children. Imagination, just like everything else, matures and develops with age. But the point is, we seem to forget to use it, and enjoy it.

Here’s what one (admittedly very motivated and art-oriented) 4th grader made:

Not only was he able to engage his imagination and see an opportunity for art-making, but I watched him go through an incredible problem-solving process (well, for a 4th grader at least). He wanted to make it look like the fish was caught in a wave that was curling toward the viewer. Try to imagine how you would draw that, or make a paper cut-out of it. Pretty tricky. It would probably look like a weird hat. He tried it a few different ways, and eventually came to me to ask how I would do it. I was stumped. So, I cheated, and told him, “Well, you may have to think outside the box with this one”. At which he frowned, looked at his picture, looked around the room, and disappeared into a corner. 10 minutes later, he reappeared with this. Apparently, he had spotted these colored wood shavings in one of the many boxes I’d laid out for them. Immediately, the synapses started firing, and his mind made the leap into a third dimension.

I realize that to most people my amazement and excitement at this development may seem a little over-the-top. But remember this kid is 9 or 10. They think very concretely at this age. That his mind was able to find a way out of the rut it was stuck in, and in such a creative way, is incredible. He thought like an artist. He could imagine alternatives outside of his experience, and he trusted himself to realize that vision.

What the Hell am I doing here?

So, as an experiment, I decided to write a blog that chronicles the excrutiating, unnerving, frustrating, and occassionally exhilirating process of creating my art.  I thought that by telling the whole truth about my process I may get to the truth of what artmaking is, or can be, at least for me.  It may end horribly, everyone convinced that I do not, in fact, know what the hell I’m doing.  Or, it may help unpack the often very difficult concept of “creativity” and what it means to be an artist.

Some of my beliefs about art:

Anyone can do it (yes, ANYONE), but not everyone has the inclination to spend hours and hours obssessing over an idea and expressing it visually.  Hence, some people become artists, and some people give up because it requires too much time and devotion.  Other people give up simply because it doesn’t really interest them.  And that’s OK.  But it doesn’t mean you can’t DO art.  It just means at some point you stopped doing art.

What is common to just about everyone on the planet is that they were born with the potential to BE an artist.  How many young children do you know that NEVER draw?  That have never tried?  And if you watch a small child (5 years old or younger) when they’re drawing, you’ll see that they don’t worry too much about whether or not they are “good” or whether or not they are an artist.  They just pick up pencils, clay, paint, fabric, whatever, and they see what they can do with it.  The same way they play with water in the sink, or  sand in the sand-pit.  They are innovators, experimentors, scientists, engineers – they make discoveries and then build on what they’ve learned.

This is the first part of the creative process.  Playing and discovering.  And it is essential to all artmaking.  Without this spirit of play the artist becomes dry, unhappy, repetitive, unoriginal, robotic.  Without play, there is no progress.

Here is an example:

Playing with glow sticks

Playing with glowsticks.

Is it art?  No.  Maybe.  But it is enjoying and discovering the potential of this material.  What can it do?  How can we use it?  What are its visual qualities?  Why does it appeal?

From here, after discovering what it is one likes and dislikes about the visual qualities of this medium, maybe one would be inclined to put these qualities to use to create an artwork?  A series of names written in glowsticks in different places around the city?  A sculpture made by twisting glowsticks together to form a human shape?  Or a UFO?  Or a human-sized box you can crawl inside of?

My point is, I guess, that artists don’t start with lofty ideas and strokes of genius.  They start with materials, and the ideas come (somewhere down the line) from playing with these materials.

Enough rambling.  I need to go to bed.  Tomorrow I have a big day of playing with marbling inks with my 4th graders.