Process vs. Product

I’m going to start this out on a very simple note – Artists make things.

It’s true. For all the muse-chasing, inspiration-seeking, self-examining, soul-searching blood-sweat-and-tears we throw ourselves into to put our work out into this world, most people would just consider it to be “stuff.”

Artists enjoy creating new things. It’s somehow fitting that we call art “work” as the term both covers the process of creating (“work”-in-progress) as well as the creation (“work” hanging in the gallery). In this article, I’ll be taking a look at what I consider to be the two sides of the artist’s creative life – process and product.

By “process,” I am referring to the steps it takes the artist to get to the finished work of art. Some artists absolutely live for the process – the more steps the better. These artists will do countless renderings and sketches, color studies, tone evaluations, and all kinds of other precursory details before they can call a work of art complete. Among the artists I would consider to be process-driven are Vermeer, Rodin, Ansel Adams, and Jackson Pollock.

Metal casting artists come to mind as a fine example of artists that work within this process-driven method. (If you know how the exhausting process of metal casting works, you have my permission to skip this paragraph). Once they have done all of their preliminary studies of the work that they intend to create, theywill most often build a full scale version of their intended design in clay. The artist will then create a mold of the original clay piece from plaster. This mold will have later have wax applied to the inside, allowing the artist to create a hollow version of the original. The artist will build on a pouring and venting system (also made of wax) to allow the metal to be poured inside. Before pouring the metal, a plaster and sand (fireproof) mold is made that surrounds the hollow wax version. After this mold cures sufficiently, the metal is blast-heated to a ridiculous temperature and poured inside. The wax model is destroyed in the process (also known as “lost wax” casting). Once the heated metal cools, the plaster and sand mold is destroyed and the metal sculpture is revealed. The pouring systems are cut off and the sculpture is polished and neatly detailed. If the sculpture was too big/complex for a single mold, there may be even more cutting off of pouring systems, reassembly, and final prep and polish.

That is a lot of steps, but most metal casting artists love the process involved. Those who are not as enamored of the meticulous details involved will usually take their work to a foundry, where – for a hefty fee – they will do the majority of the casting process for you. In metal casting, the attention to detail and hard work pays off. If all goes well, the artist will have a piece that will last for generations.

Artists that are driven by “product” are a bit less focused on the details, and more concerned with results. They want to get to the finished work of art as quickly as possible, so that they can get onto the next idea. To the untrained eye, it might look as if they are in a terrible hurry.

Infamous street artist Bansky is often quoted, “The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it.” Among artists I would consider to be product driven are Andy Warhol (I should include most of the Pop artists), Robert Rauschenberg, and Picasso.

I tend to be more of a “product” driven artist in that I don’t have a lot of time to make art and when I do, I want to make as much impact as I can. I’d rather knock out ten “pretty great” paintings in five weeks than to make one incredible painting over the course of five months. I have a short attention span when it comes to creative endeavors. Ideally, I like to finish a work of art over the course of a day to capture the energy and immediacy of the moment. I always find it humorous in critiques to hear artists that haven’t got a lot to say about their work fall back on the old faithful, “I just paint what I’m feeling at the moment,” when they’d spent a month working on it. I struggle to find which moment or emotion they might have sustained for a month-long session.

While I am product-driven myself, I see the error of my ways in my own work, but more readily in the attitudes of others. For example, I have taught several drawing classes – nothing terribly deep, but drawing classes that teach beginners how to see lines, shapes, forms and how to draw what they see – really basic stuff. By the end of the four-week class, I would see improvement in the students’ work, but I never got the impression that they were entirely satisfied because they didn’t walk away with their own Rembrandt. They didn’t have a “trophy” piece of art (product) to hang over the mantle. Anyone that has had any personal success with drawing can tell you that there are only a few “magic” tricks and that the majority of the skill comes from putting in the time to really learn how to see and how to translate that into two dimensions. My daughter does incredible drawings at age seven, but it’s not because I clued her in on some ancient Renaissance secret, it’s because she has put in the time – hours upon hours with a pencil or crayon in her hand. I never feel like she’s striving to create a masterpiece to hang on the fridge, but rather that she has a personal goal to consistently make better art. You have to want to strive to perfect the process before you can focus on the product.

Being product-driven, I find myself having to play catch up when it is actually time to put my art on display. I’ll often forget to put on a signature, hanging wire, or have to brush off the dust and the cobwebs where I’ve left the work sitting too long. If I were more process-driven, I’d have had the work wired, framed, photographed, blogged, bubble wrapped, labeled, and ready for the next show.

While most artists tend to be either process- or product-driven, it helps to find a happy medium between the two. We need not be so process-driven that we find it emotionally difficult to finish work, nor so product driven that we forsake craftsmanship in order to move onto the next project. While creating art is the ultimate goal, we must not forget the path to its creation.

Brandon Long
Brandon Long

Programming Director

This article first appeared in the June 2014 Artists ONLY! enewsletter, which includes art tips, inspiration and must-see exhibits, as well as local and national calls to artists. Sign up now for Artists ONLY! or other updates from the Community Arts Center.