The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Imagination & Execution

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles and Orland

Continuing in chapter 2, we arrive at the section entitled "imagination." The authors begin by defining the role of imagination during the creative process:

Imagination is in control when you begin making an object. The artwork's potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool. A piece grows by becoming specific.

I never thought about it in this way, and it makes sense. When I'm initially drafting a painting in pencil my imagination is my guide. But, when I pick up the paintbrush to color in my design technique takes over. My imagination has already done its job, although it occasionally guides me through color strategies and corrections as I work. That may be the reason why, when I'm in the midst of painting a piece I'm thinking about the next one. My imagination doesn't want to turn off.

The authors point out that the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting - they could go nowhere else. So, at the onset of creating a work of art the possibilities are endless. But, once the piece has begun, the possibilities eventually disappear and we're locked into only one solution. Although this seems paradoxical, it really isn't. After all, don't we intend to express something in particular when we begin a work of art? Isn't there an idea or concept that we're going for - one thing that inspired us in the first place?
Bayles and Orland portray the moment of completion of a work of art as a moment of loss - the loss of all the other forms the imagined piece might have taken. I have just the opposite feeling. When I complete a piece I'm either elated by the outcome or determined to do better the next time. I never feel "loss" because it's always my intention to create an unending number of paintings. There's always a next time!

The final idea expressed by the authors in this section is that a finished piece is, in effect, a test of correspondence between imagination and execution. I suppose that what we imagine in our head is always better than what we create with our hands, but that doesn't mean we can't find satisfaction in it. These authors feel that the artist's life is frustrating because our imagination and execution don't match. While that may be true, I tend to be a little more pragmatic about it. I don't expect my work to be perfect and, certainly, my imagination isn't perfect either. For me, it's a matter of embracing my flaws and making the best of it. After all, perfection isn't all it's stacked-up to be!

What are your thoughts??


Celeste Bergin said...

I've not thought of the completion of a work as loss (unless I really screwed it up! lol) -but I guess I understand what they are getting at.
That is a gorgeous photo of Lennon's memorial (I have not been there--but isn't it funny how that one word (in stone) with the flowers is so strongly associated with Lennon that I knew immediately where/what it was).
Imagine if Lennon had been overcome by fear, instead of "going for it"--we would never have heard that great song.

Eva said...

I work intuitively. Design elements and color are my only deliberate considerations. I never feel committed to my first stroke. Often my painting will completely change it's course before I'm finish. I'd hate to think I had to commit to the first stroke or even a preliminary sketch. I say "what will happen if I do this?", then I go for it.

Mark Sheeky said...

I think exactly like you Kathy. Imagination isn't all it's cracked up to be either; when analysed, each "idea" can be traced to myriad other sights, thoughts and feelings sent entirely from other sources.

I tend to paint the last stroke before I've begun the first, seeing the finished painting, an ideal thereof, before even starting. The possibilities were thought out during the planning stages, and the painting process a mere technicality, or a tightrope walk, towards the goal already seen, and like you I'll spot the parts that match that ideal and (moreso) note the bits that don't, for "correction" next time.

hwfarber said...

To me the joy of painting is the puzzle it presents and I usually begin with just a simple thought. I make few decisions beforehand so imagination is usually a partner throughout the painting. If I work things out with a pencil first, I lose interest because the puzzle is already solved.

Occasionally I sketch beforehand but those sketches tell me what I don't want. I enjoy the armature of the rectangle but I don't use it before painting--I check it when I finish. I try to avoid any type of formula, trust my eye, and find joy in painting. Some finished paintings are wonderful surprises; and some get turned against the wall. I take a break and start a new puzzle.

Kathy said...

Hi Celeste - this is a photo I took last month when I visited NYC and "Strawberry Fields" in Central Park. It was neat to see dozens of teenagers standing around it an singing Lennon songs.

Hi Eva - you have a wonderfully organic process!

Hi Mark - yes, our processes are remarkably similar!

Hi Donna - I like your statement "our brain is ahead of our hands!" Well put.

Hi Hallie - one of the many things I like about your work is that it's also unexpected for the viewer - always a really neat surprise!

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for posting the Lennon picture, Kathy. Very nice.
I never thought of this paradigm before - the imagination unbound at the start, and diminishing throughout the painting process. I like that very much.
Your experience of thinking about the next painting while working on the present one is wonderful. I never thought of that, either.
This is a thought provoking post, and it makes me think of my own current experiences in the studio. I am making a breakthrough in the ability to push an image further, which is a technical and creative challenge at the same time.

-Don said...

Hmmm.... I'm having trouble separating the design phase of my work with the painting phase of my work when I start thinking about imagination and its place in the process.

I understand what's being stated about technique and craft taking over the further into the process we go. That's true in my design phase, and it's true in my painting phase. But, imagination is still kicking in throughout both phases - making the process very organic until that last few brushstrokes are applied to fine-tune and 'finish' the piece. When I'm painting, I look at my design and I use it as a roadmap, but I'm always making adjustments which only I can see in my mind until they get to the canvas. Granted, it is a LOT easier to 'see' the need for these adjustments as the process goes on, but they are coming from my imagination nonetheless.

I'd like to point out that often there is a time early on in my painting phase where I HATE everything about the painting. If it wasn't for my imagination (and optimistic nature) telling me that there is a final piece laying in wait I don't think I would ever be able to finish. I need my imagination to keep me executing...

I'm like you at the end, there is no sense of loss - it's more a sense of elation and "what can I do next?". And, I've found that the more I paint, the less I ask myself "what if...?" once I've completed a piece - I just move on to the next one. Time is of the essence...


Stan Kurth said...

When I'm at my best the end result is never what I saw before I started; it is better. I think there has to be some risk taking on my part in order not to stay inside the lines where it is cozy and safe. More than anything else, it is my imagination, not a script, that tells me when a painting is finished or nearing it.

Kathy said...

Hi Casey - I look forward to seeing your breakthrough work. It's so satisfying when that occurs!

Hi Don - I know what you're saying and I think that everyone's process is a little difference. Although I still use my imagination throughout the process, I find that once I've locked into an idea and approach for the painting that I use my imagination a little less and concentrate on technique.

Hi Stan - risk taking really works! Your paintings and drawings are very creative.

Angela said...

I feel lucky to not do a whole lot of 'imagining' before I paint...I am more of a moment to moment painter - making decisions for how to proceed based on what happened in the last step - not on what I want the finished piece to look like.

For me, if a painting is looking like a 'failure' it just isn't done yet.

To see something in my head and then try to reproduce it on paper is not how I work at all - I think it's much more engaging to turn off a vision of the final piece and just see what gets created.

Kathy said...

Hi Angela - oh, I wish I could follow your process!! It never seems to work for me and I'm in awe of anyone who can work they way you do.