Comfort in Uncertainty

by Brandon Long, Creative Director

Artists are among the few people that can have no clue where they are going and yet love every minute of it.  It is not uncommon for artists to start a new work and have no predetermined conclusion worked out in their mind as to what the art might look like or what it is about.  No doubt, many of my favorite moments in the studio have been spent in this sort of responsive flow where each decision changes the direction of the art.  A stray blue line added to the canvas might lead to another line –perhaps a wiggly red one to counterbalance it.  Then, maybe a circle to even out the composition.  Before I know it, a narrative has crept in – often by surprise, which might further influence the direction until the piece is finally completed.

Comfort in uncertainty is without a doubt one of the most important keys to creativity.  The belief that you can – through one way or another – reach a positive conclusion is a powerful asset to the artist.  In this article, we will learn how to become at peace with uncertainty in your work.  Most of the process I’m going over today applies to artists creating their work in intuitive, or perhaps abstract ways.  It may be possible for artists working in representative or objective styles of work to use these tips as well.

1-Know that you can win.  As you start a new work of art, the blank canvas, the empty page, or the lump of clay in front of us can be quite intimidating.  At this origin point, the work could be almost anything.  It can often be difficult to decide where to go as you launch your project.  At this point – the blank canvas stage (I’m using painting terms, but all other media applies here), you almost have to approach it like a child approaches their artwork.  You have to know you can win.  Have you ever seen a child get “artist’s block” and get frozen before a blank canvas? I haven’t either.  They usually dive right in and start creating without any of the pressure that we as adults put on ourselves.  You have to start this uncertain process with the certainty that you can pull through and create something amazing.

2. Begin. I know this sounds absurdly simple, but this is usually the hardest part – making the first marks, the opening lines.  Committing to the work is often hard to do because once you commit any one direction, you feel compelled to keep going in that direction.  To quote Newton’s first law of motion, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” Even the laws of physics seem to back up how hard it is to get started on a new artwork. While this may seem quite daunting, remember that in most art media (sorry, stonecarvers), you can edit the work at any point.  Your first lines might not be the best, but it is possible to go back and erase them, paint over them, hit CTRL + Z (undo), and get started in a way that makes you comfortable with your decision.  But the most important part is to START.  In Newton’s law, I would suppose that the unbalanced forces would be ideas and input consciously put in place by the artists. Start somewhere, start anywhere, and remember that you never finish anything you don’t start.

3. If this, then that.  Once you are up and running, realize that each decision that you commit to can influence later decisions.  This is where is really pays to be in good shape from a creative standpoint.  The reason that prolific artists can produce so much work is that their intuition is honed to a sharp edge.  They instinctively know what to do next without getting hung up with fear and doubt on each decision. Reaching that level of intuition with your own work is simply a byproduct of making a lot of art and learning what works and what doesn’t for your work.  Artists that make a lot of art are also able to take a lot more risks with their work because of the sheer numbers of the artwork they are cranking out.  If you are only making two paintings a year, each decision that you must make will be magnified because those two paintings are such precious inventory.  If you are making thirty paintings a year, you realize that you can afford to take a few more risks. 

While in the “If this, then that,” reactionary mode of creation, it is important not to doubt each decision.  Art, in reality is basically a visual record of a series of decisions.  Artists are decision makers; musicians are decision makers; writers are decision makers.  The biggest difference between them is that artists make visual decisions.  Why did Marcel Duchamp famously exhibit a urinal as sculpture?  Why was it considered art?  Simply put, it was a visual decision.  Each decision you make while creating art can be a great if you can complement it with the next decision.

4. Don’t overdo it.  Knowing when and where to stop is almost as difficult as knowing where to start, with the “bodies in motion tend to stay in motion” law fully at play.  You have to consciously decide when to stop, and that can often be a tough call to make.  Usually if you find yourself slowing down and asking, “what more can I do?” then you know it’s time to take a break and see if any further action is necessary.  If you can’t come up with a good decision to balance your last decision, and you’ve said everything that needs to be said in the work, then it is probably time to stop.  I like to remind people in painting workshops at the Community Arts Center that the last few minutes of a painting are like your last few minutes in a casino.  It can be easy to gamble away all that you’ve won with a risky decision.

5. Let it be.  Sometimes it can be hard to separate the creative “I can do it” side of the brain from the critical side, especially when it comes down to looking at work you’ve just finished.  A sense of pride from completing the work can give us an overly positive outlook while the critical eye we’ve been using to judge our decisions along the way can give a negative outlook.  After declaring an artwork to be finished, give it some time out of your sight before you decide if it was a success or not.  Sometimes putting the artwork in another room, or turning it toward the wall can give you some time to see it much more clearly without having your judgement clouded.  Even if you determine that the artwork was an absolute failure, you still have gained valuable experience in sharpening your skills of decision-making.

Comfort in uncertainty is one of the attributes of successful creative people.  Being able to approach any project with the certainty that you can successfully reach the goal, even if you don’t know how gives creative people an edge over those that might seek more rational evidence.  Comfort in uncertainty allows us to solve problems in unusual ways that we may not have considered before.  So, next time you find yourself completely confused about the direction of an artwork, take a deep breath and step boldly into the unknown.