The Best Laid Plans

A couple of years ago (although it doesn’t seem so long ago), I undertook a project of creating art every day for a year.  The medium I chose was collage.  It was portable, easily cleaned up, and required nothing more than an index card, some glue sticks, and some scrap paper.  Scissors weren’t even a necessity.  The experience taught me a great number of things, and I recommend every artist try such a daunting task – if only ONCE in their lifetime. 

The most important thing (and the thing I’m talking about today) that the collage-a-day experience taught me was not to get too obsessed with my original plan.  All throughout life, we are taught to create goals, stick to the plan, and follow through.  All of this advice was absolutely essential to completing the big project of creating 365 works of art, but the concept of “sticking to the plan” completely fell apart when dealing with actually creating the individual works of art. 

I would often begin my daily art-making by leafing through the stack of magazines I was thoroughly destroying for the sake of art.  Lots of interior design, a few catalogs, and a smattering of National Geographic (which collage artists know is one of the best sources of material) made up most of my stash.  Keep in mind that these magazines were not necessarily oozing with cool.  I wanted most of the interesting aspects of the art to come about in the way I had arranged the material, and not the material itself.  On occasion, I would find something interesting – a focal point if you will – and I would say to myself, “Ok, this will be the main idea.  We (me and myself – don’t laugh, it’s a group effort) will build our composition around this piece.”  I would then spend the next twenty minutes or so rounding up things that went along with my original selection.  Color palettes would emerge, complimentary shapes stepped out – things would really start to happen.  I would have half of the composition laid out, not glued down yet, but rather floating to see how the pieces interacted before committing to the final arrangement. 

Then I would get stuck.  Completely hung up.  All of these ideas worked together so well up to a point and then things got more and more difficult until the gears of creativity ground to a halt.  I would feverishly start rifling through the magazines again, searching in vain for the piece that would complete the puzzle.  If you’ve never been searching through a pile of scraps looking for gold, you might not know just how much you can grow to resent those smiling faces in catalogs, and those perfectly arranged minimalist loft apartments that seem so effortlessly cool.  Believe it or not, finding that last piece would often take as much time as I had spent building the rest of the idea…

Until I threw away the original piece that I swore would be the foundation of the whole idea.  That awesome muscle car, that ferocious t-rex, or that red-lipstick sneer that I had used to inspire and build my entire composition was the one piece that was holding me back.  The centerpiece was the culprit! I found that if I threw out the first idea that I was so committed to, the rest would fall into place rather quickly.  In hindsight, I realize that being so married to one element, that each successive element of design was more complicated than the last.  By letting go, I could relax my expectations enough to allow me to continue.  I can’t count how many times my original inspiration piece was left out of the picture and on the cutting room (or the dining room) floor.  I could’ve stuck it out and fought my original composition for hours, but the mandate of a new collage every day ensured that I had to move quickly or spend the rest of the night bogged down in a heap of junk mail and misery.

By now, I know you are thinking, “But I don’t make collages, how does this apply to my work?”  I have found that this “jettisoning of the original idea” works in other media as well.  Since I don’t make a lot of representational art, this entire concept may be more geared toward those working in the realms of abstraction, but it just might work for representational artists in certain situations.  If you ever find yourself stuck at the crossroads – that point where you know you’re not finished, but not sure what to do next, ask yourself if your original concept is the very thing holding you back.  If you’re working on a painting, cover your starting point with a piece of paper and see where your ideas go without the first idea influencing the rest of your composition.  If you’re working on a novel, consider chopping your main plot just to see where the lives of the characters lead without your first idea interfering.  If you’re writing a song, throw away your original chord progression and try your words in a new one (or vice versa).

The important thing to remember and rely on is that you will work it out.  As a creative individual, you have great ideas – even if they aren’t the original idea you started with.  When I begin a work that then takes an unexpected turn, I like to think that the new idea is far better than the original.  Your original idea, while ideal in the cloud bubble over your head, hasn’t been tested on paper.  It hasn’t proven itself in the real world.  The ability that creative people have to take intangible thoughts and turn them into something real is one of the greatest abilities of mankind.  Our ability to adapt and improvise as is perhaps equally valuable.

Next time you get completely bogged down, don’t doubt yourself as an artist.  Don’t get down on yourself, but realize that maybe your original idea has taken a different direction.  Think of your original idea as a starting point to something more spectacular. Remember that people can’t see the original idea in your head. It is perfectly fine if you take a different turn to see your work come to fruition.  Art is only fun if it is flowing, and if scrapping your original idea is what it takes to keep the flow happening, then by all means, send it packing.  You can always try your original idea again sometime later.  You’ve got a lot of art to make.  There’s little value to being stuck on an idea that isn’t coming together.