Rembrandt’s The Artist in his Studio is one of my favorite paintings.1 I like art that shows craftsmen toiling away at their craft, but what I really love about Rembrandt’s is that the artist pictured has stepped away from his canvas. He’s taken a break from the actual act of painting to see his progress from a distance.
As artists, we sometimes tend to be too close to our work. This comes from intensely caring about what we are making and is the cause of those late nights and long hours. And in those long hours slaving away at our craft, it becomes very easy to lose perspective of the bigger picture. We can forget our work’s place in the world and how it relates to that which surrounds it. When we are close, we are concerned with the tiny details: the brushstrokes, the button states, the kerning, the exact word to use. But once we step back, we can focus on the whole work: the composition, the layout and flow, the user experience, the story. The creative process involves this act of switching contexts, of varying one’s distance with their own work in order to objectively judge it’s value and purpose.
Rembrandt’s painting reminds us of the importance of distance in our work. When we are too close to what we are doing, we fail to see the the bigger picture. By providing distance, both literally and figuratively, we can return to our work with fresh eyes and clear perspective. It is then that we can confidently continue working with a better understanding of why we do what we do.
Why Man Creates
If you have 25 minutes this weekend, I recommend watching Saul Bass’s short documentary film, Why Man Creates. The film was produced in 1968 and written by design icon Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon and provide a look at creativity through a series of animated vignettes.
I’ve included the entire documentary, in two parts via YouTube, after the jump. Enjoy.
But no matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing, it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess – but it’s agony, agony, agony – while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world – and that’s the creative process which so few people understand.
It involves an indestructible sort of fidelity, an insane sort of hope, and indescribable sort of…well, it’s love, isn’t it? There’s no other work for it…And don’t throw Mozart at me…I know he claimed his creative process was no more than a form of automatic writing, but the truth was he sweated and slaved and died young giving birth to all that music. He poured himself out and suffered. That’s the way it is. That’s creation…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process. It’s in the nature of things.
So in the end, every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears – everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.
—Harriet the sculptor’s speech from Susan Howatch’s novel Absolute Truths via Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars.