Traditional craft, Mastery of Media, and How to Push Creative Boundaries
If you are in a creative profession and have been for some time, you are surely familiar with your creative process. Even if you are not an artist or don't consider yourself creative, you probably engage in a creative process in at least one area of your life.
I am a decorative painter, which means I am creative within a traditional craft medium that has a centuries-long history. My creative process is a familiar game to me, but I will admit I hadn't spent much time analysing it until deciding to write about it. Some pondering over the past few days has allowed me, with some conviction, to hold up the following short list and say that I believe these things to be true:
1-The creative process cannot be controlled, only facilitated (Read how I try to wrangle it in 5 steps below)
2-I see my creative process as intrinsically linked to my medium, and I feel a level of mastery of the medium is necessary to get into the real flow of the process. (See step 3 below)
3- I believe that communication in order to create human connection is the goal of creative artistic work, and the successful realisation of this goal cannot be controlled, only facilitated. (See my reflections on this in step 5)
I've laid out below the creative process that I go through when it comes to my work.
I have divided it into neat steps to make it more presentable, but in reality there is quite a lot of back and forth between the steps.
STEP 1 : PARAMETERS
Usually a project starts with parameters that need to be understood well. Whether they are distinct parameters, like "Please design the decoration for a new harpsichord in a traditional Italian style for the Opéra Royal de Versailles" (See example project photos below), or very loose parameters like "I would like a decorated wall in my kitchen that makes the space feel bright and open."
I usually analyse what inspires me within the given parameters. I identify what it is about this project that engages me, what I find beautiful and may want to exalt. If I fall in love with certain aspects of the project it will allow me to interpret it with beauty for the client.
Pictured below is a project I executed in 2016 to create decoration for a new Italian harpsichord for the Opéra de Versailles. Certain parameters, like "the work should be site specific and respect historical examples", were identified at the outset.
1. My decoration work commissioned by the harpsichord maker Marc Ducornet in Paris (Photo credit L. Ducornet)
2. The interior of the Opéra.
STEP 2 GATHERING AND PLAYING:
The next step is a curious, imaginative endeavour where I gather ideas and inspiration. I will usually look at as much source material as possible and entertain any kind of possibility regarding what the final result could be. I collect real-life references, look up historical examples, and read about the subject. In short, I gather information in abundance, an easy, albeit somewhat overwhelming feat in today’s world of internet searches.
I then allow myself to dream about the project, to meander a least a little way down the path of what might work before discarding it. In this phase, instinct can be an internal guidance system which keeps me from getting completely lost in an endless world of possibilities.
During this part of the process it is important to be free and leave space to the imagination. Pressure is the enemy. A peaceful Sunday morning mood works much better. John Cleese identified this phase of the creative process as the ‘Open’ phase in his fascinating talk on creativity in management. (See link below). He tells a story of how the famous director Alfred Hitchcock would step back from the work in progress at some key moments during a film project, insisting that the team should not "press" for an answer, and trust that the solution would come.
Often it is hard to give the necessary time to this free creative stage. We are oriented to producing. It is hard to let go and take a walk at a crucial moment when I am not getting any new ideas, but more inspired work tends to emerge if I allow time for this part of the process. One solution I have for this problem is to chip away at several projects simultaneously in the studio, so that I can leave one alone when it requires some space.
Slideshow: Reference materials gathered for the Italian harpsichord decoration project:
1. and 2. are historical examples of Italian Grottesca* ornament
3. A famous Venetian harpsichord from 1574 in the V&A museum
4. A fountain in the Gardens of Versailles with the young God Apollo
5. The young Apollo incorporated into my design of the decoration.
STEP 3 JUDGEMENT:
This step is where I try to evaluate objectively if the ideas I am playing with ‘work’ visually. The visions I have in my head must be translated into my medium. This is the time to make sketches and samples.
During this phase the 'Art Rules' come into play. Whatever I have learned through my art education or through the sufferings of trial and error in years of experience are brought to bear. There are the rules of composition and the rules of color, for example. I often harken back to two of the foundation year classes I took at art college, 2D design and color theory.
Intuition still guides me, letting me know if something isn't working. I run my sketches and samples past these canons to see what might be causing the problem. This practice can answer some questions and help me see if my work is expressing what I want it to. Are the sketches dynamic or static, do they have visual interest, harmony, balance, direction, rhythm? I remind myself to always work from big decisions to small details. The overall big picture must work first, then the details will follow. In this critical judgement stage I am not satisfied easily and strive for better. The process is very engaging if not engrossing, being both enjoyable and frustrating.
At the end of this judgement stage I come out with a plan. I have a finished sketch and sample, a layout of the composition and a color palette. It is a lot of design work. The person or group commissioning is involved in the process from the earliest presentable sketches, and will approve the final sketches and samples.
STEP 4 EXECUTION:
The actual execution of the work is freer again, like a musician performing.
In reality, the back and forth between experimentation and judgement continues throughout, but to a lesser extent. The big compositional decisions have been made but there are still a myriad of tiny decisions, like how much paint should be on the brush, how much transparency should be in the stroke, etc. It is more of a physical act or a skill at this point however, a real-time interaction with the medium.
STEP 5 RELEASE:
This is where I let go of the project, decide that it is finished, and accept that it is good enough. I find that it takes a while to be able to remove the critic’s lens and appreciate the result in a more impartial way. If I revisit past projects after some years have passed I am able to do this more easily.
Photos: The finished harpsichord at Versailles
Working within a craft tradition means that a core of shared visual language exists which is understood by the consumer and the creator. I think this common language facilitates the successful passage of the work from the artist's studio out into the world. I do not separate myself from how the work lands. Payment means my work is valued. Acceptance and display on the part of the client means it is successful.
This set of established expectations between artisan and audience also means that the creative evolution of traditional craft is generally slow and moves in small increments.
In newer art forms, or in the case of creators stepping into more experimental ways to use their medium, the common advice given is not to worry about how the work is received in the world. It is ultimately beyond your control. I think this is true, and it is valid advice to some extent, certainly as a way of protecting the creative spark within. This choice will allow the artist to continue to produce work without being discouraged.
BUT, personally, I do feel that the ultimate goal here is to communicate shared experience and have it resonate within others who view it. Our world, and our way of communicating continue to evolve. Creating and consuming new art helps us to explore our shared experience.
With that in mind, I liked the advice I read recently on the blog of a writer called Omar Itani and the quotes he shared specifically on bringing one's creative production to the world:
“You have to figure out how to quickly, easily, and cheaply get your idea out of your head and collide it with reality.” -from Netflix Co-founder Marc Randolph.
and "Fail fast, fail forward" -from Burnett and Evans, the authors of Designing your Life, Knoft 2016
Smaller failures, more engagement, more shared experience, an interesting approach, don't you think? For visual artists in particular, the social media platforms are a great testing ground for this method.
I enjoy following the work-in-progress of my artist friends and getting glimpses of their creative worlds. Social sharing can provide a direct way to involve an audience in an artist's creative process. If we become familiar with the artist's visual language it helps us to understand and appreciate their unique voice.
For further information on this and related topics:
*Grottesca style decoration originated in Rome in the Augustan era (63 BC - 14 AD) and was lost for centuries until it was rediscovered and brought to prominence by decorative artists towards the end of the 1400s. This style of decoration is characterized by the depiction of fantastic and mythical beings, such as chimeras, winged genies, satyrs and sphinxes, often portrayed as slender and supple figures, which merge nonsensically with geometric and naturalistic decorations. The layout of the ornament usually respects a loose symmetry and the figures fill the space in a lively manner, generally on a white or monochrome background. Traditionally, Grottesca decoration is colorful combination of figures, branches, draperies, frames, geometric effects, and perspectives of architectural views. This type of decoration almost always has a certain lightness and airiness, due to the conscious use of negative space in the composition, and the the fact that subjects are generally executed with a lively almost calligraphic brushstroke.
John Cleese on Creativity in Management
Elizabeth Gilbert has a lot to say about creativity
Ralph Ammer TED talk on visual language
Omar Itani's blog post "Using Design Thinking to Design Your Life"