Transforming an Idea

Or Being Transformed By It?

Ideas are far from static entities. I mentioned in another post that like the particles in Maxwell’s Demon, they will usually gain energy or significance only by colliding with other ideas, and thus are born of a process of synthesis or transformation anyway. But even an idea born whole -assuming that really exists- will benefit from different approaches to it. Transforming an idea puts you in the driver’s seat, even when you are not sure where you are going- especially when you are not sure. Taking ownership of an idea sometimes means taking it apart and putting it back together again. If you find you have parts left over, perhaps they didn’t belong there in the first place.

There are different strategies for transformation, and some are additive, and some are subtractive. It’s become a convention to speak of Picasso, for example, as a ‘creator/destroyer’ as Arrian Huffington once put it, and apart from the implications in an artist’s personal life, the famous time-lapse film of Picasso painting onto a clear panel, erasing whole areas and putting new elements in their place is an extreme (and possibly self-dramatized) example of the way process can be far from linear. A good book on Picasso’s  creative process that I’ve enjoyed recently is The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, by Rudolf Arnheim.

It is a bit of a self-drama, for me, anyway. I’m sure other artists might agree. One gets one’s favorite studio soundtrack going- let’s see, Pixies, or Phillip Glass? A stimulant can be added; now, it’s usually coffee, though I admit that wine or beer was more common in the early days. There is a certain choreography that pertains: anything from organizing the studio, to a restless pacing back and forth from close-ups to long view, a sort of rhythmic dance might even break out.

And then the adding and subtracting. This has a real metaphoric weight- it’s not just a surface arrangement. Questions of positive and negative space, visual weight and color messaging impact the meaning of an idea, the way it blossoms from pure visual immanence to a more objective literal object. No artwork can escape this fluid dynamic. 

So what can be added? Especially in printmaking, which is subject to the technical limitations on effects and processes that can be changed after they are once applied, and a general bias toward simplified graphic forms? The short answer is: distance and movement. There are many ways to add depth to a print, which by nature and design, can sometimes be flat. These range from the traditional, such as perspective, to other more abstract strategies.

Visual and metaphoric distancing strategies affect our reactions to a picture emotionally and analytically. This often takes place in terms of creating eye movement, which is the physical manifestation of ‘interest’ in looking at an artwork. Something detailed, heavily textured or just very hard-edged often gets our most immediate attention because of how the eye works. Something fuzzier, and less distinct feels ‘farther away’, less of an immediate question or challenge. Distance is the essence of ‘depth’ in an artwork. It also creates musicality when we consider that distance=rate x time. Similar objects, varied in size, and placed at regular intervals, create a rhythm and depth that becomes harmonizing. We follow the ‘beat’, moving into the space and time of a picture.

Textures can add energy and attract the eye, things such as “noise”, a word I  use to refer to ‘accidental’ by-products of ink manipulation- debris, extruded strokes, distressed color forms, and scratched-in forms, such as in clouds or dark areas. Textures impart important cues into an artist’s attitudes toward the basic shapes in a composition, and are not to be ignored. Texture sounds like a decorative detail, but two shapes, treated in a soft, fuzzy, mystery suggesting way; or in a hard-edged, definite, foregrounding way, can say different things about meaning. Literally and figuratively,  texture provides definition.

Edges and contours work the same way. A hard edge will physically ‘foreground’ an element, owing to the way the eye works; and in combination with a darker color can also create a sort of silhouette, a neat trick of adding both proximity and mystery to an object, a very basic and challenging question to the viewer’s eye: Do I stay here, or move around this, into what has by implication become a distance. Thus movement is created.

Contours bring softer, more reticent shapes forward. Contours can be textured to add intrigue or expressive notes, or faded to add mystery and metaphoric movement. Contours can be found in shapes that already exist in the image, or imposed on top of textures or patterns beneath. They can be somewhat arbitrary or even contrary, or harmonious and integral.

Textures can be stylized (semi-abstract), or realistic and sort of gritty or tonal. In monoprints, texture can also include different printmaking techniques such as relief, dry point, and collograph, among others; each offering a new ‘window’ into a separate reality, upping the way meta narrative can be incorporated. Whatever one’s opinion of Andy Warhol, his genius was to prove finally, conclusively, that art can never be wholly a matter of physical gesture. Ideas are born, live, and die in the mind. While his art is obviously about much more than printmaking, the surrealist juxtapositions of process color and deliberate mis-registrations inject the ultimate distancing effect of all- irony.  Viewed in these lights, texture and color, especially in printmaking, is anything but decorative.

“Treehouse”, 2019, 21×15″, Monotype. In every monotype, there are things one might wish to change, or that one hadn’t changed.

Color’s transformative qualities are magnified in printmaking. Transparency can form newly surprising or intriguing colors, change mood overall or in parts of the picture, or unify disparate elements. Transparency is a measure of color’s willingness to engage with other elements in a print.

Bright, warm colors bring the underlying elements forward; dark, subdued colors can make the overlapped elements recede. In printmaking, where color schemes are often simplified, accents can attract the eye to important areas, add irony or balance, or a visual counterpoint. When complementary colors are used, they can demonstrate visually the adage that “opposites attract”.

Positive/negative elements can foreground detail, or create visual reversals, which are energizing and add intrigue. As in famous optical illusions such as Necker Cubes, positive/negative elements in art can be both additive and subtractive, foregrounding and backgrounding, at the same time. A splash of textures or small shapes can lead from positive (dark) areas, in color on light areas and segue immediately into negative (light) shapes in a dark area. This is a cubist trick that leads the eye and breaks visual planes. Again, eye movement trumps surface illusion. 

As for the subtractive side of the creative process, As an idea becomes more developed it often becomes more complex. Other ideas and nuances accrete, leading to a signal to noise disjunct that can obscure a simple first idea. It can be liberating and freeing, in a creative sense, to simply take something out. Let the idea suggest itself, rather than spelling it out. If an idea isn’t strong enough to survive this at least you know that now.

And white space is well known, in printmaking’s cousin, advertising, to create places for the eye to enter a picture, or to rest briefly while considering a next move. Monotypes or prints without sufficient white space can sometimes feel heavy, or busy. With an often limited color palette, and no way to reclaim the resplendent whites once they’ve been printed over, this is not surprising. But balance in darks and lights doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 mix. A small, very bright white area of the original sheet showing through a mass of black ink can be very compelling.

When do the transformations end? It’s a question I get a lot in classes- when is it finished? Do I keep going and risk irreversible change, or stop and risk Superficiality and incompleteness? Transformations have consequences. Do I dare to eat a peach? is T.S. Eliot’s sublime, elegant and wholly understated version of this existential dilemma.

And it is very much existential. Change will happen anyway. Embracing change places you in the very engine room of the creative process. What to do there? I wish I had a simple answer for that in my own studio work. Be present. Open yourself to the movement and the music. 

My next workshop for adults with at least some printmaking experience is Mad Science Monoprint, beginning July 23. Register this week. The thoughts from this post will be on my mind then, and you are welcome to join the conversation.

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