Artists, how do you work?

Posted in Art at 12:42 am by ducky

I am really curious to hear how people “do” art.

The image of artists that I absorbed as a kid was that their physical being acted as a vehicle for their subconscious, which told them what to do.  They drew/painted/played/composed/carved what they did because that’s what their subconscious compelled them to do.

I don’t really consider myself An Artist, but I have made a few art pieces, and I never have the sense that I am called to do something.  My art tends to be, for the most part, driven by constraints, what my “customer” wants, and logic.  When my muse does mutter something into my ear, it’s pretty inarticulate, and focuses on telling me what’s wrong instead of how to make it better.

So how do you work?  Does seeing something give you an idea for what to make, or do you start with a need (e.g. a customer request)?  Do you use some sort of organizing principle to help guide you, or do you just do what feels right?  Does your muse tell you what to do, or only when you are doing it wrong?  Respond in the comments, on Facebook, by email, whatever — I am just curious.

I am working on a fake rug for a birthday present for my husband.  (I am going to print it on paper, mount the paper on foamcore, and glue tassels to the short ends.)  We went to Turkey this summer, and he very much liked the rugs, so I figured he’d like a rug.  I couldn’t afford a real rug, though, so I decided to make a fake one.

I then looked at a LOT of images of oriental rugs, and generalized a common pattern: a medallion in the middle, a border around the outside, possibly with borders on the borders.  Inside, lots of small flower-like designs that were connected with vines or stems.  That constrained the form.

My husband likes languages and fonts, so I decided to use glyphs instead of flowers as the base decoration.  My husband has five colours in his colour scheme, so I knew what colours I had to use.  I couldn’t figure out how to work lines into the rug, but an Indo-Canadian friend of mine suggested hanging Indian characters (like Devanagari) off of the line.

I originally thought that I could make the borders out of the three languages in the Rosetta stone, but that turned out to be impractical.  (I couldn’t find text that I could copy and paste of those languages!)  However, the idea of the (old) Rosetta stone gave me the idea of using time as an organizing principle: to have the glyphs closer to the edge be older than the ones in the center.  This meant that cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics needed to be near the edge.  (One of them is the oldest written language, but they aren’t quite sure which.)

I felt I needed to have borders on the borders, but the problem was that those borders needed to be really thin.  I was thinking of just putting dots or dashes as the borders, when I realized I could put both and make it Morse code.

Cuneiform and hieroglyphics are both logographic languages.  Other types of languages are abjads, syllabic, and alphabetic.  There are also punctuation symbols, which have come more recently, which meant they should be in the center (and again, be ordered by age). I decided to group symbols on the rug by those classes.

I researched punctuation, and came up with a set of symbols (including the Japanese smiley-face emoticon used in SMSes).  Why ampersand and not comma?  Why European punctuation and not Arabic?  Why not French double quotes?  Either I couldn’t find a good date for the symbol (meaning I didn’t know where to put it), or it was wildly asymmetrical, or its aspect ratio was wrong, or it was kind of ugly.

I separated abjads into the far corners, since abjads are old and kind of different.  Phoenician was particularly important, so it got to be bigger.  Arabic and Hebrew have dominated the abjads, so got second billing.  We saw Arabic in gold letters in black circles at the Aya Sofia this summer, so it made sense to use gold on black (even though black is NOT in my husband’s colour scheme).

I thought about what lines I could draw, but my husband was involved in learning a part for an opera, so treble and bass clef symbols kind of threw themselves in front of me.  As the treble clef has a higher aspect ratio than the bass clef, I needed to put it on the long axis and the bass clef on the short axis.  The treble clef wasn’t really the right size, so I used two, mirror images of each other.  The bass clef mirrored looked like a heart, so in the space left over I put four hearts.

One of the clefs needed to be Indic glyphs, and I thought I would need to use the larger of the two clefs in order to have room for all the many Indic writing systems.  (There turned out to be fewer Indic writing systems than I thought there would be.)  Given that I was grouping treble-clef glyphs by geographical location, bass clefs and the hearts should also be geographical regions.

Asia is closer to India than Europe is, so Asia got the heart and Europe got the base clef.  All the other glyphs had to swim in the sea between the continents: Africa fit nicely next to the middle-eastern abjads, island nations like the Maldives fit in nicely between India and Asia, and the New World glyphs (plus some runes which maybe did not descend from Latin) swim around the European bass clef.

At this point, I did more-or-less just plop glyphs down however the spirit moved me, but I will confess that I don’t find that fine structure turned out particularly well.  I did try to make more historically important languages bigger, but basically I just tried to spread them out sort of evenly.  It’s okay, but I don’t think it they are the best part.

The egyptian hieroglyphics looked kind of plain, so I spent a LOT of time trying to make the border look better.  I first made a collection of logograms instead of only Egyptian logograms, then experimented A LOT with different colours and numbers of characters. My muse kept telling me it was wrong.  Finally, I changed the colours because I didn’t like the yellow in the centre, and that had the side effect of making the logogram border look much better.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.


For my painting And The Word Was Sheep, I drew a light blue circle, a dark blue circle, and a green trapezoid, and showed it to my friend George when I told him I’d make him a painting.  I told him I didn’t even know what colour the background should be, and he said “Black!  With Stars!”  That meant that the circles were planets, hence spheres, not the disks I had been imagining.

I asked him if he’d like squiggles like I did in Page Mill Ziggurat, and he said “No, glyphs!  In the shape of an Omega.”

He then came up with this complete backstory which had to do with Man starting out in the garden of Eden, then descending into evil (over the dark blue planet), then coming back into goodness (light blue planet) and eventually reaching the stars.  This meant that I needed enough glyphs to be able to make an omega, and that the glyphs needed to be in chronological order.

I did make artistic decisions about which glyph in a writing system would look nicest, I did choose which writing systems to leave out, and I did decide that the shapes looked naked and needed clouds (for the circles) or branches (for the trapezoid), but those were really the only artistic decisions I made.  Everything else was either George’s choice or constrained.  Even the “berries” in the branches were George’s idea.