Want to Make Your Best Art? Trust the Process

Last month at a group show, I was discussing the process by which I produce the pieces in my latest project, Grids, with a painter whose work was hanging on an adjacent wall. I was explaining that sometimes the work itself seemed to demand that I modify my plan and the piece changes direction. He said that the same thing happened with him, that he would start painting with a very firm idea of what he wanted the painting to be, and then “the paint has a different idea” and would lead him in a new direction.

This is hardly a unique phenomenon. For example, Francis Bacon has said, “In my case all painting… is an accident. I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.Robert Motherwell says it a little more succinctly: “In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.”

I have written about the accidental in art before—a couple of times (here and here), but this is not quite the same thing. This is more that the work itself takes over and guides the creative process. That sounds very strange when put into words, but it is very much what happens, or what seems to happen. What really happens, I suspect, is that the artist drifts into flow, and the unconscious/subconscious begins to influence the work more and more.

How this works is anybody’s guess. Bacon says that you don’t have to know how you do it; you have to know what you do. This is not to suggest that all you have to do is pick up a brush or a camera or a pen and get yourself into the right frame of mind and art will happen. You do, as Bacon says, have to know something about what you are doing. It happens in fields outside the arts as well; according to Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” And while I don’ think we are really talking about chance at all, I do agree with his sentiment.

And it happens in the written arts well. Best-selling author B. J. Daniels is one of many novelists who talk about the characters taking over the story. Writer Cora Vasseur says, “I just get to sit there and be a medium. I get to discover the story like the reader.” And after that, of course, comes the editing, when the writer reasserts him/herself. The same thing happens in non-narrative writing. For example, I begin every post going very resolutely in a specific direction, but by the time I have put some words together and gathered some quotations, the focus has shifted a bit and is now going somewhere different from the path along which I started.

Sculptor Lynda Benglis probably sums it up best when she says, “Actually it’s really a marriage between the conscious and the unconscious that occupies the creative mind. I find what the materials can do and within that context there is that decision-making… the artist is always dealing with the bounds of the material and the unbounded nature of the universe and of the imagination — and trying to mark the time. Whether you comprehend it or not, you don’t understand it all.”

Understanding is not necessary. Trusting your unconscious and conscious and your knowledge of the medium to come together is. And it can be a process of discovery—discovery of how the colors and textures best work together, of how the shapes relate, of how the words and ideas should be arranged, of how the chords progress and resolve, of how the pieces of what you are doing really should fit together to produce your best work.

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Date: Monday, 16. July 2012 0:20
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