The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ways of Knowing

Frank Stella

Art Without Compromise, by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, section 3: "Ways of Knowing"

In this section, Richmond draws from her personal life and experience to describe how she developed better skills in problem solving, or "knowing." Although she doesn't use the term, her description for problem solving is actually the "scientific method," which begins with observation, then hypothesis, testing, analysis, and results. There's a logical progression to it that's not confusing. Additionally, Richmond cites one of her colleagues at Harvard, Professor Schwartz, who advised that when working through issues, it's important to make "outrageously simplifying assumptions." By so doing, one can reduce a complex problem into simple parts that, hopefully, will result in an elegant solution. Despite her focus on this particular approach, the author acknowledges that there are many different ways of knowing.

I can relate to this. Although my life-long focus has been creating art, I decided to take on a second discipline in my late thirties, after I had moved aboard a sailboat and embarked on a long voyage that sparked a desire to understand our physical planet from the scientific perspective. So, I enrolled in college again, this time to study the geosciences, and eventually landed a faculty position at a college from which I am now retired. During those years, the "scientific method" was my "way of knowing" and I've applied it to my art.

This training gave me the ability to identify and utilize simplifying assumptions in order to get somewhere without being bogged-down by minutia or competing priorities. And, to me, this is the most important idea that Richmond conveys in this section of her book. I think we should discuss it. What simplifying assumptions are important to an artist when creating a work of art?


-Don said...

I saw the coolest quote today/yesterday... It's a Chinese proverb that goes something like, "To move a mountain, a man must first move small stones." I think that fits perfectly in today's discussion.

I think every piece I have created started with two little words, "what if?". My "scientific" method involves experimenting with my 'what if' (in Photoshop these days), making notes of my 'what if' (printouts of my experiments and notes scribbled on them), studying my 'what ifs' (lay printouts and notes around - cut them out, reassemble them, crop them differently, etc), and then IF I like the direction my 'what ifs' are going I put them to canvas. Some 'what ifs' take years and some come to fruition almost immediately.

I don't know if this prolonged discourse fits within the confines of today's discussion, but that's about as simple as I can put my process.

BTW, thanks for adding to your biography here. It's nice to have a little chronology in the path to your becoming a modern Renaissance Woman.


M said...

Simplifying assumptions? I'm out on a limb here... but I will connect this to my own practice as Don did. I think the major one is you can't create if you don't show up. It follows from I want to create. Making a plan for this to happen seems the next step.

Sorting through past work and the viewing of others' work, looking for patterns to move to the next stage in your work seems important.

Culling your work to make sure you aren't showing work that doesn't support your usual caliber.

I may be out to lunch on this topic. I'll wait for more profound comments from others.

I decided that I need to own this book. Thanks Kathy.

Anonymous said...
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Stan Kurth said...

My simplifying assumption is metaphysical. I'll leave it at that.

I got a kick out of this segment of the book. I think a little bit of the feminist Wendy came out here. Did you catch that Kathy?

Unknown said...

Hi Don - The Chinese proverb is a good one, and serves our discussion by showing how we must simplify our thoughts in order to find an approach that works and to identify the first step. And, I like your methodology. It's a logical and effective way of "knowing". Thanks so much for sharing this.

Hi Margaret - yes, yes, and yes! Like Don, you've adopted an approach that really works, and one that resonates with my philosophy. Thank you for sharing yours. And - yes - do buy the book. It's a good one.

Hi Pam - you hit the nail on the head! To me, one of the most important simplifying assumptions is that a single concept is worth an entire painting at the expense of all other assumptions. I have to adopt that assumption in order to create and unify a single work. Other simplifying assumptions include some of the "rules" control the design, palette, and subject matter that we impose on our work. Another simplifying assumption could lead us to break one or more of the rules because the guiding thought is "what if none of these rules actually make sense?" And so on...

Sharmon Davidson said...

Hi Kathy, I've been following you blog since your discussion on "what is art?", though I haven't commented before. I'm also kind of a multidisciplinary person, as I have studied science for many years, but only as a hobby.
I'm with the people who have commented so far- I'm not sure I understand the question. Can you give me an example of a simplifying assumption?

BTW, I think you reference some really interesting books on this blog. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Hi Stan - yes I did! I'll "assume" that Wendy is about my age and can attest to the fact that we "mature" women were raised in an era that clearly defined a separation of tasks and disciplines between the sexes. Like her, I was forced to take Home-Ec and not Shop in school. And, like her, I never owned a set of tools (until more recently). And, like her, I strive for equality between the sexes but also embrace the natural differences. It's interesting how my generation of women found a voice and rebelled against taking a passive role in society, government, and industry. And, it's also interesting how many men of my generation supported our efforts!

Unknown said...

Hi Sharmon - thank you for following this blog and for raising your voice! It's wonderful to "hear" from you. My answer to Pam's question (above) provides some examples of how I interpret the answer to the question. However, there are probably other ways to answer it as well.

Myrna Wacknov said...

Hi Kathy, I wasn't sure I understood the question at first, but seeing some of the comments helped. I find a simplifying assumption is to focus on each aspect of the painting separately in preliminary work (such as composition, then decide on a value pattern, then select a color scheme) then, when I paint I don't have to keep so many balls in the air at the same time. It is very freeing as many decisions have already been made and the results are usually better.

hw (hallie) farber said...

My simplifying assumption is "Why not?" I find that too much planning and thinking leads to my never actually putting anything on canvas.

Though I'm older than you, Kathy, I managed to skip Home Ec, and have always had my own set of tools. Of course, my sheets are always alop and I consult a diagram before setting the table for a dinner party--but, problem solved by going the buffet route. Simplifying assumption--people just want to eat and enjoy the company.

Unknown said...

Hi Myrna- well stated! That's a great way to deal with what becomes a highly complex painting. Thanks for simplifying :-)

Hi Hallie - I like your style! And, I like your philosophy. One of my favorite quotations is from Marilyn Monroe, who reportedly once said "Ever notice how 'What the hell' is always the right answer?"

layers said...

although I have been told by early instructors that I 'think' too much about my painting-- and I do think about my series, and my theme, and what elements work best for me and so on... when I go into my studio I don't make any assumptions- or plan--I just get to work.

Unknown said...

Hi Donna - your work is highly evolved, so it seems likely that you rely on informed intuition by now. It's wonderful to behold.

Dan Kent said...

My simplifying assumption that is very freeing for me is that I can use the unexpected - especially if it is an error. For example, if I have a stray ink line or the wrong color, I can employ it somehow to change the piece so that it is the avenue to a more original and interesting result!

A corollary to this, which is very useful in representational art, which is what I am doing the most of at the moment, is that my drawing or painting is my universe - something I create which need not look exactly like my subject. In fact, it is better if it does not or it may as well be a photograph!

I know that many of you are far more experienced than I, but I simply cannot imagine that this will not be my main simplifying assumption for some time to come.

Celeste Bergin said...

My simplifying assumption is VOLUME. I paint a lot. It's kind of a ratio thing..for every 100 paintings I do I get about 25 that are successful. I'm working to make it an even better return.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - the fact that you rely on your imagination is what attracts me to your drawings! They're wonderful. Don't ever lose that quality :-)

Hi Celeste - you are prolific! It's great seeing a new painting from you every day, and I admire your ability to create so many wonderful works. I paint daily, but I never complete a painting in a day so I'm much, much slower than you.