After my last letter about Eric Maisel’s creative cards, Melinda Collins wrote, “I’m intrigued by the creativity issue and sometimes wonder if I take too simple an approach. I just get up and go to my studio 6 days a week. I have sketchbooks and a computer file of about 1500 photos I have taken of things I want to paint. I go through them and something always jumps out at me. I get inspiration from the effort of painting. Am I missing something?”
Thanks, Melinda. You’re not missing anything. You’ve nailed down and expressed the most effective system of all. While an artist’s easel or workstation may be the altar of creativity, her reference file is the Holy Grail. Whether this file is a few sketches, swatches, a photo album, a bundle of discs or a professional slide bank and light table, it’s the sacred place where a creative crusade will find its passion. Your file is not only your vitality, it’s your personal visual knowledge of your life. It may even hold a lot of unfinished business or half-baked ideas — but it’s you.
Here are a few ideas that you might find valuable: Keep the file area open, approachable and accessible at all times. It’s easy to get mentally blocked when the vicinity gets messy. Fear of repetition is one of the reasons for a build up of junk in the file area. Furthermore, if you change or complicate your format — say from slides to digital — you may derail the continuity of your system and interfere with your love of using it. Small systems are of course easier to manage than large ones — but in a lifetime of commitment they tend to get big. Streamline large systems by having a lot of small, modular systems. For example, I use indexed transparent slide-folders bound according to subject matter. With the indexing up-to-date and the light-table glowing, it feels like a shrine.
Your actual cruising of your system is important too. Material should be looked at with an innocent ‘eye for potential.’ The knowledge that the reference contains, though valuable, is not as important as what you know your imagination can do with the knowledge. I’ve often been blown away by old, exploited material that I suddenly saw in a new way. The expression that Melinda uses: “Something always jumps out at me,” is apt. It’s simple — when it jumps, you grab it.
Esoterica: Happenstance and “mix-and-match” play a big part in an effective creative file. A lot of ideas or motifs that can be seen at a glance are better than a few that are monumentalized on pages. “What do I want to do today?” is more likely to be clarified by looking at a large rather than a small choice of potentials. When the choice is well satisfied and decided, the work itself will more likely triumph in the joy of process.
File of uniqueness
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
Melinda’s response to your letter — was she “missing something” by working every day and being constantly inspired to create more? — had me chuckling. Someone once told me, “Trust your process.” If it’s working for you, don’t change it! We all have different ways of approaching our chosen work/avocation, and if your way results in consistent, steady work that satisfies you, don’t worry that your process isn’t like someone else’s. It’s when you are not doing the work or producing results that you may want to reexamine what your priorities are, and see if your actions are supporting them.
Shutting off the thinker
by Carol Brown, Normandy, France
The very first thing painting taught me was not to judge or analyze or otherwise “think” about my ideas. Painting is one arena where I allow myself to shut off the thinker (otherwise very active!) and let the subtle impulses lead. And I like the other artist’s comment about not painting. I find I need a nice dose of negative space in the act of painting. The time I spend not painting, while working on a piece, is just as important as the time I spend with brush in hand. I may not be painting it, but I’m still vibrating it.
File gets richer with time
by Nancy Hallas, Aurora, ON, Canada
I find the process you mention happens with my writing for children. I am a visual artist who switched to writing for kids. I file ideas, pictures, doodles, newspaper articles, half-written dead-ends — whatever. When I am in between projects or tired of something I am working on and need a break, I scan through my files and something always jumps out. The weird thing is they seem to get richer and compost while they are in my files! I also find that one idea/image can lead in many directions or layers of meaning and it’s important to go with the flow because the richest idea may be yet to come.
Midnight by penlight
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
For all those thoughts that come at night while half asleep I’ve found a pen that lights when you write in the dark to be useful. This adds to my collection of scraps of notes that are hard to file or keep out all the time. I spend a lot of time looking through all this research wealth when I am faced with a theme or image or text and often feel like an explorer seeing things I’ve never seen before.
The greatest file of all
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I find this experience when plein air painting. I will show up at a location, not knowing what I might paint. I walk around and around, looking at everything at different angles and trying to get the sun to show me the way — the casting of shadows. Then it happens, I’ll round a corner or just turn around and Pow! there it is, staring me right in the face. I have walked miles looking for that inspiration on nature trails or just walking around a building. But without that inspiration, I should have just stayed home.
Send and receive
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
We have two workable areas in our brains: a receiver and a sender. Only when a receiver is ready (jumps out) to fully receive, understand, visualize, feel, correspond, react and express, will an outstanding artwork come out as a result. Having even hundreds of cabinets full of photos, slides, and negatives is one thing and using them when and how is another story.
Reference need only be a component
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
There is a moment in our painting careers when we suddenly see things that have always been there but never thought of as a “component.” By component, I mean a “part” or “fragment” that can be used in the design of a painting. This is when I have the most fun pulling together parts from my reference materials to create a representative painting. I have the same thing happen while driving. That barn on the hill — How does it look to my eye and where could I use that? That log in the weeds, the boat tied to the pier or the bunch of grasses on the beach — all these things and more are a part of the world I live in, but even better, the world that I create.
Redesigned her wedding gown
by Dyan Law, Chalfont, PA, USA
When something “jumps out” of my precious photo files, I usually end up changing it, adding to, or subtracting from it, tweaking it, squinting at it, or projecting it. On rare occasions I leave it alone and paint what’s there, reveling in the possibility of making it look unique or “better.” When I eat at a restaurant I mentally redesign the interior to look the way I would want to see it. Even when I buy a dress or a piece of jewelry, I usually redesign it. For example, after I picked out my wedding dress I asked the bridal shop how much the manufacturer would allow me to alter their design.
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA
I was haunted by the photo of you sitting in front of your light table with endless files of reference material around. I knew that photo was the real “painter’s key” or writer’s key or sculptor’s key, or the key to any full life that makes a contribution, but I couldn’t identify exactly what the “key” was. Ah-ha! Now I get it.
That photo does not represent the “war of art” or the discipline or struggle or any of the issues we’ve discussed and debated. In that photo I saw a simple and quiet surrender to what one is called to do with one’s life, and their surroundings turned over, like a prayer, to that call. Everything was organized, and organization is the physical manifestation of commitment. You seemed so quiet and alone with your work, and your focus was right where it was supposed to be — the grunt work that comes before the glory. Everything was simple and there wasn’t a single unnecessary gadget in sight. It was just you, your work, your surrender, your commitment, your peace and enjoyment of doing whatever it takes.
More than any photo of an artist at his easel, or even a corporate CEO behind his massive desk, this photo told me more about shutting up and just going about the job, day by day with quiet contentment and acceptance of the unglamorous side dishes to what can be the feast of our work.
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. I cleaned up the place before the picture was taken so you would think I looked more organized than I am.
The need to create
by Sarah Gerould, Reston, VA, USA
I’ve always felt that the word “creativity” was badly misunderstood. To me, the word embodies the need, urge and will to create. There are many people out there who create by copying the patterns of others. Sometimes creativity is accompanied by a sense of aesthetics, and the artwork is pleasing to the eye. “Artistic” work reaches to our human foundations, or uplifts us, or twists us, or changes the way we look at the world, or somehow finds its way into our soul. The last is “craft, the ability to translate your ideas into the tangible object. You can have one of these — creativity, aesthetics, art, and craft — without the other, but if you lack creativity, there will be no output. On the other hand, if you lack aesthetics, craft, or artistry, you may never want to look at the piece of artwork again.
Good stuff slips through the cracks
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I have a bookcase full of photo albums full of photos I’ve taken over the years. Most of the time, I’m much more interested in painting a place I’ve just recently visited, but occasionally it’s nice to pull out an old photo and paint that. I just spent a few months getting ready for a solo show down in West Palm. My new paintings were delivered to the gallery for framing last week, and it was time to do a bit of painting just for fun. Looking through vacation photos from last summer, a photo I took from the roof of my hotel looking across Granada towards the Alhambra ‘just jumped out.’ Why didn’t I paint it last summer, when everything was fresh in my mind? I meant to. It just slipped through the cracks. But thanks to my habit of sifting and re-sifting through old photos, I found it again. Old photo albums are a treasure.
Gates in the Park
by Anna West, Beacon, NY, USA
I was wondering what you thought of The Christos and their latest project The Gates in Central Park, New York City. I used to dislike their seemingly public take over of islands, buildings, etc., and was against them invading Central Park. Well, not only am I really excited about it now, but I’m going to be working for them for just above minimum wage for the privilege. I find my turn-around interesting. To add to the fun, I have invited some of our internet artists to come to NYC to see The Gates with me. Seven artists will stay for a week in a gigantic apartment I found for them.
(RG note) Thanks Anna. Like a lot of us, I’m a closet lover of performance and installation art. Anything that bends the mind or knocks at the shibboleths of convention. Christo and Jeanne Claude’s work is one of the current forms of “entertainment art” that draws crowds partly because it upsets and challenges. Even the idea that most people don’t think that it’s art is part of its art, and that, as you say, is “fun.” The Gates project is a long way from sitting at an easel trying to find the right green. You can see The Gates project on the Christo & Jean-Claude website. You can read about the “Art-Girls” trip to NYC at Paint-L goes to New York.
Custom cards for kids
by Pam Coffman, Oviedo, FL, USA
Your letter on the Creativity Cards has once again given me inspiration for a class project. I teach a Mixed Media class at a local community college and my plan was to have the students make two sets of ATCs (Artist Trading Cards) during the class. One set would be for them and then they would make a set to trade. My new plan is to have them make their own set of creativity prompt cards. It seems to me that the act of identifying what spurs or blocks your own creativity and then visualizing that act or action and going through the process of making the idea concrete in the form of a mixed media artwork has great potential for artistic discovery on several levels. In addition, each student will make enough of one card so they can be shared with their fellow students at the end of the term, thus allowing the students to leave the class with an original deck as well as a “community” deck.
“Here’s how I did it”
by Kitty Wallis, Portland OR, USA
I had no money, so I had a big studio/garage sale. I sold everything — gifts, kitchen supplies, clothes, furniture, paintings. When I was done I had 3 boxes of stuff to store: photos, records, favorite thingies, plus paintings. Packed in the van were art supplies, easel, clothes, and my sewing machine since I’m 6’4″ and can’t rely on finding things to fit me. Since I had been renting, I had no bills for housing anymore, just gas and food.
The further I got from home, the easier it was to sell work. I became more and more exotic to folks. I did portrait commissions on the road and had a few impromptu shows as well. I meandered, usually driving no more in an average day than I did at home. I stayed with friends, who were delighted for the company. Of course this was more true in the boondocks than in the cities. On a few occasions I traded work for lodgings.
The further I went the more money I had. I got back home with a few thousand. Although this may sound to you like the story of a moocher, I was not received like that. People understood the purpose of my trip and considered me interesting and brave. Most wished they could do it. Reading the above you can see that there is no reason not to do it, if you are willing to cut yourself completely loose, economically and trust to your muse.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Pete who wrote, “I have struggled to find topics for my paintings. The answer is they are all around me, just not at the time I need them — so keep them handy.”