We had group critiques of recent projects in one of my studio classes the other day. One student, whose project turned out extremely well, was nonetheless weirdly apologetic about it. He expressed frustration that he had needed to take the work through multiple differing drafts, and couldn’t get it quite right, ultimately changing his composition considerably to accommodate and resolve the situation.
I joked (sort of) that this was, in fact, exactly what he was supposed to do, not what he had failed to do: proper R&D, trial and error, problem-solve, alternate versions, abandon some/many. That this IS the creative process, not an indicator of failure. It’s messy work; there is no Ctrl+Z (not always, anyway). He was probably the first student I’d had in a while that actually took his work through this full process, and it paid off in really strong, well-thought-out work.
I love teaching: the newness and energy that students bring to art is always a pleasure to work around. I will say, though, that in recent years, across the board, my students have become increasingly reluctant to go through the drafting process, or even just to keep journals just for the sheer joy/practice of it. It seems too abstract/unfamiliar to them, and they get frustrated by the uncertainty or the lack of fruition when the direction they chose for a project doesn’t comply and fall immediately into place.
Part of me wonders is this is the ADHD nature of American culture in 2015 (I don’t see this in my international students nearly as much), and/or Millenial impatience, and/or peoples’ ever-growing addictions to mobile devices/internet/social media corrupting any ability to focus. While I have to address it with students, there’s also no denying that I’ve found this sliding for myself…for most of the same possible reasons.
I used to putter and muddle through ideas for ages, just exploring and meandering. Once my exhibition career began in earnest, there were long streaks of creative practice that necessitated a very quick, no-room-for-error, deadline-based decision-making process. Working increasingly in the digital realm reshaped certain habits of mind and of studio. This, combined with inconsistent studio access at times (not to mention my procrastinatory tendencies) turned my practice into one that was often site-specific, portable, and improvisatory. Often this was fine; sometimes it was…not. But I’d basically accepted that the nature of some work is speedy, and since I was reasonably good at this (and these skills were useful in my commercial illustration/design work), the practice continued, even at times where this turned out to be counter-productive.
When Eliza and I got our studio space a year ago, I very deliberately set aside time to just noodle and explore ideas slowly, rather than to crank out quick work. It’s been uncertain and frustrating at times, but it’s also felt like a welcome return to a different kind of quality to my practice. With a show coming up this summer, I’m finding myself moving back into production mode, but it feels different/familiar. The ideas and drafts have had more time to stretch and unfurl; my understanding of technique and approach has shifted and grown.
Last week, I started a smallish painting that I was excited about. Had been collecting reference images for a while; had done a few drafts in my journals. I had an agenda, and enthusiasm and what seemed like clarity for the direction I wanted to go. Spent big chunks of the weekend working on it. Day 1: excited but uncertain. Day 2: some doubts- battled some color issues, but couldn’t resolve composition. Day 3: hated it. Day 4: nuked it, and painted the whole thing over. Day 5: started again. Days 6 and 7: less certain, but definitely glad that it’s where it is. As part of this recent change in studio strategy, I’ve started a second painting, much larger, in conversation with this first, to see how they might inform one another, since they’re destined for the same exhibition.
The realizations about drafts here are perfectly obvious to any artist with a disciplined practice. For me, this is a written reminder for the next time I’m bone-headed and impatient (either in my studio or with my students): while I don’t necessarily think that time and struggle make for inherently better, more virtuous work, I do think that it’s nice to be back in touch with this kind of rigor, exploration and play in my projects.