Essay 4: Processes and Issues of Practice

I have always worked—to a certain extent—by setting up parameters and constraints for a given project. Parameters include such things as media, size, and aspect ratio, as well as working methods, thematic content, and titling. Setting parameters includes giving myself the freedom to change them when they don’t work, as well as looking for potential avenues of exploration beyond the rules I set for myself. Lately this has meant that I’ve been looking at my practice as a whole rather than as separate activities in specific media. This has sometimes made me think beyond the media I am familiar with and ask whether there are better ways to achieve my goals than in the media I’ve chosen.

In tandem with my process of setting parameters, I have a tendency to become serially obsessed with specific ideas or practices. This applies to my life in the studio as well as outside it. Once I have targeted a subject, I try to learn as much as I can about it, or deeply explore an area of art practice, moving on to a new area once my hunger is sated. In the studio, most of my obsessions have had to do with media: drawing, acrylic paint, woodworking, printmaking. As for my recurring imagery, I prefer to look at my exploration of the ineffable through stylized figures in landscapes as a continuing theme rather than an obsession. Examples of obsessions outside the studio include cycling, cooking, photography, and most recently juggling, among other things. All of these have eventually come back to my studio practice in one way or another.

For most of my career I have drawn compulsively. This has been less so in recent years but only because I have replaced it with other activities. From 1988-2002 I filled about sixty-five sketchbooks with approximately eight thousand drawings. Many of these were completed while I was in art school (1988-1992), but drawing has always been a self-directed practice rather than a response to assignments. Because of this I only ever submitted one or two of my sketchbooks for evaluation, and on those occasions it was under duress. My output tapered off as life—jobs, family, and their attendant demands on my time—took over, to the point where rather than completing a book in two to three weeks—or sometimes as little as two days—it would sometimes take over a year to fill a book. For the two years I lived in Japan (2003-2005) I switched to photography, averaging about a thousand photos per month. While the drawings serve as a foundation and source material for my paintings, sculptures, and digital images, I haven’t yet found where or whether the documentary-style photography I did in Japan has a place in my art practice.

For me, drawing is a way to practice looking and seeing, even when the drawing isn’t necessarily representational. This is also true with my exploration of photography and other media that involve cameras as tools to record the observed. I should clarify my attitude towards photography since I may appear to have contradicted myself. I have always seen photography as I practice it as a hobby that has many parallels to my art, but which is a separate enterprise. For me, aspects of the process of taking photos are similar to the creative demands of studio practice but photography simply serves as a surrogate when I am otherwise unable to do studio work. To date the only way I have directly integrated still photographic methods into my practice—video is another issue entirely—is by using them to create reference material for pieces executed by hand. Furthermore, while I do have ideas for photo-based bodies of work, I haven’t yet made any of them.

I find that if cameras are used in a similar way to drawing: as tools for focusing attentive observation, then there is a similar depth of practice. I find one of the great shortcomings of artists these days is that many have little or no vision, and their work rings hollow because it contains scant evidence of an ability see in the way that is developed through attentive observation of the world. There is a pervasive attention-deficit mentality that is weak in practice and vision, and strong in instant gratification and lip service. The net result is work that few people want to interact with, much less look at. Artist Jim Dine summed up the situation in the visual arts when he said that

The great failure is the lack of drawing. [Some] would say that there’s no need for it in modern art, but I think that’s the weakness in the art. The automatic quality of everything, the manufactured quality. What everyone thinks is great freedom is a lack of draughtsmanship. And the forced ugliness is true ugliness, I think. (Dine quoted by Shapiro in Lipsey 1988, 423) [Brackets in Lipsey]

In contrast to the shallow methods of the artists Dine and I critique, my art is very strongly grounded in a mental-physical-psychological practice, one which can be likened to the practice of martial arts or other disciplined forms of training. My methodology is more like composing and crafting worlds, rather than a process of channelling visions that one might see in an ethnographic documentary or at a new age gathering. As far as I know, I don’t have those sorts of visions, nor is my work an attempt to document sights seen by the visionary artists I describe in Essay 3 (Contemplation and Spirituality). I rarely remember my dreams, and have never been interested in keeping a dream journal. I found in the early years of my practice that drawing was my disciplined activity—a meditation of sorts—and that on one level was a search for self-knowledge. This phenomenon is also seen in some craft traditions, where Lipsey asserts there is an attitude that not only do craftspeople work, but they work on themselves. (Lipsey 1988, 469) He goes on to say that

…from all of the challenges facing the artist, flows the recognition that art can be a discipline of the whole being, not in the puritanical sense of painful effort but in the sense of learning what and how to pay for a knowing spontaneity. It is a work of the mind alert, body alert, feelings turned again and again both toward the task at hand and toward the artist’s own internal resources. This struggle and communion with oneself, with materials, with techniques, with ideas and images—how could this not be a teaching? (Lipsey 1988, 470)

This is something that parallels the Japanese martial arts practice of kata, the repetition of a set form until it becomes second nature:

The idea is that one practices for years a “form” (kata) that goes counter to the natural movements of the body and thus requires tremendous discipline—to the point of a breakthrough to a “higher naturalness” that is exhibited when the form has been consummately incorporated. This kind of spontaneity gives the impression… of something “supernatural.” (Parkes 2005)

This is an aspect of practice I came to understand in art school as a printmaker, that I think many painting students—who were often seduced by the immediacy of their medium—didn’t understand or simply didn’t find relevant. I found that my disciplined attention to printmaking and my daily drawing practice eventually resulted in a refinement of my innate skills to a point where technique became secondary. I could make a good drawing or print whenever I turned to those media with the intention to do so.

Despite the strong parallels, for me this connection of disciplined artistic practice to Japanese kata is a recent one. I’m a weak scholar of Asian religions so I can only guess as to the relationship, but this Japanese attitude toward kata strikes me as very similar to a Chinese principle found in Taoism, where there is “emphasis on total absorption in practice of a highly cultivated skill.” (Hansen, 2003) At the time when I was most fully engaged in my daily drawing practice, I hadn’t considered this principle as prime motivator. Indeed, I only found out about it recently. But I’m sure that aspects of this idea must have been lodged in my subconscious through exposure to my father’s research into Chinese religions and my own forays into the study of Taoist philosophy.

For me, the issues that dominate in the studio are composition, layering, texture, and colour: how to make something. This could be seen as the Taoist “total absorption in practice of a highly cultivated skill.” Occasionally I start with a theme, and often I’ll try to nudge meanings here and there. But these meanings eventually spring forth or are coaxed into being as a consequence of intuitive, nonverbal processes rather than as an intentional product of an attempt to visually illustrate a theoretical concept.

Many artists start with words—a verbal statement or concept—that they want to express visually. In contrast, I start with materials and intention rather than words. If any overall concept has bearing on my practice, it’s the idea of creating evocative nonverbal imagery.1 The acts of deciding to make work in a specific medium, and selecting source artwork—or taking up materials and starting with nothing, a blank page—set in motion the process of problem-solving which leads to the finished work. I find that my images come about as part of the process artist Setsuya Kotani refers to when he says of his studio practice that “In the end, immediate problems are of a plastic nature” (Kotani in Lipsey 1988, 26) and which Lipsey goes on to explain as “workshop problems, not problems of verbal philosophy.” (Lipsey 1988, 26) I find very much that my working process is one in which I find myself solving these problems Kotani talks about.

I used to consider my generative process as similar to automatic drawing—a method the Surrealists practiced and popularized—where one completely lets go of conscious thought and allows unconscious mental processes to take over. In this surrealist technique I found parallels to the trance mediums I had seen as a child in Taiwan, where spirit possession was claimed as the source of divinatory messages.2 Discovering the Surrealists—especially Miro—validated the methodology for me and allowed me to integrate what I already knew from observational experience into my own practice. It has since become a staple of my generative process.

However, although my process hasn’t changed, after having recently done further reading about automatic drawing—including descriptions as well as critiques of the methods—I’ve come to the conclusion that my own process isn’t really automatic as such. It’s more like a sort of disinterested interest where I don’t have a clear goal in mind at the outset—aside from the intention to make a good drawing—and simply compose and react to the marks on the page. Further research led me to conclude that my process is very similar to what Salvador Dalí called the “Paranoiac-Critical Method” and described as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”(Dalí, unreferenced in Wikipedia 2006: Paranoiac-critical method) In plain words, my interpretation of Dalí is that the process is a matter of making spontaneous marks, and then interpreting them and reinforcing the interpretations in order to create intentional meanings and images.3 This is a very accurate description of the way I draw, a process which is not as fully “automatic” as I once believed. My conscious mind is involved. At all times I’m aware of what I’m drawing, and consciously guide the process. This is perhaps one of the reasons why my individual drawings almost always have a unified composition, and sequential works so often have such a strong sense of continuity.

If my drawing in sketchbooks—a kind of glorified doodling—is the visual equivalent of a musical jam, where the drawing is like an improvisation, then my process of going from one or more sketches to a completed piece is very similar to the way jazz musician and film composer Mark Isham describes the way he composes music. Asked if his jazz background affects his film scoring process, Isham says

Composition is actually being able to get down a great improvisation. It’s the same act, as far as I’m concerned. You’re making up music. You’re creating something. The jazz world puts you in front of an audience, and you create something there with a few signposts that have been put up to guide you. Composition is the same thing, except that you are allowed to go back and revise and improve and restructure. To me, the high-tech way of composing is great because I can just improvise scads of stuff, and then the music editor in me can come in and just say, “Well, let’s rearrange. We’ve got to get to that point in the film sooner, so let’s take those eight bars out.” I’m improvising in the style of late Romantic orchestral music. And when I get a good improvisation, I can fine-tune it, and that becomes a composition. (Isham in Davis 1999, 305-306)

Through long practice, I’ve developed the skills to bring any drawing to resolution much the same as a skilled musician is able to bring the music and audience back to centre after even the wildest improvisatory rides. My process of making completed digital works—or sculptures or paintings—is similar to the process Isham describes of the musician going into the studio with some skeletal ideas from a jam, and creating a polished arrangement through studio techniques, editorial intervention, and further improvisation. Having been a frequent improvisor myself, and on very rare occasions involved in or witness to studio recording sessions, I can completely relate to Isham’s description.4

In the past, to make a finished piece—relief sculpture, digital image, painting—I used to take a single sketch created using my generative process, and reinterpret it in my chosen medium. Because most of the sketches were black and white—usually line drawings—it was simply a matter of tracing, redrawing, or constructing the source image in the target medium, and adding colour. More recently, my process has been to take a number of sketches, collage them together to create new compositions—adding complexity and layering—and then work them up into finished pieces. During this “finishing” process, I adjust and rearrange the composition as necessary and follow “forks” to create or spawn new pieces. Additionally, sometimes the work calls for new compositional elements which I create using methods akin to the spontaneous drawing process. My methodology allows for variants, whether or not they’re recognizable as variants. This is much more complex than the mechanical “paint-by-number-esqueness” of my old process which had a linear progression from nothingness to sketch to finished piece. Instead, I now find overlaps in both directions. I bring new drawing to the finishing process, and this finishing process has an impact on future drawings, creating a kind of feedback loop.

As my practice has developed, I’ve come to examine my working processes less for their own sake, and more as they relate to using the medium to help create the work. This is in contrast to using the medium only to achieve a finished manifestation of a sketch or concept in that specific medium. Whether this newer, more complex approach I developed working digitally will apply in physical works where the materials are less amenable to variants is yet to be seen. From my experience of seeing my drawing process affected by things I learned when making texture-carved relief assemblages, I suspect that it will.

Let me now turn from issues of how I work, to issues of what I do when I don’t have a studio practice. In these situations, which have been far more common than I would have liked, I try to find activities from daily life that demand a similar kind of attention that the studio asks for.

Regardless of whether or not I’ve been in the studio, I have to eat every day. Since I enjoy cooking, I figured that if I put a bit more creativity and energy into food preparation, that it could be a daily creative act in the absence of studio time. This still applies today, but it was especially helpful during the years I worked as a graphic designer and found that the stresses of that industry made me too tired and creatively drained to be able to have a regular studio practice. For me, cooking is not the simple preparation of metabolic fuel. Inspired by Japanese cuisine, whenever possible I strive for not only harmony of tastes and textures, but also visual appeal in the food I prepare.

When I worked as an English teacher in Japan, I found that though every week I would set aside a regular time to work in the studio, I was rarely able to focus on the practice. There were so many other things going through my mind that I couldn’t cut through the noise to find the creative signal. Instead, I found that I was able to take photos and through writing about these photos and my experiences in Japan—and posting daily to my blog—discovered another creative outlet.

However, I find that writing takes a completely different focus than does the creation of visual works. I haven’t analyzed it in depth, but I found in Japan that although I definitely didn’t have the proper mental focus to make visual works, it wasn’t much of a problem for me to write. And once I learned the basics and overcame my self-consciousness, taking photos became habitual. I think this has something to do with differences in the types of creativity I was engaging in. A key part of my practice as a visual artist is generative. That is, I create something from nothing. On the other hand, my writing—and the photography that supported a lot of that writing—was primarily journalistic. I was, in effect, a recorder, commentator, editor. These are all things that are also aspects of my visual practice, but they don’t form the core of it. Professional writers might disagree with me, but within my own practice, I find that the act of writing is a completely different creative act from the act of drawing. More specifically, even though a great deal of my process of creating finished works—as opposed to sketches—is in many ways editorial, I find that writing a piece of non-fiction prose is a completely different act than creating an evocative landscape within an imagined world populated by archetypal beings.

This discussion of external circumstances that sometimes force me treat everyday living as my creative outlet—or to otherwise find alternate means of expression—leads to one final area of practice: collaboration. My interest in working on creative projects with others is affected by many of the same factors that lead to times of no studio practice. Because studio life is so often a solitary endeavour, artists often enjoy working with others. But I rarely want to collaborate with others on creative projects. The key factor is a lack of uninterrupted studio time, which is often so valuable that once I finally get some, I want it all to myself. This selfishness—especially during the time I made my living as a designer—was compounded by the fact that not only was studio time precious, every design project at my day job was a kind of collaboration. Usually the circumstances of a designer make it difficult to choose clients/collaborators. As such, at a time when many of my artist colleagues were raving about their collaborative projects and encouraging me to work with other artists, I felt badly that I had no desire to do so.

With this talk of my tendency towards selfishness in the studio, a lack of mental focus while in Japan, and before that the talk of obsessions and compulsive behaviours followed by comparisons with a surrealist technique that includes the word “paranoia,” one might wonder about my mental stability. However, rather than these negative connotations, I prefer to look at them positively. The lack of mental focus characterized by my time in Japan was more a kind of overstimulation, something that has subsided. Given enough time for reflection I will eventually integrate my Japan experiences into the practice. I prefer to see my obsessions and compulsions more as keen interest and dedication to deep knowledge and practice. And rather than paranoia—with all of its negative connotations—I see in myself an ability to recognize or make patterns and connections that are unusual or at least not ordinarily seen by others. And truly, despite all of the mundane substitutes I’ve found for the times I can’t get into the studio, my psychological health is much stronger when I’m actively working on creative projects than when I’m not. Regardless of how fulfilling alternate activities such as cooking and writing may be, eventually I always find that I have to make art. Otherwise I’m miserable, short-tempered, and—as my family can attest—generally hard to live with.


  1. This has not always been the case. In the past I have made images that integrate text, or explore a specific theme, or record the observed world in a literal way. But for the most part—and for the last number of years—visually expressive evocation has been the main focus of my work. ^
  2. My father was a scholar of Chinese religions, and during a sabbatical year in Taiwan would sometimes take me and my siblings with him when he went to do field research. I was only seven years old at the time so my memories are vague, but I remember seeing a variety of trance mediums in action. ^
  3. This may or may not be an orthodox translation of Dalí as regards the Surrealist canon but in adhering to the spirit of the Surrealist tradition, I’ve molded it to suit my argument. ^
  4. I started in music with training in classical violin and viola, then went on to play traditional fiddle music of the British Isles, as well as celtic-influenced rock music. I also became a founding member of the sonic improvisation ensemble DUCT. After approximately eight years with the group, I eventually left DUCT for two reasons. First of all there were unvoiced differences in the aesthetics of what constitutes free improvisation. The second, and possibly larger factor, was that I was unsatisfied with my technical skills as a musician yet at the same time was unwilling to devote the necessary time to practicing in order to bring my ability in line with my expectations. To me, the logical action in light of this unwillingness to become the musician I expected of myself was not to lower my standards, but to step away from the instrument. ^