For my own amusement I am wading into outlining a taxonomy of ways artists create – where does the idea come from? How does the resulting work unfold and take shape?
Although I suspect some of this could apply to other types of artist and medium, I am probably just really talking about what visual artists do. Comments from artists in other mediums – whether any of this relates or feels off- would be welcome.
Of course these wouldn’t generally be ‘pure’ forms either– several approaches probably co-mingle or are engaged at various stages of the development of a new creative work. So in no particular order, and recognizing the perilousness of trying to put lightning in a bottle…
It just comes into your head – musicians wake up with a song going around their head and rush to record it into a voicemail, artists ‘see’ a composition, writers hear the words unfolding and jump up to start writing them down… This is the mysterious bolt-of-intuition path to creation, presumably a working through of something in the subconscious that feels ready to bubble up to the surface.
Have a Concept – some sort of thought or idea keeps rattling around in your head and you think and feel and respond in some way to that concept – settling on a way that makes sense or appeals to you. The concept comes first, the physical manifestation follows. Examples of concepts that have informed visual art come from across the board: philosophy (alienation, deconstruction), politics (oppressive government), particle physics (immateriality), critical theory (color field, flat picture plane)
Pour some Coffee on a canvas – you consciously use some trigger to create a starting point from which you start to see and respond to what is there, working your way toward a finished piece. Here you are using some amount of learned skills/proclivities in the decisions you make. Your taste, your ‘eye’ leads you in this. A drama writer may listen for interesting overheard comments as a trigger, or a sculptor may pick up an interesting piece of detritus which becomes the kernel for an assemblage. Visual artists may scan magazines or the web for an intriguing image they will start to manipulate. Any artist might appropriate something from another artist as the seed of a new work.
Just Start – related closely to the above, the trigger for some may be to literally just sit in front of the canvas and put a mark on it, or sit in front of the keyboard and start hitting keys, doodle on a sketch pad. But finishing works like this feels like the same as above – a series of choices led by taste, training and instinct.
Translate – similarly to the two above, the trigger is a work of art from another medium, or any experience or influence that the artist then seeks to translate into his or her own native medium. A painter might listen to music and feel a way to translate that sensibility into visual form possibly via outright synesthesia. A playwright may be drawn to the structure /dynamics/conflict in a painting and then try to capture that tension in the dialogue between characters in the play. Or a performance artist may hang out with shamans and seek to bring that feeling into a performed work.
Representation – just try to paint what is in front of you – a landscape or a person or still life. Give it your own style. In this case the trigger is the real-world model or situation. Choices are made about what to gaze at, which will influence the finished work, but fundamentally the process is driven by a chosen real-world thing outside you.
Move forward with an Algorithm (Process) –Apply a set of filters or guidelines to steer the development of the piece. It might be “Do something you’ve never seen before” in which case the hand holds back every time it thinks it’s copying or influenced by a previous artist’s work. Or Jasper Johns’ oft-quoted creation algorithm: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Process-related art: “Fold up a canvas in quarters, put it in a big laser printer, run it through once for each quadrant, keep the ones where the paper jams.” Or “take a work of art, make multiples possibly with slight variations, display it in an interesting way.”
Another general area of Algorithm is Aesthetics: it may be based on composition, color, form/shape for example, or some other even yet-to-be-articulated aesthetic but it basically is a conceptual or formulaic way of deciding what to create, how and what to include or leave out.
Mash two or more things together – this may be incorporated in other methods above but it is fairly common so gets its own heading. Juxtaposition: artificially creating conflict and learning something about ourselves from our responses. Some artists really enjoy placing things in unlikely combinations hoping to see sparks fly.
Emulate – you follow an established form- (the head, the bust, the figure from my world, or the love song or the abstract painting) and then within that form find yourself influenced by the path laid out by another artist you admire or are just aware of. In this case the work, consciously or not, is following a model in your head of something you’ve seen before. There may be hard-to-avoid reasons for this – the medium itself may tend to push everything into certain standard directions . At the highest level, novels tend to involve narratives and people’s lives. Sculpture tends to become a ‘thing’ because of the nature of working with physical material. At a more micro level, from my world, figures tend toward either the anatomically realistic or the abstracted, and if the abstracted – then quite likely one or more of the following: smooth, elongated, blocky/planar, exaggerated or possibly an abstraction of the physical form driven by the materials you choose to create with. If you were to choose one of those directions, you might well find your work starting to look like another sculptor’s work who had made similar choices, and begin unconsciously to emulate (or resist the temptation to emulate) the other artist’s work.
Incremental Changes – you create a piece that is quite similar to one you have seen or made, but with a twist or with some effort to improve on it. Maybe you are trying to open up a composition, hone a technique, explore a different palette, create more confident and energetic lines, change the scale or simply build a series with minor variations. The new work is not so much original as a calculated extension on something already done.
Get a Commission – not sure if this is different from others above but bears mentioning – someone wants a work of art, commissions the artist to make it, and the artists just sits down and executes the request. If the artist were to initiate the request instead of a commissioner, it would probably feel a lot like “Emulate” above, simply emulating the idea in the request.