Ideation

Owls © Samantha Groenestyn

It is true that I have a lot of interests. Yesterday I indulged my impulse to bike around and explore foreign parts of Brisbane. I painted a little, and knitted a little, and read a lot. I picked up some sewing supplies for pending projects.

Sketching in Toohey Forest

In 1939, an advertising man by the name of James Webb Young* put out a little pamphlet on generating ideas, and the crucial beginning of his five-step method is to gather raw materials—as broad a collection as possible, to supply yourself with a very deep reservoir of old things to combine in new ways.

For this is what an idea is, according to Young (p. 19): ‘an idea is a new combination.’ This is what is at the heart of Maria Popova’s brain-titillating site Brain Pickings, on which she argues (and demonstrates daily) that ‘creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs.’

While Young (p. 26) recommends an index-card filing method of collecting one’s ideas, a recent Design Matters interview with Ken Carbone reveals another method. Carbone’s journals have become somewhat legendary—he has been keeping them for fifteen years after having had the privilege to see Paul Gauguin’s journals in a museum’s archives. In his journals, Carbone documents his life, takes sketch-breaks at museums on his lunch breaks, records noteworthy events and writes mini book reviews, obsessively recording details chronologically that he refers to years later to mine for ideas.

‘Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics,’ Young (p. 24) insists. ‘First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested… Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.’

Young’s ideation method is as follows (p. 40):

First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

I have three types of books in which I record various stages of my ideation process. Most ideas get their start in something completely foreign: usually they strike me when I am knitting. Knitting lulls me into a concentrated meditative state, and my thoughts usually concentrate on a creative problem. When they arrive, I note them down in my Ideas Book, whatever my first impressions of them. They can be sifted and developed later—what matters initially is that they are captured. Rarely can I move directly to producing the idea, however.

My ideas graduate to a funny little sketchbook full of thumbnails, layouts, hand-lettering tests and border developments. I need a secret place to try my idea out, see what it might really look like when it takes form, work through the details of it. Sometimes I rush this stage, but I am beginning to enjoy it. I can take this book out for coffee or tea, and draw and draw until I can’t represent the idea any more, or make lists that extend a previous idea.

My most polished books, my ‘real’ sketchbooks, are full of life drawings and field sketches. Curiously enough, these books represent the beginning of the path to an idea: they accompany me on adventures through Europe and around Brisbane. They are a way for me to consciously explore what I see, because I carefully note down structures and colours. These sketches, more broadly, are representative of my interests—of taking time out from the solid work of painting to refresh myself and immerse myself in new experiences, to learn new things and incorporate this new knowledge into my reservoirs. Ready to be connected in new ways with other knowledge, later.

‘Part of it, you will see, is a current job, and part of it is a life-long job,’ (Young, p. 26).

Sketching in Toohey Forest

 

Do you know Kate Davies? She’s a formidable academic knitter living in my erstwhile home of Edinburgh, and the talent behind the above O w l s jumper. Her blog was the first I started following, and it set the bar decidedly high. You can find my Owls on Ravelry.

 

* Young, James Webb. 2003 [1939]. A technique for producing ideas. McGraw-Hill: New York. (↬ Maria Popova’s article led me to spending a fiver on this little book.)

 

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Artists, illustrators, graphic designers

Infernal dishes © Samantha Groenestyn

Saturday I had the great fortune to partake in the birth of a brand new movement, a collective of artists, photographers, musicians, body-painters and street artists who gathered in a warehouse to ‘vibe off each other.’ Lost Movements is creating a space for Brisbane creatives to meet, collaborate and get crazy. I like to think this is Brisbane beginning to grow into itself—Brisbane, grittier than Melbourne, funkier than Sydney, hotter, sub-tropical, a place where anything goes as long as you mean it. Posers are decried, haters are ignored.

I painted walls, imbibed beer, mingled, danced and warmed myself by the fire, and began to learn a thing or two about the social aspect of art. I am something of an artistic floater. I paint seriously under the guidance of representational artists, carefully studying tone, learning how to achieve the perfect mixed black, paying strict attention to form and generally filling my head with dreams of growing into a Dutch master. I also paint in what I consider a freer, bolder style, mixing bright gouache with thick linework and unrealistic patterns. I also dabble in graphic design, applying lettering and otherwise putting my illustrations to designerly uses.

The Go Between Bridge–a pleasant Sunday arvo bike ride.

These types of art all intersect with one another, but, most interestingly, they each bring their own crowd and their own way of gathering—their own artist archetype. Designers unabashedly meet for networking drinks and exchange business cards; artists throw out-of-control parties of which nudity is an integral part. Illustrators—when they make it out of their studios—love to show off their shiny published children’s books.

Crossing these boundaries can be bewildering, no less because modern artists are a different breed to representational artists, and while illustration is largely figurative like representational art, it is so bound up in creating a world based around children that it feels like the kindergarten version of art, certainly not to be taken seriously by traditional artists. Illustrators are then lumped with graphic designers, though, as Heller and Arisman* (p. 30) argue, ‘the majority of graphic designers have more in common with the producer in film or television than with painters.’ While my oil painting teacher would likely be underwhelmed by my illustrations, unable to comprehend a conscious choice to bend the rules of tone and perspective, spray-can-wielding warehouse-painters are miffed at my stuffy stylisation of angry Dutch children because it adheres to technique, and technique is so passé. My graphic design cohort is astounded I even use a paintbrush—or a pen, for that matter—though they understand that illustration, unlike fine art, has long played a role in advertising, subordinate to the designer (Heller and Arisman, p. 38).

The trouble is, I appreciate each group, whether or not they appreciate my position and my work. I make accessible art—like Howard Pyle’s ‘pictures:’ ‘art for the people, art about the people’ (p. 33). Does that make it ‘commercial, lively entertainment’ (p. 49)? That people are purchasing it to hang on their walls suggests not—though it easily could be. Having people approach my work as one would fine art has been surprising, since I was set to license it out for well-defined commercial uses. But this is a thing to be embraced. While Arisman (p. 49) argues that the distinction between art and illustration lies in the intent of the artist, I’ve found that even the artist’s intentions can be subverted. The distinction is, at best, flimsy, and at worst, meaningless and unnecessary. Taking on the title of ‘illustrator’ has forced me to attempt to break away from my natural stylistic tendencies to try to create something for the people—something designers will sit up and take notice of, because it’s not stuffy and old-fashioned, but something that can convey visual meaning in a way that modern art attempts to subvert. I get to hang with designers, the cool kids, and party with artists, the crazy kids. I am both, by the nature of what I do.

Janice Wu, a talented Canadian illustrator, sees it both ways as well: ‘When an artwork is just all about a concept, it is not as appealing to me. Yet when it’s just all craftsmanship and there’s no idea, then it lacks substance, and it is not as thought provoking.’

View from the bridge

With my own exhibition on the horizon, a private commission under my belt and a children’s book in the works, I feel very much like I am all the things, and that they sustain each other just as the different types of artists sustain me, whether or not they support me. Janice sums up her career intentions thus:

With me, I want to pursue both commercial illustration and visual art, and they’re two different practices. They overlap in some ways, but they are different. I want to be an exhibiting artist and have shows in galleries and work on my own, self-initiated projects. But I also really like doing commission work for different publications and having projects assigned to me and working with people. So I hope that in the future I can do both and that I can succeed in both. I like to think that my work can exist within both realms.

As do I.

*Heller, Steven and Arisman, Marshall. 2004. Inside the Business of Illustration. Allworth Press: New York.

↬ Read a very thorough and sparkling interview with Janice Wu by Stacy Thomas at Trim Magazine, from which these quotes originate.

Our beardy dishes-hating friend is soon to appear on lovely cotton tea-towels which will be for sale at my show.

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Epic lazy bike ride

We joined some new friends for a Lazy Sunday Cycle from the city to the Northey Street farmers’ markets.

I picked up this snazzy and sturdy basket from an op shop this week, and with some swift zip-tie dude-crafting, Clementine was ready to pack a picnic.

Some forethought meant that we had this spread of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, antipasto and my first ever home-made bread to sustain us. At the markets I also picked up a swish ‘sustainable wooden fountain pen’–with some slick waterproof ink from the Art Shed, I’ll have me a formidable new drawing pen. I thought West End was hippy central–turns out the north side goes nuts for organic produce and city permaculture gardens.

Pumped full of endorphins, I’m already excited for bicycle dress-ups later this month!

And some news: My business cards arrived this week, so I’m ready to make new friends / network. I ordered them through Moo Print, and I’m very pleased with these little boxes of pocket art.

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Style and epistemological decisions

Downtime, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

The question of style is something that I have been giving some thought of late. How does one uncover one’s style, and how does one develop it? Does amassing a collection of work really amount to a ‘body’ of work—will the pieces speak to each other, and somehow stand united? Is style simply what pours out of the end of your brush, or can you train it, and if you imitate the work of someone else, how much can you appropriate into your own style?

Bike riding through the city

The ever provocative Susan Sontag* has some ideas in her essay ‘On Style.’ She argues that when metaphors are concocted to explain style, they inevitably ‘plac[e] matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor’ (p. 17). In this she agrees with Cocteau, whom she cites: ‘Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body’ (p. 17).

This is appealing from a practical point of view. In creating something, it can feel as though the thing created is limited in many ways. I might attempt to write a book in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, but find my writing to constantly fall short. This is explained by Cocteau’s position, in that my writing will be restricted by my own facility with words and my particular habits in stringing them together. Rather than falling short of writing in Hardy’s style, my writing will simply exhibit my own style, at its particular stage of development.

The same may be said of illustration: I have particular gouache techniques that allow me to achieve very specific effects, I have a steady hand with a pen, and I have some innate (though nascent) understanding of tone, but my particular experience and practices will not allow me to achieve just any style. My very lack of experience dramatically restricts my art to the point that my right hand feels like it lives in a deterministic universe. It does not yet know what it can achieve, or how to achieve the styles that get me excited, and feels quite set on its course to make the type of art that it does. Ira Glass expressed the sentiment of being a person of taste whose capabilities have not yet met the high standards of one’s taste, which I think equally applicable to style.

Sontag notes the importance of repetition to style, which not only allows us to class it but also aids our memory (p. 34). It is easy to spot the patterns in any artist’s work, and this repetition allows us to explore something more fully, in a meditative way and, further, gives us a means to perfect our craft. Sontag goes so far as to say that being able to spot these repetitions is what makes art intelligible to the viewer (p. 35). Motifs are a powerful way of connecting with and communicating with our audience. Their frequent appearances are little clues to those familiar with our work, an ongoing dialogue, even an inside joke.

What is repeated depends on what it is that we care to emphasise. Sontag refers to the function of ‘insisting on something’ and removing other things—‘ the most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences’ (pp. 35, 36). ‘Every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive’ (p. 35). Art allows us so many means of distorting the world, narrowing it, making small parts of it larger, creating fantasies within it, glorying in it. We make these decisions every time we arrange a composition, or strike upon a colour combination, or obsessively note down leaf structures. It only remains for us to share our style—our inner experience of the world—in the outward objects we create. To do this, we must repeat what needs repeating, and in repeating develop our technical proficiency to match our style.

* Sontag, Susan. 1994. ‘On style,’ in Against interpretation. Vintage: London.

In the morning we are going on holidays!

Downtime, Berlin is a study after Yelena Bryksenkova. Uncertain about how to move away from realism, I attempted to reimagine my own image with some of her motifs and methods that I found appealing. While nothing is directly copied, the spirit of the piece feels too near to hers for my comfort. This has given me much to ponder—does my style approach hers, when I have the techniques needed at my disposal? I sense that I am far too attached to realism—particularly tone—but I did enjoy the opportunity to exploit patterns to such dramatic effect.

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Meandering luxuriously through time and space

To the Secret Forest © Samantha Groenestyn

I have a peculiar way of reading books, but I assure you that there is method in it. One book is most certainly not enough to read at any given time. This is because one reads for a variety of purposes, and certain purposes suit certain moods. One certainly wants some philosophy on hand, to feed one’s brain, but novels are equally rewarding in the relaxation they afford. Instructional texts are best read in small pieces, so that the information can be digested as tasks are performed. Multiple books of each type are necessary for contrast and comparison, as lenses through which to view one another, but most of all, to slow one down.

I started a Leonard Cohen novel about a year ago, and I am savouring every last sentence of the epilogue. This is a sure indication that I am attached to a book—I do not want it to end. The best way to prevent a book from ending is to read many other books concurrently and save the best one for optimal reading time. Optimal reading time will most likely involve lamplight, wine and your favourite music. Downtime is also excellent reading time, but generally less than optimal—on the train, waiting for the train, or waiting for your coffee date to arrive. There are always people causing distractions and saying ridiculous things that interfere with your reading. During my downtime, I am reading Oscar Wilde. He thinks he is very clever, and while his witticisms are overdone and forced, they are better than inadvertently hearing people’s conversations on the train.

Michelle Boulous Walker is working on what she calls an aesthetics of reading. Walker originally believed that her thoughts would uncover an ethics of reading, in that if we have a moral obligation to texts, it is that we afford them respect through reading them thoroughly and attentively. As she explained to me recently, aesthetics remains fiercely intertwined with this ethics.

The key to any philosophy of ethical reading is, as I see it, the notion of respect which recurs in her paper Becoming Slow: Philosophy, Reading and the Essay (2011).* This respect requires the dying art of patience—‘the patience involved in “sitting with” the world,’ reminiscent of the Situationist technique of De’rive, though, of course, with more direction. Where certain Situationists would lead their Parisian architecture classes in the mode of ‘drifting’—a solid day of drinking coffee on the terrace of a café, literally yet attentively watching the world go by for hours on end, learning by observing how people move in space (as Ve’ronique Vienne** describes), Walker calls for an equally slow indulgence in a book—a ‘rumination,’ as Nietzsche (p. 269) describes it; a ‘meditation’ in Walker’s words (p. 272). Nietzsche suggests that a serious reader, by contrast with ‘modern man,’ ‘need[s] to be a cow’ to possess such ruminative qualities. While not deliberately wasting time in order to resist boredom, as the Situationists sought to do, respectful readers will allocate sufficient time for reading, re-reading and meditating on texts that will, in the modern world, seem wasteful, behind and perhaps even disengaged. The irony is that expressing such patience allows ‘thought to emerge and respectfully engage with the world’ (p. 265, emphasis my own)—extending the ethics of reading into our broader experiences in the world.

Cows on the way to Brisbane's Secret Forest

Walker describes two forms of respectful meditation akin to reading: art and the essay. Art requires a slow approach to the world, a careful reading of visual stimulus, an attentive recording of forms and colours. An artist might approach the same subject matter again and again, perfecting technique and building up knowledge about that subject matter, be it a mountain range or human anatomy. Portrait artist Michael Shapcott captures this point when he explains: ‘It’s so fascinating to me that I can slightly alter the angle of an eye or the color of a cheek and the entire expression of the figure changes, changing the entire feel of the piece. The art of bringing emotion to a flat surface will always be a lifelong experience and learning process for me.’ Reading, I would suggest, is more akin to viewing art than creating it, though much art has provided mental food for centuries. Learning any process of creation can slow us down and help us to appreciate the art form in front of us—be it a few steps of ballet, opening our eyes to the complexity of a professional performance.

In terms of the essay—and I like to extend this to long-form writing in a more general sense—Walker (p. 274) summarises Adorno: ‘By refusing too hurriedly to seize the world, to understand it by containing it, to speak definitively, to summarise, or assimilate it, the essay offers us a future philosophy—one that holds out the hope for a slow engagement with the complexity and ambiguity of the world.’

Slow, meditative reading, argues Walker (p. 274), ‘would thwart our modern preoccupation with speed and haste, and open us to the wondrous space of a slow engagement that welcomes thought, rather than shutting it out.’

The Secret Forest

 

 

* Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2011. ‘Becoming Slow: Philosophy, Reading and the Essay.’ In The Antipodean Philosopher: Public Lectures on Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand, Volume 1. Eds. Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis. Lexington: Plymouth UK.
** Vienne, Ve’ronique. 2002. ‘The Spectacle: A reevaluation of the Situationist thesis.’ In Looking Closer 4. Eds. Michael Beruit, William Drenttel, Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.
↬ Hat tip to Emily Jeffords for putting me onto Michael Shapcott, who is about to embark on an ambitious project funded by fans through KickStarter.

News: My online shop is now open for business! Treat yourself to a print, or pen your friend or secret lover a poem on a charming note card. I will be adding more illustrations in a sedate and unhurried manner, and you are most welcome to request any favourites you would like to see make an appearance. x

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