Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Being an artist and a generally creative person, I am always asking myself a similar question as I move from project to project - and from one stage of the creative process to the next: how do I keep pushing myself and my work to maintain an upward trajectory of progress? Typically, I categorize successes and micro-wins under three general, high-level categories: technical, conceptual and emotional. When I feel as though progress is being made - and felt - I am usually treading across fresh snow in one of these domains. For example, a technical win may be executing a new technique to more accurately render a portrait likeness. A conceptual win may be a new and innovative way of communicating a concept. An emotional win may be the successful presentation of a piece to elicit a specific emotion from the viewer - and myself. The key to general growth and progress is proper technical, conceptual and emotional balance on the part of the creator. Regardless of style, medium and platform, a creator will be oriented for maximal effectiveness and output in these domains when they take the embracing and encompassing position between the known and unknown of a given project. A useful visual might be to picture what you see when you look out toward the ocean from the shore of a beach. You see a blue sky and a bluer ocean. What does your eye see that defines the boundary between the two? The horizon. The horizon is the central, fuzzy and always approachable yet ever-receding place where the ocean and sky meet - this is where you want to be, or at least, be sailing toward. The known is what we are comfortable with. It's that which we have experience with and the tools for. This is to say, the area of a project which we have executed many times and are capable of doing almost unconsciously. This is partly because it is unconscious. Put simply, when a skill is refined, honed and understood, the parts and processes of our brain which are responsible for the execution of the skill no longer requires our full attention and articulation. This can be thought of like muscle memory. If Dave Matthews needed his full and undivided attention to play his songs on the guitar every night, he likely would not be offered stadium tours. The brain here essentially says: "Okay, I’ve got this - put the guitar on auto-pilot, Dave needs to sing." The "unknowns" are the challenges we anticipate, but do not necessarily have the direct experience to contend with comfortably - chaos in its purist form. It is that which can leap into a project (and our lives) at any second to challenge our skills and ability. When we are challenged with something new, we are working very consciously and very attentively. Our right brain hemisphere (roughly oriented for processing novelty and the unknown) is fully engaged and firing away. This would be the lights that are on in the brain when someone like Dave Matthews is in the studio developing new music via a jam session with his band. The music is not quite stage ready and requires careful attention and reflection in order to arrive at a coherent and playable piece of music.
When an artist, musician or writer is only wallowing in the shallow end of the pool of their experience, their work can be boring, repetitive and disengaging. Likewise, when a creator is immersed in too much chaos and is contending with too much of the unknown, their work is often unarticulated, overly conceptual and lacking in substance. Art that embraces a proper balance of these elements - the known and unknown - speaks to us. It speaks to us because we value growth and progress. We value someone who virtuously and courageously brings an impressive skill to an even more impressive height. We value someone who can bring something new and maybe even useful into the world. I would argue that in the visual art world, these qualities can be read directly in the work. When we are balancing ourselves on the horizon, we are cultivating what we know while simultaneously allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to chaos and the unknown. Add time to the equation, and you get growth! Today's chaos is tomorrow's order. What does this process produce over the course of a creative life? A skilled and enriched individual capable of articulating their voice to the best of their ability. An individual who has mastered the uncomfortable state of anxiety and vulnerability. An individual who can look back at a body of work and say, "I ran from nothing and truly did the best I could." In other words, one hell of an artist.