Friday, December 09, 2016

Curiosity and Creativity

Lately I've been wondering about the concept of creativity. Where does the urge to make things come from? What is the spark that kindles the fire? For that matter, what do we even mean by "creativity?"

For many, "creativity" means something like, "an ability to make new things or think of new ideas." Perhaps that statement works as a reasonable and broad definition, but actually making something totally new (a new kind of vehicle like the airplane, or a completely new art form like conceptual art) is very rare. Seems to me that we humans actually remake things constantly--we've made statues and sculptures
Three Bison, Le Tuc d'Audoubert cave, France ca. 12,000 BC
since we've been human, for example--just in different ways and with different materials. There are prehistoric cave sculptures that can startle in their realism. Looked at that way, being "creative" also means adapting and shaping old forms into new. New writing is necessarily based on previously encountered words and writing. New pictures are based on old images, regardless of the mode of their recording, and so on. So to me, the definition of creativity ought to include a few  qualifications.

Saying that creativity means making "a new thing" is entirely too vague to me--every handmade copy of a Rembrandt, however bad or excellent, is by definition new, for example. So, too every identical copy of a Michelangelo sculpture produced in a 3-D printer is a new thing. And of course creativity isn't actually part of making either item. There is more than newness to creative production, too. You re-purpose old things as new ones. Picasso did that with his sculptures using discarded objects. Creating (to me) is finding new ways to do old things, and for that a person needs a curious mind. 

Human curiosity, in the view of many, has fueled our species' remarkable history. The innate human
Pablo Picasso, "Bull Head," 1942, found items
desire to learn something--curiosity--is perhaps our most distinctive feature as a species. In various human endeavors, curiosity fuels the furnace. Sometimes it's a need to see, sometimes it's a need to make. The desire to see what is in the forest or over the sea drove us to explore the planet. Our forebears simply needed to know. The urge to learn makes the scientist look into the nature of things. Artists need to make things. A sculptor searches for universality of form, creating images in space, regardless of materials. A painter looks at the world and tries to place what she sees or express what she feels onto a surface. In part it's the artist's curiosity about how to make a piece--the craft of it, or the materials--and often it's curiosity about a particular effect, or shape. There are certainly other motives for making art, but curiosity is a common thread.

Besides making pictures, the work of painters (other artists too) involves questioning and investigating our materials, our methods, even our forms of expression. Part of my studio time involves trying out new materials. Even though my main work is oil paintings, other media continue to intrigue me. New mediums of expression within the broad existing formats of painting and drawing. Over the years, in no particular order, and with varying degrees of success, I've used watercolor, acrylic, pastel, oil, graphite, metalpoint, charcoal, ink, gouache, casein, and computer programs. Here are a few examples.
"Music," graphite, 2016

 A simple sketch of a friend listening to music. This is about a quarter page of an 11x14 sketchbook. Most of us, me included, learned to draw with graphite before anything else except maybe wax crayons. Over the decades graphite continues to be one of my most preferred mediums, and surprisingly to me, one that I still have much to learn about. Finding out how to make actual finished graphite pictures is a strong goal of my art. For many years rapid sketching has been the sum of my efforts with this medium, but in my maturity I'm hoping for much more.

"Coneflowers," watercolor, 2016

This is a watercolor sketch of a clump of purple coneflowers in my back garden. I did this one afternoon last summer, painting on a previously-tone page of a 5x5 watercolor sketchbook. Watercolor sketching outdoors in simple and pretty easy if you use a small book, small set of colors, and a waterbrush. This sort of picture is certainly a simple and satisfying way to record one's days, and something I intend to continue and expand in my practice.
The image to the left is a digital study of a man's head, done from an online reference using Sketchbook Pro in conjunction with a Wacom tablet. Sketchbook Pro is my favorite, go-to digital drawing method. The shape of his head, including those massive jaw muscles, was the trigger for the sketch. I do use ArtRage at times but find SBP answers all of my needs and is simple to use.

"Warrior, after daVinci," silverpoint

The final image is a small silverpoint, 5x8, on gesso panel. It's a detail copy of the well-known silverpoint by daVinci in the British Museum. When I began doing metalpoint drawings, it was simply out of curiosity. Gradually, as I experimented and learned, these small drawings began to be ways to practice patience and care in making line drawings. That discipline, in turn, has translated into more thoughtful application of marks when drawing with almost any medium from charcoal to pixels.

In my opinion, curiosity is what keeps me learning. And it's the pleasure of learning that keeps me making pictures.

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