Subject Matter and Anti-Matter
Okay, so we've gotten beyond Perfectionism as an obstacle. The blank page calls us. So, we get out our pens, our pencils, our paint, and we're ready pursue the act of creation.
But we create.....What?
At some point a decision has to be made about subject. If you're anything like me, (and you may not be, but read on anyway) deciding on the subject at times can be a stumbling block. I can't count how many times I've asked the person closest to me, "What should I paint?" in a particularly uninspired moment. Oh please, Universal Mind, give me an assignment! Would a big blue circle thrill you? Or a realistic speeding train with a victim tied to the tracks? Or a page full of teeny tiny spiraling handwriting? I am guessing, from those that I've met, that there are basically two types of artists when it comes to this stage, Art Architects and Process Junkies. You probably fall somewhere in between, but to illustrate my point, here goes:
THE ART ARCHITECT If you are an Art Architect, asking "What to create?" may seem like a dumb question. Of course you know already what you are going to create, since you've got sketches and reference material ready to go at all times. Some of you, perhaps more than a few, have used sketchbooks since the beginning of time (or whenever you started drawing). In your world, sketchbooks are a great way to have subjects lined up for your next work. For you, planning artwork is serious business. You start with a sketch, and then gradually work your way up to the finished work from there with at times many phases in between. Some of you might even have complicated day planners with mini-goals and self-imposed deadlines written in them. (I am not kidding. These people do exist!)
I have been one of these, most definitely, for most of my art career. I have sketchbooks, tracing paper, a projector for sketches (Please! Just for sketches!), and a file cabinet filled with reference material.
THE ART ARCHITECT'S PROBLEMS at times can include long planning stages that sap inspiration. Art Architects frequently can be heard whining, "But you should have seen the Sketch!!!!" A.A.s also take longer to finish projects. A.A.s get sick and tired of being called Illustrators, even if they don't consider themselves that.
THE PROCESS JUNKIE I can spot a Process Junkie a mile away. These are Artistes (pronounced artEEsts). They often dress, well, Artistically. In flowing, colorful garb, they descend upon a painting without hesitation and attack it with passion, to a chorus of "Oohs" and "Aahs." Process junkies can also be black-turtleneck-wearing, pensive, withdrawn thinkers who furtively create in a dark corner somewhere, only to be discovered later, unconscious, covered in paint and surrounded by a roomful of work. P.J.s do not worry about what they are going to create, but how they are going to create it. P.J.s have lots of fun and can be quite prolific when the mood strikes them.
THE PROCESS JUNKIE PROBLEMS can include - tantrums at unpredictable results, depression, throwing work out the nearest window, quitting altogether for months at a time, wasting art supplies, and a gnawing feeling that you should have planned what position that hand was going to be in....because now it looks like a plate of sausages. And you've painted it in indelible ink. Oh boy.
Art Architects: If you reach the blank canvas stage and know exactly what you're going to paint and how.....wait. Stop. Take a deep breath. Art is a dynamic process. Chances are what you're going to end up with will differ slightly from your plan anyway. And maybe you need to release your grip on the result just a little.
My grip was released during a class at UCSC called "Beyond the Obvious" in which I learned, for the first time, how to let go of the subject and experiment. Testing the limits of creativity came easy there, because we all were doing it, together! Feeling constrained? Take a class like this (not for a grade!) and loosen up. Or join an artist's group. Just remember, classes or no, if you're not painting on commission or following a particular deadline, you can afford to play things a little fast and loose. What I mean by "fast and loose"is this: Say you are going to paint a character from a novel. You could just paint the character's portrait, with all the details you've planned. But try painting a scene from the book instead, with the characters features half-obscured by ghostlike figures. Or blocking off one half and filling the other with a blackened star field. Maybe in this half, you'll find yourself thinking about the villain's face, and start painting it in there too. See what I mean - sometimes things happen on the fly. THIS IS OKAY.
My point is this: When you paint a well known subject, that subject limits you by its definition. So try not to "know" too much in advance! You are striving for something new and different, right?
If you are a Process Junkie (and you know who you are!) the question of what to paint doesn't really concern you. But perhaps it should.... As an artist, you free yourself to be more spontaneous by having a solid drawing background....a sketchbook filled with ideas....not to mention excellent command of the technique. If you don't know where to start, start anywhere. Paint what you know, your favorite things. If you are constantly attracted to abstraction, by all means, go there and go wild........just make sure you have studied your subject first, and have in mind something to say about it. That's all the planning you may need.
There is no question that choosing a Subject is one of the most important things to consider (or avoid). Nothing makes you a better artist, however, than thinking in terms of "concept first." Scott Downs, my art teacher in high school, knew this. Mr. Downs gave us art assignments in the following format: He handed out a list of CONCEPTS, and our assignment was to sketch one of these things each day. At the end of the week, we handed it in for grading. The list did not specify subjects, rather, they were titles - vague enough to force us to think outside the limits of subject. Some examples: "Man's Inhumanity to Man" "Last Exit to Brooklyn" "What is Wrong with Calendar Art?" "Don't Hate me Because I'm Beautiful" "Shortcut to Heaven"
Even though you could hear the screams of tortured souls on the day of that assignment, by the end, we all walked out of there with more sketches full of passion than we could have ever imagined. From the diehard motorcycle illustrator to the chronic dragon doodler, we all had more--and better--work.
Process Junkies and Art Architects alike can benefit from a combination of a little planning, and a little spontaneity. Think beyond exactly what you're going to paint....Instead of starting with Subject, start with Concept. It is Concept, subject's Anti-matter, that will give your artwork new life.