Artists have loads of time to think while they make work. Painting is a cognitive process as much as a physical activity of the eye and hand.
When I was learning to paint, I thought constantly about my supplies and whether my paintings looked silly. I’d ask myself questions that had answers – should I add a new blue or straighten this horizon line? Later my questions didn’t have easy answers. Is this painting a landscape or an abstraction? Is it flat or dimensional, is it process-based? Now those questions bore me, it’s the questions that seem silly.
I worked as a forester, a systems analyst and a financial analyst before becoming an artist. Every experience involved analyzing large amounts of random data to transform it into useful information. It was important to notice patterns to predict future outcomes given chosen variables. Creating Excel spreadsheets and flow charts was calming for me and still is, even though I don’t have to do it anymore. I’m noticing this whole way of thinking feels natural to me when I make art. In my mind, the vocabulary of analysis is replacing the vocabulary of how to paint or how my paintings compare to what everyone else is doing. I’m much happier.
I’m free to consider other things, and I’m realizing it’s my own thought process that interests me most. How do I take in information and how do I make decisions? Is there a way to double down on my natural tendencies, and will that change the paintings? Can I create a vocabulary for my own self-talk that directs my thinking in a more interesting way?
I explore complex forest settings in my art. I treat the forest as a huge dataset I can rearrange into a cohesive imagined whole. I think a lot about which techniques will preserve the complexity I can see, or create patterns for the complexity I know is there but my human eye and hand can’t handle. I find this endlessly fascinating.
I’ve realized my strongest and most emotional art work comes after sustained analysis of small organic elements interacting in a network, each responding to its resources and neighbors. I find patterns. The depiction happens when I identify how a specific plant grows, and the prediction happens when I imagine how the rest of the plant layers might grow beside it. The painting works when the network hums. Early on I stopped caring what species I’m including, perhaps frustrating the botanists.
There are always background thoughts of art history, which I love as much as the forest. I’m now studying MC Escher, Max Ernst and German language, specifically admiring the combination of precision and randomness I see in each influence. The Vienna Secession and the Japanese Meiji period are important, too. My library card is delaminated.
Notes on my self-talk:
What terms should I repeat to myself as I paint, and which vocabulary gets in my way? Hey, thinking about this makes me just like Russell Wilson! Keepers include terms from my time as a financial analyst: measure, record, estimate, identify drivers, create a model, play with assumptions, what-if, hold that variable constant. I remind myself that the noisiest information is usually not the driver, it’s a result from an underlying cause. Drill down. Think critically, not skeptically. Find the 20% of activity driving 80% of results. Your models must be flexible to accept new information. Summarize this in a clean presentation and make sure it’s not boring. Choose your key points and make those obvious. I’ve also resurrected some keepers from high school math class: aim for the most elegant proof, review your work, when confused, write out your assumptions to get partial credit. Proportion. Being a math person is as much about abstract thinking as the ability to do numbers in your head. To my surprise, I’ve found many common terms from fine art are decidedly unhelpful to me: abstraction, realism, contemporary, exploring the liminal spaces and secret geometries. I guess I’ll keep my economics and data science books out for a while since they better support what’s interesting to me about making art.