Forget inspiration. Get on with the work
Thomas Edison famously claimed that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but do we act like it might be true?
We’re sold a romantic idea that artists – I’m writing about painters, sculptors, poets and so on, but feel free to extrapolate this in any direction – are special and won’t (or can’t) work unless they’re inspired. I have absolutely no idea what that means. It’s nonsense.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Art, like anything of value, comes mostly from work. Put some hours in and you’ll see results. I started writing this piece on a train with a quote from an inventor, not because I was inspired but because I needed to start somewhere. In drawing terms, I had to make a mark. As I write these lines, I don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. (I originally thought the inspiration/perspiration quote was by a golfer, too, but checked online and had to change it. By making something, I had to learn something). What’s exciting is that the resulting piece won’t be the result I was expecting.
Quantity doesn’t guarantee quality, but lack of quantity guarantees a lack of quality.
There are loads of Picasso museums. Visit any of them and you’ll see evidence that the man spent hours trying things out, pushing ideas around on paper, finding out how lines worked and interacted and so on. Look at any collection of his sketchbooks and you’ll see that he tried and forgot more than we’ll ever know.
Another example: Chas Chandler, Jimi Hendrix’s manager, said that Hendrix wore a guitar round his neck all day. He made breakfast with it on, took it to parties, went to the toilet with it on (for the echo), and so on. You don’t, he pointed out, get that good by accident.
So how does this translate to OCA student work? No need for translation; it’s exactly the same. You might not be Picasso or Hendrix (or Thomas Edison), but you should be trying things out and pushing yourself into areas that it’s possible you hadn’t heard of a year ago. Working as often as possible, even when you don’t feel like it, makes a huge difference.
Yet another example: Michelangelo can’t have been inspired the whole time he was painting the Sistine Chapel. Mostly he was getting on with the job in hand: drawing, painting, solving problems and so on. Sure, there’s an extraordinary talent at work, but on a cold Tuesday morning I bet he climbed up the rickety scaffold, looked across at the vast expanse of unpainted ceiling, sighed, and got on with it. People don’t travel to Rome to see his idea, they go to see (the result of) his work.
This blog entry, therefore, is simply a plea for labour. It’s not necessarily like processing invoices, or making presentations, but it does require application. When you think six preparatory sketches are enough to establish a viewpoint, do six more and something new will start to happen. Make portrait sketches of every single person in your entire family, not just of your partner. Take a simple idea and stretch it to breaking point. Don’t worry about originality or making art as that’s beyond your control.
What is to be done?
Artist Ed Ruscha produced a book in 1966 called Every Building on the Sunset Strip. It contained of a photograph of every, well, you can guess the rest. It would have had no value if he’d sloped off half way moaning about feeling uninspired. It’s the thing he made by accumulating lots of small acts that mattered, and he never looked back.
So, set yourself a task and complete it and you’ll always have something to do. No need for inspiration now and you’ll have made a yardstick by which to measure your progress. (Of course, it’s crucial to reflect on what you’re doing, too.)
For example, place three differently shaped vases in a row and draw them, taking care to get the negative space right. Now do the same with every possible permutation of those three things. That’s six drawings right there. Make it five objects and suddenly you’ve got 120 drawings. Giorgio Morandi did something akin to this for the better part of his working life. Your final drawing will, I guarantee, not look like the first one. You’ll have learned something but it’s impossible for me, or you, to predict what.
Marcel Duchamp called this discrepancy between what you think you’re making and what you end up with as ‘the art coefficient’. It works something like this: an artist sets out to make a piece of work. Due to difficulty, clumsiness, budgets, lack of time, budget restrictions etc., it doesn’t quite come out quite as planned. That gap, between what was planned and what happened, is where the art coefficient works, which is another way of saying that it’s there that art happens. The point to take from this isn’t that the artist gives up control, but that the artist must be working for anything to happen.
Picasso would have agreed, saying said that he believed in inspiration, but that it ‘had to find you working’.