Be a careless artist and a ruthless editor

This week I started watching Abstract: The Art of Design. I’m not the most talented TV review writer, so I’m not going to bother describing to you how good it is.

It’s really good.

The first episode features illustrator and New Yorker cover-designer Christopher Niemann working in his minimalist studio, with a bucket of primary-colored Lego blocks to noodle around with. Watching him sketch and paint with fluidity and precision, it’s easy to assume that everything he produces is magazine-cover-worthy.

Black and yellow cover of New Yorker Magazine with an illustration of a woman running onto a subway car carrying a to-go cup of coffee high in the air.
Image source


Then he drops this wisdom bomb:

“I’ve found that I need to develop these two personas separately. . . . be a much more ruthless editor and be a much more careless artist.” (Abstract: The Art of Design)

This rings true for me in so many ways, and I’d bet that most people who create things could say the same.

I already have a few practices that might fit into the “careless artist” category. I have a notebook where I record my ideas, and later on I may choose one of them to turn into a project. I sometimes experiment without being overly attached to the outcome, and I get inspired by other people’s work.

In terms of being a ruthless editor, I do a little bit of culling when I page through my ideas. I have a vague idea of my “plan,” and if I find that something doesn’t work along the way, I rip it out and re-do it.

There’s a lot of room for improvement here, though.

Becoming a more ruthless editor

I’m often not 100% pleased with the outcome of my projects, and these aren’t 20-minute sketches we’re talking about. Crocheted items often take hours and hours to create. Sometimes it’s difficult to predict what something will look or feel like in its completion, but a lot of my mistakes or bad decisions are things that could have been predicted in the beginning of the design process, after the careless artist phase.

Here are some things I’ve noticed, and some thoughts on how we can all improve our inner editor:

Have patience.  I’m terribly impatient to get a project started once the idea has crossed my mind. I wish there was a way to will it into existence immediately, so I could then scrutinize and redesign it as needed before a final draft. That’s not possible with crochet, at least in the muggle world.

A portion of a graph-paper notebook with multi-colored designs in it: hearts, cupcakes, and flowers. A black pencil is resting on the notebook, and some pattern words are at the top.
Messy, but thoughtful, beginnings.

There are ways around this, though. One of them is taking that first artistic thought and turning it into different formats—graphed designs, written patterns, etc. Sketching them in full color and with the correct proportions would be useful, as would creating a gauge swatch to test the size and texture of the stitches. These things take time, but not as much time as completing a whole project that ends up in your “maybe I’ll like this someday” box.

Make very few compromises. I have a tendency to make compromises out of impatience and laziness. (Not quite the right yarn for the project? Eh, I don’t feel like searching for another). For most of my more serious projects, this only leads to dissatisfaction and a feeling that I’ve wasted my time.

Here, I could apply something like the KonMari method. Marie Kondo says you should only have clothes and objects in your home that “spark joy” in you. For my purposes, I will translate that as “if I have any doubt about something, I shouldn’t do it or buy it.” (This yarn gauge is just a little off – I should find one that actually works). Of course, the world is an imperfect place, and we always have to make some compromises.

Becoming a more careless artist

To me, this is the fun part. It’s the child-like, free-spirit, imaginative part. It’s not as easy as I often believe it is, though.

Creative insight doesn’t happen at all times for me. It comes in bursts, and if I will it to happen when it isn’t flowing easily, I end up with a whole bunch of nothing. It’s also easy to become limited by what I’ve already seen and done.

So, how do we become more careless (or perhaps carefree) artists?

ricardo-viana-105232Get a wider perspective. I have one primary craft—crochet, and it can become difficult to be innovative if I’m only stewing new ideas in my head, or looking at existing crochet designs for inspiration. What if I got inspiration from nature? Or a song? Or a pork bun? 

This can also be achieved by thinking in terms of opposites, orders of magnitude, and inversions. What would the opposite of this aesthetic be? What would happen if I made this really tiny, or really big? What if I turned this inside out or upside down? These are fun thoughts to entertain during the design process.

Temporarily silence the inner editor. It’s hard to do this—it’s just how our brain works. No wonder people ask, “I wonder what he was smoking?” when they see a truly bizarre, avant-garde creation.

The thing is, you don’t really need the inner editor during in the beginning of the design process. That’s because you’re dealing with concepts, which can be as big, outlandish, and impractical as the limits of your mind. And our minds are pretty amazing. So, if you find yourself quietly saying, “that’s not a good idea because_____,” just run wild with it and jot it down anyways. There’s probably something important and compelling in there.

It’s oddly comforting for me to imagine these two parts of myself as being complimentary, not at odds with one another. It makes me feel freer to go hog-wild with my imagination, while also ensuring a better product in the end.

Now, off to the lab I go.


2 thoughts on “Be a careless artist and a ruthless editor

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