Creative Insight (It Comes Wrapped in a Soap Bubble).

Philip Koch, Eagle Lake, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2009

Philip Koch, Eagle Lake, pastel on artist's sandpaper,
8 x 12", 2009

This pair of drawings comes from a very famous spot in American Art History, the summit of Cadillac Mountain in what is now Acadia National Park in Maine. You could raise a football team from all famous American landscape painters who have stood in this spot to paint the view. Frederick Church and Sanford Gifford just to name two.

The top charcoal was done on location there this last fall. Just below it is one of the pastel drawings I did in the studio to begin my explorations about turning the original idea into a major oil painting. The pastel was begun on a sheet of paper covered with a thin wash of toned-down ultramarine blue acrylic as an underpainting layer. My idea was to let the cool blues show through in the foreground and middle ground and completely cover the sky with a warm, creamy yellow.

As it happened I started the drawing in the sky with yellow pastel, but the first few strokes seemed so bright I decided to immediately go down to the bottom of the paper and work in the closer forms with various greys. That done, I returned to the top intending to finish covering over the blue underpainting. But I stopped. Instead I left the underpainting blue uncovered to form the largest shape in the sky.

What happened was one of those moments when a new, better idea comes over us. I've previously described this as like hearing a little voice in my inner ear. But of course there isn't an actual sound. This time around I had a somewhat different sensation as if I could see a new idea floating into view. It approached almost imperceptibly in the manner that a child's soap bubble may sometimes take flight and appear where you least expect it. As a former child who excelled in blowing bubbles, I like this second analogy.

As kids we used to try to blow the biggest bubble we could and then catch them in our hands. With practice at getting a light touch, it was sometimes possible to get the fragile things to alight in hand and to carry the bubble for a least a few steps before it would shatter.

We artists need to "catch" good ideas when the occur to us. But we have to better the awkward attempts of a child to catch and hold them like a soap bubble. New ideas almost always come to us half-formed, as if they are struggling to exist at all. Somehow we have to quickly identify the ones that have the real deal of promise, catch them, and then slowly build them into something of substance. A quality of real tenderness and patience on our parts is involved here, something you never hear spoken of in art schools and universities. But we don't blush at the thought as we're too drawn to the glow of new possibility in this bubble-like new insight. To handle the soap bubble you need very soft hands and very thin skin.

A curious thing creativity. Without a dogged will power an artist gets nowhere. The world is all too happy to pour cold water over our dreams. Yet right next to that steely will has to lie the complete opposite- a willingness to let ourselves be at least temporarily distracted by new thoughts, of changing direction, of finding the gold dust under a pile of straw.


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