Knowing What You’re Doing

I remember reading a quote from Paul Cézanne’s widow who said (and I may not have this verbatim), “the thing you have to remember about Cézanne’s painting is that he didn’t know what he was doing”.  How many of us approach our art with that disconcerting, uncomfortable idea?  Feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing can be paralysing.  It can discourage you from proceeding.  You feel you have no right to present or even create your work, because you’re clearly an imposter.  You feel that everybody who tries to appreciate your art will immediately conclude that the artist, self-evidently, doesn’t know what they’re doing.  Who wants to be seen as a bumbling, incompetent faker?

It seems to me that the more art materials you have, the more techniques available to you, the greater the range of tools, the more software you have, the more guitar effects and mix-down options, the more mastering tools, the more brushes and palette knives, the worse the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing.  Even starting up the average digital audio workstation can seem daunting.  Synthesisers have more knobs on them than you can imagine would be necessary in all of creation.  There are so many colours and types of paint available, how can you know which ones you should have?  It’s an exhausting avalanche of options and you begin by not having the vaguest clue of what’s right and what’s wrong.  You really don’t know what you’re doing.

Of course, you can react to the options by having them all; in the belief that somehow you’ll figure out how to use something in your arsenal, by the sheer law of numbers.  You can’t not know what you’re doing with everything there is, surely?  There is a comfort in having a huge number of options.  It can lead you to think that when your creative process isn’t working, you can try another option and it might turn out ok.  That turns out to be correct, in my experience.  Trying a new option does  turn out ok.  It’s actually worth deliberately throwing a new option into the mix, because it usually turns out ok.

The truth about not knowing what you’re doing is that the only way to begin to know what you’re doing is to dive in and “fake it, as you make it”.  Accept that you don’t know what you’re doing, that nobody really knows what they’re doing and you’re free to experiment with your medium, your tools, and the very art form you choose.  Like Cézanne, you don’t need to be bound by conventions or “approved” ways of creating your art, because you are blissfully ignorant of all that.  You haven’t a clue.  You don’t know what you’re doing.  You’ve converted your studio into a huge, experimental laboratory and you are finding your way forward by exercising the options available to you.

Eventually, certain things become familiar or comfortable and you begin to gravitate toward doing them or using them, because you begin to feel like you know what you are doing with them.  This is a dangerous time.  It’s all too easy to stay in that comfortable groove, producing art work after art work, in that same pattern.  You can become Status Quo.  Nobody can say what they play is bad, but it has, over the decades, become a little bit predictable and samey, hasn’t it?  If you begin to know what you’re doing and the audience demands that you keep on doing it, that can become rather stifling, artistically.  There is a balance to be struck between cranking out more of the same and exploring new things.  It’s difficult to both give your audience what they want and to add new elements to your artistic works.  You ideally don’t want to alienate those that like what you do, but you don’t want to live in that box forever, either.

In fact, you need to hang onto the feeling of not knowing what you’re doing for as long as possible.  Sure, your expertise and skill base will inevitably grow and you will know what you’re doing in a tremendous number of artistic, creative situations, just because you kept doing it.  You might even become facile and adept with your medium and tools, but you must always seek that with which you are inept.  You need to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, at least some of the time, because that’s how you grow your technique and repertoire.  That’s how you introduce new elements into your art.  That’s how you innovate.

In the end, every original artist finds that they have to create their own approach, technique, aesthetic, method or process, because that is what originality is all about.  You have to be the only one scouting this particular territory.  You’re on your own.  You don’t know what you’re doing, because there is nobody to ask and nobody to learn from.  At the border of convention and originality, you take a step into the unknown, where you are bound to not know what you are doing and you must find your way, by yourself.  The trick is in finding a way from not knowing what you’re doing to at least having an inkling of what you are doing.  There is, hopefully, much more territory left to explore.

So next time you sit in front of a computer screen, a music creation programme, a musical instrument, a blank sheet of paper or a blank canvas, feeling that you haven’t any idea what you’re doing or how to do it, pause, observe and embrace the feeling.  You are about to venture into the unknown and what an adventure that is!  You are about to go from being a bumbling, ignorant, incompetent toward becoming a master of your own art.  You are about to learn how to become the authority on your own works and process.  You are about to invent your own method.

Too many people worry that what they make isn’t like something else they love or appreciate.  That’s the point.  It can’t be and it shouldn’t be.  That territory has already been explored and a claim staked.  No, you need to go your own way.  You might begin by attempting to emulate tried and tested techniques and approaches, but I am telling you that you are bound to fail, thank goodness.  If you succeed, you’re in real trouble, as an artist, because you will have become a derivative clone of another, better established, existing artist, who already has a reputation and a following.  You don’t.  All you have is a copy of what they did.  People will judge it solely on how accurately (or not) you reproduced the other artist’s work.  You have doomed yourself to being a photocopier with perfect reproduction as your goal, or else you’re nobody.  Everything else that might be good about your art will go unnoticed.

If you want to be judged on the merits of your own art, then your own art needs to be unlike everybody else’s.  In other words, even if you start your journey from not knowing what you’re doing to knowing a little about what you’re doing, if you let your own diversions from the artist or technique you are emulating take control, leading you into your own, unique territory, I think you get an artistic result that is more authentic and more your own.  Only you can navigate this expanse of not knowing what you are doing.  Only you can discover things along the way that fascinate and interest you.  If you pursue those little side tracks, you discover all sorts of interesting things.

So, if you feel that you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re in exactly the right place to start.  Follow your path, treat the whole thing as a grand experiment and feel your way forward, following your instincts into colours, sounds, techniques, processes, arrangements, structures and results that you like best.  There is an existential pleasure in learning something that you are fascinated by.  It’s a pleasure you can recreate each and every day, simply by trying something that you have no idea what you’re doing in.  Eventually, you come to know what you’re doing but only what you’re doing.  You won’t know how to be somebody else, but they won’t know how to be you either.  They didn’t follow your path and even if they did, you got there first.

Don’t let feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing prevent you from pursuing your art.  Use it as a magnet – a motive force.  That’s the road to originality, artistic fulfilment and acclaim, as an artist.

You can go your own way…and you should.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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6 Responses to Knowing What You’re Doing

  1. Terri O.A. says:

    An outstanding post! So true! When I took a college art class, everyone of course worked from the same still life. Every single student painting was a fingerprint of extreme difference. You are so right that really a person has to paint not for the audience at all. I haven’t had time to dig into past posts of yours, but I will take the time soon. Very interesting!!! Terri 🙂

  2. I always feel so humbled and grateful when somebody leaves a nice comment like this. Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy some of my other posts too.

  3. Glennie Bee says:

    Love this, Michael! Great to see someone putting their wisdom and experience to good use by sharing it so eloquently.
    Was it Picasso who said something like “If I knew how it was going to turn out, why would I bother doing it?” Can’t remember the quote verbatim.
    If the ‘not knowing’ was good enough for him and Cézanne, it’s surely good enough for everyone. 🙂

    • I don’t know if it’s wisdom or a discovery I have made for myself along the way. It just always seems to me that the best way to focus on your art is to just do it – the focus comes as you discover what you’re learning to do. Thank you for your kind comments and thanks also for that great Picasso quote.

  4. timruane24 says:

    Good stuff, good stuff.

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