Walking on a pathway in a wood in the late afternoon, an orange sun is flirting with the latticework, like a bus gambolling on the horizon. The trees are mysterious, clinging, cobwebby — in silhouette like actors moving. Fog fills the spaces. The words of Emily Carr when she was looking at a forest: “Perfectly ordered disorder designed with a helter-skelter magnificence.”
I’m working on the yin and yang of order. How important is order? The conventions of art are filled with rules of order: “Always lay out the colors of your palette in the same order.” “Draw first, then under-paint, then put fat over lean.” “In watercolor, creep up on the subject or, on the other hand, put down your strongest motifs first.” We’ve walked this path a hundred times. I’m re-examining the recipes.
In art, queue-jumping is the norm. Commissions, for example, need not be completed in the order in which they were requested. In the production of art, work and its quality are at their best when the artist is ready for the task. And every task is approached with an open mind. Linear systems are suspect. What of recipes and bags of tricks? Looking at your work afresh in the cold grey light of dawn, things that you thought you were going to have to do, you don’t have to do. And things that you didn’t know you have to do, you have to do. Think outside of the box. Think of the possibilities. Think what could be. Think on your feet.
Here in the fading light, dew is settling on my laptop. A grey field-vole, not yet into hibernation, moves through and along its grassy pathway, sorting its world. I’m dividing my world into two main kinds of artists: There are those who see the world in a state of chaos and need to put it into order, and there are those who accept the disorder and go with the flow. Somewhere, there’s music. A piano concerto. I’m thinking of Alfred Brendel: “Art gives a sense of order, life is basically chaotic, and there’s a tension between them. A sense of order comes from chaos and contains a bit of it, but it’s the sense of order that makes a work of art.”
PS: “The world is not to be put in order; the world is order, incarnate. It is for us to harmonize with this order.” (Henry Miller)
Esoterica: I promote a system called RPS (Relaxed Pressure Scheduling). More of an attitude than an orderly method, it invites the worker to keep leaning into the direction of interest and desire. A condition of calm is achieved by allowing the process itself to cause the pressure. The result is a feeling of workmanlike progress, remarkable throughput, and creative joy.
This letter was originally published as “The problem of order” on December 2, 2002.
Featured Workshop: Francesco Fontana