Where Do Ideas Come From? What’s The Source Of Creativity?

Ideas are always floating through my head. It seems natural to filter what I see through an artist’s viewfinder. Looking down at a reflection in a puddle or looking up into the canopy of trees, I ponder, what color IS that? Meaning: how would I create that color with watercolor paint?

There is a fluency as an artist when you dream in your art form. I have dreams that consist of various watercolor paints swirling together while I, as the observer, watch and contemplate what color is being created.

These new colors and combinations of paints must be carried in your head, because there are a zillion more colors than we actually have names for. Names wouldn’t actually work, anyway, to convey the nuances of the qualities of the color. The names are a verbal representation of a visual image. They would not be as clear to the artist as remembering the actual visual cue. For example, “red” to me and to you would probably be quite different.

What are the names of all the colors in this painting? Original waterolor by Jane M. Mason. (C) 2009. All rights reserved.
What are the names of all the colors in this painting? Original watercolor by Jane M. Mason. © 2009. All rights reserved. Watercolor and watercolor pencil on hot pressed Arches paper. Available as a greeting card.

For a serious artist, though, carrying these colors in one’s mind this isn’t a challenge. It is similar, I think, to remembering a taste or a smell. Think of the difference between a bite of a toasted bagel, or toasted white bread, or a toasted English muffin. A novice might say, “Well, they are all just toast.” But, if you have experienced these very different bread products you know there is a huge difference in the taste, texture, density, and overall flavor among these choices—even though they all have a “toasted” component to them.

The subtleties of the color, the density, the brightness, the opacity, the sedimenting, the luminosity, and ultimately, even the “toasted-ness” so to speak, are some of the categories I carry in my head about the colors or hues in watercolor paint.

So, as a watercolorist, part of my deciding about which ideas to focus on is recognizing that I have favorite hues. These are my “go to” colors. I also have favorite brands of paint. I have favorite brushes and paper. I even have favorite brush strokes. But to focus this discussion, let’s think about the hues.

It seems logical to have favorite colors that tend to appear in a preponderance of my art. Yet, that didn’t register with me until someone at one of my exhibit openings said, “Ugh. You use so much purple.” Then another guest said, “Why do you use so much green?” These seemed like weird observations or critiques. Who cares? I’m painting with the “right” colors to create the painting I want to create.

Who says I use too much purple? Of green? Painting is "Plain Jane Cabbage" by Jane M. Mason, (c) 2010.
Who says I use too much purple? Or green? Painting is “Plain Jane Cabbage” by Jane M. Mason, © 2010. Watercolor on #140 lb Cold Pressed Arches paper.

I was sort of stumped by the comments though and kept rolling them around in my head. Why did these visitors mention their observations of the visual dominance of these colors? I knew I was missing a point. To me, superficially, I knew I painted many landscapes and scenes with foliage, so it seemed logical that I’d use a lot of green. And, I guess I paint many scenes that “require” using purple.

After much mental processing, I considered that somehow, instinctively, ideas come to me that are composed of those hues. But truth be told, it really is a “chicken and egg” question. Do I pick scenes to match my favorite colors, or find ways to push my favorite colors into the scenes I pick?

I believe it’s a bit of both. What truly may be happening is that an idea comes to me and I manhandle it to utilize the hues I want—my favorite hues. I then explain it as “intuitive” color, meaning: I painted it that way because I wanted to.

It is the color my intuition told me to use. It doesn’t necessarily reflect how you see it in “real life.” There is nothing wrong with that. My intuition, or instinct, or the favorite color in my “color bank” allows me to introduce you potentially to a color combination that you may not have imagined. And, that is a good thing.

(Part of this discussion about intuitive color and how you see as compared to how I see, or how we talk about what we see, is a fragment of a visual literacy discussion. I will be blogging more on this in another post.)

To The Birds

In one of my more whimsical and silly series, I painted birds in rather preposterous poses. For example, I have my “Bird with Sensible Shoes” and my “Bird with Aspirations.”

I tend to watch birds whenever I can. You could say I am a bit fixated on them.

I feed them, sketch them, photograph them, and paint them. It makes sense that something I am fixated on provides me with ideas to create a series of paintings. I don’t have any data on this, but I bet that is true of most artists. For example, think of Monet and haystacks.

Small bird on a beach. Tail feathers appear to be polka dotted.
A photo of a bird with a “polka dot” tail. I’m sure this will be a future painting. Beach outside Orlando, Florida.

Bird With Sensible Shoes

This was a bird I saw in Amsterdam when I was attending the World Jazz Festival. I was having coffee and a pastry at a bistro and a bird waddled past me. The bird was actually walking with what seemed to be an exhausted gait. (Now perhaps I was exhausted from spending the day at museums and the prior night attending fantastic jazz concerts.)

But, however it popped in my head, it just struck me that she looked like a hard-working middle-class bird who had spent the day on a job on her feet. It seemed she needed some good comfortable shoes rather than her bird feet.

Painting of a bird with colorful feathers and preposterous clunky shoes on her feet.
Painting by Jane M. Mason of a bird in Amsterdam with “sensible shoes.” © 2004. Watercolor on Arches #140 Cold Pressed paper.

I know. Crazy, eh?

So, as you can see, the comedy of the painting is in the obviously ill-fitting shoes on the bird. (That’s a bit of a spoof in itself to think of any human-style shoes fitting a bird.)

Yet, to a watercolorist, the mastery of this painting is in the technique itself. To a watercolorist, this is a brilliantly executed painting—if I do say so myself.

Most of the bird was created with a 1.5” Richeson flat brush. Onto the brush I painted bands of color. (Just to be clear that you read that correctly: yes, I took another brush—a round brush—and painted the paint onto the 1.5” flat brush. I have simulated it here in the photo.)

A photo of the left hand of the artist holding a brush as she applies paint to the bristles of a flat brush.
Jane M. Mason is putting paint on the 1.5″ brush with the round brush. Several “bands” of pigment will be put on the flat brush to create the stripes of color as shown in “Bird with Sensible Shoes.”

As I painted curved strokes with the flat brush, for example on her back, I had to have exactly the right amount of paint to create a dry brush effect. That means that I had to leave the white bits of paper without any paint touching the paper in order to have it appear as if the sun was highlighting areas of her back and shoulders. Then I used the same bands of color, only in a much weaker density, to use only one curved stroke to create her head.

The painting is really a story about how much you can suggest with the white of the paper and a minimum number of paint strokes. Now, look at the sidewalk and curb. There is very little there. You are filling in the notion that the sidewalk continues behind her and that something exists behind the bird. This is even though there is no paint there. You don’t see her as walking on a 4” balance beam with a white sheet behind her, right? This “balance beam” concept is what is closer to what is literally painted on the paper, but it is not what you are interpreting. One job of the artist is to create the illusion that she wants to create and propel you to see what she hopes and intends for you to see. Through her skills, she wants to move you beyond being visually constrained by the literal edges of the paint on the paper. She wants to pull you to her point of view and have you not see what is actually before you on the paper, but to see something that may not truly be there. Cool, huh?

For me, with my ideas, they are frequently a blend of the main point—in this case a silly bird, and some sort of a challenge in the medium to make me stretch beyond the norm to do something I don’t know if I can do. For this painting I contemplated it for over a week. Thinking about it frequently each day and mulling over the technical complexities. Then, on the day I decided to create the painting, I sat looking at the paper for about 15 minutes before I made any stroke. I knew what I was going to do. And I knew each stroke had to be perfect. I didn’t have coffee before I painted that day. (Seriously.) I had gotten a good night’s sleep, and did my Yoga breathing to relax.

This may seem crazy to you. But I knew what I wanted to do and what I had to do to create the illusion I had in my mind’s eye. I knew it took a steady hand with steady, calm breathing. I knew it took the courage to jump in and with exactly the correct pressure on the brush, to swiftly and masterfully, use the fewest strokes needed to tell this story of this silly bird.

Bird With Aspirations

This was another bird that I was watching on the street. This was a bird in Florence, Italy. This bird was in the middle of a flock of birds. This bird, the hero of my painting, seemed extremely haughty with a very upright posture as compared to the other squatty birds groveling on the ground for seeds. I imagined this bird having higher aspirations than “managing” this low-class flock. I imagined he wanted to lead soldiers, to be a captain of industry, and possibly to be saluted in Fortune Magazine.

So, it popped into my head to paint this guy with a briefcase. My visual challenge in this painting was to create an energy and eye movement. Diamonds have sharp angles so they create visual energy. Hence, I figured I would use diamonds on him somehow. So I gave him a vest stretched and distorted as it fit around his torso.

Watercolor painting by Jane M. Mason of a whimsical bird standing upright and carrying a briefcase.
Watercolor painting by Jane M. Mason of a whimsical bird standing upright and carrying a briefcase. © 2005. Watercolor on Arches #140 Hot Pressed paper, with watercolor pencil.

Then I knew that creating competing diamonds on the floor would act as a visual counterpoint. The casualness of the tone in this painting meant that the diamonds on the floor had to be “sketchy.” I used a watercolor pencil and wavy lines to convey that.

Even the shadows and his briefcase play to the triangle/diamond shape idea, as does his beak, his wing, and as an outline, even his entire body.

I do think he is funny. And somehow I feel he conveys that haughty attitude I was going for.

Do you care?

Does it matter to me if you have any idea of all the mental processing that goes on in my head as I create these birds? Not really.

The process is the journey for me. The process is connecting to the medium and setting the challenge to see if I can master it. It allows me to lose myself in the paint, the paper, the brushes, my skills, and my creativity. I get in “the zone” and float in the space of collaborating with all these tools and intangible components to solve this creative challenge.

This concept of being in the zone and zooming in on the process, for me, is part of the idea behind my company and website.

You have to be present in the moment. You have to enjoy the journey. Challenge yourself and master those things that are important to you. You won’t know what comes next until it comes.

So for me, losing myself in these silly birds and challenging myself to do something that I don’t know if I can do—even if it just involves putting paint on paper (!) is part of being in the moment and just going for it.

And, I’m tickled if you get a kick out of the paintings whether you care about the technique of not.

Ta-da. That is how I get some of my ideas.

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    1 comment

    • Mary Musselman

      How the ideas come to you, how you then think about how you want to express those ideas and ultimately how you express those ideas if fascinating.

      How the viewer see those ideas reminds me of Marcel Proust from Le temps retrouve’: “In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”

      I think this is absolutely true for viewing a painting too. Thanks for giving us insight into the true optical instrument (a painting)!

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