Sometimes you just get obsessed. Sometimes this is flow, the zen state, in the zone, and your work is going well. But sometimes it might just be fascination and the puzzle of whatever you’re focused on, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a long thread on social media that keeps going in circles. It’s day-to-day coverage of politics.
It’s rarely necessary, but it’s addictive. If it keeps you from working on your thing, it’s probably better to treat it like a momentary thought in meditation practice. Notice, then let it go.
It does sound easier than it seems. The secret to meditation practice, though, is that you aren’t judging the distraction. You’re just noticing it exists. It’s okay that it comes back. We’re patient.
Acknowledge the obsession, then turn back to the thing you make. Repeat as needed.
I’m not a fan of the positive thinking movement as it’s usually presented to me. The push to constantly be and think positively seems oppressive. I think there’s value in seeing a positive side to things, and sometimes a positive attitude can turn a moment around for you when you’re confronted with shame or blame.
But your so-called negative feelings—cultural labeling, mind—are valuable, too. Our feelings are a deep part of our humanity. Sadness and anger aren’t the dark side. They just are.
It’s important to feel everything so you can interpret it through your work. Your set of emotions is a unique mix, and that thumbprint is more prominent the more you embrace it.
This is another for the double category of “You Already Know How to Do This,” and “It’s Automatic.” Which I find funny, but isn’t useful to anyone else. Unless…
Unless it’s a way to recognize that people who try to sell you “how-to” instruction don’t always—often?—know how to create a system for doing these things. General advice is fine, but it tends to get bogged down in unique details, mainly the ultra-specific “well, here’s how I did it, this one time, anway.”
But systems have drawbacks, and a big one is the shift to someone else’s concept of how to make art. A little of that can be useful. A lot is a recipe to imitate for longer than it takes to learn a new skill.
When we learn to draw, or write stories and essays, or play instruments, or dance, we usually begin by imitating our heroes, copying the thing we love because we suck at the thing and it’s disheartening. But as we get better, we believe in our abilities, and the more seriously we take it, the more we begin to look inside for our own voices and expressions of unique self.
The more that happens, the easier it is to fashion memorable moments, and meaning, and a new voice. What becomes memorable is the connection we make by deeply engaging with ourselves. And because we are more like each other than different beings, those deep resonances automatically draw viewers and listeners in. We don’t have to follow any system or trick.
Opinion it is, but in my experience there’s no shortcut to memorability.
What do we do with all these things we’re noticing? If we start paying attention to both sides of things, we’re seeing details we overlook. We’re noticing how they fit into a larger context: the big picture. What’s after getting these new thoughts and images?
The things we take for granted, things we think are routine and familiar are full of life and fractalised components of being. But you don’t have to consciously apply the stuff you perceive to any creative thing you’re working on.
This act of trying to see deeply applies itself.
I would argue—and I do argue—that there’s a magic connection to your work, if you’re doing both things together. “Magic” not in a mystical sense, but in an ineffable I-don’t-know-how-this-works-but-it-happens sense. Making and creating is enhanced and enriched by your changing the way you move through familiar environments. And the fact that you’re working on art of some kind enlivens your mundane perceptions.
You don’t have to try. We can overthink the work very easily. I think a better way to improve and hone the thing you do is to carry the feelings and careful way of seeing (or listening) outside the place you make that thing.
Consider not boxing in your work. See if you can open the sense of flow throughout the rest of your day.
Something I’ve noticed I get really irritated by is articles with an intriguing headline that take several paragraphs of build-up to get to the point or the method of the thing. I’ll try to respect your time, gentle/radical reader, as you knew I would, eh?
Because the basics of noticing are pretty much in your grasp. If you’re old enough to read this, you’ve got plenty of experience.
First, what I’m talking about is deeper seeing. Artists begin to formally learn to do this in beginning drawing. But most of them know the feeling already. It’s a sense of connection to what they’re looking at, a sharpness of perception where every line and color is in focus. It happens to us all in life: we look at our parents, our lovers, our children, trees, flowers, a rainstorm—noticing details about stuff we may never have seen before.
All we’re trying to do in drawing class (or insert your beginning art medium of choice) is to apply that focus and perception to the work.
And it will benefit you and your work, alike, if you begin to practice it while you’re waking around outside the studio or workshop. Look—and listen—hard, and consciously, and with purpose. You’ll notice they feeling arise again when you do.
One of the things about being an artist that separates you is the quality of noticing things others overlook. Seeing unusual things or ordinary things in unusual ways is a key principle in most creativity. So how do you start?
First attempts: slow and steady. Any regular route you take-to work, regular errands, family houses—tends to blur into sameness over time. We get used to the sights and sounds and stop looking, seeing what’s there.
So start with your regular route somewhere. Start expanding what you notice. Small things. Out-of-the-way things. Write them down, somewhere.
There are a few artists doing something not too far from the things I’m experimenting with. Animals in stories, more abstract forms, saturated color. Angela Harding has a woodcut feel to most of her work, and it’s edging more into the commercial print realm than I usually want to go. But I don’t want to ignore that world, either.
Harding is—and rightly so, I’m sure—taking advantage of the attention on her work to expand her venues to merchandising and business commissions. And why not? There’s more snobbish division than I like between illustration and “fine art,” and I don’t think either is superior.
Her work has an art of the mysterious, a little Gorey in there, some dark shadows contrasting the playfulness of the scenes.
It’s a nice view from our apartment, mostly of the buildings next to ours, but the west Portland hills rise up behind everything and it looks like a diorama. It’s inspiring and uplifting. I’ve wanted to live in a downtown apartment since I was little.
It’s also a different sketching perspective. Since I’ve never lived this high up before, I have a new set of angles to discover and try to capture. Both these aspects are fulfilling and fun, and it’s a big change from many years near the ground in L.A.
Simple things feed into our feelings and our creativity. We shouldn’t undervalue a change in view.
I sometimes return to this video to remind myself how often it takes more than a few viewpoints and a handful of revisions to get the best version of a work of art.
It’s telling that it took multiple people multiple attempts to get to the finished initial Star Wars film. Most familiar, probably, is the advice to writers that the first draft is only the beginning of the writing process. Musicians’ demos are another example of an idea that was often made into something greater.
It’s not that art always has to be deeply refined. Sometimes the spontaneity is the reason for a piece. But generally, the idea is brought into sharper focus and more resonant emotional power by honing, tweaking, shifting, and occasionally rebuilding from the parts.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.