The fear of getting started, the pressure of the empty page

The anxiety of getting started, we all have it to a degree. Those involved in the visual arts will certainly recognize the confrontation with that virgin white piece of paper, canvas or block of stone. For me, and I’m guessing for many others, it’s a bit of a mixture in reality, anxiety yes, but mixed with the sense of possibility.

blank paper

That nervousness and the feeling that something good might result is also a quality I recognize all too clearly in those I teach. This goes for the twelve year olds in my first year lessons right through the most elderly in the courses for adults that I lead. The edgy excitement that a blank canvas, immaculate sheet of white paper or other yet to be touched material presents us with is, I think, one of the driving forces behind creativity. It is the alchemy of turning neutrality into something of value.  But with this process of transformation comes pressure and responsibility. If you start something, can you finish it? Pressure indeed!

From my early days at art school I can remember tutors offering me and other students strategies to overcome this anxiety and to bypass that white paper confrontation stage. We were encouraged to splash paint across the sheet before we started or to screw the paper up into a ball, flatten it out and then start to work. Interesting approaches and ones that I too might from time to time also suggest.

A few weeks ago I tried an experiment with the group of fifteen adults that I work with every Thursday evening. It also produced a more experimental and open approach to drawing, an approach that also seemed to go quite a way in reducing the pressure the participants felt about the impact of their mark making.  Perhaps more interesting to me though, was the way this fed through to produce some very engaging drawings.

The set up was simple, fifteen people, fifteen pieces of paper and a variety of drawing materials on offer. I had a list of simple terms, the first was “water”. I gave them three or four minutes to draw something that for them was connected or associated with “water”. After an initial four minute drawing session the drawings were then passed on to the person on their left and I then gave them a new drawing theme for a further four minutes of drawing, “sweetness”, “Vermeer”, “five straight lines” followed.  Each time the drawing was in part a reaction to the word, but also a reaction to what was already there. The series continued with terms such as “window”, “red”, “1920s/30s” and “journey”. The final block was simply to look at the drawing that you now had in front of you and to add something that you feel the composition needs.

group drawings

Art with diminished responsibility

My initial worry was that the result was going to be either a mess or one person just obliterating the work of another. However, slowly in most (although not quite all if I am honest) a sense of order started to appear. One of the participants observed that it was kind of art with diminished responsibility, you had a part to play, but the knowledge that you would soon be passing the drawing on, having made a small contribution, was in a sense quite liberating, you didn’t feel the pressure that this sheet of paper was somehow representing you. The ownership lay with the whole group. It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see if I can persuade some in the group to take up the challenge of working one of the drawings into a truly ‘own’ piece of work.

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Avoiding the blind alleys in creativity…

In mainstream teaching you are, as a teacher in your classroom, used to taking the lead. The pupils look to you to take the initiative and mark out the route they have to follow. Such a relationship can at times become a little passive as the pupils get used to waiting to be told what is required of them. This year, by one group that I teach I have been set a challenge by the group themselves, to take their creativity to the ‘next level’ as one of them put it.
The group concerned is not one of the classes of teenagers that I teach at school (such an open request would indeed every surprising coming from them), but from the adult evening class I teach. The group concerned is a group of about fifteen adults, ranging in age from early twenties to late seventies. The group has, for a number of years remained with a hard core who have been returning regularly each new season with a handful of new members every September.
They are a talented bunch, none have had any formal sort of art education, and perhaps their greatest strength is their openness and willingness to jump straight on in an try new things out. This approach has served them well in the approach I take to teaching the group on a Thursday evening between late September and early May. Once every two weeks I arrive with a new assignment, mostly a fairly loose idea that can be interpreted and explored in various ways. This way we have been able to take the paintings made in any number of directions.
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Now though after, for some of the group, five years of lessons comes the request to go a step further. As a group we exchanged a number of mails at the end of the previous season trying to pin down what exactly they want to aim for. Interestingly, many said that they would be quite happy to make less paintings, as long of course that those that were made were of good quality. It is this wish that has been the basis for my readjustment of the course. The aim is to avoid seeing the participants heading off down artistic blind alleys of having to learn from ‘interesting’ failures. To do this there is going to be more focus on the preparation work and the making of thumbnail paintings before embarking on the final piece of work. With only two and a half hours of painting time (per week for most of them) this is going to mean indeed the production of less finished pieces of work, but hopefully less blind alleys too.
In many ways this set up will bring the working process a lot closer to my own approach. I work ideas through a notebook onto works on paper, then maybe a small version of an idea before finally heading on to a finished piece of work. I am also of course interested in avoiding those ‘interesting mistakes’. You can never completely eradicate them, but when your time is precious, trying to reduce the numbers of them is definitely desirable.

If you are interested the documentation of the new set-up of the course can be found on the following link……….
http://petersansom.nl/nextlevel.html