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Artists are Magpies

Sunday, 5. May 2024 21:58

One of my most vivid memories from the first year of graduate school was when the department brought in a hot-shot British director to address the majors and graduate students. There are several things that I remember about that talk, although the director’s name is not one of them. The most important thing that I recall was when he was trying to describe what it is that a professional stage director actually does. He likened the stage director to the magpie. Evidently, magpies, which are remarkably intelligent creatures, are said to be fond of gathering things to decorate their nests. He went into a long, involved description about how a magpie might gather a shiny button from here, and a bit of colored cloth from there, and on and on until the nest was decorated to its satisfaction. He went on to say that the stage directors were similar in that they gathered an idea here, and a concept there and the brought them all back and put them together in making a stage play.

In remembering this talk, three things occurred to me: (1) all artists are magpies. We gather an idea from here, a concept from there, a musical figure from another place, an image from yet another place, a color combination from somewhere else and so forth. Then we combine some of these elements into our projects, whether they be stage plays, musical compositions, poems, novels, films, sculptures, or photographs. (2) Another thing that seems obvious to me is that we cannot use all that we gather on a single project. We need only those ideas and images that support the work we are currently doing. (3) The third thing that seems self-evident is that we must edit the bits that we retrieve; while many items are initially attractive, they may not be useful for our current project, or even out next project, so we must decide what to keep and use immediately, and what to store for later work. Some items we may never use at all, but I hesitate to advise anyone to throw anything out—at least any ideas or images. They may turn out to be very useful a year from now or in the project that we begin in six months.

Many artists are known to read a lot, to absorb images, both visual and literary, by the hundreds; they are known to see films, to listen to music, to listen to podcasts. There is no shortage of input; in fact, one could say that artists are assaulted with input almost all the time. So if we are to gather bits of this and that to use in our work, we must take the last point above first, i.e. we must learn to edit input, dividing it into bits that are likely to be useless and those that speak to us in some way. We must let the former go and discover a way to retain the latter for when they will be useful to us.

This brings up the second point: we cannot use everything that attracts us immediately, so we must find some way to store and/or catalogue the ideas and images that we collect. Each artist will have their own method. Some will make notes, some will rely on their memories. Others will make sketches or note bits of music or dance steps. But we all need some way to keep those useful items we discover in the work of others.

And lastly, the first point: we must acknowledge that we are indeed magpies; we gather ideas from everywhere and put them together. This is not to imply that we are merely recycling ideas and images or producing only derivative work. What makes our work unique is the way we use all that we collect. Even though we take bits from all over, we add original thought or an original juxtaposition or a completely new way of looking at the material and generate something entirely new, something that we can call our own. It’s how we make art.

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Making Art is Hard

Sunday, 21. April 2024 22:52

We got into art for a variety of reasons. We found that we enjoyed it. We found that we had an aptitude for it. It came to us easily. We liked the other people involved in our art and felt at home working with them, perhaps for the first time. We had something to say, and our art provided a way for us to do that. Our art satisfied our need to create. There are probably other reasons, but these seem to be the ones that readily jump to mind. So we set out to make art.

Then we discovered that making art is intrinsically problematic. The further we go with our art, the more difficulties we run into. We search for the “right” words and the word order that will make the phrase what it needs to be. We labor over getting the lighting “just right, so that the photograph or painting will reflect the feeling that we are trying to convey. We spend a significant amount of time trying to create the exact color that we need for the picture. We spend hours perfecting dance steps and putting them into a sequence. We arrange and rearrange notes to create the musical phrase that says what we want it to. We try out different beginnings and endings to increase the impact of our work.

As we progress in our art-making, we inevitably must choose whether we will pursue art-making as a full-time vocation or whether we will keep our activity avocational. If we choose vocational art-making, we soon discover that accompanying that decision are numerous other problems. Since we chose the path of professional artist, we must find ways to monetize our art, which may be easier for some of us than for others; but, regardless of who we are, we will have to find ways to promote ourselves and our work. And we immediately encounter the dilemma of the self-employed artist: deciding how to split our time and energy between marketing and making art.

If we chose the other path—to pursue our art on a part-time basis, earning our living by some other method, we face another set of problems, the most significant of which is deciding how much time we can devote to our art, and how much we spend on other activities, including work. Additionally, if we want to make our art known, we face many of the same problems that the self-employed artist encounters, specifically how do we get our art out there and how much time and energy do we want to spend on that. We find that, while the problems do not impact our income significantly, they are just as real and vexing.

Some of us decide that the best path for us is to practice our art through an institution of some sort. For example, some visual artists work for advertising agencies. In such instances, one of the difficulties to be faced is how much, if any, time they get to spend on personal work instead of company work. Others of us go into academia, because it allows us to practice our art as well as teach about it, which is a perfect blend for some of us. Regardless of the type of institution that we work for, we will encounter some issues that do not bother the self-employed or part-time artist. We will be faced with the inevitable bureaucracy inherent to any institution. This may take many forms: materials may need to be justified and paperwork created before any purchase can be made. There may be committee assignments that have to be addressed. There may be company censorship of our work.  We may have to modify our work to meet the requirements of the job. We may have to work with people who are less talented, less intelligent, or are just difficult to work with. And we may be evaluated not only on our work but also our methodology and attitude.

Regardless of the path we choose, we find that making art is hard, for the reasons cited and dozens of others. There are, however, rewards. Each of the situations outlined here provide different kinds of rewards, but within each scenario is the reward of actually making our art. And that makes the difficulties worth it.

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Serendipity

Sunday, 25. February 2024 21:08

The last post came about strictly by serendipity. A friend commented that it was getting so that all artists had to be their own publicists as well as knowing their craft and suggested that I might do a post on that subject. I made notes, understanding that it would take some time and a bit of research to make a coherent post about the topic. The very next day on Threads I had a multi-page thread on the same subject come across my “for you” feed. Within two days I accidentally discovered an internet article on the same subject. The universe seemed to be telling me that I should go ahead and create the post. So I did.

Serendipity seems to have “two variations: 1) looking for something and finding it in an unexpected way, and 2) looking for something and finding something entirely different and very useful.” Notice that the emphasis is on chance. Serendipity is not something that we do; it’s something that’s done for us—all we have to do is recognize it. Of course that recognition of the happy accident may require some wisdom to recognize the unexpected observation. We have to be able to identify the useful information or idea for what it is. As a matter of fact, “serendipity has played a prominent part in many scientific discoveries.”

While some say that serendipity is just a chance thing, a coincidence, others believe that one of the way’s the universe tells us things. Sometimes, the serendipity is so strong that it seems the universe is demanding that we deal with whatever the topic is. Admittedly, that is a somewhat mystical approach, but the mystical aspect does not make it invalid. Perhaps the universe was indeed telling me to write the blog post.

Most of the time, however, I think that we create our own serendipity. Take, for example, the blog post in question. Since it was mentioned to me the day before I saw the thread, the topic was on my mind to some extent, which may have caused me to pay attention to the thread when I saw it. Had I seen the same thread the day before, I might have missed its significance all together. Had those two things not happened I could have entirely overlooked the internet article when it came by. Perhaps having that topic in mind—even at the subconscious level—causes us to look at the world with a different lens, one which causes us to be more aware of other data that may be related to the topic at hand.  Thus we are more alert when serendipity strikes and are in a better position to utilize the coincidental information.

Whether serendipitous ideas are completely coincidental or are the result of our mindset, we must take advantage of them when they happen. There seems to be little doubt that having the topic in mind, no matter what level, makes us more open to useful information. So we would do well to keep our current projects in mind at all times, so that we up the possibilities of encountering the serendipitous.

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Own Your Art

Sunday, 14. January 2024 23:18

There are a number of artists who are very much interested in keeping themselves out of their art. Instead of investing themselves, they develop a craft outside themselves to produce their product. That, of course, is one way to make art. Whether one makes the best art one can make, or even authentic art by that method is another question completely.

If one examines the work of acknowledged masters across all arts, one finds that most superior art is created by those who put themselves into their work. Consider the work of Tennessee Williams, Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams, Tony Kushner, Ernest Hemingway, Michelangelo, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Fosse. Close examination of the work of these artists reveals that they created work from their own psyches, and that work is far superior to the work of artists who put less of themselves into their work. Moreover, because they invested so much of themselves into their work, they did not have to work at developing a style; rather, it came naturally because it was integral to the artist. The work of these and other-such individuals is immediately recognizable because of that integral style.

Not that we want to copy these masters, but we would do well to emulate their approach to creation. We would do better to create from our souls and own that creation rather than trying to make art that will appeal to the masses or generate a following. As the person on Threads who goes by the handle illitica1 says:

Too worried about
What will attract the masses
What will sell
Instead of opening the heart
Releasing the soul
The gift of creativity
Pen to paper
Stop trying to make it perfect
Let it be
What it is
Raw & uncut

Two likes. Shit that’s fine. If you doing what you love, everything will work out in time.
Just do.
Stop comparing. Hype yourself up.

If we aren’t already, we need to stop hiding who we are and pretending our art is not a part of us, or rather that we are not a part of our art. We need to first accept who we are, then acknowledge that who we are informs our art. We have things to say; we need to say them and not worry about the likes or retweets or follows or any of that other stuff. If what we make resonates with others, they will let us and others know. And soon there will be a tribe supporting our work. And if not, we still will have had the joy of creating—and knowing that our work is authentic and comes from deep inside. Our work will matter, if not to anyone else, to us.

Some theorists advise that we create according to what we know. Rather we should create from who we are, and be willing to own what we create. Our relationship to our work will be easier and our work will be the better for it.

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We Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel

Sunday, 31. December 2023 22:45

At this time of year, there is a virtual frenzy of New Year’s resolutions. Evidently, many of us think that we have behaviors that need correcting or improving or modifying, and January 1 presents a very convenient time to begin these new activities. Indeed, some seem to want to completely reinvent themselves. And perhaps new behaviors are a good idea, never mind the fact that 53% of New Year’s resolutions last three months or less. So this seasonal shift in attitudes and behaviors may not be the best way to really change things for the better.

And although New Year’s resolutions might be useful for other areas our lives (Statistically, the vast majority relate to health or finances.), such resolutions with regard to our art practices are not necessarily a good idea. The time of year might catch us in the midst of projects in various stages of completion, and changing approaches and procedures mid-project is never a good idea. Thus it is likely that the work will suffer or that the resolutions will last an even shorter time than three months.

It is, however, an excellent idea to review our working procedures from time to time. We may well find areas of our practice that will benefit from periodic appraisal. But when do we want to do that, if not at the end of one year and the beginning of another? Perhaps when we wrap up a project is a better time for self-evaluation. This approach allows us to consider one project at a time and evaluate the procedures and approaches that we utilized for that particular project, determining what worked well and what was less than satisfactory. Areas that need improvement can then be isolated and improvements considered before we begin a new project. For example, I know a stage director who, after the run of every show, holds a post mortem which involves the whole company. This allows everyone to examine what was done and how it was done, noting what improvements are called for by the next project. It is a procedure that seems to work very well for his situation.

By timing our evaluations and “resolutions” to the interval between projects, we are more likely to actually implement new ideas and changes in processes. If, of course, we find that these ideas are not productive, we can always revert to our former practices to get the job done. Or we can stop and try to find even newer ways to approach the creative problem.

Additionally, we might find that our new ideas for creative projects are not sweeping changes that will completely alter the way we approach the creative process the way some more general resolutions are designed to change our approach to health in a thorough and far-reaching fashion. Rather they are small changes, perhaps in the order in which we do the work, or what tools we select to perform certain tasks, or how much time we allow ourselves to do the work. But small changes can be very important in the long run and should not be ignored.

All of this presumes that we have a fairly solid process for creating; many of us have worked on our process for years and are mostly comfortable with it. That does not mean that no changes are called for, but it does mean that it does not need a complete overhaul—certainly not once a year and not in the way that more general New Year’s resolutions are designed to literally change a person’s life.

In other words, as regards our artistic process, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel once a year.

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When Inspiration Strkes

Sunday, 17. December 2023 19:56

The problem with inspiration is that it’s unpredictable. That’s why most working artists don’t depend on it. Rather, they show up at the easel or computer or studio at a predetermined time and do the work. Ideas lead to other ideas and the artifact gets produced. Then the artist moves on to the next project. It’s not as romantic as it is in the movies, but it’s more reliable—if the goal is to produce art.

But occasionally inspiration does strike. Most of us are so wrapped up in our daily routines that we often don’t know what to do with that. And one never knows what shape the inspiration will take or how long it will last. It may be an image or a plot line or a a melody line or a character description or a situation/resolution or just a situation with no resolution. It may not be about the content at all; rather, it might be about the shape of the finished artifact. And inspiration is often fleeting, having arrived in a dream or when the artist is in an altered state or in the middle of a conversation, and it is likely to disappear just as quickly and dramatically as it arrived. So what are we to do?

Do make notes immediately. Since the idea or vision or whatever it is is likely to evaporate instantaneously, it is a good idea to stop and make notes as soon as possible. These notes need to be as thorough as possible in the time allotted, even if it means stopping a conversation to write something down. And they need to be legible; often notes made in such a rush are illegible once they become cold, so care should be taken to be sure they are readable. Again, they should be as complete as possible, given the situation—just a single word or a phrase is not likely to give memory the kick it will need later to remember exactly what the inspiration was.

Don’t interrupt your current creative routine. Such a move can result in losing both the current flow and thus the current project as well as the new idea presented by the sudden inspiration. It’s better to continue on with the current project until completion, then turn to the new idea, which is why complete notes are so important.

Do revisit notes of the inspiration as soon as practical so that additional notes and embellishments can be added. This is an important step in that the idea may appear differently once the conversation or sleep or whatever is over and the idea has cooled a bit. It is also a necessary step in that the cooling of the initial idea will require that details be added and gaps be filled so that the idea can be developed.

Don’t let the idea languish too long. It was important enough to break into your consciousness unbidden, so it is important enough to develop. Work it into your creative routine as soon as you can without displacing other ideas and projects.

Do develop the idea. It may turn out to be some of your best work—or some of your least good—but it deserves to be realized.

And finally, don’t think that because of this idea, particularly if it successful, you can depend on inspiration for the bulk of your art-making.  The best you can do is to develop a creative work routine so that you invite inspiration to strike. It may or may not, but your production of art can continue.

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Finding Where You Fit In

Sunday, 5. November 2023 22:01

One of the problems that face theatre majors is which branch of theatre to specialize in. Many theatre majors enjoy and are good at more than one area. Of course, there are those who know exactly what they want to do, but others have to figure out whether they would rather concentrate on acting, directing, design, costumes, props, construction, lighting, sound, or front-of-house operations. What usually happens is that individuals choose a main area of concentration, but continue to work in other areas as well—at least for a while. The question then becomes how to decide which to make the primary area and which to make secondary.

Musical instrumentalists very often avoid such a decision by not limiting themselves to a single instrument. Often they will play a range of instruments, often one as well as another. For example, some musicians play several wind instruments or a range of reed instruments or a variety of stringed instruments. Many, many musicians play piano as well as their other principal instrument. A great number of vocalists play one or more instruments as well. Additionally, some musicians also compose or conduct or arrange or all of these as well as play several instruments.

The same thing happens in film studies. Individuals discover that they are writer/directors or producer/directors or director/actors or director/cinematographers or some other combination of tasks rather than concentrating on a single function in the movie industry. Again, they may consider one area primary and others secondary or they may be equally involved in multiple areas or it may vary from project to project.

This also happens in other areas of art. It turns out that people who are artistically talented often are talented in a number of areas. Of course, as in theatre, there are some who are solely interested in a single art, and work to practice only that. However, the number of artists who are talented and proficient in multiple arts is rather extensive. Here’s a quick list: writer/musician, film director/still photographer, comedian/painter, singer-songwriter/photographer, singer/actor, singer/dancer, dancer/choreographer, musician/producer, painter/photographer, actor/director, actor/musician, designer/musician, gourmet chef/glass artisan. Some of these people are famous; some are not so well known. And certainly there are others, but these are the ones that quickly jump to mind.

Unfortunately, there are no rules to finding one’s place in the arts or about deciding which art(s) to practice. If only one art interests you, then practice that art. If you are talented in more than one area, you may well decide that practicing a single art will result in a better income than trying to do multiple things at once, so you concentrate on one art and let the others become hobbies or occasional interests. Of course you can do the opposite: hone your skills in all the areas that interest you, so that you can work in any one when the opportunity presents itself.  Remember that the practice of multiple arts can be either simultaneous or sequential. There is nothing that tells you that you must do it one way rather than another.

Whether you are single- or multi-talented, the real key is to find out where you fit, which approach to the arts fits you best. You may discover that one approach is far more appealing than any of the others, or you may find that your approach to the problem evolves as you practice and grow as an artist. So take some time and evaluate the paths that are available to you; as you work your way through the possibilities, answers will come. And remember, you can always change your mind.

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The Need to Create

Sunday, 8. October 2023 20:48

The thing that drives all artists is the need to create. Note that this is not the urge to create or the inclination to create or the want to create, but the need to create. No one seems to know where it comes from, and there is disagreement as to whether everyone has it or just some specific people. Some think it is instinctive, that we are simply born with it. There is no question, however, that some have a stronger need to create than others, and the need seems to express itself in those who have it differently for each individual. Additionally, this need can vary in strength from time to time in an individual’s life. For example, some need to create daily, often extending the work day so they can continue to make whatever it is that they make. Others are less driven and experience the need to create more occasionally. The need can be dormant in some artists for lengthy periods, then express itself forcefully when least expected.

This, of course, can cause some problems for the artist in that they may be busily attending to their everyday life when the need to create expresses itself. That artist may either have to ignore the need or rearrange their life to accommodate it. This can be somewhat off-putting, but is preferable to ignoring the need which can lead to significant mental issues, not the least of which are frustration and depression. If this sounds somewhat irrational, it is. There is really no explanation for the degree of importance the necessity of making something has when the need to create asserts itself. It can throw the artist’s life completely off-balance.

Sometimes artists acknowledge the need to create but when it comes to the actual process of creation, experience “writer’s block”—regardless of whether the artist is an actual writer or some other kind of artist. Writer’s block is, of course, a conflict between the need to create and the inability to produce an artifact. Some say that the answer to writer’s block, whether actual or potential, is having a daily ritual or developing a set of habits intended to ward off writer’s block and thus free the artist to indulge the need to create. Morning Pages are one such ritual that many swear by. There are, of course, others which include the scheduling of time every day or every week to create. Some artists find that they need a special place to really do their best creative work; others combine it with another activity, such as walking or running.

The wise artist will honor the need when it arises. It doesn’t really matter whether the person is a professional artist or someone who creates as a hobby. It doesn’t matter whether one is a full-time artist or a part-time one or whether the art one produces is magnificent or mundane. Neither does it matter whether the artist is prolific or produces relatively few works. What is important is that the need be satisfied. Sometimes that means hardship in that materials are not readily at hand to create the work necessary. There are many stories of visual artists whose need was so great that they painted the rooms in which they lived or of literary artists who were so driven to write that they penned ideas onto matchbooks or toilet paper. Hopefully, we can find some way to allow enough time and obtain minimal materials to allow us to produce in order to satisfy the need when it strikes.

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The Problem with Habitual Behaviors

Sunday, 24. September 2023 21:50

One of the truisms about humans is that we—most of us, anyway—are creatures of habit. The other thing about habits is that they can govern large chunks of our time, or are just perhaps the way some little things get done. Sometimes these habits are purposeful; other times, they sort of sneak up on us.

Purposeful habits occur when we make conscious behavioral decisions about how we spend our time. For example, an artist may decide that they will work only on art in the mornings from 9:00am until 1:00 pm, five days a week, and use the rest of their time for other things. After following this pattern for a while, it becomes ingrained, habitual. It’s something that the artist does without thinking about it. And so, without thinking, the artist works on art at least four hours a day, 20 hours a week, every week without fail. Occasionally the artist may work longer, but never less. Probably this is a good habit, particularly when compared to the artist who works on art whenever the mood strikes, regardless of the time of day. The artist with the habit is likely to be far more productive.

As noted, habits may govern little things as well. Perhaps our artist begins each work session with morning pages. This, according to many, is also a good practice to have, and therefore a good habit to cultivate. It is likely that such an artist will have an off-day, or at least an off-session should they one day neglect to do their morning pages.

And so it goes. Artists develop all sorts of behaviors consciously, behaviors that often turn into habits. All sorts of things become habits whether the artist intends it or not. For example, the first thing the artist does in the morning is have a cup of coffee. It’s a small thing with very few consequences, unless that the artist feels that they need that cup of coffee, and without it, the day isn’t right.

And, of course, there are habits that are considered bad, often associated with the intake of substances that are not healthy. Having a habit is quite different from occasional use. If the artist again needs to intake a substance at the end of each work session, there is likely a problem that will have to be dealt with sooner or later. Also worth mentioning in this category are procrastination and scrolling social media, both of which can become unhealthy habits.

Occasionally, we are forced to change our habits, which is very disconcerting, to say the least. This happened to a number of artists during the pandemic, when a number of us had to completely alter the way that we worked. This was more than unsettling for many of us; it was the equivalent of having our worlds turned upside down. Some of us adapted quickly; others took more time. Before it was over, most of us had replaced our old habits with new behaviors that were well on their way to becoming our new habits.

Then about the time those habits really took hold, the pandemic was over and the world tried to go back to the way things were before. And here we were stuck with pandemic-era habits that really had no place in the post-pandemic world. And a number of us are still trying to make the transition back to a face-to-face world and possibly return to our old habits, even though considerable time has passed.

There are probably many lessons to be learned from this series of events. The ones that seem important to me are that we need to periodically evaluate our habits to determine whether they are indeed helpful or just the way we have come to do things. If we find them lacking, then we certainly should make an effort to change them to behaviors that are more positive. It’s not something that we can’t do. We know that because when it was forced on us, we, all of us, modified our habits to accommodate the situation. So now what we might consider is exercising more control over our daily behaviors—particularly those that we gained unconsciously and especially those that have impact on our art.

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The Mystery of Making Art

Sunday, 16. July 2023 22:44

Entire books have been devoted to the subject, yet in his book The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rick Rubin says that nobody really knows how or why a work of art is created. “We are dealing in a magic realm. Nobody knows why or how it works,” he writes. We do know, however, some of the steps involved, even though we understand very little about how those steps work.

First comes the idea—but from where? It seems that ideas for art works can come from virtually anywhere: a snatch of conversation overheard in a restaurant, observation of a couple crossing the street, a phrase or snippet of prose, a riff of music, a glance at a picture, a memory, a fragment of a dream. The story goes that the idea the culture-shattering play A Doll’s House came from a brief news article that Henrik Ibsen read. Anywhere. Why one particular idea of the many that an artist encounters in the course of a day intrigues the artist is the mystery here—especially an idea that strikes others as uninteresting or mundane.

Once the artist has the idea, they play with it, which is to say they examine it, look at it from all angles, study the implications, trying to determine if the idea has potential as a work of art. Perhaps they make some scribbles and doodles or perhaps jot some notes or make some sketches, again trying to establish the potential of the idea. The result of this play is the determination that the idea has traction or not. If not, it is discarded, its place taken by another idea and the process begins again. If the idea has traction, the artist will move to the next part of the process. The criteria for this decision are unknown, and probably vary from artist to artist.

Shaping and crafting come next. This stage, at least, has some rules and principles. There are aesthetics to consider, and there are notions about which colors go together and which arrangements of words are acceptable. There are principles of design to consider—or disregard. There are elements of style which may or may not be adhered to. There are key signatures and tempos. This is the stage where parts are added to the idea to make it into a fully-realized work of art. And this is also the stage where pieces are taken away. And there are very few rules about what to add and what to take away. Within the guidelines of the craft of the discipline in which the artist is working, the work is done primarily by instinct and experience, and again no one really knows how the artist does that, only that they do it and shape the work of art before them. During the latter part of this stage, the artist may discover areas of the art work that just do not work; this will demand a reworking of that section and re-integration of that part into the whole. Again this is done by instinct.

Once the shape of the work of art is determined and most pieces incorporated and others removed, comes the polishing of the piece, when the artist examines the work in detail, adding tiny bits here and there, and trimming tiny bits away as well. This is the time when artist effectively finishes the work. Here again, the artist’s own instinct and sensibilities are at work, inexplicably.

Next comes publication of the work. This can mean any number of things, but whichever form it takes, this is the stage where the artist releases the work into the world either by formal publication, or showing the work, or simply making others aware of its existence. The artist may have a predetermined method of showing their work, or may choose a different avenue for each piece.

Not all artists will adhere to the steps outlined here, but most will, although each artist will approach the problem in their own way using their own working methods. What doesn’t change is the mystery of how or why a work of art is created.

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