Art-making is a magical process; but, as we discussed yesterday, it can also be a challenging one. In the journey from the start to the finish of a project there are problems to solve, questions to answers, errors in planning or technical execution to recognize and resolve, often with deadlines looming and the fearful possibility of failure. Making art requires vision and skill, but it also needs a great deal of faith. Faith in the project. Faith in yourself. And the courage (or stubborn tenacity) to keep on working through the bad days as well as the good.
In Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland address the perils and rewards of creative work, focusing on the things that hold us back and how to overcome them. What separates artists from ex-artists, they write,
"is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don't, quit. Each step in the art-making process puts the issue to the test.
"Fears arise when you look back, and they arise when you look ahead. If you're prone to disaster fantasies, you may even find yourself caught in the middle, staring at your half-finished canvas and fearing both that you lack the ability to finish it, and that no one will understand you if you do.
"More often, though, fears arise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student -- well, David Bayles, to be exact -- who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, 'But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers.'
"To which the Master replied, 'What makes you think that ever changes?'
That's why they're called Masters. When he raised David's discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution -- and it should be. Vision, uncertainty, knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virue."
Materials, they say, are among the few elements of art-making you can hope to control; but for everything else,
"well, conditions are never perfect, sufficient knowledge rarely at hand, key evidence always missing, and support notoriously fickle. All that you do will inevitably be flavoured with uncertainty -- uncertainty about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right, about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about whether you'll ever be satisfied with anything you make. Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year: some hundred-odd pieces -- all but about then of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting. Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press. William Kennedy gamely admitted that he wrote his own novel Legs eight times, and that 'seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel and they were both about the same height.'
"It is, in short, the normal state of affairs. The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse. Lincoln doubted his capacity to express what needed to be said at Gettysburg, yet pushed ahead anyway, knowing he was doing the best he could to present the ideas he needed to share. It's always like that. Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all -- or having got there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it's an excellent idea in making art.
"In making art you need to give yourself some room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something -- a subject, an idea, a technique -- and both you and that something need to be free to move. Many fiction writers, for instance, discover early on that making detailed plot outlines can be an exercise in futility; as actual writing progresses, characters increasingly take on a life of their own, sometimes to the point that the writer is as suprised as the eventual reader by what their creations say and do. Laurence Durrell likened the process to driving construction stakes in the ground: you plant a stake, run fifty yards ahead and plant another, and pretty soon you know which way the road will run. E.M. Forster recalled that when he began writing A Passage to India he knew that the Malabar Caves would play a central role in the novel, that something important would surely happen there -- it's just that he wasn't sure what it would be.
"Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive, or spontaneous. What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy -- it doesn't mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding."
The imagery today is by Sonja Danowski, an artist, author, and illustrator based in Berlin. Her picture books for children and adults include In the Garden, Puppet Theater, Smon Smon, Little Night Cat, Perfume Village, My Family, Mountain Goats, The Grass House, Forever Flowers, The Beginning, and Gifts of the Magi. To see more of her beautifully-rendered work, please visit her website and Instagram page.
Words & pictures: The passages above are from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art-making (The Image Continuum, 1993). All rights to the words and art in this post are reserved by the authors and artist.
A related post: "Embracing uncertainty."