43 Folders

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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Working In Close

"Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work." -- Chuck Close


Detail Chuck Close



It may be that I like hearing about the work habits of writers and artists I like almost as much as I like their work. How do you force yourself to do work no one (really, like, no one) is clamoring for, in addition to doing the long apprentice work you need to do to build your chops? As most of our work gets less structured and more creative, it might prove helpful to take a look at how artists get their stuff done.

And, sorry, all those romantic notions you have of absinthe spoons, manic episodes and Kerouac-like rambling on a long roll of butcher paper really aren't operative. Creative work is mostly showing up every day and enduring a million tiny failures as you feel your way to something a bit new.

Let's look at Chuck Close. This interview with Terry Gross has all sorts of good things to think about (esp. if you like talk about technique), but I was especially struck by the way Close talks about evolving his method of working to overcome his own personality.

I'm a nervous wreck. I'm a slob. I have no patience. And I'm rather lazy. All those things would seem to guarantee that I would not make work like I make. But I didn't want to just go with my nature.

So instead of painting overwrought, expressive things when the mood struck, he committed to making his epic, close-up portraits by breaking the work into tiny pieces and hewing to a grid. Not only did the grid make technical sense, it forced a lifehack on Close that would help him deal with his own tendencies. It helped get the work done, sure. It allowed him a style that might not have been 'natural' to his disposition. & it also had other side benefits.

What I found that one of the nice things [about] working incrementally is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel every single day. Today I did what I did. You can pick it up and put it down. I don't have to wait for inspiration. There are no good days or bad days. Every day essentially builds positively on what I did the day before. ... Given my nature, I believe it was very good for me to be able to add to what I already had and slowly construct the final image out of these little building blocks.

Of course, this approach also reminds me of one of my favorite pep talks, _Bird by Bird_, in which Anne Lamott tries to make us mindful of each intervening step we have to take on the way to realizing larger things. Here, Close compares his method to the way knitting or crocheting is done in small intervals over an extended period.

My paintings are built incrementally, one unit at a time, in a way that's not all that different than the way, say, a writer would work. ... Because I work incrementally, I push little pieces of paint up against one another. .... And I slowly build these paintings, construct them, in the way someone might crochet or knit.

If you believe in the process and you knit one, purl two long enough, eventually you get a sweater.

Not only do I love the hope in that sentence, I think it's true. If you can create a process that short circuits some of your own worst habits, and you really believe in that process, eventually you'll get a sweater, a nine-foot painting, chicken enchiladas, a Web site, a marathon.

lolagoetz's picture

anne lamott

I highly recommend Bird by Bird for anyone involved in the creative process. It's a great book. Glad you mentioned it... it's time for me to read it again.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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