On Creative Process

The following is a slightly modified response I recently gave via email to a student ‘s inquiry regarding creative process and how to paint a green man , or particularly a green women.

Hi, B____

Thanks for all the complements.

I’m sure you have heard this before, but there are no real secrets about  drawing or painting and success is more about hard work, desire, and perseverance than anything else.  The same can probably also be said of many other complex skills or goals.  So even if you don’t go on to be an artist yourself, you may apply some of the general ideas below to whatever you try to do in the future.

………..so how do you come up with fresh new idea’s?

I hate to say it  but a lot of them do just come to me. However, I wouldn’t say that they come out of nowhere. Conversations with friends and family, reading books, looking at paintings, listening to the radio and music,  and personal life experiences can all be tapped for ideas. All these things get mixed up in your mind and tend to leak back out in new forms. I would also add that confidence in an idea is probably as important as the idea itself. Remember there is only one of you and your opinion matters. So generally, try to take in a lot of experiences and information.  Specifically,  avoid or at least be aware of ideas being fed to you. Its hard to have unique ideas if you are not a unique person. If nothing new is coming to you and you really need an idea (for a deadline for instance) just start with an old one you really like.  As you work, new things will occur to you  and your old idea will become more original.  The green-man isn’t a new idea, but my interpretations might be called new.  Purely visual ideas are actually easier to come up with because you can’t really come up with anything completely new anyhow  and you don’t have to. Go back to basic shapes and ask yourself things like , “how would this head look if it was more of a rectangle than a oval?” or ” would it look better if  this nose was more of an inverted triangle than a square?”  The more preliminary drawing you do to try to answer these types of questions the better your final product will be. Trust your own answers about what looks better , then move on and you will be rewarded with a feeling of progress. “Drawing is thinking” ; Michelangelo supposedly said. (I think I got that from the book The Agony and The Ecstasy by Irving Stone)

I have the attention span of a gnat and cannot stay still for that long without being sidetracked… which is one reason that my art takes so long to finish… and secondly… I give up too easily!  Is that what you do? Or do you do a bit, and come back to it?

Don’t use your attention span as a excuse for anything. Everyone has a short attention span, some people’s are just shorter. Drawing can be a good focus for your mania because you actually won’t be still, your hand will be in constant motion.   If you think your ability to stick to one task is a problem start small and bounce back and forth between just two things. I always work a bit and come back. I don’t know any other way. It can even  be a good habit because stepping away from a piece for a few minutes to take out the trash or do some dishes can help you see something you didn’t notice previously  upon your return to the work.  The real trick is coming back. Set a timer, tie a string around your finger or write notes if you have to but try to stay focused on your main goal even when you are in a sidetrack. When you get off coarse say to yourself , “I’m in a sidetrack” then try to get back to your work. The moment you forget your main goal completely is when you get into real trouble. If you repeatedly  find yourself giving up, first remember that a momentary feeling of failure or frustration will pass. You can let passing negative thoughts  knock you down for an hour , for a week , or a lifetime. It’s up to you.  On the positive side if you aren’t running into something that is even slightly uncomfortable in your work regularly you probably aren’t learning anything. What you give is what you get. Don’t expect anything worth doing to be constantly rewarding, or fun. If it becomes completely unrewarding you will have no choice but to quit, but don’t give in prematurely.

This is in regard to the student’s own green women project:

I’ve added more floral patterns into it, but the eyes still look really masculine, She has eyelashes and her eye brows are styled like a female.. but ‘she’ still looks like a ‘he’ ! How can I make her into a more female woman? (If that makes sense?)

It is extremely hard to give specific criticism on a visual without seeing it but I’ll hazard some general ideas. Don’t be afraid to look at reference. Life or photos are a good starting point. Look at the shape of a women’s eyes. Compare them to a man. Look at yourself in the mirror. Scrutinizing other’s work can be invaluable as well. Try to step back from your own work and look at it. Slow down enough that you can translate your observations into words, as if you were telling someone else what was wrong with their artwork. Then listen to what you say to yourself. Other peoples opinions can help, but you don’t have to act on everything you hear.  Other’s opinions aren’t always available because most of the time an artist is working alone. Sometimes people feel obligated to give an opinion regardless of how articulate, or well thought out it might be. Other peoples opinions can be a function of their need to fill a social role, which might not always be what you need from them to improve your art. Ultimately you need to be able to sort the wheat form the chaff when it comes to opinions, but what you observe from life is probably the closest thing to “truth” you will ever encounter, and truth should form the foundation of beauty and therefore art. If it is ugly you are going for then have at it!…. but I’m guessing you are not.

I hope this helps you,


About dk

Doug Kovacs is an Artist and Illustrator who lives in Chicago
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