Being creative

A lived experience

I want to write about the lived experience of being creative, so I sit down at my desk with pen and paper to gather my thoughts. But I am immediately beset with what I know, crowding out what I feel or what I experience. Deep immersion into so many theories¹ of creativity and into others’ descriptions can be a seemingly insurmountable barrier to recapturing my own. Knowledge presupposes experience, and yet, by inwardly placing myself into a memory of a creative experience in my past, I find it possible to live again those moments; and in doing so, challenge my existing knowledge and assumptions. As an artist, a painter, my immediate response to the question of creative experience, is to recall how I think, feel and act while painting.

I start with gazing at the clean sheet of paper I have prepared, stretched with white paper tape on a board, before me on the easel. I have already chosen some colours to start off with – sometimes they relate to a colour chord I want to explore; more often I have simply looked in my paint box and picked out what I fancy. I choose a flat paintbrush, a favourite one, but also one that “fits” the size of the paper in front of me: too small and the painting becomes fiddly and detailed too early; too large and the brushstrokes will be too crude.
The white paper gives me pleasure, I can’t say exactly why, but I like its emptiness. Everything is possible, anything can happen. In a painting, I am not bound by daily duties, must-attend appointments, superimposed structures of theories or expectations of a particular audience. I don’t have to paint for anyone except myself. There is a freedom to do what I want, in complete privacy and isolation. No one else need ever know what I am about to do, or what it may look like. And I can start anyway, anywhere I like.
And yet the moment I put the first brushstroke on the surface, I know I am now bound to follow a certain path. But I don’t know where that path will lead me. I never know or try to envision what the work will finally look like, or even that it will be end. Probably, I will simply stop. I may return days, week, months later, or I may never touch it again But that is the essence of creativity for me – that the end is never in sight, so nothing is ever fixed, is over. It’s endless potential for change, for something new to arise. I don’t have to have a plan, a destination, goal or even a name for what I am doing. All the social practices that shape conventional life can be ignored. I never like giving titles to paintings anyway, because that fixes them into some intellectual concept, categorizes them into some class. “Is it a landscape”, someone asks? “What is it? Is that an eye, a head, a dog I can see there”? they say. If I give it a title, then I take away that sense of exploration, of discovery for the viewer. And for myself, because as soon as I name a painting, then I find that I start to see my own work in that context, find my relationship to it starts to become fixed. Even calling it “Unnamed” places it in a box. (When I have to do so, I’ve taken to changing the titles of old works. I do this more and more, sometimes to suit the context, sometimes to suit something new I’ve seen in the composition since I last looked at it. After all, I’ve changed – why shouldn’t the painting have changed also?)
So I put down a brushstroke, create a coloured surface, then another and another, each one determined by the last, but not concerned with the next. Gradually, often over days, a play of colour and form arises before me. I am a slow painter. I spend a lot of time simply looking at what I have already done, always between brushstrokes, but sometimes just sitting back and contemplating it for a while, sipping tea or water. This is partly because of the technique I favour – watercolour layered in semi-transparent washes that take time to set. In the early stages of a work, these washes must be completely dry before I put more paint over them. Later, when the brushstrokes are smaller and drier, and I’m working on different parts of the page at the same time, I don’t have to wait for full dryness.
But I am a patient person – when I paint. I never think of myself as especially patient, but I must be, because on the odd occasion when I paint with others, I am always the slowest to make something “appear”. But then, I am not concerned with something appearing, with big effects. My pleasure is in watching the most subtle change of colour that arises between each brushstroke. Each time, something new happens – I never know, I can never visualize beforehand just what effect each brushstroke is going to have on the colour that’s already there, on the surrounds, on the whole painting.
Whether I “like” it or not is of no matter. Such judgments are suspended at the time. I’m simply living into the moment: there, in the painting. Not every brushstroke has to be slow or delicate. Sometimes I will draw a strong dark line into the play of paint, then blend it gradually away, fading across the painting, bringing a sheen of darkness to every colour underneath. Then the mood of the work irretrievably shifts: my options may be more limited now; or a whole new vista may open. Darkness has that potency, more than any other effect.
Naturally, at a certain point, when the complexity of interflowing surfaces begins to take on a life of its own, there is less and less room to move. The more I build, the more the building has its own demands. I find myself engaged in a dozen different little events going on, while all the time scrutinizing the whole, from an inner distance, like a surveillance helicopter surveying the terrain for hither unforeseen action to report and resolve. It no longer is a painting I am producing, but something I’m co-participating in, with the world before me. It becomes a continual process of resolving and remaking the emerging event and yet, with each resolve, new mini-campaigns are arising. This is why a painting never ends, why I can never say “finished!” What eventually stops me working further, is one of two things: either the surface gives up, that is, the paper or wall has reached saturation point and the paint won’t “take” anymore; or something external event makes me stop. Maybe I have to have it framed, maybe I pack away my paints because I need the space for other work. Even then, some part of my life is still there, in the painting, suspended, til I come back, maybe on a different piece of paper.
I don’t have to stay with the painting to continue working on it. I don’t need to be in its physical presence. I go off and make meals, answer emails, go to the shops, even go to work – all the time part of me stays engaged with the work, I’m still working on it inwardly, the experience is still happening. My outer self goes through the motions of one task, while my inner self stays with the other. But if I turn to work on a lecture, read a book, write a report, then the connection is lost. When I shift my inner attention to another phenomenon, then the living experience falls away. And when I return to the work, I have to “restart”. It takes time to live back into that moment in time that doesn’t end, that suspended present I inhabit when living into a creative act.

1. I am currently writing a dissertation on the nature and experience of creativity in our thinking process, as we create (submitted June 2018).

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