The Pathway, 2: From Perception to Thought
From Vesperisms Season 1, Episode 5, May 2020
Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your hot beverage of choice, have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat! This is Vesperisms Season 1, Episode 5, The Pathway: From Perception to Thought.
In last week’s episode, I began a short series on the basic artistic process: Perception, Thought, Speech and Action. We began by talking about perception as: those things which we notice with our senses—the things which intersect with us before we name them. Things that make us curious, that turn us into walking question marks, before we have an actual question fully formed. Sometimes, it’s that elusive state of wonder or awe.
The trouble comes for artists—or anyone—when we move too quickly from perception to action.
For visual artists, that could be as simple as, when you’re in a life drawing session, looking down at your paper too long instead of looking at the model who’s posing for you. Or it can be as frenzied as reading a headline on your lunch break, and feeling the pressure to post a finished political commentary piece on Instagram by dinnertime. Again, I’m not talking about speed here, I’m talking about lack of process, of skipping steps that enable us to create full work. In an age of quick consumption, even art can become fast food. But you and I don’t have to serve up the cheap convenient filler. If we can fight for the fullness of our process, we will create work that endures.
So here’s a spoiler alert. I’m going to tell you the endgame of this little series on artistic process. I want to give you a new appreciation for freedom. I mean specifically artistic freedom, and, also, societal freedom, and freedom of speech. I don’t know about you, but in any area of my life, do I want to be told what to do, say or think? I do not. And I don’t want anyone else to tell you that, either. My ethos as an artist is that, barring anything that’s actually harmful to others, I want to give each other as wide a latitude as we can to create, explore and think for ourselves. As I’ve said before, you cannot predict what an artist is going to need to say about their life, their culture, the times in which they live. Sometimes artists will have works that comfort; other times, works that provoke. But that’s not up to you. That’s up to the artist, who serves a specific and necessary function in a society.
Now, of course, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that if we all have this wide expanse of freedom, eventually we’re going to rub up against each other’s differences, and the cattle herd of my wide latitude is going to cross over into your farmland and start munching on your corn. But hold your horses, partner, because we’re not that far down the path yet.
This week, we’re going to talk about what happens when a perception becomes an actual thought.
Let’s say you’re walking in the park in springtime and you see the pale green baby leaves of a maple tree against the steel grey clouds of an impending storm. It hits your body, your eyes. You notice it afresh. You perceive it with a sense of pleasure. And then it becomes a thought: “I like those colors together. That’s beautiful.” Maybe it’s more complex: you have a dream of a painting, fully completed in your mind, and you wake up with this thought: “I know how to achieve that. I’m going to paint that today.” But before you head to the studio, your thought is what happens between your first perception, and you saying words about it out loud. Listen to this poem by e.e. cummings and think about that interstitial place. Before he wrote these words, he felt this impression of springtime and possibility:
yes is a pleasant country:
let’s open the year
both is the very weather
when violets appear
love is a deeper season
my sweet one
(and april’s where we’re)
Here’s something you should know about artists. Our thoughts don’t always take the form of words. Sometimes the perception lingers a long time. Sometimes we respond immediately. This is why I carry a sketchbook wherever I go. When I perceive something that I want to capture, I’ve got to have a tool at the ready, or I’ll lose it. And that could be a visual picture—like capturing the color of the leaves against the sky—but because I’m also a writer, it could be a turn of phrase, or an overheard conversation, or a misunderstood lyric that has a cadence I like. By putting it down as a sketch, I’m archiving a perception. But does that mean I’ve skipped the process to action? Absolutely not.
The sketch is a form of thought.
All artists have a sketch phase, no matter what medium they work in. It could be a journal. It could be a video that a filmmaker catches on his iPhone while taking a walk. An improvisation on the piano while practicing scales. It doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s not a fully articulated, finished piece of work. It’s a sketch.
In my field of illustration, sometimes art directors will look on social media for sketches that illustrators post, or in a one-on-one meeting, they’ll unexpectedly ask to see the artist’s sketchbook. There’s something immediate, fresh and lively that is appealing from the sketch, and it can generate exciting new ideas. But often, when the illustrator is commissioned for work based on the sketch, it loses something in the final art. That’s worth paying attention to. I don’t have an answer for how to avoid that; that’s not my point right now. It’s a discipline to keep work fresh and spirited. For now, I just want us to acknowledge the place of the sketch in the overall artistic process as a form of thought, not as a form of action.
But here’s the challenge to artists: we do need to take our thoughts all the way into articulated words. The sketch is not the only form of thought we possess. It’s my strong opinion that every artist needs to write. In fact, it’s my opinion that every person needs to write. It’s been said by many, many people that if through all your years of schooling, you forget all of the history dates and math formulas you were ever taught, but you know how to write, you can do anything—any job put before you. I believe that is true. I’ll ask you to consider the incredible leaps in technology and art throughout the world once the the price of paper lowered, and the ability to write things down was democratized. What was once the province of the elite–a paper and pen—is now available for pennies. Can we take this for granted? Can you deny that the ability to scratch out your articulated ideas is a privilege that most people throughout millennia never dreamed of? Not just the ability to read—to take in the ideas of others—but to write—to manifest your own ideas.
One of the most painful disciplines the artist needs to acclimate to is the critique. Why is that? It’s because we’re not used to articulating what we think. It’s scary. And a lot of that is because many of us don’t really know what we think! We’ll talk more about the actual sharing of ideas in the next two episodes, but for right now, just sit with this question right now. What do you think? About the world, about yourself, about your work? How much time and space do you give to this question? And how much of what you think is really…the thoughts of other people?
Perception isn’t something that can be judged. Just as each of us is an individual, in a particular body, each of us intersects with the world around us in a completely individual way.
But thoughts aren’t like that.
Thoughts can actually be shaped, molded and ultimately chosen. Five artists may all stand looking at the same tree against the same sky, but how they interpret it is highly influenced by certain factors: how we were trained. How much we practice. How many other artists we look at. The things we tell ourselves. The richness of our inner dialogue.
In the book The Big Disconnect, clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair tells a story of a teenager whose parents were concerned about her inability to finish her homework. It would take her hours, and she could barely finish. They discovered that, unsurprisingly, she was addicted to texting her friends and couldn’t focus on her work. But instead of giving her homework skills, Dr. Steiner-Adair recognized that the girl actually had no inner dialogue. As soon as she had a thought, she was sending it outside of herself to a friend. Her approach in therapy was to restore that inner dialogue by having the girl text herself. Soon enough, her ability to focus was in place because she had a relationship to her own thoughts.
You’ve done it, and so have I—skipped over our inner dialogue right to sharing our perceptions, barely articulated, with the public, or venting to a friend, or stuffing our feelings, or reverting to self-protective patterns to avoid going deeper than necessary.
I’m going to take you on a little journey into where my brain has been going.
So, I kind of pride myself in being a “crisis girl.” I don’t mean that I’m always in crisis. I’m saying that I’m the one you want on the phone with customer service to dispute your charges. Here’s how it goes: an intense situation arises, and I immediately turn off my emotion valve, grab a machete and start bushwhacking through that mess—calmly, with no yelling—and just Fix. It.
At least, that’s what I’ve always told myself.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that people were selling homemade face masks on Etsy. And I thought, “I have an Etsy shop! I have a sewing machine! I have a bin full of cool fabric! I shall become a mask-maker.” It seemed like a great way to help when we all felt helpless. So I put them up…and I pretty much sold out immediately. That presented a problem, because I also have this thing called a job which is writing and illustrating books. And making batches of masks took way longer than I thought, putting me behind in my real work. I got completely overwhelmed. And that’s when my life got laid completely bare.
The truth is that when I perceive crisis, yes, I turn off the emotions and get to work. The problem is that, unbeknownst to me, there’s been a little voice in my unconscious, my whole life, which says: No matter what solution you come up with, it’s not sufficient to win this battle. Go to plan B.” And then plan B becomes plan X, Y and Z, and before you know it, I’ve got a to-do list a mile long, I’m fudging deadlines, I can’t focus, the inside of my brain feels like an international ping pong championship, and I’m completely making piles of face masks to the chagrin of my aching back.
I share this, because I realized that my perception was leading to a thought pattern that I assumed was working, but was actually destructive. It’s been a decades-long thought pattern. So I chewed on this for a couple of days. It turns out that I had a great sensor for perception, but a terrible interpretation of things. I promptly called my therapist, and, you heard it here, folks, I’m placing my foot on a new path, and choosing a new way of thinking.
Your thoughts are your most precious possession. No one can see or hear them except your Creator. And you get to choose your influences. What environment is most conducive to your ability to think? Has it been a long time since you were able to sit down or take a quiet walk, and even have a good think? Who are the voices that are influencing you…maybe too much…and interfering with your ability to think for yourself? Maybe it’s the news. I’ll bet it really is the news. Or your social media feed. Or a friend or partner who keeps you trapped in a loop. Maybe it’s fear or anxiety or depression. Maybe you really do need to speak to a therapist. This is a good time to do that, my friend. Most of our battles are fought in the mind, but we don’t have to do it alone.
This week, I don’t have a recommended read. In fact, I want to challenge you to fast from reading this week. Instead, I have a recommended task. Get yourself into sketch phase, and reconnect with your own thoughts. Don’t be precious about it; I’m not telling you to buy a fancy journal. But I want to challenge you to set aside 20 minutes a day this week to do this. It could be the first thing you do in the morning. It could be at lunch. Or it could be right before you go to sleep. Start writing. Don’t worry about what. Let it be utter stream of consciousness. If you’re sitting in front of your coffee, write about how crappy you made it this morning, or how it’s the best cup you’ve made in months. And see what comes out of your pen. Don’t judge it. Set a timer if you need to. The point isn’t hours of writing.
It’s just the act of restoring your inner dialogue.
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