Friday, May 1, 2009

Intent and process in creativity

The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live Victor Hugo

Art is not a study of positive reality, but a seeking after ideal truth. George Sand

Art has always been a part of culture. It is the way humans express themselves, whether it is in the form of a painting, a piece of music, or literature. Art has always been the greatest outlet for expression and the easiest way to get an idea across to a large group of people.


Roberto Mari collected smoothed pebbles from the beaches and river beds of Tuscany and turned them into works of art by using the fracture lines as a guide to divide his colours into zones or fields. The Italian for smoothed pebble is ciottoli (pronounced chottoly). He made a pun on the name by referring to this inorganic universe of pebbles as Giottolandia. Giotto is the name of the painter who kick-started the move towards realism in Renaissance art.

These are some of the phrases translated from a brochure describing these objects.

"If human beings weren't able to note the passing of time (i.e. the geological events that produced the pebbles) they wouldn't be capable of feeling the sensible world and its objects in space"

"Ciottoli are stones that trigger new experiences, sensual feelings and scenes"

"They become the object and the subject of photographs that reveal them as high quality icons like natural paintings. Their hidden secret becomes decoded by the artist through his microphotos which have a strong, aesthetic impact"

“Giottolandia brings a reflection of the relationship between man and nature to the centre of our consciousness”.

You can see photographs of some of the stones he chose to paint in Mari’s gallery at:

These ciottoli indicate how the use of randomness as a generative principle could present an artist with a creative design environment where uncertainty or unpredictability is an intricate part of the process. The use of randomness can be dated to eighth century China where the teaching of Taoism led some Chinese artists to believe that chance images could be better explained as symbols of the artist's harmony with the cosmos. Wang Mo often got drunk before he splashed paint on a silk scroll, which he then kicked, smeared, scuffed, and sat on to achieve the desired effects. He finally used a brush at the end of the process, foreshadowing 20th century Dada's characteristic of adding conscious ``finishing touches" to random designs.


In an exhibition at the New Art Gallery Walsall in 2007 some works focused on randomness in nature. Works by Richard Long were created by dipping black and white card into the mud in the River Avon, while Alice Maher encouraged snails to trail across her etchings, leaving traces of the vegetable dye that she applied to their tails. Tim Knowles allowed different trees to participate in his drawings, by attaching pens to the outer branches and allowing the movement of the wind to create a drawing on paper that is placed beneath them, resulting in enigmatic, obsessive strokes. Krokatsis held fireproof stencils over burning rags allowing the ensuing carbon deposits to collect on the paper above, creating ghostly apparitions.

Currently the most successful artist whose work begins with randomness is Wayne Riggs. He began as a photographer taking closeups of weathered metallic surfaces such as portions of trash cans, cars, walls and the like to produce abstract images of the urban environment directly onto photographic paper. He then painted directly onto the photographs. He explained his interest in the random-start in 'Observations on a Early Photograph (

"The first thing I'll do is start writing my thoughts on how I have done my work up until this point. I started working in photography some forty odd years ago. What first comes to mind is actually a very early black and white photograph, that was taken, developed and printed when I was around 16. I remember it was a view of an old shed on the farm, the summer kitchen. It was a close-up of a window with no glass in it. The frame of the window had little or no paint on it and the white of the walls had been washed out long ago. Through the window was a double sink resting on the bottom sill, tipping downwards out toward the ground. The sink itself was old, but modern in the sense that it wasn't thick enamel but steel, so the bottom being black and the top being white cast a certain shadow onto the window. The faucets were still on it and were turned every which direction. In the sink that was outside the window, was a potted plant that drooped down over the edge going down and out of the picture frame. At the top of the window and the top of the picture frame was a piece of ivy coming from inside the shed; like a snake it wound its way downward towards the sink. This was not, of course, my first picture ever, but one that I do remember. As I look back on it now, I guess why I remember it is because of the randomness of it. The idea of a window with no glass, the idea of a sink in the window, the idea of a pot in a sink. Those random placements of these things - my father throwing the sink on the windowsill because it was in the way, my mother putting a pot in the sink because it looked like a good place for a plant, I don't know. I took a picture of it because it was interesting, although at the time I only guessed it was interesting. It was only after I saw the picture did I know it was, and then it is only now that I write about it. I write about it because I remember it, not the image per se but the randomness of the image".

From this point of view all art starts from randomness; the randomness of history, the randomness of nature and the randomness of becoming and artist. Randomness also enters into a work as it is being produced that can change the direction of intent. This is illustrated by Francis Bacon’s description of ‘accidents’ that occurred in his creative process.

“…. Of all the pictures I did in 1946, the one like a butcher’s shop, came to me by accident. I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before (a previous painting), but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.

It suddenly suggested an opening-up into another area of feeling altogether”.

Talk about process brings up thoughts about the two elements behind the production of a work of art. Process is one of them and 'intent' is the other. With regard to intent, is it making money, becoming famous, realising an ideal or simply resolving something that puzzles you, like pure science?.

There is no universal form instantly understood by anybody just looking at it. Even the simplest of marks has a density of meanings and references. Even your way of looking is loaded with complexities of attitudes, ideas, experiences, and meanings that shape the image in front of you. To be unaware is to be blind. If the viewer does not ask questions about why it looks the way it does there is no way of really ‘seeing’ the world. For example, what is it about this particular combination of forms, lines, and colours that makes me think of certain things and feel a certain way?

To assume that it is possible to understand a work of art solely by understanding the intent of the artist is to also to make a leap of faith that the artist is being completely honest about his intent. Should one trust the stated intent of an artist more than a used car salesman? Are they not both, ultimately, in the business of selling their wares?

Some statements are are really meaningless in terms of intent. Consider the following:

“My intent as an artist is to create beauty. I try to express the beauty I see through my eyes and represent it either on silk or in oil paintings. The feeling of the art is all important to me. I try to create a mood and enhance it by the use of colour. I consider color to be my strongest point. I desire to share what I see with the world and as a result, create happiness....” Elizabeth Crowder


The following section is a development of the model of creativity set out by Brett Battey

Brett Battey

Most people imagine that the creative process flows from idea to realization. That is to say someone gets a creative idea, executes it, and the process is finished. Battey illustrates this as:-

However there is rarely a single idea involved in a creative work. Creativity is a feedback process consisting of a series of oscillating steps of action and assessment of the outcome.

Innovation occurs between ‘idea’ and ‘realization’. Between the idea and its realization there is action designed to realise the idea. If the idea is not realised a new attempt is made at a new realisation. Action and observation oscillate and the idea and realization are adjusted and changed repeatedly until the idea and the realization are brought into alignment.

In this process, the original idea and original realization can be transformed or discarded but the gap between an idea its realisation has been narrowed:

Battey placed a magnifying glass in the above diagram as a reminder that where the gap between idea and realization is narrow, high value is placed on fine details in the realization.
Where the gap between idea and realisation remains large there has to be an emphasis on injecting new ideas and sticking with the need to resolve the difference by repeated oscillations of action and observation.:

Creativity feeds upon itself and the innovator strings together a number of creative acts which spawn a larger creative process. Cyberneticists and system theorists refer to this as a ‘meta-change’, that is, change that causes a innovative thinking about new realisations.

For those innovators free from external goals each individual act of creation serves a larger act of personal creativity rather than being an end in itself. Innovation can become an agent of personal, and thereby societal change.

In summary, creativity as a process can be visualised as a spiral, where the first step is the vision of a model, either a tangible object or a mental picture of something. This generates an idea that this can be bettered. The novel idea is the start of an action pathway by which new versions of the model are created as prototypes on the way to an ideal end point. Prototypes are compared with the new ideal and ideas for changing them provide feedback into the action pathway. From time to time prototypes may be compared with other models, and this feedback is also used to change the prototype. Eventually the ideal is reached which is not capable of further changes in the mind of its creator. At this point, the creative pathway reaches a dead end. However, the final model may, on reflection generate a new idea in the mind of its creator, or become the start of a new action pathway in the mind of another creator.

The tile model

The following photograph was taken of a tiled wall in an Italian kitchen which was taken as the starting point for the production of a prototype which separated a flowery image from the hypnotic simple mass produced repeat pattern.

Tile prototype 1

This prototype stimulated thoughts about fruits, particularly the central seed producing structure of an apple revealed in cross section. This in turn triggered thoughts about the structure of a root

The apple idea

The root idea

These ideas resulted in the production of a second prototype which emphasised the foldings around a central ‘seed’.

Prototype 2

This lead in two directions to produce the following end points where creativity dried up.

The end 1

The end 2

Lichen model

This began with a photo of lichens on wall of Glastonbury Abbey (to be continued)

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