An artistic medium is a partner

In "Free Play", Stephen Nachmanovitch points out that making art is like loving a person:  the drive to create something goes hand in hand with the limits of the medium and the painful self-discoveries along the way.  The tensions and vibrations of a violin, the colors and textures of paint, these are the things that artistic technique turns into expression. 
"...Falling in love with our instrument or with our work is much more like falling in love with a person, in that we experience the rapture and delight of the discovery, but then we are saddled with the effort of fulfillment, with love's labors and the hard lessons in which illusions are stripped away, in which we confront diffucult pieces of self-knowledge, in which we have to stretch our physical, emotional, intellectual stamina to the limits, in which our patience and our ability to persevere and transcend ourselves are tested."
Nachmanovitch also says that this is exactly why it's easier to love someone else's artwork:  at the end of the day you can walk away from it and go home.  You are not committed to it, driven by it.

I mentioned the other day that having preferences makes interacting with a medium more like a partnership, where it helps you and responds to you, and less like using a tool that would do the same for anyone.  A violin is not a terribly customizable thing, but the choices a musician makes while playing it create a set of limits:  key, time, etc.  These constraints are the artist's partner in creation.  Watch when children play a superhero game:  you can fly and I have super strength!  Their narrative grows within these constraints.

I'm thinking now of the English language and my partnership with it here on this blog.  The range of meanings available within my diction constrain my narrative.  For my first couple years doing this, I called it a "creative outlet", not trying to make too much of it to anyone.  Now I'm not afraid to call this art.  My facility with written English allows me to achieve a certain amount of flow.  I'll go one step further:  I've been using Microsoft Excel so much, for so long, that I can pretty much do whatever I want in it without thinking about the method - only the desired end result.

That probably sounds ridiculous.  But think about your tools.  What are you so good at that you work towards a result, not against a technique?


  1. I don't know why, but limiting the resources almost seems to be a requirement of creating art. Give Buddhist monks nothing but a floor and different colors of sand & they can make beautiful 'paintings'. Out of dirt, basically.
    If you gave them the nearly limitless capabilities of Photoshop, they'd probably produce kittens with slogans instead.
    Banging your head against the limitations of a medium is too frequently an excuse for not having mastered it.

  2. Being mostly in a technical field most of my adult life, consisting of construction drawings containing wall sections, etc. I have found that the creative part of me ends up pushing its way out. I will all of a sudden simply have to paint something, or even build something out of legos, or more often than not, write something.

    These bouts of creativity are like a bug in my brain that I must get out; it is imperative. The first book I wrote was a miserable thing, but it was a plot line, a cast of characters, and a group of settings that I had running around in my brain for a couple of years. Once I wrote it, the pressure was relieved. So much in fact that I have forgotten most of what I wrote, who the characters were and what they did.

    I have found myself stymied with a new medium; a drawing tablet, oil paints, a music writing program. I have never been able to start with the medium first and create art with it. It always starts with a bursting need and a search for the right medium to fulfill it.