Introduction to Art/What is the Creative Process?

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Concept + Medium[edit]

The notion of artistic or creative process has been the subject of much debate and research [1] as that of the nature of art itself. Some insist that creativity is by nature spontaneous, while others argue that undirected spontaneity is a random mess and that creativity consists of the original use of accomplished technique. This article will suggest an approach to process which can yield practical results in a context of self-evaluation.

All art consists of a concept embedded in a medium. The concept is what the artist wants to show to the audience. It may be an emotion, information, or (most often) some combination of the two. Representational art, which alludes to some real phenomenon - that is, something which is identifiable by a majority of people - may be said to have a subject. Abstract art may have a subject in the mind of the artist, but if this subject is not readily apprehensible by most viewers, either from the artwork itself or its title, then any imputation of subject is in the mind of the audience and will vary between individuals.

The medium is the mode of expression or communication used by the artist to convey the concept at hand. It may be concrete, as in the case of a painting or sculpture, or ephemeral, as in the case of a sound recording, motion picture, or book. Although copies of these latter works exist in physical form, they are not meant to be appreciated for their physical manifestation. Such ephemeral artworks are meant to be appreciated in the dimension of time rather than all at once in space. Motion pictures are the medium that currently come closest to presenting art in a spatial and temporal context simultaneously.

Regardless of the medium employed, the creative process is essentially the same. Gross differences between artists in their methods of realizing an art work can generally be ascribed to the differing technical requirements of the medium. Thus the sculptor must shape clay or use a hammer and chisel to hit a lump of rock, while a photographer arranges a camera in a certain relationship to the subject of the photograph. These differences are superficial. We will now examine the unifying factors which are common to all works of art and the process of creating art.

First is a technical understanding of the medium. This consists of knowledge of the materials that the artist is working with and knowledge of how it may be manipulated to fit the conception of the artist. In the case of painting, this might include a knowledge of the behavior of different types of paint and the degree to which they can be intermixed, an appreciation of how paint transfers from a bush or other applicator to a canvas or other surface, a knowledge of how to blend different colors of paint together to obtain a new color, and so forth. Understanding of the medium is measured by the degree to which an artist can produce an arbitrary result on demand - for example, an understanding of color in oil painting would allow an expert to match the color of any given object by blending others.

Complete understanding of a medium is not necessary for the creation of art. Indeed, a full understanding of a medium does not equate to a capacity for creation. Such a full understanding may be available to the scientist or critic, but this only allows them to define the bounds of possibility for expression within the medium. It should be noted that such bounds can only be defined negatively: we cannot say what is the full range of shapes and textures available to the sculptor, but we can assert with confidence that the techniques of sculpture are not applicable to choreography.

Some understanding of a medium is necessary for the production of art. In the simplest case, we can say that no drawing is possible until the would-be artist has grasped the idea of using an object to make a mark upon a surface. At the other extreme is the understanding of how to render any given effect on demand, as noted above. Staying with drawing, such a skill allows the artist to produce accurate renditions of arbitrarily complex subjects - for example, it takes great mastery of technique to make a drawing of a hand which is indistinguishable from a photograph.

In general, technique can be highly admired. However, it is regarded as being of less importance since the invention of machines which embody nothing but technique, such as cameras or automated musical software. Art which relies heavily on expression at the expense of technique is called 'naive'. Naiveté may be the result of a lack of training (such as Outsider Art [2]), however the contemporary artist may deliberately make a statement about the unimportance of technique or choose to mimic the style and characteristics of the untrained (often imitating the work of children). At the opposite extreme, and quite rare, are those individuals known as idiots savants, who can produce highly accurate reproductions of things seen or heard, but are quite unable to produce anything original from their imagination.

While understanding of a medium gives the artist the knowledge of how to produce something, expression is the ability to decide what to produce, and make choices about the manner of production. We can say that expression consists of having something to say to the audience; this may be a declaration of beauty, a declaration of affinity between two apparently dissimilar objects or phenomena, or a desire to give form to an abstraction and make a commentary thereon.

Communication is equally important as expression. While many of the traditional arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) are expressive and emotional, contemporary society a multimedia visual culture. Many artists such as graphic designers, storytellers, and illustrators use the elements and principles of visual design to effectively convey the intended information.

The elements and principles of visual art have been studied for many years, resulting in rules or standards for composition. These rules can be strictly applied, used as loose guides, or intentionally broken. Their goal is often to achieve balance, optimize impact, or more thoroughly communicate or express the concept.

Thus, we can summarize the creative process as the application of an individual's concept to a medium which they have some skill in manipulating. For the ambitious artist, the task is to first find a medium in which they want to represent something, develop some level of skill in shaping that medium to represent simple things, and finally to choose something for representation which can be realized without too many distracting refinements of technique. The surer one is about how to do something, the more concentration can be applied towards the question of what to do, and the more natural and unobtrusive the medium will be in conveying the intended impression.