Creator Habits

Just a week ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the different white pigments that we use in paintings and the temperature of each.  I had recently started to use a zinc white in addition to titanium white; he was suggesting that I also start using flake white.  Art nerds, right?  

In this same conversation I confessed to my friend that I’ve been lazy about cleaning my brushes.  I let my brushes sit in a mild solvent until I come back to the studio.  They are never “clean.”  (I am still filled with shame about this.)

There was a time in my creative journey where these things didn’t matter.  At one time I worked primarily as a tonal artist; I created images that where only value building form (that's art nerd speak for "darks and lights made the space).  My work had greens, reds, blues and browns, but I only used these colors as value—to put it another way, I could have just used black & white and done the same work.  The addition of color in these early pictures was incidental.

At that time, a clean brush was just a good studio habit.  It was something that painters were "supposed" to do.  At that time, white pigment only served to make the value of my “color” lighter.

For seven months in 2000, I stepped away from the studio and worked a retail job.  During this time I would sit with my two year-old daughter at the dining room table and we would make art with crayons and watercolor paints.  We used a seemingly never-ending stack of card stock as our surfaces; it was not white paper, it was a soft yellow.  My daughter would draw with a crayon and then begin to paint over the wax lines with the most beautiful pure color straight from the water color palette.  She would then proceed to paint over the first color with the second, and then the third, and then the fourth, until all the colors were used.  The final image was the wax lines of the crayon showing through a puddle of muddy, blackish color.  A young child has no rules regarding the use of color.  A child has no rules about creating.  She had a profound influence on me in those seven months.  I had no idea what was changing in my approach to color until I went back.

When I got back into the studio, I started to work on 7 or 8 surfaces, all at once—these paintings were nothing but color; often unmixed pigment, never muddy.  I worked on these images simultaneously.  I now worked in color & value.  I would draw  an outline in cadmium orange, fill in the space with soft lavender, add an intensely golden sky; I didn’t much care for restraint anymore. 

My studio was filled with a dozen images moving all at once.  And when I was done for the day, I would clean the brushes, dry them and lay them flat with the other clean brushes.

The conversation with my friend a week ago reminded me of how 2 specific habits of creative people can impact their creative work.  

First of all, a creator cannot be closed off to change.  Growth is change.  Sometimes growth comes from using crayons.  Sometimes growth comes from sitting with another creative person (preferably a two year-old) and allowing that creator to influence you.  Or maybe it is as simple as trying a second or third white pigment; as silly as that sounds.  It is hard to know what thing will provide an opportunity to change and grow.  It is important to understand that creative work doesn’t start at the easel, it is always happening.  Weather you are watching a brilliant film, talking with another creative person or just listening to the leaves shake in the wind; 20% of your work is at the easel and 80% of the work is just living the rest of your life as a creator.  A good habit for a creative person is to constantly be aware of, and grateful for the beauty around you in all forms.

Secondly, fundamentals never go away.  The time at the easel requires certain disciplines.  If I paint in color, the pigments deserve my attention.  Part of that attention is to insure that a bit of red stays out of my green unless I want it there (I have to use clean brushes).  A film maker can’t point a bright light into the lens.  A writer has to spell words correctly; certain disciplines have to be in place for good work.  A good habit for a creative person is to constantly return to the fundamentals of their discipline.

There is a tension between these two things.  On the one hand, the creator has to be rigid about some production habits.  On the other hand, the creator cannot be so rigid about studio habits that he will not experiment when the chance to play comes around.  One thing is certain though, riding that tension will create good work.