Have you ever had an idea that wouldn’t go away?
Ages ago, in a sketchbook, I toyed with an idea…what if aliens came down to earth in robot bodies, using the faces of our beloved icons to gain our trust so we’d let down our guard so they could more easily take over the world?
I know, I know. It’s an old chestnut, and old theme that’s been played out over and over again.
HA! Okay, just kidding–I know it’s weird. But that was my thought and it wouldn’t go away. So I drew two little sketches: one of Gandhi (which I can no longer find), and one of James Dean. And they sat in my sketchbook for YEARS.A year or two ago, I came across them again, and thought I’d give one a try…and pulled out the Gandhi to paint it.
And I liked it…but I didn’t love it. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
So recently, I got a new sketchbook, hoping to get some ideas out…and I tried again, this time with James Dean. And it looked lame. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
And one day, when Myla was flipping through my sketchbook, she said, “Oh! What is this?” I told her it was an alien in a robot suit, but I couldn’t get it to look right. “Can I try?” she asked. And of course she could.
And it’s AWESOME! I loved it immediately. It wasn’t quite what I had in my head, but with her new point of view, I think I have a great basis for a really fun and cool perspective. More fun, more playful that the very detailed thing in my head that I couldn’t get out. I can’t wait to work on it!
I think part of creating good art is that struggle artists go through in trying to make what’s in their head make sense in their own medium.
I’m starting to discover that although I enjoy the work of so many amazing artists, sometimes when I struggle with a piece, it might be because I’m imagining it in someone else’s style.
Weird, right? Let me explain: I’ve been struggling with another piece, one of Myla with her ghost-rats (she had two pet rats that died and she believes they’re running through the fields where we buried them, “playing with their ‘chothers.”). I tried it a couple of different ways, and even got as far as starting to paint it:
And for whatever reason it didn’t look right to me. And it was terribly frustrating. So I drew it again, in a different way, in my sketchbook. And it still didn’t look right. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
So I closed my eyes, and tried to listen to myself. What does it look like in my mind? What do I WANT it to look like, if this version isn’t working? And surprisingly, what came to the surface was not my own work, but that of Casey Weldon…
You heard me. I imagined SOMEONE ELSE’S WORK. His work is lit beautifully. In my mind, my painting should have had similar lighting and playfulness and reverence…but it didn’t. And I was actually hindering myself by trying to make it look like HIS work.
It’s one thing to be inspired by someone, and another to fault your own work for not being like someone else’s. I have to realize that no matter WHAT I DO, this piece will never look like his. So I tried it again in my own way, and tried to listen to my own voice. And again, I asked Myla for her input. And this is what we did:
A part of me mourns for that beautifully painted imaginary piece that’s in my head, but I know it’s not real. And it’s okay! Sometimes a little perspective gives you new insight, and changes your opinion about what things SHOULD be and what they actually are.
I am lucky I have a creative little 5-year old for instant “fresh perspective” insights, but there are other ways to break out of your preconceived ideas…
1. Just start DRAWING. Have a sketchbook that’s JUST for ideas, wrong or right. Take “notes” in it, get quick ideas, but don’t limit yourself to “getting it right.” When I do this, it is UGLY. It’s very nearly stick people art. But at least the idea’s out.
2. Listen to yourself. I work from home, and I can tell you it is VERY rare that I don’t have music, tv, an audiobook, my phone or a movie in my face while I work or draw. It’s a bad habit that I’ve been doing for YEARS, and it’s not really fair to my brain / imagination / creativity. I plan to make more time to just SIT with my sketchbook and LISTEN.
3. Don’t stop trying. So the pieces above didn’t work. Am I going to stop with that? Well, I will if my brain is happy. But if those ideas keep trying to get out, I’ll try it again. And again. And again.
When I was in high school I was lucky enough to visit the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, and of all the incredible work I saw, the most memorable to me has always been the experience of walking into a room FULL of hundreds of sketches on paper and napkins and scraps–all of a man sitting with a scythe. Over and over again, this same image repeated in different ways. You can tell the idea was in the artists’ head, and he tried again and again to get it out. The room was FULL of drawings, rough paintings, even some small sculptures of this same figure, over and over, in a hundred different ways.
..And at the very end of the room, as big as the wall, was the final piece…
It’s called “Paying the Harvesters” by Léon Lhermitte. And the man with the scythe wasn’t even the only character in the painting. I think of that room often, and wonder sometimes, after all those hundreds and hundreds of drawings…did he feel like he “got it right?”
Sometimes, you get your idea out the best you can. Sometimes you get in your own way. Sometimes you beat it til something beautiful comes out. Just listen to your voice and you’ll figure out what to do.