The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher

If you’re looking for a book that is all about visual and creative thinking, but you feel like going on a tour of the unexpected, look no further than Alan Fletcher’s, The Art of Looking Sideways. Unless you’ve already heard of it (it’s been around for almost 20 years) and have one or two copies of your own, in which case I urge you to remove it from its pedestal and appreciate it again. The book is a treasury of artistic expression, a compilation of images, facts, anecdotes, quotes, typology and weirdness, all in one weighty tome. This monster codex should really come with its own lectern and a comfortable chair from which to enjoy it. Its spine is an impressive 6.35 centimetres (2.5 inches) thick, and it contains 72 chapters over 1064 pages. Subjects include everything from creativity to handedness and space-time, and everything in between and besides.

Don’t expect to read it cover to cover over a few days. Expect to spend many sittings, over years, flipping and flicking, reading and pondering, enjoying the fodder that Fletcher gathered for us. These are the kinds of books I love – the catch-all desk companions that require numerous and repeated readings and whose contents renew that sense of wonder for the world, but especially the creative mind. I’ve had my copy for years, yet I still don’t feel as if I’ve finished it.

I love it so much, yet find it hard to describe. Maybe Alan Fletcher can help . . .

On second thought, if you can find a copy, do yourself a favour and grab it. To me, the book is not only a manual for design, but an homage to curiosity, creativity and the pursuit of personal enlightenment.

Artistic Process

It’s been awhile since I created a large piece because when I do it takes up most of my creative headspace and time. This means I don’t spend much time in my sketchbook. I’ve decided to share my process instead.

The piece I’m working on is a large leaf lime or linden tree (Tilia platyphyllos). I don’t like to copy reference photos when I ink trees, but I still use reference photos to inform the drawing and create a representative tree, a sort of ambassador for its species. Every tree is unique, even within a species, but every tree species has features which are characteristic of its kind. These are the things I look for when studying the tree. This means I end up studying at least hundred different photos, watch videos and read descriptions to get a feel for a tree. Visiting trees in person would be best, but given that I live in the subtropics, there aren’t too many linden’s around. This inspiration stage of the artistic process can take a couple of days before I even pick up a pencil.

Tilia platyphyllos. Image Wikimedia

The next phase is to sketch some trees in Procreate on an iPad or using a computer and drawing tablet. I like to do this digitally because it saves paper and I make many many adjustments to the drawing. I start by sketching actual specimens to get a feel for the species form, the way the trunk splits and the boughs twist, how it branches, how leaves clump and so on. These sketches don’t look like much and I never spend too much time on any of them. I create at least five sketches of individual trees.

Next I create a draft in procreate and tweak it to the shape that pleases me. This is where I allow myself to erase, redraw and generally fuss with the drawing. It still doesn’t end up looking like much, but once I’m happy with the draft I’m ready to transfer it on to watercolour paper.

Draft I have chosen

Creating the pencil underdrawing can be achieved either by printing the above image on to an A3 sheet of paper, or in this case, drawing directly on to the watercolour paper using a very basic grid as a guide. I prefer this method as it allows me to adjust the picture as I go. The pencil drawing is very light and only serves as a guide.

Very light pencil drawing on watercolour paper.

Inking: putting the pen to the paper is by far the most nerve-wracking phase of any piece for me. There’s so much potential, but anything can go wrong. Once the first mark goes down I’m committed to the painting until it’s done. Inking is a slow process and it can take many hours. To me it feels like the first few hours is the worst, because I’m unsure of how to read the map, I’m constantly referring to reference photos, constantly worrying about the placement of every line. This is the ugly phase that all my ink drawings go through, but I’ve done enough now to know to persevere. And if it doesn’t work, it’s only ink and paper (and time).

Committed!

With any luck there will be a lot more to show tomorrow . . .

Diagnosis: Creative block

Yesterday I tentatively diagnosed myself with the unhappy affliction that affects many creative people: creative block. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s a big deal, but it got me thinking about what it really means and if it’s even a thing. Spoiler: it is if you say it is.

Critics of creative block, or writer’s block, say it’s all in you’re head, you invented it as an excuse to avoid work, you’re inexperienced, fearful or you’re just being lazy. All those things might be true, but they can still create barriers to creativity and inspiration, thus we call it creative block. It’s just a term to describe an experience, and in most cases it is not an actual medical condition (such as those caused by head trauma or stroke). The reality is most creatives can relate to experiencing a lack of inspiration, motivation or just plain burnout at least once in their creative lives. What we do about it depends on the reason we’re stuck.

For me it is a four phase process. If all three phases are met we have all the ingredients for creative block.

Phase one: Honeymooning with my Imagination

A common source of creative block for me is the too-many-ideas syndrome. I’m a daydreamer, honeymooning with my imagination. New ideas are fun and easy; they require very little commitment. But they’re just thoughts, not action; action requires a lot more energy. Ideas need fleshing out, which requires much more time and effort. Sometimes it’s a habit that has served me well, but it’s a habit, nonetheless, and it’s a hard one to break. It becomes an issue when it’s time to expand an idea, to put it in to practice and create something with it. Instead of using the idea I can end up obsessing over it for days, sometimes weeks until the concept no longer resembles the original idea. Overthinking the idea is my second bane and can lead to the idea morphing in to a monster I can’t control. I end up hating it. Sometimes I manage to scale it back to the shape of the original idea. When that doesn’t work I put it on my growing “on hold” pile, which is really is just a monument to failed experiments.

This, for me at least, is an early symptom of creative block and it happened with a piece I’m working on at the moment. I took an idea I loved and tried to make it better.

Phase two: Gretel Gets Her Way

So I had an idea, I overthought it, but wrestled it back in to something that resembles the original idea. I still like it very much, but then I started questioning whether or not I actually have the skill to complete the task. This one is often much harder to overcome and a too familiar feeling for many creatives: self-criticism. Most of the time it’s a normal step in the creative process to ask yourself if you have what it takes to complete the task, to critique your own skill set. Sometimes, though, your judgemental, inner critic will tell you you’re “not good enough” and it will be loud enough that you down tools and walk away. I call my inner critic Gretel (for strange reasons only Laurie Anderson fans will understand). Gretel is unfair, unkind, but not always no good. Most of the time Gretel is a whisper in the back of my mind and I use her snarky comments as ballast, for creative stability. Because sometimes Gretel is right. Every now and then, though, she wails and shrieks, overriding all other influences. This usually means Gretel has appointed herself the President of the Enterprise and likes herself a little too much. When it does get to this point it can be hard to talk myself out of it. Fortunately, I know myself (and Gretel) well enough to understand it’s only a temporary state of mind. If I rest the project I can usually return to it fresh and begin anew. But that is all provided there is no phase 3, in which case, Gretel gets her way.

Phase three: Even Louder than Gretel

Living a creative life is essential to a maintaining a healthy mind, at least for myself. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is gratifying and has many more benefits than it has disadvantages. Really the only disadvantage I can think of is the expense of all those lovely art supplies. But sometimes, life gets in the way and I find myself overwhelmed by external forces. For me that external force was the announcement by the state government of the re-closing of the Queensland border, where I live, to residents of New South Wales. This is due to outbreaks of Covid in that state and the first new cases of Covid in mine since May. This came as a bit of a blow as I have family in New South Wales, some only three hours away by car. I’ve only seen my mother once in eight months on account of Covid, despite her living relatively close. As much as I know the closure is necessary and temporary – we will be with them again – it means I can’t be with my sister on her birthday next week, for which we were planning a family reunion and celebration, and they can’t be with us for my daughter’s tenth birthday celebrations coming up in September. My daughter was understandably gutted and visibly crumpled when I told her. That broke my heart. I was already feeling the burden of self-doubt. Now, feeling helpless and overwhelmed, I couldn’t find the inspiration or motivation to paint anything. No idea has roused in me any enthusiasm for painting or writing (with exception to this post). I haven’t done any drawing for five days. Not long in the grand scheme of things, but long enough for someone who paints, draws and writes almost all day everyday. This phase for me is the most difficult to shake off, because it has engaged my heart and heart has a louder voice than mind. Even louder than Gretel.

Phase Four: Listen to Gretel

It’s important to understand, had any of these things happened in isolation I might have weathered any part of it. But that’s the thing about creative block, it never is about just one thing. It’s almost always an accumulation of things, at least for me – although I suspect this is true for many creatives. At any other time being creative might have helped me deal with the blow of not being able to see my family, but I was already feeling a little burnt out. I should have listened to Gretel. That inner noise has always been an accurate barometer of when to step back.

Stepping back doesn’t mean stopping, especially since I don’t know how to not be creative. It just means changing the focus a little, better yet, giving it all less gravity. It doesn’t always have to be the magnum opus, after all.

I have done many of these creative blocks in my time as a writer and artist, so I know a few things about it:

  1. Interlude – creative block is rarely permanent. It’s a transitional phase, so treat it like an ellipsis rather than a full stop.
  2. Ruminate. If ideas are still coming, let them. You don’t have to act on them, but do record them. Let your mind wander.
  3. Recognise – you already have the tools you need to conquer it yourself. Still, it can help to read up on the experiences of other creative people.
  4. Absorb – Reading fiction is a great way of escaping and relaxing the mind and can give the creative machine a much needed oiling.
  5. Hidden, not gone – your mind is still creating even if you’re not conscious of it. It never stopped.
  6. Gather – use the time to gather some creative fodder, whatever form that takes.
  7. Poise – be patient with yourself. You will get back your mojo.

So that’s where I’m at. I have no sketchbook update or prompt to offer, just some thoughts on creative block. I’m interested to hear what you think and what sorts of things you do to ease out of creative block. Or indeed if you’re one the few who haven’t experienced it.

Untold stories

Sometimes I need to paint something that doesn’t require much investment of time or effort. I do this to avoid the habit of fussing with a painting, if I want to practice techniques or I’m working out a scene for a specific project. A good way I’ve found is to do postcard sized paintings of imaginary places. These are places with untold stories, which I used as an art prompt to create the three paintings below. It turns out it’s a lot of fun and they’re great for exercising creativity, especially if I’m feeling stuck or lazy. If it doesn’t work it’s not really a big deal because I’ve used minimal paper and paint. The only rule is to avoid spending too much time on each piece. I succeeded with the first two paintings, but ended up spending too much time fussing with the third, which is also larger than a postcard. Still, it was fun and I can see I still need to practice loosening up.

Art prompt: Untold stories

Feeding the magpies and an art prompt

In Australia, if we want to avoid being swooped by mobs of magpies in breeding season, we make friends with them. One way to do this is to feed them. While I don’t think they actually see us as friends, they do remember humans who are kind to them. As such no one in my house has been swooped by magpies, not even my dogs. And this seems to extend for quite a large area around my house.

Not everyone agrees that feeding them is a good idea, as there is a concern it could change their natural behaviour, make them dependent on humans, or risk their health with inappropriate food. Personally, I think the ship has sailed for the “natural behaviour” argument. Humans have so changed natural habitats that it would be naive to expect their behaviour won’t change too. As for their diet isse, we don’t feed them anything they wouldn’t normally forage for themselves and they still spend 90% of their time foraging naturally. Magpies know how to be magpies after all.

Magpies are successful in Australia precisely because of their ability to form cooperative relationships and to adapt to new situations. They’ve weathered some hard times and will again. Being such clever birds, I don’t think Maggie’s are in any danger of losing their ability to forage any time soon. Since Magpies live in the same territory for their whole lives, some of the birds that visit my home have been here at least long as I have (14 years) and see me as part as their landscape. They’ve seen the same shrinking of habitats and increase in the number of humans, cats and dogs and road traffic as I have during the past decade especially. But they didn’t complain. They changed their behaviour and they are resilient. I’m happy to be a magpie enabler.

So in honour of maggie’s, today’s prompt is resilience. Here’s my entry:

Art prompt: herbs

For today’s art prompt I chose basil and garlic. They both lend themselves nicely to stippling in pen and ink, a favourite technique and medium, plus I wanted to try something new (new to me anyway) and felt two illustrations would be better than one. Stippling is time consuming and requires a lot of patience, but it can also be meditative and rewarding to see the image come to life. I like the meticulousness of stippling, but I didn’t want to spend days making thousands of little specks; so with the pieces below I decided to go light on the stippling and add some colour with watercolour to see if it would work. I found that by laying down the stippling first it acted as a restraint to stop me overworking the darker tones in watercolour. I quite like the resulting illustrations and, in fact, these took less time using the two mediums than I would normally spend on just stippling in ink or painting in watercolour.

Sketchbook habits: prompts

When I start a sketchbook I make a contract with myself and I try to stick to these three Cs:

  • creativity – creativity begets creativity. Sketchbook often;
  • commitment – keep doing it often. Even if it’s not as pretty as you’d like, don’t give up;
  • carry on – Fill the sketchbook, stow it away somewhere safe and grab a new book or piece of paper.

But sometimes inspiration is lacking and it becomes an excuse to get lazy. So to keep myself accountable to a sketchbook habit I’m going to post daily prompts and share my journey. I hope some of these prompts inspire you too.

Today’s prompt is spiral

I chose to do a fossil ammonite:

Ammonite in pen and ink
© S M Egan

Fiction with a Twist

By now it might be obvious I am enthusiastic about books, a bibliophile, if you will. As such I have a respectable collection of books. But it became a bit of a burden when I had to move my small office/studio to a slightly bigger room. I had to downsize my collection, even though I was moving to a bigger office. I wasn’t looking forward to the task, because like for many booklovers, each book was like a snapshot of my life. But I knew it I had to do it. I had dozens of novels I’d read in my late teens and early twenties (which was too long for me to even remember some of them that well). They were brown and tattered and I knew I would never read them again. So that became the rule for discarding – unless it had sentimental value, or I could refer to it again, it had to go in the donation box or handed off to friends and family. Let someone else love them.

It wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be and I became less discriminating as I filled box after box. I thanked the books and set them free, liberating them and myself (and a great deal of bookshelf space). Now most of the printed books I own are nonfiction, but I also have a penchant for collecting works of fiction with a difference, especially when they’re illustrated, so I still allow myself the luxury of keeping these. I don’t only mean graphic novels, which are lovely and every bit as worthy as other books on my shelves; I have a passion for genre-bending and hybrid books, those books which go beyond the standard layouts and formats of fiction, illustrated or otherwise. These books are often heavy with illustrations, photos, maps, typography and other images that contribute to the narrative. They might also contain marginalia, footnotes and other documents, sometimes in the form of extra bits of media, which can be removed and read separately. Consider Nick Bantock’s epistolary novels, The Griffin and Sabine Saga, or Dubious Documents. Or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

Here is a very short list of similar books you might (or might not) have heard of that I have in my humble collection of fiction with a twist:

  • S, Doug Dorst and J.J Abrams,
  • The Republic of Dreams, G. Garfield Crimmins,
  • The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen
  • The Secret History of Twin Peaks: A Novel, Mark Frost.
  • The Strange Library, Huruki Murakami

The only thing these books have in common is their unique format. Though some of them can be defined as ergodic books (in the simplest terms, books that are not designed to be read line after line in the order they were written), none of them fit that comfortably in to any one genre. These books are more than a printed story line and usually require more effort and participation from the reader. They don’t satisfy the reader’s expectations in quite the same way as a linear story in a standard novel. In fact, expectations aren’t that helpful when it comes to reading these types of books, which is why I enjoy them so much. They don’t always obey the fundamentals of narrative fiction and can be a challenge to read. Still, I marvel at the minds that create such books. Such creativity deserves the time it takes to experience them.

For more similar books check out this list of ergodic fiction on Goodreads.