In an earlier Post I suggested the advantages of a games-playing attitude as a stimulus to creativity. Due in large part to his pioneering explorations of picture-surface characteristics as subject matter for painting, Antonio Tapies came to be regarded by many as one of the key figures of twentieth century art. He has also proved himself a stimulating writer. One of his literary productions is a very brief essay entitled, “The game of knowing how to look”, in which he gives his advice on creative looking. He starts by advocating focusing attention on some simple object, such as an old chair. He elaborates:
The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.
When, as a young man, I went to university to study history, I was fortunate to have as one of my my tutors K.B McFarlane, who has been described as the most influential Medieval historian of the 20th century. Of the many things he taught me, perhaps the most enduring concerned the nature of “truths”.
In the course of a general conversation on essay writing, I confessed my horror at the idea of committing anything half-baked to paper and deplored the unenviable predicament in which this placed me. As a raw undergraduate under constant time pressure (two essays a week and an analysis of a constitutional document), I felt there to be no possibility of fitting in the research necessary for providing satisfactory answers to the essay questions that I was being given. My tutor seemed surprised. He said that this was a problem that had only caught up with him in later life (possibly explaining his growing reluctance to publish his own work). He then told me that when he was a student, a number of his contemporaries, being primarily interested in non-academic aspects of university life, left themselves too little time for their studies. To help these fun-loving friends with their logistic problem, the precocious undergraduate had offered to write their essays for them.
When he did so, he quite frequently found himself faced with having to produce more than one answer to the same question. To make life more interesting, he challenged himself to make the arguments used in the different essays as unlike one another as he reasonably could within the constraints provided by the “facts” at his disposal. I felt, “how marvelous to be free to generate different and, even, incompatible “truths” from the same material, how instructive, how creative and how salutary.”
It was a profound turning point in my intellectual life. This open-minded approach to the nature of “truths” enabled me to have a much more relaxed attitude to making sense of historical events. Ever since, I have ceased to regard the aim of the historian as presenting irrefutable conclusions, based on unambiguous evidence. Now, I take pleasure in looking for alternative ways of making sense out of the material at my disposal.
This game-playing attitude to the nature of “truths” has been of great value in the evolution of the ideas presented in my books on painting, drawing and creativity. Among other things, it has influenced the way I have told the story of Modernism in Painting, which plays an important role in all of them.
My understanding of this subject was hugely influenced by my two main art teachers, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Michael Kidner. It was they who gifted me the issues and ideas that set me on my personal journey of discovery. Hardly surprisingly, their selections of “facts”, and the interpretations they based on them, related to their personal history of concerns as artists. This is probably why, the stories they told were so different in their selection and interpretation of content, from those presented by art historians and critics. Presumably, it is also why I have been unable to find some of the “truths” they communicated in the writings of others.
Was what my teachers taught me true?
Two of the now inaccessible sources upon which I built my life both as an artist and as a teacher were:
The account of the origins of American Abstract Expressionism given to me by Michael Kidner, which focused on the value of what he termed the “propositional approach”.*
Both were the products of attempts to abstract an essence from complex issues. Both have the virtue of presenting an easy-to-follow blend of simplicity and a clarity. However, it seems that these desirably qualities could only come at the expense of nuancing, or even of suppressing, potentially contradictory detail. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether what was lost in the synthesising process diminishes the value of what was gained.
Does it matter what their simplifications leave out?
In my case, there were two reasons why the answer to this question turned out to be “no”. The first was that the simplifications proved to be enormously helpful when I applied them in practice. Right or wrong, what they did for me was to provide clear route maps to follow. These not only opened up new ways of thinking about paintings but also, quite as significantly, new ways of feeling about them.
The second reason was more a matter of my personality. I have to admit that I am temperamentally unsuited to following route maps blindly: There was always a part of me that thought of my paintings as tests of my teacher’s beliefs. In other words, I could not help thinking of them as experiments.** My luck lay in the number of fruitful questions that these generated and the richness of the material that was revealed in the course of my attempts to find answers to them. As it turned out, the research that these triggered led me to delve into a wide range of sources of which the most important were:
Books on the practice of painting and drawing.
The history of the ideas of artists and art teachers.
The science of visual perception.
What I found led me to frequent questioning of widely accepted norms. I was shocked by number of accredited “facts” I came across that turned out to be either misleading or simply untrue, not least among them ones that claimed to have scientific backing.
Can my truths be trusted?
Faced with this predicament, I felt compelled to look for more reliable “truths” and over the years I am confident that I have done so. However, two questions arise:
Can my alternative “truths” can be trusted?
Are they are of practical use.
My attempts at comprehensive answers to these questions provide the main subject matter of my teaching and my writings. In my books, as well as explaining some of the numerous ways they can be of practical use, I give substantial evidence as to why they can be trusted. I have already begun the process of sharing some of this with readers of my Posts, such as the ones on “The Venetian Colourists“ and “Colour in Painting“. And, I intend to add many more in the coming weeks and months.
* I intend to elaborate on the “propositional approach” in a later Post that will discuss Michael’s work and ideas.
** Also in a later Post, I intend to submit a Post on the “Art/Science debate”. In this I quote John Constable as saying: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then should not painting be regarded as a branch of natural philosophy, of which the pictures are the experiments?”
In 1992 I was asked to write an article for “La Revue du Tarn” as a contribution to the “Year of Toulouse-Lautrec”. In particular I was asked to give a critique of the big exhibition of his paintings that took place that year in London and Paris. More recently I included an edited adaptation as Chapter 7 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity“. Click below for a .PDF version of it.
“On being a Flat-Earther”, an edited excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”
A flat-earther is someone who insists that the earth is flat and who is likely to be derided for holding such a factually ignorant view. In this post, at the risk of being laughed at, I claim to be a flat-earther myself. A theme of this chapter is that any starting point, however far-fetched, can lead to creative outcomes, as is proved my the many artists who have painted masterpieces on the basis of crack-brain ideas. My purpose in this post is to emphasise two points, made throughout this chapter, namely that investigating alternative descriptions can unblock stagnant thought-processes and liberate creativity and that they can do it whether the alternatives are sensible or absurd. It is a thought-provoking idea, which is worth expanding on. So here goes: Continue reading “Why I am a Flat-Earther”
In the coming months I intend to contribute many posts on the subject of “creativity”. As most of these will be taken from my book “Fresh Insights into Creativity“, it seems appropriate to start with an excerpt from its “Introduction” :
Excerpt from the introduction to “Fresh insights into Creativity”
A need to understand the nature of ‘creativity‘ has been with me since I was a teenager. This volume is the fruit of a lifetime’s search for answers to questions relating to this subject. For those who wish to go deeper into the ideas on offer, I have written three other books. Two of these provide practical help for people seeking to improve their artistic skills. The third is a scientific book. This describes the research and the ideas emerging from it that are largely responsible for the originality of the other three books. The science concerns how the brain, first, makes sense of and, then, makes use of the patterns of light that enters the eyes. Their titles are: “Drawing on Both sides of the Brain”, “Painting with Light and Colour” and “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”.
An unexpected development
I was fifteen years into my life as a practicing artist and occasional teacher of drawing and painting when, quite unexpectedly, despite my lack of relevant background as a scientist, I was offered an opportunity to become involved in scientific research. After some hesitation, I seized it in the hope that the scientific method might help me make sense of a range of painting, drawing and teaching related questions to which I had been seeking answers in vain.
Extracts from my book “Fresh perspectives on Creativity” (1)
My first fresh perspective is an extract from Chapter 10 : “Having Fun with Creativity”. It tells the story of a painting made by a primary school child with learning difficulties
It is always the case that a great deal of what goes into paintings is hidden and, with it, much of what has been put into them. This point that can be clarified by means of a true story relating to a child with learning difficulties told by his primary school teacher.
George, as I shall call him, was an amiable lad, but never seemed to want to join in what others were doing. One day, during a painting session, the teacher was delighted to see him applying himself with great concentration. She hurried over to see what had caught his imagination and found that he had produced a light-brown oval shape in the middle of an otherwise empty sheet of paper. He was obviously pleased to see her and held up what he had done asking with pride in his voice, “Do you like my potato, Miss?” In itself, George’s production wasn’t very impressive but, sensing an opportunity for a breakthrough in his attitude to school, she enthused about it, suggesting, before leaving him, that he complete the picture.