The Pathway, 4: Artistic Action—Creating a Final Work
From Vesperisms Season 1, Episode 7, June 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 coffee, and have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat. This is episode 7, Artistic Action: the Destination of the Pathway.
Right before the protests and riots began in late May this year, I had been rounding the corner on this series I’ve been calling “The Pathway,” which is a rudimentary exploration of the artistic process. It wasn’t meant to be exhaustive; I mean, goodness, I’m not the first person to explore the subject of process, and we only have 15 minutes together, ostensibly once a week. But, you know, it was going along nicely, lots of you were writing to me with great thoughts and questions, and I was almost done. But then we…all sort of fell apart.
I said it before in a previous episode: my personality is that of a doer. My mascot is Action from West Side Story, remember? When crisis comes, I tend to snap into action. Part of growing up with a survivor’s mindset is that I want to do more than make the Bad Thing go away, I want to slash and burn the Bad Thing so it can never come back.
But the Bad Things that were happening were, I admit, more than I had the capacity to fight at the time. After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I could have said a lot of things. I certainly wanted to. If I were operating on the reflexes I had when I was younger, I would have come out with all of the anger I felt and made a series of statements. But the benefit of age is timing. And knowing, from experience, which approaches to crisis are actually successful. What actually works.
And then the destruction of public art began to get so widespread that we were no longer talking about confederate statues of dubious origin and intent—we were going after who we thought were the “good guys” like Abraham Lincoln, and monuments commissioned by emancipated slaves themselves. Now this week, in Istanbul, the Byzantine cathedral called Hagia Sophia, which has been a secular museum since the 1930’s, is being converted back into a mosque, which has a lot of ramifications. Hagia Sophia was the site of several movements of iconoclasm—it’s really as though the world is in the middle of an intense iconoclastic movement as we literally destroy graven images, which is a way of destroying story and yes, history. It’s been a bit much for me as both an artist and an author of historical fiction! So I went a bit underground and tried as best I could to care for my friends, do a lot of listening and sorting through the million messages coming at me from headlines and commentators and friends with a multiplicity of perspectives on current events. And because my stock and trade is historical fiction, I read as much history as I could, and as much analysis as I could. As St. Francis of Assisi prayed, “Help me not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.”
All of that meant that I had to put Vesperisms down for a few weeks. Honestly, I wondered whether an episode on artistic action was needed at that time, but I also did not want it to be misconstrued that I was doing an episode on activism. That’s a completely different subject, and not one I want to talk about just yet. There is a lot of pressure, especially on anyone with a “public” platform (let’s face it: everyone is public, so what does that even mean?) to make a statement in support of one side or the other. I saw many, many colleagues of mine put up posts, take them down, apologize for not understanding the full picture, repost things with disclaimers or words crossed out—and on it’s gone for weeks. And don’t even get me started on the Harper’s letter, which I will be referencing soon on an upcoming episode.
But there is one thing I want to make very clear, and it’s a promise to you as my listeners:
I will never make a statement in support of any cause that I have not fully taken the time to understand, and I will never use anyone else’s words that I do not fully believe in, or that have double meanings.
Words are such weighty things, and they must be carefully chosen. Since I do words and images for a living, I’m extremely careful about my use of them. And I felt that I needed more time with mine. I was not about to give you anything cheaply acquired. I respect my readers and my listeners greatly. You’ve given me the trust of your precious time. I know that many of you are artists at all stages of your careers. And some of you are other people’s children, you know, minors who are still in the care of your parents. I take that very seriously. At the end of my life, I believe I will have to give account of every careless word I’ve spoken. So I want to thank you for trusting me to share what I’ve learned about being and thinking like an artist.
I think that dovetails nicely into talking about artistic action, actually. Over the last few episodes about the Pathway, we’ve established that artists take in information through our bodies, namely the five senses, and that is called “perception.” We then organize our perceptions into a catalog of “thoughts.” Once those are sufficiently able to be articulated, we use “speech” to manifest our thoughts, either in journal writing to ourselves, or to others, whether one-on-one or in a group or to an audience. But all of those, as we explored, are part of what I call “sketch phase.”
How does an artist take an idea all the way to create a finished artwork? What is that magical moment when one puts brush to canvas, or pencils the first treble clef on the manuscript paper? Well, that’s complex. Let me give you a picture.
You know, to draw a perfect circle, you learn to do it quickly and repeatedly. I could use a compass, but if I do it that way, my circle is going to have a certain sterility. And if I try to draw it freehand, but I deliberate and go too slowly, trying to achieve perfection, I’ll inevitably have a shaky line and something either egg or kidney-shaped. So actually, if I want to draw a perfect circle, I have to loosen up my arm all the way at the shoulder. I may simulate the circular movement just above the paper before making my mark. And then I will touch the pencil to the paper and repeat that movement with light lines, only firming and darkening the line once I’ve repeated it sufficiently to get it in to my muscle memory.
Muscle memory. Repetition. Progressive darkening. Loosening up. It’s not immediately obvious, but these are the secrets to creating a final work.
You see, often you don’t know you’re creating a final work until you’re already halfway through. And sometimes when you think you’re on a final piece, you realize you’re not ready. Even as an artist working commercially for clients on deadlines, I don’t just sit down and create a finished work. For example, when I’m working on a fully illustrated novel that has around 40 works in it, the version of a piece that you see in the hardcover may have 3 or 4 previous iterations sitting in my flat file. Sometimes it’s only once I’ve put the final stroke on a piece that I know it’s the piece that will go in the book.
I build a history with my work. My work and I have a relationship, and it’s one that is living and active and never complete. Just because a piece doesn’t land the first time I try it doesn’t mean I failed. Those multiple iterations of a piece become reframed in my mind as “studies” rather than failures. More fully realized than sketch phase, they become drafts, even if they started out as intended final actions.
The same is definitely true of drafts of a novel, which is a process more people may be familiar with. Now, I don’t have the heart to do this, but I know some writers write the first draft and immediately throw it in the garbage. I think you’ve got to have a hell of a lot of confidence in your recall ability to do that, and I don’t. My short-term memory is not the best, my friends. Not the best. But any writer will tell you that the first draft, as exhilarating as it feels to complete, is not the final draft. It’s a common shortcoming of new writers, to get attached to the first draft just because it’s completed, and not move on to multiple edits. Sometimes they’ll even submit that first draft to an agent or editor, not knowing that first drafts should never see the light of day. Rejection ensues, discouragement follows, and maybe in an effort to just get the thing out there, they’ll self-publish or put it on Amazon. That kind of shortcut can be a real detriment to your relationship to your work, and to your understanding of what constitutes final work. And I’m not denigrating self-publishing, by the way. I’m just saying that no matter how one chooses to put work in the world, there are always several deeper levels one has to go through to really know that they’ve exhausted the drafts and arrived at the final.
Completed does not equal finished.
I don’t know about you—I’m sure you’re far more mature than me in this—but it’s easy for me to assume that other artists are banging out the final artwork like well-oiled machines while I’m over here having to do 3 or 4 iterations of mine before I get it right. But I know it’s not true. You visit any artist’s studio, or listen to their demos, or watch a dance rehearsal, and you can see that maybe half of what they create does not meet the public gaze.
I mean, think about it: if it did, there would be no reason to create anymore. Artists are always interpreting the world, iterating and reiterating the things they find interesting.
For me, in grad school, my thesis professor, David Sandlin, had us create a presentation on our trajectory as illustrators. I went back to those childhood drawings, and then my high school sketchbooks (cringe!!!) and my college entrance portfolio pieces, jobs from my early career, and tried to find the common thread that ran through them. And you know what? There was one! I realized that I had always been telling stories of the hero’s journey, since I could draw wings on a little teddy bear girl-looking thing when I was 5. I was always interested in characters that crossed social and cultural barriers. And I was always drawing forms based on the teardrop shape.
When you lay out your history, all right in front of you like that, and you stare for hours and days at it, it’s inevitable that you will start to see a thread that’s always been there. If you’re a musician, listen to your recordings, your old demos from when you first picked up a guitar. Of course you’ll cringe! That’s part of this. But then something miraculous happens: you start to realize that you have an internal vocabulary, one that’s different from everyone else. It’s yours. Maybe it’s heavily influenced by others, but it’s not the same as others’. It’s yours. And you can start to wield those elements intentionally now, because you realize that you do them well. You begin to understand your own language. You begin to create your own work.
So, during quarantine, I’ve actually done very little painting. I had a picture book I was finishing up which was a biography of Jane Austen, and a book cover and interiors for a middle grade novel (you can see both of these on my instagram and pre-order them, by the way). And I did some observational stuff. My sketchbook had almost no drawings in it. I found I was hand-lettering words. Words, words and more words. Just arranging them on the pages. I tried to keep up my journaling. And I did a lot of gardening. Some of that was because I began to plan ahead for food security, not knowing how disruptive the pandemic would be to supply chains. We got chickens. Yes, we got chickens.
The gardening became really important, though. It became the one place I could clear my head, think my thoughts, and visualize solutions. I wasn’t making final artwork. I was in sketch phase, and it’s lasted a long time.
But along the way, I was plugging away at an idea for a new book. I found that the themes I was struggling through were actually incredibly relevant to what was going on in the world. So I interpreted my perceptions into thoughts and then speech in the form of this book pitch, which I sent out this past week. That was my artistic action. Was it something I could put up on Instagram? No. My book creation process, by the way, takes fully three years from conception to publication. And what lies ahead of me is to dive back into that process of further refining, drawing that circle, getting the writing and illustration processes back into my muscle memory. And I’ll tell you what, I have never been more excited about a project in my life than I am about this book.
And meantime, I have a finished work: My new book, A Cloud of Outrageous Blue. In a couple of weeks or so, I’ll have the finished, hardbound copies arriving at my doorstep. I’ll see that Penguin Random House logo and my heart will skip a beat. I’ll slice open the tape on the box while my husband takes a video, and I’ll get to lift out that first copy and smell the fresh ink and hear the crackle of the spine as I take my first look. And my readers will have the same experience when A Cloud of Outrageous Blue arrives in their mailbox in August. And we’ll get to enjoy the finished work together, this manifestation of artistic action, borne out of a long, arduous process, this long walk down the pathway.
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