Only by fostering a facility with the vocabulary of your artistic medium of choice, can you begin to really free yourself to be open to being creative with it.
The size of that vocabulary is another matter, and that’s about growth, improvement and development. These are important as well, and intricately linked to creativity, in parallel (more on that in a future article). But first let’s talk simply about the genesis aspect of art.
Remember when you were in high school, doodling in the margins of your notebooks? Ballpoint pen and edges of blue-lined notebooks, with half an ear listening to the lesson of the day? There was a familiarity in that setting, and ease that you moved through when you sketched these throwaway doodles. Every once in a while you’d accidentally make one that you’d really like, and you’d save that scrap of paper with notes on American History melding into the lines of a drawing of your D&D character.
This was a setting where you were listening to the impulses of your right brain, and drawing simply for the pleasure of making marks on the page and seeing where that took you. There was no self-criticism, no editing. If it wasn’t a good piece, it didn’t matter. There were more pages to fill. More margins to doodle on.
These past two weeks I’ve been studying in a flamenco workshop on rhythmic improvisation. “Creativity is moving towards something,” Holly Shaw says, and I realized this is a mantra that is not only for dancers and choreographers, but applicable (and key!) to other artistic disciplines. It’s how I view my own creative process, especially within the past year.
You can’t pull yourself into a creative space when you are constantly negating what your impulse puts on the table. As artists, we often talk of Inspiration. We name our inspiration: our Muse. And as wonderful, romantic, and exhilarating as it can be when we click and know definitively that the Muse is moving through our bodies, energizing our arms and down through our fingertips; it is equally as devastating when she is definitively NOT present. Or when we can’t hear her quiet whisper over the roar of our frustrations, doubts and self-edits.
To name her and give her such overwhelming power over our ability to create, puts an incredible pressure onto creativity. It sets the process of art-making into a binary all-or-nothing scale to judge success. And too often this mentality results in the creative gears shuddering to a screeching halt, as we’re too afraid to lift a pencil and mar the white page with an uninspired scrawl. Or at least, what we perceive will be uninspired because the expectations are too high.
Don’t get me wrong — when the Muse makes her presence known with an aria, flashing lights and firecrackers, it’s the most amazing thing to experience! But that’s not always the creative space we inhabit. Sometimes she sits down next to you and quietly sips her tea and offers a few pointers here and there. And you have to open yourself to be able to appreciate and catch those moments and not be to crippled to notice her by your own lofty expectations.
Analogies aside, what do I mean in practical application?
We all have our varying levels of ability with our chosen art form and medium. This is our vocabulary.
As a flamenco dancer, my vocabulary consists of the ways I move my arms, my marking steps, my rhythms and counter-rhythms with my shoes, my palmas (clapping) — these and more are the language I use to paint a choreography.
As a visual artist, my vocabulary consists of sketching with pencil, my ability to draw from life and to see where shadows and light meet, drawing figures, drawing poses I am familiar with, drawing from reference, color values, complimentary color schemes, thumbnail compositions, understanding how wet media moves on paper and what happens when I tilt my page or drop texturing mediums into paint.
Expanding your vocabulary is crucial to develop as an artist. We never stop learning. We never stop looking for the next step to take.
But when you create, whatever your vocabulary range is at that moment, THAT is the sphere that you are free to move in, and to explore with comfort. Within this zone is where you are most likely to come across your Muse. From there, she might lead you onto an expedition outside of your range. If she does, follow her. Don’t stop yourself with doubts and hate: “Oh, that arm looks so wrong. That color looks strange next to Blue. I spilled some water on the page and now everything is bleeding into a mess.” These lead to dead-ends. Instead, explore where those mistakes can lead you. Sometimes they can become the best part of a painting.
And if not, there’s always the next piece. Being an artist isn’t about creating something and then just sitting on your laurels forever. It’s about the constant process of creation. One thing only leads to the next. It’s about the joy and love-hate-relationship we have with creating. In a way, a painting is simply a visual record of a struggle and a dance that we had at that moment of its conception. Each stroke of the brush and line of the pen is a footprint along an unending journey.
So doodle for the joy of it. Sketch. Participate in drawing challenges, or in your local urban sketching groups. Go to a life-drawing class. Even within the constraints of professional expectations, create your thumbnails and sketches for your art-director, but don’t hate your discarded efforts after the art-director has selected one; save them and maybe one of them speaks to you on a personal level that was not right for the project, but is right for you. Make time to do personal pieces. Never start painting until you know what it is about this piece in front of you that really excites you, that element that gives you a reason to paint, even if it’s just the curl of a tree branch, the expression on a face, or if the only thing you see in it is an opportunity to expand your artistic vocabulary.
Now, go away and draw. My Muse is complaining that her tea is growing cold.