I have been making art for almost as long as I have been alive. It occurred to me the other day that, after all these years, I am just now figuring a few things out. Perhaps my comrades in this artistic endeavor can relate.
There are moments in the studio when everything will work for you, like some kind of kismet. Amazed at what is manifesting, you float through your space on a creative high (taking occasional dance breaks, in my case). There are also those times when you wonder how you possibly made it this far in your crazy artist life because you truly don’t know what you are doing.
Famed dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille once said, “The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
This “being in the dark” is a familiar—but not altogether ferocious—fiend in between the precious few moments of clarity. The dark, as I have discovered, can be a quiet and fertile refuge, like a womb.
This is why, despite our reputation as depressed and moody sorts, artists are actually some of the most optimistic and hopeful people. We are the embodiment of beginner’s mind. We have to be, because we find ourselves constantly on the verge of something. Even if at the moment it feels elusive, we know—WE TRUST— that an elusive something will present itself if only we keep lighting the way. And this is the artist’s job: to leap, even when we aren’t sure. Even when we don’t know.
With that in mind, I offer a list of coping mechanisms I have collected as an artist over the years. These are things that, in fact, I DO know. I employ them liberally in order to see myself through shadowy, toe-stubbing, soul-sucking stumbles in the dark.
1. Trust the process
What you don’t know just might save you. You can’t know the end of a painting before you begin. If you did, then you might as well be painting by numbers. You can only get from A to B. If there is already a Z, then there is little reason to make the painting. When asked once about his creative process, Jasper Johns offered this directive: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.”
Every element or stroke of color is placed in relation to what you placed before it. It will feel like a roller coaster. Enjoy the ride.
2. A simple line can change everything
Don’t underestimate the power of a subtle element. A line is the most versatile and variable tool in the box.
3. I can put light wherever I want
Despite artistic convention, I say bollocks to a single light source. At times I find multiple light sources enigmatic and energizing. It’s ok to break a rule.
4. Every problem works itself out
I have written elsewhere that this idea, learned in the studio, applies to life in general as well. When you are stuck or hanging onto something that isn’t working, or you aren’t sure how to resolve an unfinished painting, keep working and go back to #1.
5. Reserve your judgement
This is doubly true for something strange or unfamiliar. When your work takes a new direction, you are back in the dark—you need to go through the tunnel for a while before a decision can be made about the worthiness of that direction. New work needs breathing space. I once had a professor in art school who claimed that when he was out of the studio, he thought about his work constantly, and when he was in the studio working, he tried not to think at all. I love this. Too much thinking slows the intuitive process. You can squash an idea before it has had time to teach you something. Like what to do next.
6. Know when to finish
When is a painting finished? When what you are seeing somehow connects with an interior knowing. Many artists struggle with this one. Francis Baconwould regularly rework finished paintings if no one came to take them away. A painting, of course, has many subjective stopping points. To keep going may make the painting stronger, or weaker, or just simply different. Not necessarily “better.” For me, that finished moment is when I fall in love with what is in front of me. And as the beholder, I recognize that I don’t want to change a thing.
7. Write about your work
Most artists by choice or by request eventually have to write about their work. We have to compose in a way that appeals to the art world denizens as well as the average viewer wandering into a gallery. The byproduct of being forced to write a statement, for an exhibition as an example, is that you will understand your work better as a result. It’s useful to clarify your own thought processes by writing them down. This is, of course, when you are OUT of the studio (see #5). Back in school, I kept journal entries about every piece I was working on. Not only did I track where my investigations were taking me, but also what was happening in my life as I worked on the piece. What was I reading? Which films was I watching? What kinds of conversations was I having? All of these things informed my direction in the studio. It also made the artistic process that much more interesting to me. Everything had a way of connecting.
8. Don’t forget to play
This is the time to remember your childhood go-for-it-ness and abandon your intellectual hooey. Choose a new medium, or new colors, or a new approach without any thought to results. Even if what you produce makes you recoil, there will be a seed in there somewhere from which to grow something.
There are few endeavors that offer as many approaches, life lessons, and discoveries as art-making. Nothing on this list is anything new to a working artist, but the items may serve you during the sometimes unsettling fluctuations between the light and the tunnel, between a line and a gash, between a leap and a fall. I have learned to make friends with the dark and see it not a as scary place, but rather an artistic petri dish where ideas and elements are interacting and changing—unseen, active, and waiting for illumination.
Please note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
A previous version of this article was originally published here on Nov. 17, 2017.