Growing up I had the standard adolescent fascination with the 'Romantic' ideal of the artist; the drug-addled genius of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron swimming the Hellespont, the drunken Jim Morrison stumbling his way to greatness.
Fortunately, we grow up, but I wish I'd read ‘Daily Rituals - How Artists Work’ by Mason Currey when I was in my teens. It looks into the daily routines of artists such as Matisse, Miro, Picasso and Warhol, and other creative minds from a wide variety of disciplines including Nabokov, Le Corbusier, Gertrude Stein, Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Einstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, HL Mencken, and Federico Fellini.
A few of them fit the archetype of the tortured artiste, living fast and dying at 27, but the vast majority of the 150+ famous names featured treated their work as a 9 to 5 ‘job’.
Nabakov would breakfast at 8am, work until lunch at 1pm, then work again from 1.30 to 6pm. Georgia O’Keeffe liked to wake up “when the dawn comes”, and would work through the day. Matisse would work from 9am to noon, then siesta, then from 2pm to the evening. Joan Miro was up at 6 and in the studio by seven.
There are exceptions; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, given his subject matter, could often be found sketching in the cabarets and brothels of nighttime Paris. Picasso went to bed late and got up late, as did Pollock.
But the takeaway from the book is that whether our favourite artists, writers and other creatives got up at 5am or 5pm, they were disciplined in their approach to their work. As Barbara Hepworth believed: ‘Art is Labour’.
If I'd have known that when I was a kid, I might have spent less time dreaming about what kind of artist I wanted to be, and more time actually making art.
When people see my work I find it interesting that at least one question will be about how I was feeling when I was making it.
I'm not sure I 'feel' anything.
I might feel frustrated at times if I can't see the next mark, or pleased with the way a concept is turning out, and even happy (or just relieved) when a piece is finished. I tend to see the process as rational and intellectual (and creative), but not emotional.
That's not to say there isn't a reactive aspect to abstraction. The abstract artist makes marks to complement or juxtapose the marks already made. But reaction can be thoughtful and considered. Watch Jackson Pollock stalking the finished work as he dances around his canvases. Malevich's Black Square (1915) was the product of at least two years of careful planning and multiple iterations before he’d finished the definitive version.
While thinking about this I listened to a podcast discussing the work of Sol LeWitt. LeWitt died in 2007 but left written instructions for creating various works of art, so his work is still being made today. The presenter and an artist discuss whether they are really LeWitt pieces, given that he isn’t painting them, and although the people who did paint them are named as the ‘artists’, they didn’t do any of the conceptual work behind them (or did they?). It’s worth listening to the podcast to find out what they thought. But there was an interesting exchange that is relevant to the topic at hand.
The artist discussing LeWitt’s work talks about ‘Decision Time vs No Decision Time’. ‘Decision time’ is time spent making marks, choosing colours, conceptualising the painting. ‘No decision time’ is time spent “...filling in a pattern...It’s much more frightening to go into the studio and know that it’s going to be 6 hours of decision time.”
Surely ‘decision’ is rational. Or at least, decisions benefit from being approached rationally.
Looking through my art books I can see emotional elements in some creative processes. Perhaps our love of Modernism has convinced us to be too scientific and rational in our approach to the creative process. But then if my frustration boils over and I attack the canvas with my palette knife, is that a process of creation or destruction?
Maybe I'm over-thinking it.
How do you approach your work? Feel free to comment below.