20 years ago (in September 1997) I went to my local art college to enrol on a one year art and design foundation course. In the UK this is still the route many designers take from school to university at the start of their careers.
I had spent my A Levels (16+ education in the UK) studying art, design, and the history of Art. Most of my A level art classes were spent studying, copying or mimicking the styles of famous well known artists such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. I had an art portfolio full of heavily ‘inspired’ work.
I had to take a bus for an hour with the other students to get to the college. Some of the people I knew from school. We all turned up on our first day with brand new toolboxes. Back then the trend was to buy a standard type of plastic toolbox from a hardware, or DIY store, and then use this for carrying all your art equipment, paints, brushes, graphite pencils and drawing pens. Most people arrived kitted out and stocked up with brand new materials from their local stationary shop.
We were all ready to continue the work we’d started at school. Most of us had top grades in art and design at school and I had high expectations about getting straight back to work sketching Picasso and painting Cézanne.
I remember walking into the studios on the first day at the art college. They had moved back all the furniture back so that there was just an open space and a large stone floor. They asked us to put away our toolboxes of equipment in a cupboard and then gave us sticks, ink and large sheets of paper.
We spent most of the next week sitting on the floor making marks with sticks and ink. At the time we weren’t very impressed (at least at first).
We literally had a toolbox full of established techniques and reliable tools and we had to learn to put them all down and start again. I had no one else’s work to reference or to look at, and so began the process of learning to make my own mark.
Mark making and starting with broad strokes
That first day and week at art college was an important lesson for me. We were being encouraged to develop our own technique, generating our own ideas.
The years spent learning, studying and copying the technique of other artists were invaluable, but eventually you just become an imitator. Someone who creates inferior versions of other people’s work and ideas.
When you’re forced to draw with sticks and ink strong ideas are formed but they’re loosely defined. Mark making is bold. You have to start by putting a mark down on the paper. When you start with a blank sheet this isn’t always easy.
In those early weeks of art college I learned that original ideas start with broad strokes, not imitation. The creative process is a process of bold mark making, then sensing and responding to the direction you’ve set out.
In recent years (and in a design context) I often think about Richard Pope (formally of GDS) saying that we need “strong ideas, loosely held”.
This reminds me of that early mark making. Starting with broad strokes. Sometimes ideas worked and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes ideas became something interesting and evolved into something more valuable. More often than not, early ideas were thrown away. We were learning to work quickly, not getting too attached to our own ideas but always looking to move the focus on to the possibility of doing the next thing.
These days I still apply this to many aspects of my work. From ideas to leadership and the willingness to make mistakes as the counterpoint to finding progress in any challenging design process.
I also try and treat blogging like broad strokes. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s thinking and working out loud. Mark making in its purest sense, drawing with blunt instruments and slowly piecing something together from the process.
To conclude the art college story, they eventually they gave us back our toolboxes (I think it was week 2 or 3). But we all learned important lessons…
Progress starts from the willingness to have an idea and then being brave enough to put it down on paper. No matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel, or how ridiculous that first idea might appear to others. Creativity is a process we have to commit to whatever the outcome.
Footnote: A Churchill story
There’s a story about Winston Churchill and painting (I bet you weren’t expecting me to go here, but stick with me).
Churchill was a prolific painter thoughout his life and especially in his later years. He wasn’t the best painter and the results of his painting were very mixed. Here’s an extract from The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History:
People feel drawn to his works not because they are polished masterpieces, but precisely because they are not. He was willing to try it out, to court ridicule, to make mistakes – but the crucial point is that he is at least willing to throw himself into it and to run that risk …Sometimes it does’t work; sometimes it comes off triumphantly …That was the spirit that he took with him into that dark and tobacco-filled room in the early summer of 1940. Other hands dithered in front of blank and terrifying canvas. Churchill took the plunge, loaded up his brush and applied his bright-hued and romantic version of events in broad and vigorous strokes.
This is the spirit of art and bold invention. Broad and vigorous strokes.
Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.