If you’re an artist and struggle with the creative process—and isn’t that what art essentially is? An eternal struggle with the creative process—then this is a fantastic book. If you ever felt alone or misunderstood when it comes to your creative impulses, this will book will almost be like the hug of an understanding old friend. I got the Kindle version with Audible narration, and both are great. In fact, this is a great book to listen to while you’re working, or walking, or working out.
Overall rating: 9/10
In a nutshell review: This book helped me understand my own creative process and struggles more clearly. The authors are two friends who worked on this book over a period of seven years, both of them artists themselves, and you can tell that they have the wisdom that comes from both having lived an artists life, and discussing it with fellow artists.
My book highlights:
THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT MAKING ART. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people — essentially (statistically speaking) there aren’t any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once-a-century or so, good art gets made all the time.
The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar. This, then, is a book for the rest of us. Both authors are working artists, grappling daily with the problems of making art in the real world.
This is a promise they deliver on. This is a book for the average artist, as terrible as that might sound. But it's a wonderful book. If you're a creative genius, you don't need this book. If you're just some dude or gal that loves doing art, then you'll find so much of what you experience during the process of creating art in here, and there's something almost therapeutic about reading this book. Ted Orland began his professional career working as a young graphic artist for designer Charles Eames, and later served as Assistant to photographer Ansel Adams.
1. THE NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult.— Hippocrates (460-400 B.C.)
MAKING ART IS DIFFICULT. We leave drawings unfinished and stories unwritten. We do work that does not feel like our own. We repeat ourselves. We stop before we have mastered our materials, or continue on long after their potential is exhausted. Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed.
Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty ; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward. Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next. Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.
we’ll side with Conrad’s view of fatalism: namely, that it is a species of fear — the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.
becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.
To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.
The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.
The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about — and lots of it!
2. ART AND FEAR
Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.— Stephen DeStaebler
Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring and generally healthy part of the artmaking cycle. It happens all the time: you focus on some new idea in your work, you try it out, run with it for awhile, reach a point of diminishing returns, and eventually decide it’s not worth pursuing further. Writers even have a phrase for it — “the pen has run dry” — but all media have their equivalents.
Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.
A second universal moment of truth for artists appears when the destination for the work is suddenly withdrawn. For veteran artists this moment usually coincides — rather perversely, we feel- with reaching that destination. […] There’s a painful irony to stories like that, to discovering how frequently and easily success transmutes into depression. Avoiding this fate has something to do with not letting your current goal become your only goal. With individual artworks it means leaving some loose thread, some unresolved issue, to carry forward and explore in the next piece.
OPERATING MANUAL FOR NOT QUITTING a. Make friends with others who make art, and share your in-progress work with each other frequently. b. Learn to think of [A], rather than the Museum of Modern Art, as the destination of your work. (Look at it this way: If all goes well, MOMA will eventually come to you.)
your desire to make art — beautiful or meaningful or emotive art — is integral to your sense of who you are. Life and Art, once entwined, can quickly become inseparable; at age ninety Frank Lloyd Wright was still designing, Imogen Cunning-ham still photographing, Stravinsky still composing, Picasso still painting.
Art is a high calling — fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others — indeed as anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot. What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit.
VISION & EXECUTION
Consider the story of the young student — well, David Bayles, to be exact — who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months’ practice, David lamented to his teacher, “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers.” To which the Master replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”
Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution — and it should be. Vision, Uncertainty, and Knowledge of Materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.
The development of an imagined piece into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in execution reduces future options by converting one — and only one — possibility into a reality. Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done.
That moment of completion is also, inevitably, a moment of loss — the loss of all the other forms the imagined piece might have taken.
A finished piece is, in effect, a test of correspondence between imagination and execution.
As Stanley Kunitz once commented, “The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language.”
Materials are like elementary particles: charged, but indifferent. They do not listen in on your fantasies, do not get up and move in response to your idle wishes. The blunt truth is, they do precisely what your hands make them do. The paint lays exactly where you put it; the words you wrote — not the ones you needed to write or thought about writing — are the only ones that appear on the paper.
Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year: some hundred-odd pieces — all but about ten of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting. Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press. William Kennedy gamely admitted that he re-wrote his own novel Legs eight times, and that “seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel and they were both about the same height.”
Lincoln doubted his capacity to express what needed to be said at Gettysburg, yet pushed ahead anyway, knowing he was doing the best he could to present the ideas he needed to share. It’s always like that. Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending.
Many fiction writers, for instance, discover early on that making detailed plot outlines is an exercise in futility; as actual writing progresses, characters increasingly take on a life of their own, sometimes to the point that the writer is as surprised as the eventual reader by what their creations say and do.
Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.
3. FEARS ABOUT YOURSELF
When you act out of fear, your fears come true. Fears about artmaking fall into two families: fears about yourself, and fears about your reception by others. In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.
You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work.
There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have — and probably no worry more common. This is true even among artists of considerable accomplishment.
Even at best talent remains a constant, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to obscurity. Examples of genius only accentuate that truth. Newspapers love to print stories about five-year-old musical prodigies giving solo recitals, but you rarely read about one going on to become a Mozart. The point here is that whatever his initial gift, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work on his work, and thereby improved. In that respect he shares common ground with the rest of us. Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art, but very likely an essential ingredient. Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, often recalled the old adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be exactly right, he’d probably never make a photograph.
Adams was right: to require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart.
Anthony Trollope methodically drafted exactly forty-nine pages of manuscript a week — seven pages a day — and was so obsessed with keeping to that schedule that if he finished a novel in the morning he’d pen the title for his next book on a new sheet and plod relentlessly ahead until he’d completed his quota for the day.
Annihilation is an existential fear: the common — but sharply overdrawn — fear that some part of you dies when you stop making art. And it’s true. Non-artists may not understand that, but artists themselves (especially those who are stuck) understand it all too well. The depth of your need to make things establishes the level of risk in not making them.
“There’s a myth among amateurs, optimists and fools that beyond a certain level of achievement, famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium where criticism no longer wounds and work materializes without their effort.”— Mark Matousek
[…] the important point here is not that you have — or don’t have — what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period.
[…] expectations provide a means to merge imagination with calculation. But it’s a delicate balance — lean too far one way and your head fills with unworkable fantasies, too far the other and you spend your life generating “To Do” lists.
expectations based on the work itself are the most useful tool the artist possesses. What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work.
The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly — without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.
4. FEARS ABOUT OTHERS
We abdicate artistic decision-making to others when we fear that the work itself will not bring us the understanding, acceptance and approval we seek.
by your very contact with what you love, you have exposed yourself to the world. How could you not take criticism of that work personally?
We all learn at a young age the perils of being perceived as different. We learn that others have the power to single out, to ridicule, to turn away from and to mark the one who is different.
In following the path of your heart, the chances are that your work will not be understandable to others. At least not immediately, and not to a wide audience.
wanting to be understood is a basic need — an affirmation of the humanity you share with everyone around you. The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, “you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy.”
And admittedly, there’s always a chance they may be right — your work may provide clear evidence that you are different, that you are alone. After all, artists themselves rarely serve as role models of normalcy.
catering to fears of being misunderstood leaves you dependent upon your audience. In the simplest yet most deadly scenario, ideas are diluted to what you imagine your audience can imagine, leading to work that is condescending, arrogant, or both. Worse yet, you discard your own highest vision in the process.
At some point the need for acceptance may well collide head-on with the need to do your own work. It’s too bad, since the request itself seems so reasonable: you want to do your own work, and you want acceptance for that. It’s the ballad of the cowboy and the mountain man, the myth of artistic integrity and Sesame Street: sing the song of your heart, and sooner or later the world will accept and reward the authentic voice. Jaded sophisticates laugh at this belief, but usually buy into it along with everyone else anyway.
the world does (in large measure) reward authentic work. The problem is not absolute, but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may no longer be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.
There’s a fairly straightforward explanation for this: at any given moment, the world offers vastly more support to work it already understands — namely, art that’s already been around for a generation or a century. Expressions of truly new ideas often fail to qualify as even bad art — they’re simply viewed as no art at all. Stravinski’s Firebird, today considered one of the more lushly melodic of twentieth century symphonic pieces, was rejected as sheer cacophony when first performed. Robert Frank’s The Americans, now considered a seminal turning point in American photography, was at the time of its publication largely ignored by a press and public that couldn’t decipher its dark and gritty vision. It’s a dreary tradition: artists from Atget to Weegee were ignored through most of their careers because the work they produced didn’t fit within the established definition of art.
For the artist, the dilemma seems obvious: risk rejection by exploring new worlds, or court acceptance by following well-explored paths. Needless to say, the latter strategy is the overwhelming drug of choice where acceptance is the primary goal. Make work that looks like art, and acceptance is automatic.
Surprisingly, however, this is not always a bad thing. At least for the novitiate, some period of artistic recapitulation is both inevitable and, by most accounts, beneficial. On both intellectual and technical grounds, it’s wise to remain on good terms with your artistic heritage, lest you devote several incarnations to re-inventing the wheel. But once having allowed for that, the far greater danger is not that the artist will fail to learn anything from the past, but will fail to teach anything new to the future.
the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process. Audience comes later. The only pure communication is between you and your work.
5. FINDING YOUR WORK
The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it — or withhold from it. In the outside world there maybe no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction.
The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness. Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.
Naive passion, which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacles, becomes — with courage — informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.
For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art, and any device that carries the first brushstroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value.
Only the maker (and then only with time) has a chance of knowing how important small conventions and rituals are in the practice of staying at work. The private details of artmaking are utterly uninteresting to audiences (and frequently to teachers), perhaps because they’re almost never visible — or even knowable — from examining the finished work. Hemingway, for instance, mounted his typewriter at counter-height and did all his writing while standing up. If he wasn’t standing, he wasn’t typing. Of course that odd habit isn’t visible in his stories — but were he denied that habit, there probably wouldn’t be any stories.
VI. A VIEW INTO THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Ordinary problems are not, however, trivial problems. Among other things, they consume the larger part of almost every artist’s time. One well-known painter, after several months of careful record keeping, reached the discouraging conclusion that even at best he could free up only six or seven days a month for actually painting, while the remaining twenty-odd days inevitably went to gallery business, studio cleanup, UPS runs and the like. Moral: There’s one hell of a lot more to art than just making it.
In this chapter, the authors talk about censorship, and they make some interesting points. They point out that censorship is a way for society to avoid the unknown, and that avoiding the unknown has considerable survival value (which is true in nature, but also in society). Art, to a large extend, is courting the unknown.
Taken to extremes, such competition slides into needless (and often self-destructive) comparison with the fortunes of others. W.C. Fields became enraged at the mere mention of Charlie Chaplin’s name; Milton suffered lifelong depression from ongoing self-comparison with Shakespeare; Solieri went a bit more insane each time he compared his music to Mozart’s. (And who among us would welcome that comparison!?) Fear that you’re not getting your fair share of recognition leads to anger and bitterness. Fear that you’re not as good as a fellow artist leads to depression.
NAVIGATING THE SYSTEM
Christo’s various “wrappings” are a form of performance art experienced directly by relatively few people — but the record of the performance has become its own art piece, exhibited in museums complete with maps, working drawings, correspondence with zoning boards, logistical plans, and so on.
7. THE ACADEMIC WORLD
When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?”— Howard Ikemoto
BOOKS ABOUT ART
the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. What artists learn from other artists is not so much history or technique (although we learn tons of that too); what we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared — and thereby disarmed — and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.
An ancient tenet in Chinese painting holds that the Master paints not the created thing, but the forces that created it. Likewise, the best writing about art depicts not the finished piece, but the processes that created it. In his Daybooks, Edward Weston offered an intimate account (too intimate, some would say) of the myriad of influences bracketing the moment of exposure. In The Double Helix, Watson & Crick recorded (in more restrained style) the conjecture and experiments that led to their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. In Daybook, artist Anne Truitt began a one-year journal (which in due time stretched to seven) filled with wisdom and insight. Weston’s passion, Watson’s logic, Truitt’s introspection: these are all driving mechanisms of process. Every artist has issues that lie similarly close to the heart. Every artist could write such a book. You could write such a book.
8. CONCEPTUAL WORLDS
IDEAS & TECHNIQUE
The underlying problem with this is not that the pursuit of technical excellence is wrong, exactly, but simply that making it the primary goal puts the cart before the horse. We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the “rules” inevitably follow.
But while mastering technique is difficult and time-consuming, it’s still inherently easier to reach an already defined goal — a “right answer” — than to give form to a new idea. It’s easier to paint in the angel’s feet to another’s master-work than to discover where the angels live within yourself.
Yes, there is a difference between art and craft — it’s just that both terms are so overgrown with fuzzy definitions that drawing a clear distinction between them is close to impossible.
But is the Mona Lisa really art? Well then, what about an undetectably perfect copy of the Mona Lisa? That comparison (however sneaky) points up the fact that it’s surprisingly difficult, maybe even impossible, to view any single work in isolation and rule definitively, “This is art” or “This is craft.” Striking that difference means comparing successive pieces made by the same person.
In essence, art lies embedded in the conceptual leap between pieces, not in the pieces themselves. And simply put, there’s a greater conceptual jump from one work of art to the next than from one work of craft to the next. The net result is that art is less polished — but more innovative — than craft. The differences between five Steinway grand pianos — demonstrably works of consummate craftsmanship — are small compared to the differences between the five Beethoven Piano concerti you might perform on those instruments.
A work of craft is typically made to fit a specific template, sometimes a painstakingly difficult template requiring years of hands-on apprenticeship to master. It’s staggering to realize that nearly all the truly great violins ever produced were made in the course of a few years by a few artisans living within a few blocks of each other. All this in a remote Italian village, three centuries ago. The accomplishments of Antonio Stradivari and his fellow craftsmen point up one real difference between art and craft: with craft, perfection is possible.
At any point along that path, your job as an artist is to push craft to its limits — without being trapped by it. The trap is perfection: unless your work continually generates new and unresolved issues, there’s no reason for your next work to be any different from the last. The difference between art and craft lies not in the tools you hold in your hands, but in the mental set that guides them. For the artisan, craft is an end in itself. For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision. Craft is the visible edge of art.
Older work is ofttimes an embarrassment to the artist because it feels like it was made by a younger, more naive person — one who was ignorant of the pretension and striving in the work. Earlier work often feels, curiously, both too labored and too simple. This is normal. New work is supposed to replace old work. If it does so by making the old work inadequate, insufficient and incomplete — well, that’s life. (Frank Lloyd Wright advised young architects to plant ivy all around their early buildings, suggesting that in time it would grow to cover their “youthful indiscretions.”) Old work tells you what you were paying attention to then; new work comments on the old by pointing out what you were not previously paying attention to.
Indulge too many habits, and life sinks into mind-dulling routine. Too few, and coping with a relentless stream of incoming detail overwhelms you (much as users of certain psychotropic drugs become mesmerized once they notice that every blade of grass is growing.)
It’s all a matter of balance, and making art helps achieve that balance. For the artist, a sketchpad or a notebook is a license to explore — it becomes entirely acceptable to stand there, for minutes on end, staring at a tree stump. Sometimes you need to scan the forest, sometimes you need to touch a single tree — if you can’t apprehend both, you’ll never entirely comprehend either.
The trick, of course, is cultivating habitual gestures that are yours.
Habits imprinted by genes, parents, church, jobs and relationships are called character traits. Habits acquired from other artists are called — depending on the form they take — affectation, derivation, plagiarism or forgery. Your authors find this judgement a trifle harsh, especially since it invalidates the very source artists most often draw from in their early artmaking.
The effect on the artist, however, isn’t nearly so dire as critics would have it appear. Many people first respond deeply to art — indeed, respond deeply to the world — upon finding works of art that seem to speak directly to them. Small surprise, then, if upon setting out to make art themselves, they begin by emulating the art or artist that brought this revelation. Beethoven’s early compositions, for instance, show the unmistakable influence of his teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. Most early work, in fact, only hints at the themes and gestures that will — if the potential isn’t squandered — emerge as the artist’s characteristic signature in later, mature work. At the outset, however, chances are that whatever theme and technique attract you, someone has already experimented in the same direction. This is unavoidable : making any art piece inevitably engages the large themes and basic techniques that artists have used for centuries. Finding your own work is a process of distilling from each those traces that ring true to your own spirit.
Style is not an aspect of good work, it is an aspect of all work. Style is the natural consequence of habit.
ART & SCIENCE
Charles Eames, when asked just how he arrived at the curves used in his famous molded plywood chair, was clearly baffled that anyone would ask such a question; finally he just shrugged and replied, “It’s in the nature of the thing.” Some things, regardless of whether they are discovered or invented, simply and assuredly feel right. What is natural and what is beautiful are, in their purest state, indistinguishable. Could you improve upon the Circle?
Self-reference, repetition, parody, satire — art is nothing if not incestuous. Witness Escher’s drawing of hands drawing hands. Twentieth century art has made self-reference pretty much its stock in trade — paintings about painting, writings about writing. Moreover, most every piece of art quotes itself, calling out its own name through rhythm and repetition. Music offers the clearest examples — like Beethoven building the first movement of his Fifth Symphony around just four notes — but all media have their equivalents.
Turning the reference point inward, it’s apparent that at some level, all art is autobiographical. After all, your brush only paints a stroke in response to your gesture, your word processor only taps out a sentence in response to your keystrokes. As Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical.
If art is about self, the widely accepted corollary is that making art is about self-expression. And it is — but that is not necessarily all it is. It may only be a passing feature of our times that validating the sense of who-you-are is held up as the major source of the need to make art. What gets lost in that interpretation is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.
When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, and mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance, trees are no longer trees, water no longer water, mountains no longer mountains. But after you have travelled a great distance, trees are once again trees, water is once again water, mountains are once again mountains.— Zen teaching
Viewed over a span of years, changes in one’s art often reveal a curious pattern, swinging irregularly between long periods of quiet refinement, and occasional leaps of runaway change.
9. THE HUMAN VOICE
It’s a simple premise: follow the leads that arise from contact with the work itself, and your technical, emotional and intellectual pathway becomes clear. Having come this far, it’s tempting to try to bring this idea to closure by resolving all those leads into a single clear, concise, fundamental, finely honed answer. Tempting, but futile. Answers are reassuring, but when you’re onto something really useful, it will probably take the form of a question.
Sometimes (and probably far more often than we realize), the really important questions roll around in our minds for a long time before we act upon them. Sometimes, in fact, they sit there for a long time before we even realize they’re important.
there is no ready vocabulary to describe the ways in which artists become artists, no recognition that artists must learn to be who they are (even as they cannot help being who they are.) We have a language that reflects how we learn to paint, but not how we learn to paint our paintings.
The artistic evidence for the constancy of interior issues is everywhere. It shows in the way most artists return to the same two or three stories again and again. It shows in the palette of Van Gogh, the characters of Hemingway, the orchestration of your favorite composer. We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in — and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? The only work really worth doing — the only work you can do convincingly — is the work that focuses on the things you care about.
In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
The literal answer would probably be slowly, given that these words mark the end-point to seven years of more-or-less continuous work on this manuscript. Viewed from our perspective, however, this seems an entirely natural pace. Having already been friends for a whole bunch of years allowed for a genuinely enjoyable collaboration, one in which writing became a tool for clarifying issues we had often grappled with in friendly conversation.
Occasionally (when things were really slow) we tried to nudge the manuscript along by working in ways that one imagines collaborators working: agreeing to schedules, selecting topics to work on, or even meeting together in the presence of a tape recorder to preserve the fleeting ideas of long conversations. Like many other perfectly good theories, that one didn’t work. In the end the work got done the way such things always get done — by carving out solo time for the project and nibbling away at it one sentence at a time, one idea at a time.
Like most projects, this one also managed to illuminate (in abundance) the familiar perils of artmaking. Despite our long friendship and despite ongoing conversations about the issues addressed here, our strengths proved to be more complementary than similar, resulting in roles that could never be reversed (and in fact were never even negotiated). We settled into the right pattern of collaboration, after a little fumbling, by simply letting well enough alone — working in parallel rather than in tandem, with each of us engaging the issues we were drawn to. Since artists rarely discuss this topic, however, we really don’t know how closely our large (but not entirely matching) mix of vision, blindness, and willingness to look the other way resembles other collaborative efforts.
I really enjoyed reading a bit of the process behind they book, how they collaborated on this together.