A friend recently asked me about my creative process. I had never given it much thought, and writing about it has been enlightening: there is a method to the madness I never noticed. Here is what I discovered:
The Design Process
When I first meet with clients onsite, looking at the wall, ideas flow easily. I see a lot of possibilities. This “spatial intuition” screeches to a halt when I sit down to my computer to actually create the design. For me, the design phase is the most difficult step in bringing an idea to fruition.
To make it over this hump, a deadline is required. I schedule the task on my calendar. At the appointed time, instead of starting on the design, I begin to clean my house. It is a sophisticated form of procrastination that can sometimes take a whole day. All pencils must be sharpened even though I design on a tablet. My dry-erase desk surface must be spotless. I am very, very busy in this phase.
At some point, exahsuted from all the cleaning, I give up on getting any real work done that day and just let myself take a nap. To me naps are delicious. Like eating dessert.
After I nap, bingo, the idea comes. Even though I might have only a short window of time before I have to cook dinner/pick up the kids/ be somewhere, I know exactly what I want to create. This clarity gives me the momentum to sit down at my desk and start work on the design. Once it is started, I am over the hump, and picking the task up again later becomes easier.
This sequence of events always comes as a surprise.
I also create a lot of my designs at 6 am on Sunday mornings. It’s a quiet, low stakes time of day when my mind is fresh, and there is nothing else to do. There also might be missed Friday deadlines that factor into this scenario.
The Painting Process
The painting process is much easier for me and requires no deadlines or other tricks to outwit resistance. This is the part I love to do. I wait to think through how I will execute the details of the mural until the evening before I begin work. This is not procrastination, but a strategy to make sure the ideas are fresh in my mind. My intent for the artwork emerges from the creative tension between what the space calls for, the client’s preferences and concerns, and my own creative edge that I want to push with each project. I mull over the project as I am falling asleep, like a koan for my subconscious to work out. It is in the early morning, when I am just coming awake,, that I receive clarity on how I will approach the project. I can see the image of what I want to create very clearly in my mind.
I paint one project at a time. I typically only paint for 5 hours each day but I can’t “let it go” mentally until the mural is complete. If it is a big project and spans multiple weeks, I am still mulling the details in my head over the weekend. Even if I can finish a job in one day, I spread it out over two because the mental reboot of a good nights sleep is essential to the refining process.
When I am painting, I don’t like to be disturbed. That is the reason I prefer to work alone. I listen to music but silence cell notifications. I have two or three playlists I have played at least fifty times. I’m not really paying attention to the music, but it helps me focus.
When I paint at schools, students will often ask me why I am painting with my eyes closed. They are not actually closed, just half open. Softening my eyes happens on it’s own when I am paying close attention to my intuition and imagination as I paint.
Slow and Steady
My creative process might seem grossly inefficient. I am not sure a creativity workshop where we scrub floors and nap would attract many registrants. Instead of maximizing output, to me creativity is like laying eggs. It’s not voodoo, it just takes time. Rushing doesn’t produce more results. It’s a slow method, but I have been steady; I recently completed my 397th mural project.
Here are a few time lapse videos that show, start to finish, a few recent projects come to life:
And yes, both deadlines and naps were skillfully employed in the creation of this newsletter.
Happy Leap day!