Painting and teaching are both satisfying occupations, and the most significant difference between the two is the material. As a painter I work with physical stuff, and as a teacher I work with social relations. Both are creative endeavors and the artist in me does not need to know more; it’s enough to live creative moments. But the teacher in me needs to understand and articulate the act. So, I ask, what is the creative process for making art, and more importantly, what is the broader notion of innovation that is familiar to anyone that has been a success in business, sports, science, love or academic administration? In short, what is the creative process that is at the core of successful problem solving?
I need to propose a definition of creativity that is broad. But theory gains credibility through application, so I’ll begin with a narrow example of making a landscape painting in New Zealand. The painting began with an early morning walk along the Route Burn in Mt. Aspiring National Park. Following a path along the river, I rounded a bend and through the trees I saw a rainbow. Laughing at the fairy tale optimism of the moment, I dropped the pack and looked around for a suitable spot to paint. Unlike many plein air painters, I don’t usually choose a location for the compositional quality of the vista. In fact I avoid that, since I want to evoke the sense of a place rather than record the way it looks. So I first search for practical qualities, like shade, flat ground and space enough to step back from the easel without tripping over a log or falling down an embankment.
Easel established, I poked around for color and noted on this day…
the shades of turquoise in the pool of trout below me, the neutral tones of the stones in the riverbed, and the hues of moss and beech.
Next, I looked for motifs that defined the place and decided to focus on the space between the trees, and…
the water rushing toward me.
Returning to the easel, I mixed the paint to match the dominant colors of the scene, and made a color notation to use later when I returned to the studio. Now, everything was ready to begin painting.
The first marks were brush strokes of aqua centrally placed on the panel, followed by knife strikes of moss colors framing the initial strokes. During the first few hours, the panel was continually turned so that nothing became too established. Thick columns of paint in mottled hues of the beech trunks were added for geometry. To create continuity decisions were unsentimental and ruthless; completed areas were scraped away and repainted with glazes to add light and simplicity to the increasingly complex scene; marks that did not serve the whole design were removed regardless of their individual integrity.
At the end of the session, the result was a surprise and a sense of place was established. The rainbow that started the day so optimistically, however, was a false omen. Over the course of the next week, the painting looked fussy, and more specifically, it failed to capture the dramatic contrast of the transparent, rushing water against the solid, dark frame of trees. It’s interesting to note here the role memory played in strengthening the thesis of the picture. On the bank of the Route Burn, there was so much to see, hear, touch and smell that it was difficult to prioritize. But over the course of many days, the experience was refined by recollection. Memory, like a sieve, let the less essential bits fall away and left the most promising chunks for consideration.
Now, more confident of the subject, I drew with a blade the contours of clouds and mountains, scraped out the shape of stony shores, and brushed in a frame of gesturing, dark trees. The central swath of aqua, however, was too stiff, and the overall surface was too coarse. So, in the end I resurfaced the entire panel. On the newly white surface I began again, referring to the color notes, to memories of the place and to previous versions for direction. Weeks later a convincing version of the Route Burn seen through trees finally emerged.
Now, to get at a definition of creativity, let’s look at the process of making that painting step by step. First, I defined my project by asking a question, “How can I best represent the awesome phenomenon of the Route Burn as it rolls through a beech forest?” Second, I researched my question by taking a walk, and collecting the colors and motifs of the day. Third, I produced the painting by isolating the variables, which in this case were specific colors and textures, and then I combined these variables (many, many times!) to find the permutation that best answered my original question. Finally, I presented in a blog format the finished painting to you.
So, my process is divided into four segments, Definition, Research, Experimentation and Presentation. But these four elements on their own do not necessarily define a creative project. They could, for example, define the process of forging a painting by Rembrandt. Projects that pursue a known outcome are an exercise in copying. The truly defining element of the creative process is to use these four steps in the pursuit of an unknown outcome. Since unknown outcomes include the possibility of total, humiliating failure, the creative act also requires risk taking.
To recap, the creative process has four elements, Definition, Research, Experimentation, and Presentation, which are used to pursue of an unknown outcome. The pursuit of an unknown outcome requires the courage (or heedlessness) to risk failure.
It’s useful to have a definition for creativity, since it makes the process less mysterious. I’ve heard it said that creativity is a gift of nature that cannot be taught. To some degree this is true, just as it is true to say that some people are gifted at tennis. But everyone can learn tennis, even though not all will be pros, just as everyone can learn creative problem solving, even though not all will be famous innovators.
Learning to be creative is, itself, an act of self-discovery. To ask great questions and to take the risks to answer these questions, one must introduce one’s rational self to one’s passionate self so that they can work together. Passion is a very useful motivator if it is directed toward a goal, but without direction it can be an engine of self-destruction. So, to take the necessary risks and to survive them, a creative person must learn to recognize and channel the passions, like aggression, love, jealousy, fear, and hope and then integrate these emotions with the intellectual self to become a problem solver with the passion to pursue a complex problem and the emotional maturity to endure failure.
The emotional component of creativity is sometimes ignored, at least on campus. Waiting for a faculty meeting to begin, I started a conversation about creativity with a member of the Chemistry Department and I asked him about the emotional component of high-end, scientific research. He lit up and blurted across the table, “Science is so emotional and no one talks about it!” He went on to list emotions that are more familiar as narrative devices for soap opera than science. Scientists, however, are not the only group of creative people who sometimes fail to acknowledge the integration of reason and emotion that defines creativity. Students in my beginning drawing class routinely complain that my class is not “free” enough. They come with the prejudice that art making is a shapeless, emotional indulgence, free of the constraints of reason. I try to sober them up as quickly as I can and teach them to use their feelings to fuel their intellects, and to become self-aware in the process. One of the most interesting and critical challenges for future educators will be to establish a curriculum that develops emotional sophistication as well as intellectual agility in students.
Globalism is one of the great challenges of this era, and educators need to consider how best to prepare students for this dynamic shift. As a culture, America has been innovative, but the next century is going to depend on ingenuity more than ever given that outsourcing has taken manufacturing, service and management jobs to other regions of the globe. And it won’t be enough to be creatively competitive in the new Global Culture. This new culture will be so diverse, so full of competing habits and priorities, that truly successful global citizens will need an unusually large dose of self-awareness to navigate and shape this ethically complex terrain.
Becoming creatively confident is key to shaping a successful modern life. When you think of the big successes in your life, were your goals well defined or did they shift and evolve along the way? Was your process always clear or was it messy and require you to react quickly and improvise? Were the results a sure bet, or were you relying on your wits from moment to moment to avoid failure? I suspect the later and if I’m right in that assumption then you will agree that creativity is an essential component of success. And if the goal of education is to prepare students to be successful in life, than educators should include creativity, along with more traditional objectives, like critical reasoning and quantitative skills, in the core of the modern curriculum. In this light, learning to make a painting in the woods is not simply a pleasant extracurricular activity; it is, instead, preparation to be a modern competitor.