This is an excerpt from a book I am working on about Creativity. The book, like the workshops we teach, utilize 6 Principles as a framework, roadmap to allowing more artistry, more creativity into our lives. This excerpt is taken from the chapter on Risk, Priciple #5. -NW
Almost every painting I make ends up somewhere along the line involving some kind of risk. What follows is the typical scenario. This example is just my process, just something that I have noticed again and again in the way I work, the process I often go through in making paintings.
When I initially set about to make a new work often I am spurred along by someone – perhaps a gallery saying or encouraging me to do something similar to a painting that “everyone seemed to like” and that in fact has just sold. Of course, I like to believe that I am not influenced at all by the outside response I get from people, that I am divinely inspired from a higher authority, a genius that doesn’t need or require kibitzing from the sidelines. But sheepishly, I admit that this is not the case with me, with my particular fragile ego. Like most people, I do like to get a positive reaction from an audience. It feels so good. We are social creatures after all and even though I work alone I do consider art making to be a socially minded endeavor. “Well, to re do a painting should be easy enough, I say to myself, as I have made the original painting just last month. I basically am just doing another version of this same painting. I know exactly what to do. In fact I could do this again and again, garnering more and more positive responses…My life could be filled to the brim with positive remarks, lots of sold paintings, bigger and better shows, leading to some kind of celebrity status, an artist to the stars perhaps. But then I snap out of it and realize that it is only Tuesday afternoon – I have practically zero celebratory status and the fact remains I still have a blank canvas in front of me and I have to re create something as good or better than a previous work. In reality it’s not always so easy to do.
I begin the painting that I already know will be successful before I have even started. My mind is clear and dead set on a certain outcome. This goes pretty well at first- I can lay in the basic composition knock in the colors so by the end of the first day I have a reasonable facsimile- a rough version of what my gallery called one of my best paintings. This one is looking good – doesn’t really have the same feeling as the original one…. I quit for the day and think I am just tired- Start again tomorrow- then I will be able to see, to understand what is missing. I have dinner and then pop my head back in the studio on the way to bed, as I just want to see if I do in fact like it better after eating. Paintings rarely get better when your not working on them and this time is no exception.
The next day arrives and with it comes a fresh determination to force this artwork into obedience, wrestle it’s look into the very same thing I made before—I want it, everyone else wants it so I am going to get my way. I even printed out a color copy of the prior painting, the one that just sold, so I can see where exactly I am going to end up. Hours roll along and it seems the painting is getting more similar to my print I have thumb tacked to the wall. But I feel tired, worn out a little bit. Something is missing here. I don’t’ feel particularly good anymore about this ugly stepsister of a painting. I stop to eat lunch—food is always a good distraction and often after eating lunch- giving it a visual break, I can see more clearly what is missing. This doesn’t work this time although I did manage to get involved in making a salad of such complexity that I was preoccupied for well over an hour…so I definitely am no longer hungry, but my painting is still not quite working. I plod on pushing paint around. The whole process is becoming tiring. Why do I want to paint what I have already painted before? Whose idea is this anyway? Yes but that’s what they want- that’s what everyone likes. Somewhere around 3:30pm I get the realization that like my painting before me, my interior, my insides the very core of my being is actually bored to death. This is not fun, not interesting- It’s like “fill in the colors” but with not very good ones. What do I do? I feel hemmed in, stuck on a mind-numbing course of my own design. I finally surrender and sit down in my paint-splattered chair I reserve for such moments. I usually work standing up and feel it’s important, at least for me, to utilize the whole body, but when I become defeated I sit down, rest and take a good long look at my situation. I might not figure it out at first or it might take several more painful days to realize what has gone so hopelessly wrong…But then I get the inkling, the remembrance of what I already know I know. That what is missing in this whole silly business of doing things that are too safe, trying to formulize art, trying to game this business of art making into predictability is simply, Principle #5, RISK. That thing that is always pushed outside the door, that has no place inside a factory that makes cars, a restaurant, a dry cleaners, no spot really anywhere inside our business work lives or for that matter our personal lives either. This thing called Risk is simply unwelcome most everywhere it shows up. Except in Art. And the closest I have ever gotten to wrapping my understanding around what makes one thing art and another just a regular thing has something to do with this crucial ingredient called Risk. It is simply essential to the making of Art.
Finally, left with no other option, humbled to a small shadow of my former self- I throw out the damn notion altogether of making art to get attention, to sell something or gather favorable reviews. I banish all those people standing around with me in my studio, the gallery owners, the beaming art collector couple, the adoring fans, the art critics and lock the damn door behind them. My pulse quickens, I just am going to do whatever the hell I want to do for a change. With a degree of frustration, anger really, anger at myself for thinking I can dabble around the edges, only go in up to my ankles-to actually not Risk something and think I could come up with something worthwhile. Who needs another pretty picture anyway? Is that what I am about? What do I want? What am I willing to say? No I need to reassert- to throw care to the wind and the only way I know how to do this is to sabotage this whole painting in front of me- to wreck it, destroy its pathetic overworked surface and take the chance that I can make something better in it’s place even if I don’t know what that will be. Before I even pick up the 5-inch brush and the half-gallon of black paint I am suddenly feeling better. Giddy more like. The excitement, the sense of aliveness in the room is palatable. I have no idea of what I am about to do – I am afraid, but even this feeling is way better than everlasting boredom. I don’t even want to make art if I have to be that bored ever again, I think, as my brush loaded with black paint hits the surface. I roll a thick wide brushstroke right across the canvas, covering over all this picky work I just spent 2 days doing. It feels right, instinctively – I can sense myself coming alive again…I don’t know where I am going but it doesn’t matter. I can feel this is right…paint is literally flying off the palette now suddenly I am squeezing colors out I have not used before-I am so excited that I don’t stop to put the caps back on –the possibilities are infinite- this painting can go anywhere now. It turns out the gate was unlocked the whole time and I just needed to give it a push. Within minutes this ugly painting starts to change- it’s moving, it’s alive and I am too. I am working too fast to even think about outcome now. I could care less. I am just in it all the way. There is no turning back, this painting is teaching me about who I am, what kind of a person I have become- even what kind of a father I am to my daughters, my insecurities, my smallness my dreams and my fears– its’ all here with me now in the room, in this painting…Its completely engaging, utterly transporting and to a small degree frightening…. And then I stop and step back, my shoes are covered in paint, my blue latex glove has torn and my thumb, uncovered, has been tinged with viridian green and maroon. This painting is strong. I can see that right away. There is a sense of immediacy about it. It resembles nothing I have ever made before.
My dog peers in at me from outside the studio glass door. Her nose steaming the glass. It’s dark outside now, I check my watch. I have been painting for 5 hours non-stop and in front of me quite possibly is one of the best things I have ever made. This appearance of excellence will, of course, change in time but for today I am happy. There is no one to tell. So I ease back down into my painting chair and smiling quietly tell the painting that now you look better. That that is what a real painting should look like.