TOOLS OF ARTISTIC PRACTICE
An introduction to methods and approaches by professional artists
working in multiple fields
In North America the world of art can sometimes seem distant, difficult or unknowable, like art is another language. Art is another language, but one that can be learned. In addition to understanding art history, knowing what tools are used in artistic practice deepens awareness of what artists do, making that language more accessible. Every artist has their own process, methods and tools. Many are tools that have been used for centuries.
A book of blank pages represents the potential for a record of a journey through visuals.
Pages to record what is seen or felt abstractly. It's a place to get messy, scribble, scrawl, doodle, float, plot and plan. Sketchbooks can be filled with words and images, arranged in any way possible. It's a place to experiment with concepts for painting, sculpture, a theatre set, characters, costumes, a film storyboard. I might fill four or five pages one day, or a whole book over a month, depending on what I’m working on. I also use sketchbooks to record what I see, to remember this happened, as a way to say I was here.
Similar to sketchbooks, writing journals are tools artists use to explore ideas, play with language and put images into words.
Poet Rich Ferguson works out his initial ideas in a writing journal. He says it looks "like a bit of a battlefield at times, creative bombs dropping all over the place." Writing by hand in a book is a stage in his process, followed by using his phone's Notes function to streamline ideas into a more readable form.
poem by Rich Ferguson
Writing by hand exercises the right side of the brain, the artistic side that sees in pictures. Authors Maya Angelou and Julia Cameron have recommended writing three long pages by hand every morning, to start the writing process. Stream of conscious writing, or nonstop writing, allows for expression without the left side of the brain analyzing the words before they get to the page.
For some, journal writing builds over time or is a place to go to when organizing thoughts around projects. Journals help get down ideas when they are seeds, not fully developed. Images, fragments that cross the mind need a place to sit, to be recorded and understood.
As writer and visual artist Randee Silv has said, writing in a journal is “encouraging a thread of consciousness to breathe”.
She also recommends reading what you've written aloud. It's how she finds the pulse, the rhythm of what wants to be said, where it wants to flow.
Asemic drawing by Randee Silv
Visual artist and poet Kofi Fosu Forson recommends the book “Free Play” by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Stephen talks about art coming from “inner sources of spontaneous creation”, and in the widest sense, creativity. Creativity is in all of us, he writes, and the question is how to liberate it.
In his essay The Discipline of Improvisation, Stephen expands: "improvisation is all about human relationship. It is about listening, responding, connecting, and about generosity. When a group of free improvisers gets together and plays a coherent and interesting piece of music without a prior plan or template, it is like watching separate beings become integrated into a single nervous system and become, for a time, whole. It is a partnership, with each other and with the audience, in the deepest sense of the word. Mysteriously, I even get this feeling when I am playing or hearing a solo improvisation."
Improvisation uses artistic tools like stream of conscious writing, drawing, movement, playing, singing or speaking without concern of doing something in particular or perfectly.
It's a quieting of the left brain, or analytical thinking, that is often quick to criticize and control. Artists know that it's important to quiet that critical voice and let the work play freely, to see where the process might go.
Kofi says "Our need to write or make art comes from our ability to process fear. Coming to the table, desk or studio requires overcoming fear. Once we are able to get beyond the psychology of dealing with what scares us, making art becomes the responsibility for turning our fears into beautiful thoughts, images which enable us to produce wonderful works of art and literature."
The Conversation by Kofi Fosu Forson
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman needs a room of her own to write. That might seem impossible until you consider how much of contemporary living spaces are dedicated to passive activities.
We have come to think that certain art forms belong in particular institutions. Theatre on a stage, paintings in a museum. While dedicating space to a particular activity does create focus, that space doesn't have to be a traditional space for creative acts to occur. Artists know this and transform rooms into space for creating objects and experiences, studios
Theatre, film and television creators Rachel Burttram and Brendan Powers took over a closet space in their home when quarantine started, developing a play reading series called Tiny Theatre. Shortly after, they turned an office into a stage, dressing room with technical components where they broadcast and interact live with audience via Airbnb experience. A spare room transformed into a place to broadcast a multi-character murder mystery comedy.
photograph by Rachel Burttram
Learning From Artists
Writing and drawing on paper are artistic tools that persist in the age of digitalization. Many actors rely on printed scripts. Rachel Burttram says "I am a super tactile person so I love the feel of an old wooden pencil with little bits of cracked paint on the hard edges...I highlight my lines in yellow and my blocking in pink. I have done that for years. And copious notes in pencil in the margins and on most of the white space of the page. I find the secrets of the play are often on the white parts of the page, the in-between the lines, the things we don't say to each other... To breathe life into the work, fill up those white parts of the page".
drawing by Leonardo da Vinci
(image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Leonardo da Vinci kept notes and drawings of his ideas, and over 7,000 pages have survived since 1508 when most of them were written. Leonardo had the habit of carrying paper to make notes, and the range of his interests reveal an intense curiosity.
A budding artist may be quick to say she can't draw. She can't write. She doesn't understand abstraction. That thinking stops her before she discovers what she is capable of. We can all create and learn from other artists. The best ones to learn from are living. What an audience sees is a small percentage of what artists dedicate their time to. Before the end results there is process, time and tools.
Leonardo may be most famous for the Mona Lisa, but it’s hardly his greatest work. His life, full of invention, creation and imagination, is recorded on paper.
Artists & Websites:
Rich Ferguson is a poet and performer: rich-ferguson.com
Randee Silv is a writer, visual artist and editor of Arteidolia: arteidolia.com
Kofi Fosu Forson is a writer, artist, philosopher: parametathinker.blogspot.com
Rachel Burttram is an actor for stage, film and television: www.rachelburttram.com