I don’t usually start work on a piece with a fixed destination in mind. I don’t know what a piece is going to look like when I start work.
Recently in conversation with my friends Marsha and Elaine I mentioned that I don’t think in images. I think to myself in words (Or more accurately a near constantly running internal monologue. Think having this blog running in your head ALL THE TIME). Marsha was flabbergasted by this. She thought as an artist I MUST think in images. Then she asked me a logical next question which was did I know what something was going to look like before I started working on a project. Explaining to her that I don’t have an endpoint in mind to make art from wrecked her even more. So let’s talk about this process and how it works for me as an abstract artist.
I don’t work from images as source material
Lots of artists gather source material. Pictures of things they want to work from. Landscapes or portraits and everything in between. If I were a drawer, I’d want a ton of pics to pull from. So I could practice reproducing a thing so it looks enough like the thing for others to tell what it is when I’m finished. I find this to be a fascinating skill and one that I haven’t spent much (almost none) of the last twenty years cultivating.
When I make I don’t have a set endpoint in mind when I start. Most of the time, I don’t have a grand vision for what any given thing will be when I start. I just pick up a handful of materials and get started. And once I have a few things in place, I start responding to the those things. Then I respond to the response. And so on. It is a practice of problem solving at every step. People often call this an intuitive process. And it is that. And it is also grounded in understanding the principles of design and attempting to execute (or deliberately flout) those principles as I am working.
Here’s a video of me doing just this. I start with a handful of materials and build from there. I start with papers, then move to colors, then I find a central image and start building the page around that. It does have a quote on the bottom so it’s entirely possible that I started with this quote in mind even while I didn’t know exactly how I might illustrate it.
One of the reasons I make process videos is because I think it’s important to see other artists working through their decisions. Seeing how others solve problems can go a long way in helping me figure out how to solve problems. And bonus points if you get to hear them explain their decisions as they are making. I have a few more process videos on my youtube, if that’s interesting to you.
When I was a teenager, I kept a journal and my journal was always a red notebook with magazine images cut out and pasted on it. Self-styled Lisa Frank, if you will. I was obsessed with the T.S. Eliot quote “the endless cycle of idea and action” from “Choruses from “The Rock.”” To be honest, I think I am still a little bit obsessed with it. Because so much of what I do is just this very cycle. I started that when I was about 14 or 15 and here I am still at it at 50. And by “it” I mean cutting things out and pasting them together endlessly – that’s my cycle.
The refinement process for me is about two things currently. Beginning the journey with more self-generated materials and learning to edit myself.
It’s only recently that I’ve started taking my own photos and using my own art to start with in place of the cut-out magazine images. Like within the past five years recently. Even still, I often start with something preprinted because if there’s an idea to be generated, it usually starts in that original image for me. Not as an image to recreate but as the spark for an idea journey. I might start with a picture of a teacup but arrive someplace very far away from an actual teacup. It’s abstraction, so there’s never actually a teacup at the end of it for me. Or a pipe. But that’s an Art AV club conversation on René Magritte for another day.
I posted this recently:
I said in the caption I might yet learn restraint. Gimme MORE. I am a maximalist ALL THE WAY. So learning to edit and pare down and refine is a very hard skill set for me and frankly, I don’t always care to do it. But it is a valuable tool because learning when more is actually too much is the difference between mediocre execution and effing amazeballs execution. Learning that skill takes a lot of time and practice. So here I am, practicing.
This is why I love collaboration
Collaborating with another artist is a great way to move this process beyond what I can do by myself. I’ve collaborated with other artists over the years through various projects. My friend Renee and I made this piece together:
Renee painted the background and then I put the arches on there. It felt really alien to me so I created some otherworldly arches to go with her painted background. But when she gave me the painted canvas, I had no idea what I was going to do with it. It hung out in my studio for almost a year before I started putting arches on anything that would stand still long enough for me to archify. If I had the original painted canvas now, I’m quite sure I’d be stitching or weaving it or cutting it off the stretchers to put on another canvas…dang it that’s a good idea, brb…
I’ve collaborated with many other art journal artists over the years. It’s one of the lovely underpinnings of the art journaling community. To trade journals with someone (or lots of folks if you are doing a big round robin journal collab) and have them work in your book while you work in their’s and then send it back again. That spirit of sharing is one of the things I love about that community. It is something that absolutely could not happen if I had very set ideas of how my work was supposed to look at the end of the process.
I’m excited about a collaboration project I have coming up this summer through ALWCA. I want to try ALL THE THINGS. See? Maximalist forEVAH, baybee.
Why do I love this process?
I love this way of creating because there are no rules. At heart I am a rebel. I don’t like to be told what to do and this is one way I can buck the system with zero consequences.
There’s magic in making these decisions on the fly. I will never be over the energy jolt of trying and something and realizing if I put this here and that there then the whole thing just sings. I am not ashamed to say that I am addicted to that feeling.
It’s a process I’ve been perfecting for a lot of years. I don’t know if it’s an instinct or a habit, but trying to plan out this process ahead of time would be incredibly difficult for me to start now as an old.
What about you? What does your process look like? Do you plan or do you wing it? Are you into making decisions as they come or do you need more structure to hang your decisions on? No shame in however you make your art happen! Let me know where you land. Find me on socials, drop a comment here, or send me an email.
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