Distance

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.


  1. Wikipedia has a great hi-res version that you should see and zoom in to see the wonderful textures and brushstrokes. Distance! 

“It has many children, this Hunger. Self-doubt is one of them. As is the desire to prove our worth. To live up to—no, to exceed—the expectations. The thing about Hunger is that it’s both the reason we accept new challenges and the fear that stands in our way. The starting gun and the hurdles. The muse and the misery. And what a combination! Hunger pushes us into unfamiliar territories and compels us to find new angles on familiar ones. It throws us in the middle of a busy intersection during rush hour. It puts an egg timer on our desk, says “you know that thing that usually takes you a whole afternoon? You have one hour. Go!” And by doing so, Hunger makes us better.”
“You always have to keep pushing to innovate. Dylan could have sung protest songs froever and probably made a lot of money, but he didn’t. He had to move on, and when he did, by going electric in 1965, he alienated a lot of people. His 1966 Europe tour was his greatest. He would come on and do a set of acoustic guitar, and the audiences loved him. Then he brought out what became The Band, and they would all do an electric set, and the auidence sometimes booed. There was one point where he was about to sing “Like a Rolling Stone” and someone from the audience yells “Judas!” And Dylan then says, “Play it fucking loud!” And they did. The Beatles were the same way. They kept evolving, moving, refining their art. That’s what I’ve always tried to do—keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”

Some of my favorite passages in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography are where Jobs is ruminating on creativity, life, and philosophy. One of my absolute favorites was in the final chapter of the book, Jobs is reflecting over his life and work and he shares this story about Bob Dylan performing Like a Rolling Stone.

I finished the book months ago but find myself thinking and talking about this small quote often. I like this story because I think it perfectly describes why both Dylan and Jobs are heroes of mine—art is about movement.

I just finished watching the documentary The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. Originally filmed in 1966 and introduced by Steve Allen, the 45-minute telecast features the legendary jazz musician Bill Evans in conversation with his brother, music teacher Harry Evans on the creativity of jazz, improv, and teaching music. This is one of my favorite parts, featuring Evans talking about the ideas behind improvisation.

The entire documentary is available to watch on YouTube.

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.

Read More

Part three of the online video series Everything is a Remix is all about The Elements of Creativity. The idea behind creativity and innovation is that it must happen in a network—no good ideas are ever birthed in isolation—they must build on what has come before.

I highly recommended Steven Johnson’s excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From that really dives into this idea. I completely devoured this book and it’s easily one of my favorite books I’ve read this year so far.

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.