Creative practice has been very difficult for me – how to start? – how to play? – how to develop ideas? – how to be confident? It is also probably the most important part of my work on my practice-based PhD, and yet by the end of the first year at UAL, I was still struggling. The struggle is common and cartoonist Calman describes the brain squeezing and inhibitions involved until he found a way to freewheel to ideas ‘almost without..thinking about it’:
‘I…cudgelled my brains to squeeze one more joke out… I began to discover how to tease ideas out of the material. I tried to stop that awful inhibitions that suffocates ideas before they can be given a chance to breathe. I allowed myself to freewheel so that a joke could surprise me by happening almost without my thinking about it’ (Calman 1986: 60)
This summer, I had time and space to work on developing my own practice and found similar solutions to Calman by devising an easier creative process with some excellent help from coach Laurence Shorter, and my cartoonist mentors – Simone Lia, and Nichola Streeten.
Lockdown has been fortuitous for creative space as solitary isolation also meant extra time for staring down problems without the usual social distractions. This summer helped build solutions to both neglected creative practice notes (i.e. this blog where I have endeavoured to catch up with ideas over the year) and the difficulty of managing a productive practice. Here is my solution that may or may not work for others (and hopefully my workshops ahead will explore this further).
The solution is an oddly easy process. There is no need to squeeze brains – Calman was on to something with his freewheeling non-thinking. My process these days builds on Laurence Shorter’s experiments in ‘non-doing’ in his project ‘The Art of No Idea’ (see post dated 04-05/08/2020) and works roughly in two blocks:
1. Do nothing for 20 minutes (10 minutes if you’re in a jam) – stare into space and silence and let the mind ‘constructively wander’. Accept that you have ‘no idea’ (this is where all ideas start) and enjoy relaxing into this free space.
2. ‘Noodle-doodle’ – my term for picking up a pencil and doodling anything that comes into your mind for 10 minutes. Continue to accept and relax about having ‘no idea’ – even if you have one and you have already doodled it. Other doodles will happen and other ideas (maybe better ones)…as Calman says just give them chance to breathe.
It is key here to enjoy and trust the process. It has not failed me yet.
Of course, it is not the salve to all things and human beings revisit old bad habits learned in corporate environments. Here is recent anecdote to demonstrate this. I was asked recently to illustrate a chapter for an academic book and I started to be overwhelmed and panic about the short time-scale on top of PhD tasks. My mentor cartoonist Simone Lia is incredibly sage and also incredibly funny. (Her funniest recommendation this week was for me to ‘open a steel factory to save the British industry!’) However, in more pertinent advice for my stressed panic, she told me to:
1. Set a time parameter of 2 or 3 hours ONLY to illustrate the chapter.
2. Own these two hours – be yourself, enjoy yourself, and only do the fun bit.
To illustrate a chapter in such a short time limit is unfeasible, but I trust Simone so completely that this thought was not as loud as my willingness to try. I used my usual creative process and stopped worrying about the immensity of the task or the time needed. The only time allowed was this and I had already decided to email the images afterwards as ‘draft’ ideas to see if my style was appropriate for their chapter. In my head, I always hear Nicola Streeten’s liberating mantra ‘You don’t care, just get it out there!’ before I send anything creative into the world. On the upside I thought, if the research group do not like the style for their chapter, then I am free to work on other ideas. The time limit was essential here, as was the limit of the deadline of email at the end of it.
In contrast to the earlier panic, I ended up enjoying myself and developing the visuals into the evening without concern for going over time. I perhaps spent 3 or 4 hours in the end. I drew rough ideas in my sketchbook and then quickly inked them up with the ‘Trace Table’ lightbox. The chapter involves concepts such as multiple identities, multiplicity of vision, and rhizomatic learning. My contact had also suggested that it would be nice to have cartoons of the researcher biographies. Here are a couple of the initial sketches:
Trust the process and the ideas. These examples are not perfect (nothing is) and actually imperfection is perfect for funnies. My favourite image from this creative session was my Vetruvian man to illustrate ‘everything connects to everything else’ for the chapter. Of course, the Vetruvian man is also supposed to have perfect proportions, but cartoons deliberately avoid and exploit this. I like it because it defies perfection (perfection bores me):
I received an email a few hours later to say only:
‘Quick email to say: I love your sketches! And thank you!’
It remains to be seen what the rest of the team think. Either way, ‘you don’t care, just get it out there!’ The doing is already the success, as it builds the cognitive and motor skills to do this kind of work.