One of the gazillion nice things about art (or about people, if you like) is how no two artists (or people) think alike. It always used to amaze me back at art school how a bunch of people could be sitting in front of the same flowers or fruit or model and still come up with different things. Nobody ever painted or drew the subject in exactly the same way.
The thought process behind the production of art is different for everybody. There’s no, single, ‘correct’ way, if you will, to think of what to paint. In taking off from my previous entry on how reflecting on why you’re painting can help you come up with something to paint, this entry zeroes in on the actual how to think of something.
Like I said, even if you’re twins or very much in love, no two people are ever going to think exactly alike or conceptualise exactly the same painting. (Okay I take back the latter, as there may be grandfathered exceptions I am unaware of.)
So all I can offer here is how I go about it, in the hopes that it might give you some idea of how you could go about it, too. Especially if (continuing again from where my previous post left off), you’re doing No.13: You’re painting because you have a show.
The Geek Interpreter
Generally, I have two main methods of thinking up a painting which I use equally often, but if I were asked for like my main-est method, I would probably have to say Interpretation. This involves me interpreting or giving my own take on a concept or a narrative. In this approach, you’re taking off from (or playing with) what’s already there—even if it’s just one word.
In the closest thing I have to an artist’s statement (which you can find elsewhere on this site), the single-word concepts I gave as examples were ‘hunger’ and ‘anger’. (Hmm, I don’t seem to have changed very much in the ten years that have passed since I wrote that statement, lol.) So, offhand, if I were to have interpreted ‘hunger’, I might have made something like this:
Okay, so I didn’t exactly have ‘hunger’ in mind when I made that bug. Closer to home, I think, if I were to have interpreted ‘anger’, I might have made something (more) like this:
No excuse for this one, I’m afraid, save perhaps my relative youth-slash-inexperience, at the time. But I’m sure you get how interpretation works as a way to think of something to paint. Take a concept, a story, poem, song or a piece of music. Close your eyes and try to see what comes to mind when you hear it—when the words are read or spoken or as the music plays.
As you watch the images form before your mind’s eye, you might also want to consider the material aspect of your work (remember the ‘conceptual’ and ‘material’ aspects I told you about in my previous post?). What medium or techniques, or colours, lines, shapes, textures and so on would you use that would help you interpret the concept, story or whatever, better?
Other processes I’d lumped in under Interpretation include word play, cultural association and personal opinion. Word play has always been a thing for me (being a writer, I suppose), mainly (and probably only) because it’s fun. An example of this would be ‘The Seer’:
Facile, I know, but maybe some of you might have fun with the word play method, too. I also have the tendency to name or title my work this way, because some people have a little trouble thinking of titles for their work, as well. (Me, when I can’t think of anything or I really don’t want to call it anything I just put ‘Untitled’, lol.)
Cultural association is how something is visualised according to a specific culture—like how East and West have different ways of representing dragons. Personal opinion is pretty obvious, although some people might try interpreting other people’s opinions in their own work.
Extrapolate, then Create
The second of the two main ways I ‘think things up’ is Extrapolation—if Interpretation involves playing with what’s there, Extrapolation is all about playing with what isn’t there yet. To oversimplify the dictionary definition, if there’s an ABC, then DEF is likely to follow—the continuation of an existing trend.
In contrast to Interpretation, which is personal or subjective, Extrapolation, to me, takes a more ‘scientific’ or objective approach to conceptualisation. In my pseudo-artist’s statement (I really ought to make a proper one sometime), I explained this by saying ‘what would a monster look like based on its habitat or prey’. Take the wengalores in ‘Tessa’s Poem’, for instance:
I think I came up with wengalores around the time I was working my last job at an ad agency-ad agency. (And if I remember it right, I named the species after what a co-worker called another one of our co-workers at the time.) I remember wondering what the people of a planet that was entirely covered by water would look like.
Even if this planet didn’t have dry land, it had these enormous trees growing out of the sea floor (or something). And I thought, some of these people would be more adapted for swimming, others for flying (depending on whether they lived in the roots or the branches).
So some wengalores had ‘wings’ that looked more like fins, while others had ‘wings’ with giant scales instead of feathers. Naturally, they would be covered with scales, have the requisite webbed hands, yadda yadda.
And that’s not hair on their heads, by the way, at least not as we know it. Under a microscope it would look a lot like the filmy fins or tails on long-tailed fish like goldfish (my bad, I’d paint hair the same way regardless anyway, hee).
In any case, even if you weren’t painting monsters, you might still be able to apply Extrapolation to your conceptualisation and/or production process by dint of its being the ‘continuation of a trend’. In other words, that logical thought process of what your subject could be or would look like based on what you have at hand.
Very simply, say for instance you were painting a house—depending on where the house was, it may or may not have a pool, a fence, window shutters or a tiled or a thatched roof. If it had a garden, you could extrapolate as to the kind of flowers it would have or, if it had a clothesline out back, the kind of clothes and linen that would be hanging from it.
I guess a fun way to use Extrapolation would be to counter the logic in a sort of ‘Anti-Extrapolation’ that doesn’t make sense. Like hanging a ball-and-chain, a crowbar or a monkey from that clothesline, or putting a dinosaur on top of the house instead of a roof for no good reason and making him wear a feather boa.
Brand Old Map
Many people (myself included) find it helpful to write things down or to doodle when they think up paintings, with many of them keeping their scribbles in a journal of some sort. As trite as it is, it really is useful to keep a notebook or something to write things down in when a brainwave hits just to make doubly sure you remember it later.
Some like to make like the Surrealists and write and doodle automatically, while others prefer a more structured or guided brainstorming process such as mind mapping. Branching out from a central theme or ‘striking leaf blades off of a stone core’, so to speak, can be particularly useful when you’re planning for a show.
This way, each branch (or stone knife or scraper) could represent an individual painting, and you can be sure that each work ties in with the others to form a cohesive or unified collection for your exhibit.
As an example, if I had made a mind map for 'Horselords' (because I hadn’t; I really only wrote things down), it might’ve looked something like this:
In a way, you could say that in conceptualising for 'Horselords' I used both Interpretation and Extrapolation. I interpreted some of the traditions surrounding tikbalangs and I extrapolated what they might look like if certain species were combined with certain human body types.
So both methods aren’t mutually exclusive and may be mixed and matched—and guided, or directed somewhat using mind maps or some form or other of note-taking.
In any case, I hope this has helped to show you how you might decide on what to paint, if you should still be stuck after determining why—especially if the reason is a show of your own. If you’d like a few more pointers for planning an exhibit, keep your eyes peeled for next month’s post, or feel free to poke me and I’ll be happy to do what I can in my humble capacity to help.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.