(Excerpted from a Flickr exchange, in response to a question about why I didn’t stop the work at an earlier stage. The entire exchange can be found in comments to “10-24-09.”)
One enters the creative process in a state of quiet apprehension that is balanced by trust. It’s important that the same degree of balance between apprehension and trust is maintained from the very first act to the very last or the process ceases to be one of immediate and authentic discovery and becomes one of robotic repetition driven by fear.
Apprehension is a byproduct of not knowing what will happen. Every painting requires a commitment to cross a threshold into the unknown and accept the consequences of fate. Trust is a byproduct of two things: the first is having the confidence that one is capable of handling the most difficult demands and arriving at a satisfactory outcome. The second is being able to accept that failure is an obligatory part of gambling on the unknown.
The worst thing an artist can do is allow the possibility of failure to dictate approach, because fear of failure will guarantee failure more often than daring to succeed. And even if one manages to get somewhere that appears to be successful guided by fear, the end product will forever stand as a testament to fear more than courage. And there is nothing intriguing, captivating, inspiring or beautiful about fear. It’s all around us and does not need any further evidence.
That two o’clock version is already made up of many choices, each a gamble, each a possible unrecoverable mistake, one choice on top of the next. The one o’clock version had its merits, as did the 12, 11, and 10 o’clock stages. As a matter of fact, I really loved the initial mark. But that’s the entire idea, to build with captivating and engaging steps.
Painting is generally made up of a succession of stages one is happy with but not content to allow to stand. Although I’ve never done any rock climbing, I like to use rock climbing as an analogy. Each position is absolutely necessary and critical because each one provides the foundation for the next stage. A painting, especially one that is being spontaneously improvised and composed, is a succession of shaky hypotheticals transformed by a skillful roll of the dice into realities, some good, some not so good, from the very beginning until the very end. The end is the top that you envision before you begin. You don’t know what it will look like until you get there, but you know with a fair degree of certainly what it does not look like. The top is invigorating and enthralling and worth all the sacrifices. Half-way up can be pretty exciting, but it never looks like the top.
While a painting is an accumulation of acts on the surface, what is behind those acts – state of mind – is really what the painting is about. Because that is really what is directing and governing the outcome of things. The actual painting is secondary, an offshoot, a byproduct. The real medium is attitude, mind, psychology, guts, identity and character.
Much of the process is about being able to let go. That’s why I’ve said so many times in the past that it’s important to be able to rip up paintings. One has to practice detachment. It takes that kind of ability to separate oneself from ones work. It’s a very difficult place to get to, where one works simultaneously with both the most intense degree of care and attachment while being able to accept failure whenever it ultimately arrives. It’s not that one gives in to failure; you fight until there is absolutely no hope of success. But success on ones own terms. That is very important. When failure arrives you accept it as an undeniable part of the reality of experience. In truth it’s what makes every success so valuable. Without failure the whole process becomes meaningless. What makes great paintings so memorable is that they stand in contrast to so many failed, mediocre and even good attempts.
Really there no difference between making art and pitching baseballs, especially as a reliever in the ninth inning. It’s all very Zen. Sometimes you just give up the long ball in a big spot no matter how much you try to throw pitches by hitters. If you’re worried about that, you’ll never make the next pitch, or if you do the whole effort will be pointless because you’ve lost your edge, your advantage. Your advantage is that no matter how distasteful failure is, you never give fear the upper hand. You have to paint like you don’t give a damn.