I recently latched onto an old memory of the band Brand X. Phil Collins was the drummer and co-founder of this jazz-rock fusion outfit, and his prodigious skill is on full display. He grooves, hammers, drills, and shreds in ways that would surprise most people who were only familiar with later work in Genesis and his solo career.
This is a valuable gem of the arts. A person whose most popular work is fairly straightforward, hiding the mastery of their craft. Discovering this phenomenon the first time is revelatory. We are astonished, perhaps, but tickled and abloom with joy to see someone really put their abilities through their paces.
But going back later can be unexpectedly delightful. It’s still a wonder, but now we have some familiarity with the work and can anticipate and appreciate nuance. When we find out a minimalist has painted intricate landscapes, or a detailed portrait artist makes enormous abstract sculptures, it’s like a twist ending. But introducing someone else to the lesser known bits or looking up the old piece is rewarding in a different way. It’s like your favorite grandparent’s story, that you revel in even when told it for the tenth time. Rediscovered surprise.
There will likely always be fads. We are social creatures, evolved to follow group aesthetics and patterns. It can be fun to get swept up in the wave of a thing lots of other people like.
As artists, we often walk a thin line between what is popular—or at least well-liked—and the strange, the avant garde, the dangerous. We want to take chances, to push boundaries, but we want to bring people along with us, to show them things we see and discover through our process. If we go too far into darkness or strangeness, we risk being irrelevant or obscure. If we go along with what’s popular, we can be boring.
I think the risk is more rewarding on the strange side. There will always be plenty of creators trying to ride the big wave. The hard part is finding one that suits your style and way of being, surfing just ahead of the break and between the rocks.
This isn’t to diss Bob Ross, because he’s a delight. But like everything in art, there is nuance and alternative meaning. When Bob talked about happy accidents, he was teaching his viewers not to break the flow of their work with thoughts about how they messed up. It’s a way of reframing the unforeseen.
Mistakes will happen. But whether your work is meticulously planned or completely spontaneous, it can be helpful to keep rhythm with them. It’s another Zen or Taoist concept applied to creation: it doesn’t matter if errors crop up, because they become part of the humanity of your work. It’s only more real for small flaws.
And sometimes they can take us in different directions we hadn’t thought of, or would never find in a perfect thing.
Solving mysteries is something many of us (to quote Jean-Luc Picard) find irresistible. It’s very satisfying to figure out riddles and puzzles. And they exist in art, of course, whether intentionally put there or not.
I just finished Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was good, especially for a first novel, I thought, and Hercule Poirot a compelling and endearing character. But most of the rest of the main characters were somewhat tiresome English aristocratic types, and even though I grew up watching these same types on BBC dramas my mom loved, pushing my nostalgia buttons, it was tough to care about them and their problems now. The tenor of our times is corruption, political and economic stratification, and toxicity in media, social and otherwise, and relying on parental favor for living the country club life is, well, quaint.
Additionally, the clues and facts of the case weren’t all in front of me. Poirot solves the case using facts Christie never allows him to reveal to the narrator, Hastings, and therefore to us. This is obviously my problematic penchant for the type of mysteries I like.
Art—the static, non-story-driven kind—is not so coy. Paintings and drawings are all there in front of the viewer. Nothing is hidden from view, it’s up to viewers to solve any puzzle that exists within. Sometimes, it is what it appears to be. But sometimes secrets are there to be found. And the possibility is irresistible.
You know the paper mazes on every child activity placemat and cereal box? And also the ones in big books of them made of tiny lines barely big enough to fit a pencil point?
The little ones are easy, you can usually see the way to the end by sight, without ever putting pen to paper. They practically solve themselves. The big ones seem like they’ll take a week, testing out pathways, backtracking, trying a new opening.
The metaphor speaks for itself. The only thing is that you don’t necessarily know which kind you’re working through when you start. You just have to trust that there really is an end, somewhere, and start working it.
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.
Now and then, if you make art, you probably get to a point where you’re over the type of thing you’ve been making. Maybe you think you’ve said everything you could. Sometimes you’re bored—if it’s that, you probably should stick with that thing a bit longer.
Being bored, artistically, is the genesis of a thousand new possibilities. Boredom in general is a rare commodity these days, with endless distraction and tools available.
But hang on. Wait a while. Keep making. Then you may find you still have things to say with your current practice. If not, dream. Think. Wonder. Something will strike you, and offer the next compass point.
I realize that could come off like a platitude. I mean it, though! We contain myriad potential. There’s more in there. We can’t always get out of our own way quickly, but it’s in there to find.
Exploring and visiting new places is wonderful fuel for creative fires. Today, we spent some time in a completely new neighborhood, seeing what shops were around and what various apartment buildings looked like.
Coming back home, I was tired, but felt like I’d done some questing, and had new supplies and jewels of ideas to make stuff with.
Don’t discount a simple trip to a new neighborhood.
A popular trope about writing mysteries is that the author starts with the ending in mind and writing the plot back to the beginning. It’s probably not used universally, at least not any more, but there’s a bit of a corollary to other art practices.
If you have an end in mind, or a grand vision of some kind, it’s easier to start moving toward it. The hard part is when your execution doesn’t match the image in your head.
I find if I start with that kind of overall vision, I can’t stay too wedded to the original concept. It’s easy to become disappointed and discouraged by my abilities, or to realize the original ending wasn’t really that great to begin with.
The thing I’m making may be better off going on another direction, entirely. It’s mostly about creating the map as you simultaneously make the territory.
The number of times someone asks “what do you do?” when I say I’m an artist varies over time, but it’s a frequent question. And I don’t often know what to say.
If you only do one thing, or only have done one kind of art, this might be easier. But most of us work with multiple media or disciplines. And few artists want to be put in a box, anyway. Yes, today you’re writing a book. But you used to make cartoons, or play keyboards, or make videos. What you’re doing now isn’t always the impression you want someone to go away with.
But there isn’t often an easy—or consistent—answer to the question. It might be because we are all in a state of becoming. We’re still figuring out what we do. You’re a painter. But what kind of painter? There are sub-sub-genres and myriad methods.
And this isn’t for the people who ask you The Question. But it almost doesn’t matter what you tell someone else. Your work is what matters, and as long as you’re making some, it’s part of the process of discovering and revealing itself back to you.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.