There’s something to be said for a gathering of friends—or even just acquaintances—at your place. It’s your sanctuary, but you welcome in a few people you know to celebrate something.
It’s an old ritual. One that echoes with tradition and history, but of the most basic nature. The few rules (know when to stop drinking, know when to go home) are well understood, near-universally.
It’s good food for the soul, this communion of friends. They’re your friends because they’re interesting, they’re insightful, they keep you honest. They’ve got worth first as fellow humans. But they’re also valuable for inspiration and support, which every artist needs.
Humans are social creatures. We have advanced knowledge and achievement collectively by being able to interact. Humans don’t do well in solitary confinement, and we need some measure of contact with others to stay healthy and sane. To this end, we have parties.
Long story short: we had a party tonight. Friends came, some were shy, they engaged in the end and made a new experience for everyone by doing so.
Parties exist to lubricate networking and enhance acquaintanceship. They’re the place to let loose and freely express yourself. Hm. Sound familiar?
Well, of course, these metaphors applied to creation are what we expect to find when we work on projects, when we practice our craft. But you can’t force it. The stuff happens or it doesn’t. The piece comes together or you spend the evening in the corner watching the tv. The cool thing is, there’s always another party. And another day to work on a thing. Don’t sweat it if it doesn’t happen the first time.
One of the benefits of art school is your fellow students. They can easily become your peer group, or better yet, your collective. There’s a moment of opportunity when you meet a few other creators who have a connected aesthetic. If you’re lucky, you can parlay that into a shared movement. It’s a chance to get attention for what you do, based on a packageable meme of some kind. It’s the equivalent of a “school,” i.e., the Bauhaus or—if you’re feeling really generous—the Impressionists.
But even if you’re not trying to form a movement or project what you do as something important, it’s good to have a lot of eyes on your work at any given time. Your fellow artists and your friends are cheerleaders and supporters as well as critics and sounding boards. You’ll have a better idea of what connect with other people the more you share your work. And connection is what you’re after. Making work for yourself alone is fine, but resonance with others is what makes art deeply important for us all.
We don’t make art in a vacuum. And we don’t do it alone, either. Oh sure, we often create the specific work by ourselves, but the process involves others at some point.
And the process involves pecking out little bits of stuff important to us from a field of other things that aren’t. We find these things not in solitude, but through others sharing with us, and telling us where to look, and making things we want to look at.
These bits are the seeds and the fuel that let us grow and forge new things in the world.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not one to go quoting rock lyrics—oh, all right, yes I am. Mostly I do to myself, but if some unsuspecting cow-orker or friend accidentally quotes a piece of a song I know or something close to it, I’ll jump in there and finish a line. Usually I’m just the weirdo being weird, and I have to explain what I’m talking about.
I thought a long time ago that it was easily as valid a choice to apply some lyricist’s rhymes to my life as any random philosopher. And I still do, mostly. Snippets of philosophy rarely do justice to the thoughts behind them pulled out of context. We apply phrases and lines to events and situations to graft our own extemporaneous meaning onto those things, anyway. So what does it matter the context of the original?
Art making is sometimes similar. Our influences and favorites sneak into our work all the time. Usually it’s not wholesale, but just a hint of the thing it came from. It’s a method of brushstroke. It’s a melodic quirk. It’s a metaphor stretched in a peculiar, but compelling, way.
Little pieces of out-of-context art from fellow artists, like lyric snippets, have stuck in our souls. When they emerge, it’s because they’ve become part of us, and therefore shape our own work. Embrace that weirdness, because it all makes you, you.
You can get plenty of weird ideas while you’re falling asleep. And weird ideas—or unexpected, if you like—are what you want if you’re an artist. But execution is missing. You’re tired, drifting. It’s nearly impossible to bring an idea to reason, never mind fleshing it out.
But ideas are valuable just to keep handy. They’re easy, fruitful, and full of possibility. That’s all they need to be on their own.
It’s sort of secret because it’s not talked about much. Artists who are just beginning to learn how to do what they want to do usually have periods of elation and frustration as they practice and discover. The funny—or scary?—thing is that experienced artists still have those phases when they try new directions.
Novelists, painters, musicians: if they’re beginning a new book, series, album, go through that push and pull of feelings, too, even though they might have done it many times.
The fear of the unknown isn’t just fear of failure. It’s primal. Creating truly new things than you’ve made before puts us into a weird and vulnerable state. That’s okay to feel, it’s normal. Just something to be aware of, that we all have those stages of growth. If we’re lucky—and willing to expose ourselves all over again.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.