Creative Rebellion Essays: Thinking by Doing

Plein air painting — photo by JC Caldwell

I spend a lot of time thinking about creativity. Thinking about design. Thinking about writing. I also read a ton about the creative process. And this is all fine and well as we all stand on the shoulders of giants and if we don’t study our past, we are doomed to reinvent the obvious. And besides, most of creativity is a remix of the past: Steve Jobs didn’t invent as much as he took the best of various designs and products and “reinvented them” as evidenced in the iPod or iPhone — MP3 players had been around for years and the Blackberry ruled the roost when Apple entered the market; Picasso took from Velasquez, Cezanne and even from his contemporaries (Braque and Miro); Led Zeppelin unabashedly paid homage (or stole, depending on your point of view) from the Delta blues musicians (Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf) and made the songs their own.

And making something your own expression is the important part.

With my head full of historical antecedents, I often found myself paralyzed before the pantheon of artistic greats — what could I possibly do that hasn’t been done before? Hasn’t everything been done? Abstract Expressionism (ie Jackson Pollock to Willem DeKooning), Pop (Andy Warhol), Hyper-realism (Chuck Close), Minimalism (Richard Serra), Neo-Expressionism (Jean-Michel Basquiat) and the acolytes of Figuration (Francis Bacon) had ended with the conceptualism of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Sorry for the art history lesson but I use this to illustrate the chronicled weight of one particular discipline. I’m sure you have your own hall of gods in science (Albert Einstein) or literature (Virginia Woolf) or music (John Coltrane). You get the idea.

I decided to stop thinking with only my mind and to use my body.

The photo above is me, painting in the woods behind my house. Over the weekend I took one of my large canvases outside and painted the most prosaic of subjects: the landscape. Landscape painting is both the most accessible of all subjects while simultaneously being so common that we often don’t realize how extraordinary it is that plants literally provide the air we breath — I thought it would precisely be the perfect subject to creatively attack. So, with that in mind, I dragged out the 6’ x4’ canvas, plopped it down under a massive California oak that has an enormous boulder leaning against it and used the largest brush I have on hand, planting it into a pool of jet-black paint and as I connected with the ancient tree, feeling a current of energy run through me as the visual signals I received from the oak shot into the rods and cones of the back of my eyeballs, stirring electrical activity in my brain, which then translated down to my arm, amplified into the brush, and slammed across the canvas leaving marks that contained the energy of that moment, that interaction. After enough time to realize my back was in excruciating pain from being bent over, I stood up straight and surveyed what was on the canvas: An image that was not there before — something that was exploded into existence on its own, with me serving as the conduit for its birth.

This is something that can’t simply be thought out. Sure, you can do preparatory sketches, buy the supplies, prepare the surface but all strategy and planning disappear once you are in the doing of the thing.

Thinking comes from the doing.

I don’t know how this painting series will stack up in the larger construct of art-historical relevance, whether it is gallery or museum-worthy or if it will ever be covered in Art Forum magazine. But that’s paralyzing thinking at work again. The concern of value to others and the need for ratification and acknowledgment from the outside.

What I do know is that the end result resonated for me. And in the moment of laying down paint on a blank canvas, I was truly alive and present in the moment. In life.

So here’s my advice: Whatever you choose to do, do it without concern for how it compares or will be received by the unseen masses. You know deep inside what is Quality for you. You know if something is any good or works. You have your own standards. And if the work isn’t up to your standards, don’t fret. Just keep going. Do another painting, another chapter, another song. No one has to read your first draft but you.

Think and plan. But then true learning comes from the doing. The messy process of lurching towards truth.

John

Murasaki no tsuki 紫の月(Purple Moon)

What I’m reading:

Consider This — the best book on writing I’ve read since Stephen King’s On Writing. Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame). This delightful book is full of personal stories and, not surprisingly squeamish, anecdotes as well as brass tacks advice. Palahniuk is a disciple of a Minimalist form of writing that he learned from writing workshops (called Dangerous Writing) with Tom Spanbauer. If you are an aspiring or seasoned wriiter, this book should be on your shelf next to E.B. White’s Elements of Style.

What I’m watching:

The Invention of Lying — this is an older movie (way back in 2009) staring and written in part by the brilliant and acerbic Ricky Gervais. It’s a high concept movie about a world in which everyone tells the truth…until Gervais’ sad-sack character tells the world’s first lie. And then he gains fame and fortune and pursues a girl way out of his league (played by Jennifer Garner) by making up, well, everything including the notion of a “Man in the Sky” who takes care of everything after you die. The DNA for his current poignant series After Life can be seen in this movie (season two starts on April 25th).

Please visit my website to sign up for my blog/newsletter as well as downloading the first chapter from my book, The Art of Creative Rebellion.

If you like what you are reading, please order The Art of Creative Rebellion, in stores NOW. Now on AUDIOBOOK.

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John S. Couch is Vice President, Product Design at Hulu.

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