Monday, May 31, 2010

Another Reason to Love the New York Times

Since my last post about Austin Kleon, I've had a lot of fun experimenting with his newspaper blackout poetry method. Here's another sample for your perusal:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Found Art 1

A beautiful little tidbit from Little Five Points in Atlanta:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Redactional Poet

There are some creative people whose work makes me feel I'm only smart or talented enough to comprehend how much their talent dwarfs mine. Whenever I feel that violent swing between admiration and professional jealousy, I know I'm seeing something worthwhile.

I took another of those rides when I discovered the work of Austin-based writer, cartoonist, web designer, and visual thinker Austin Kleon. In addition to speaking and publishing, he shares his hydra-headed, multidisciplinary creative work on his blog.

As a process guy who likes to work in multiple media and disciplines, I was immediately drawn to Kleon's work and ideas about creativity. Even more impressive is the way in which he combines words, images, and technology. Kleon narrates a short animated video that tells how he developed his integrated approach.

He is probably best known for creating poetry by using a Sharpie to black out words from newspaper articles. He uses photo retouch software to do the same thing with images of street signs. The results are usually funny and sometimes thought-provoking.

As soon as I see work I admire, I try to better understand it by copying the method. So here is my attempt at understanding newspaper blackout poetry:

A crappy homage to Austin Kleon (but an homage nonetheless)

If you want to see the real deal (and have the opportunity to buy the book), you can do so here. I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Admonition from Vonnegut

"If you want to really hurt your parents and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts."

Kurt Vonnegut
From A Man Without a Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W. Bush's America (2005)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Anatomy of a Page: Step Three - Finishing

7) We're calling this one done.

At this final stage an important transition takes place: conscious decision making is allowed in, as long as it stays on its best behavior and promises to leave some life in the piece. The foundation was set in the last phase, so now it's OK to view it with a critical eye and plan to preserve images and compositional elements.

The end is more a process of refining than creating. I focus on the quality of the surface; I'd like it to have the same rich patina time creates on the walls of a Venetian palazzo. Layering marks, images, colors, and different media are the only thing that comes close.

In prior stages, I rely on the composition to tell me how close the piece is to complete. In the final stage, I rely much more on the quality of the surface. Only occasionally does a new image appear at this stage, usually doing so to fix an issue with the composition (which is where the chicken in the image above came from).

With luck, the entire process flows this smoothly and unambiguously. Realistically, there's a fuzzier line between the phases and much more back and forth.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Anatomy of a Page: Step Two - Blocking in and Getting Blocked in

4) Blocking in color and forming the foundation of the final composition

5) Working the surfaces and re-energizing the spread

6) Pulling shapes and images back out

The intimidating spell of the blank page has been broken. Images and words surface. The page spread is beginning to come alive. Now it's time to begin blocking in the whole composition.

This stage is always one of the trickier ones. As the piece evolves, there are times when the composition seems to work and it becomes harder to tell whether the piece is done. It's tempting to stop, declare victory, and move on to the next spread. But there are still a couple of pitfalls still to watch out for:

The composition structure squeezes the life out of the piece.
You may have a well-composed page spread, but there's no sense of life or fun left in the piece. The surface lacks richness and looks flat. The best cure is to make sure that accidents still happen, ensuring spontaneity. At this point it should still feel OK to cover over or introduce images and words with impunity.

The fear that continuing to work will screw up the piece.
Worse yet is the tendency to become too attached to what's there and fear that future steps will screw it up. While it is possible to overwork a piece, my tendency is to give up before the surface has become rich enough. The point is that it's dangerous to allow the piece to become too precious.

Knowing when to let the thinker back in.
Eventually, it is OK to begin planning and thinking through a piece. For me that point comes at the end of the stage I describe in this post, when the imagery and the composition are settled but the piece still retains a sense of life.

Ultimately, intuition and experience are the best guides to when this stage is complete. Once the foundation is there (i.e. the composition and final imagery), all that remains are the details.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Anatomy of a Page: Step One - Breaking the Voodoo*

1) Venice and Burritos.

2) Hanuman and some lines.

3) Letters, fish, robots, and women.

Blank sketchbook pages and freshly gessoed canvases; I love them and I hate them. Every time I look at such pristine white surfaces I'm intimidated by their beauty and am overwhelmed by possibilities. There is also the fear of screwing up a perfectly good book spread or canvas with badly done work. No wonder the hardest step in any piece is the beginning.

I resent feeling intimidated in this way, so every time I see a clean white page I'm compelled to bring it down to my level. I want to turn the blank surface into art but first I have to take that difficult and all-important first step.

Once the spell is broken, the rest is easy. I simply respond to what is developing on the page, continue to add marks, colors, and images in the places that intuitively seem right, and allow the piece to evolve. On good days, it seems to happen almost of its own accord and I am simply a conduit. Everything flows naturally.

But when there is nothing yet on the page, how do you know what to do? Through the years I've developed a number of tricks, all of which are based on giving up control and preconceived ideas. When in doubt, there's always random action. Any sketch, collage, or writing will do: a grocery list, friend's phone number, description of an idea for a sculptural installation, or a canceled postage stamp. It doesn't matter.

The way sketchbooks fit into my lifestyle gives me ample opportunity for these random acts. I carry a book with me wherever I go, and throughout the past 25 years or so I've made it a habit to constantly jot down ideas, quotes I like, or observations. Sometimes they show up in words and sometimes in pictures; either way, even the most mundane artifact of daily life gets the process started.

The page above started with notes on the Venice episode of Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations coupled with directions and a burrito order my wife wrote, as well as the number of a parking space I'd recently occupied. I never fear that I've included anything too stupid at this stage because I assume it will be covered up in subsequent layers. This assumption also keeps me from feeling too protective about anything in the early stages of a piece.

After Venice and the burritos, I began thinking about Hanuman, the Hindu diety I am drawing for a friend's tattoo, experimenting with a combination of human and monkey features. Then I divided the spread into sections with lines, responding to what I sensed were holes in the composition. Often, when I do not have a clear, spontaneous idea of what to add next, I'll resort to patterns or building up textures (both of which I used here). At this stage, I resist every temptation to think about what should go into the piece. I focus instead on things I'm instinctively drawn to or that are the first to pop into my head.

I also spend time looking through scraps and random images to collage in to the piece. In this case, I found a Titian nude, a flower drawn by a friend's young daughter, a toy robot silhouette, and a fish and plate from an early scratch board illustration I'd done. I make no attempt whatever to plan or interpret the relationship between these images and symbols. In fact, I scrupulously avoid it; the last thing I want to do is let that obstreperous and domineering rational mind into the process too early.

Next post, we'll see how these random markings become the foundation for a finished piece.

*I stole this phrase from Detroit-based poet M.L. Liebler, my English professor at the College for Creative Studies.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Anatomy of a Page: Deciding to be Intuitive

Unlike some of the other art students in undergraduate school, I was conscious and deliberate in developing my creative process. I grilled professors and fellow students about where they got ideas, how they developed their ideas into bodies of work, and the materials and techniques they used. I emulated their processes, used the techniques the showed me, and followed their suggestions. I experimented constantly and evaluated the results.

In many ways, this analytical approach both helped and hurt the development of my creative process. It helped me to become conscious of my process and able to articulate the stages I went through in developing work. It enabled me to pick apart a work of art, regardless of who had done it, and talk about its good and bad characteristics.

Still, there was plenty of downside. I became easily caught up in thinking rather than doing. I tried to use my head to solve artistic problems I should simply have worked through. Ultimately, once I solved a problem of theme or composition in my head, I lost the motivation to actually make the piece I had been thinking about.

The most negative effect, though, was that I developed the bad habit of trying to force everything to make sense. I put terrible pressure on myself to explain my ideas properly and exactly in order to make them unassailable in a critique. Every element, whether it be the concept driving a piece or a stylistic choice, was so thoroughly planned that there was no room left for any of the emotion that animates good art.

As a result, much of my work was emotionally flat. While it may have been well designed and rendered, it was often hollow and lifeless. I knew that to make anything good I would have to find a way to banish thinking and reason from the process.

The best antidote to a tyrannical conscious mind (such as my own) is a healthy dose of randomness. After years of experimentation and investigation, I made the rational though ironic choice to build my creative process around intuition and all things non-rational.

I drew inspiration from other student artists, who often taught me without knowing it. One began his paintings without a plan, covering mural-sized surfaces with seemingly random markings and colors that he eventually formed into images. From him I learned how to coax an image out of chaos, like seeing pictures in the clouds. Others worked in materials from nature that they could not control, such as mold and ants. Many worked with recycled materials and built images from the marks already on their etching plates and canvases. From them I learned to make accidents a planned but uncontrolled element in my work.

Watching these other young artists led me to other ways to keep my work loose and fresh. I began collaborating with some of them, forcing myself to respond to what they were doing rather than executing images purely of my own design. I began to work with collage on which I would layer drawing and painting, which freed me from the anxiety of wondering where to begin.

I also began to work very quickly, forcing myself to make visual decisions intuitively and in response to what I saw developing in front of me. To this day I work quickly to avoid thinking about what to do next.

Ultimately, I'm a thinker and I always will be. So my effort to bring other aspects of myself to my work is ongoing. Fortunately, I've been trying to circumvent my conscious mind for so long that working intuitively has become a habit.

Next post, we'll see how I try to put all these thoughts into action.

Anatomy of a Page: Introduction

For one of my student sketchbook workshops a few years ago, I presented images of a typical sketchbook page at various stages of completion. For the participating students, it was a guided tour of my creative process: where my ideas come from, how I create images, my favorite materials and techniques, and the ways in which those things intermingle.

For me, it was an opportunity to analyze my own work from inside the process of making it. This is a tricky endeavor because analysis is dangerous if it comes too early in creative work. Potentially good but underdeveloped ideas too often melt under the harsh light which benefits a more finished piece.

Of course, now I can find neither the images I showed nor a copy of that original presentation. So throughout the upcoming days and weeks, I'll chronicle the development of a typical spread of sketchbook pages, explaining my thoughts and process along the way.