I love when artists talk about their process. I’ve been thinking about my own process and the experiences that’ve shaped it so thoroughly. Consider this a play in three acts.
When I was in high school, I took painting classes outside of school with my dad. I was the youngest person in the class by at least thirty years. This gave the classes an air of seriousness, which I liked. We were painters. We were going to paint serious paintings. I was nervous.
When we got to class, we laid out our supplies: canvas, palette, brushes, paints, water. We had bad printouts of our reference images and sharp pencils. At our first lesson, our instructor had us leave these things behind and stand by the sink in the front of the room. He put a dab of paint, raw sienna, on his canvas and wet a rag. Inelegantly, he mopped it all around.
“I’m toning the canvas,” he explained. “We’ll cover this paint later, but it helps you make that first mark. Helps you get over the blank white canvas. See? It’s not blank anymore.”
We got to work, starting with our dirty rags and sink water.
The print shop on campus was well organized, but thoroughly stained. Smears and smudges lined the walls and floors, even the ceiling in spots. Several giant presses were bolted to the ground, surrounded by shelves of sticky inks and padded rollers. I loved a good mess and found the space both intimidating and inviting.
I had wanted to take Painting, which I knew well by college, but the class filled before I could register. I enrolled in whatever art class was left.
Printmaking began with a detailed demo, not just the first day but almost every day to come. I was always itching for my instructor to wrap up her lecture, so I could go and create. Only after I started did I realize how critical all her points had been. Printmaking had elements of being messy and free, but it was also highly technical. Every step came with a certain approach, certain tools and a certain, not-to-be-messed-with timing.
As the class progressed, I began spending more hours in the print shop than the library or computer lab. My other coursework was hyper-focused on results: good test scores, good essays, good grades. I knew how to get those. This course was different. Results were secondary to process and there was no way to rush the process. There were no shortcuts. If you really wanted a way around all the grinding, drawing, processing, inking and printing, you figured out how to get into Painting.
I ended up taking three semesters of Printmaking. I screen-printed, etched metal plates, carved linoleum blocks and made lithos that took weeks. I grew to like the slow, meditative process, the thing separating me from my final work. It took a surprising amount of muscle.
I came in early in the morning to finish tricky lithos and stayed late to fix flubs in my etchings. I found a quiet rhythm in the work.
When I write, I follow a straightforward process.
First, I learn about something.
I dig around until I find something interesting about it. Maybe two things if I’m lucky.
I start messing around. Notes, quotes, half-baked ideas. This isn’t real writing. It’s just messing around, no big deal. I’m toning the canvas.
Then, I start writing for real. But I already have a lot written. The page isn’t blank. So it’s not that hard. It’s exciting.
I try to lose myself a little. The zone is real, even if elusive. I limit outside noise and distraction. I focus. It’s those early mornings in the print shop. Everything is there waiting for you, you just have to come in and do the work.
I change angles. If I was using a computer, I switch to pen and paper. If I was thinking quietly to myself, I talk through my ideas with someone else. Changing fonts, printing things out, it all helps you see things anew.
I keep writing.
Eventually, I start to revise. Edit, edit, edit. Delete. Rewrite. Edit. I keep revising until it works. Or it’s OK. Or I think I might love it. But then, no. Revise again.
And then I share it. I get feedback and fold it in. I share again. Rinse, repeat. It goes live. Whatever excitement I felt before has faded. Because I’m no longer in the middle of creating something; I’ve already created it. It’s over. It’s time to move on.
And I do. I learn about something new.