With some regularity, the song “Changes” by Yes fills the phantom ears in my brain. Just the memory, of course. It’s sad and jarring, as much as I like it and the way they made it. Sort of like an Anselm Kiefer painting.
It reminds me that nothing stays the same for long. We move through time, or the other way ’round, and there’s always a new way to look at our work and the world we interpret through it. It should be humbling, at least enough to get us to keep practicing, trying to see the new stuff.
There’s always a shift when I start searching for something new to make, but most of the time, it comes back to observational drawing & painting. It’s a comfortable place to get some interpretive ideas happening and also keep skills in a semblance of shape.
It’s one of our oldest art traditions, and therefore a bit primal. Drawing or painting the things you see links a kinship to those earliest artists drawing bison and horses in the dark.
There’s a focus and feeling of connection that nothing else can boast. Even though first sketches are often crude, pieces of them have power.
What we want is to be different in some essential ways as we move our work along. We’re aiming to be better than we were yesterday, to change and to grow.
Actually, it’s best not to be specific about day-to-day progress or lack of it. There may be long periods where you feel like you’re getting nowhere, or even getting worse. But in the grand scheme, better than before.
But if you only ever do what you know how to do, you risk ruts and stagnation. It’s great to thoroughly explore mediums and idioms, but it’s in trying new things and new ways that we gather a storehouse of future possibility and potential.
Try new tools, new methods—your other hand if you’re not ambidextrous. Keep trying when you’re better, too. No dinosaurs. Art should be just as challenging and open as when you first started on your 100,000th piece.
On its own, change isn’t good or bad. It’s just inevitable. Time does, indeed, march on, and the bell tolls for thee. We don’t have a say in whether there will be change, in the world or in us.
But our choice is how to approach that existential reality. We can despair and give up—or become apathetic—but we can learn to value changes that are coming. There’s something different that’s going to happen. It means there is always something new to work with and incorporate.
Along with my New Year’s resolution to read more books—rather than just stuff online—I’m trying to do more active listening and looking. I walk a similar route to work, or take the same buses, and it’s easy to zone in on the sidewalk and mask the traffic noise with headphones.
But I noticed a new store had opened along my commute, and it had done so without me noticing for weeks, probably. In October, the storefront was vacant, and now it wasn’t. So I’ve been redoubling my efforts to keep looking around at my familiar paths and sights with new eyes.
Some things that help that:
Drawing things I haven’t drawn before
Trying to memorize details of a shop or a corner so I’ll notice when it’s different—and it rains a lot here, so things are often different when wet
I used to really dislike the song, “Santa Baby,” in its many variations. But after hearing the original Eartha Kitt version and reading the lyrics, I’ve turned it around in my head. It’s a grossly materialistic plea, for sure, but it’s also a cute bit of fun, if you don’t take it too seriously.
And, of course, that’s not a bad lesson for life, and for your art. We cringe a little at artists who are really earnest about the value of their own work. Meh. Artists with a sense of humor, and perspective, make me want more of their stuff. It’s a more enjoyable way to experience life and art, both.
Change is all around us. It’s baked into the nature of the universe. Maintaining a little openness to change gives you some flexibility in other areas of life, not to mention your work. It’s the cross-cultural principle that appears in The Talmud, Aesop’s Fables, the Tao Te Ching, and others: be flexible like a reed or a willow, not hard and unbending like a dead branch or a hardwood.
The wit and wisdom of Ferris Buehler? Probably could have been a bestseller if they’d had the stones to publish it during the 80s when Ferris was hot. But still. It is true, I believe, that you need to keep looking around you at your world and your life. It does move pretty fast. We can easily get caught in our routines and drudges and overlook the weird, the exciting, the beautiful things that just seem to appear right next to us.
I put up a photo on Instagram a few days ago, showing a gorgeous yellow field of ginkgo leaves next to the freeway near my apartment. Now, just days later, it’s not so amazing—just another patch of bare dirt and some piles and patches. Keep watch: beautiful and strange stuff just shows up, briefly, and you need to be ready for it.