First Takes, First Drafts and Alla Prima Painting

I’ve come to a realisation.  Most of the art I make is presented as it came out.  I rarely go back and correct or edit.  Everything is more or less as it happened.  I need to understand why that has turned out to be my default way of working.  Hopefully, in writing this post, I’ll gain some insight into that.

In the past, I have edited first drafts of things I have written or had other people edit them for me.  They do turn out better, when edited.  Most of my blog posts, for example, are very lightly edited, if at all, however.  I hope that doesn’t show too badly.  I am sure that mistakes creep past me all the time.  Most of the time, though, what you read is how it came out of my head – verbatim.

I also have gone back to paintings and made corrections and enhancements, but this is the exception, for me, rather than the rule.  Normally I paint wet-into-wet, in a single session, alla prima.  Yes, the more highly worked paintings are better finished pieces of art, in my opinion, but I have a natural tendency to move on and paint something new, rather than work on something I’ve mostly already painted.

With my music, while I spend a lot of time polishing and perfecting mixes and masters, I am still fairly fast with them, as a rule.  In composition, I am apt to go with the first melody I thought of, rather than labouring over it.  I prefer to improvise, instead of hone a guitar part to perfection.  While I might get better guitar parts, if I practice and perfect how to play them, I usually prefer the first takes.  Why is this?

Spontaneity – I like working quickly and just seeing what comes out, or going where my fancy takes me.  I suppose I like surprising myself.  I don’t like to have too much of a prepared plan (though some plan).  The fun, for me, is in the moment of creation, not the moment of presentation and unveiling of the work.  I still don’t fully understand where those spontaneous ideas come from, but learning to access them, on demand, without delay or fear, seems like a good thing to do.  It’s the making, not the appreciation, which counts most for me.  Meeting the unexpected, face on, is refreshing.  I think it can also be an impressive thing to take requests from the audience and then incorporate those into your work, because it shows that you cannot have pre-planned the work.  What comes out is literally being poured out of your heart and soul, live, without a net.

Imaginative Improvisation – Working the way I do places higher demands on my creativity, imagination and speed of thought.  It’s like exercising those faculties.  I also have to develop judgement and learn to trust my instincts and taste.  These, I feel, are useful characteristics for an artist to develop.  There is no opportunity to get stuck for an idea.  You just have to have ideas on demand, with no waiting.  Fear of the blank page, canvas or manuscript evaporates quickly, because you commit immediately and trust in what your creativity provides to you.  Trusting in your own intuitive powers is a good thing to learn, too.  Revision and correction might eliminate the less good ideas and decisions, but it’s far less inspiring to work that way.

Experimentation – I still think I am in a learning phase, rather than a production phase, when it comes to my art.  I might always feel that way.  When I need to polish and perfect, I can do, but it seems more like a chore than a pleasure.  I’d much rather come up with a good result, first time, than have to labour my way toward expressing the conception of the art that started in my head.  My theory is that, eventually, the experiments will become production quality, at which point I feel I will have reached my personal sweet spot.

Progress – If I can produce first efforts that I can be content with, then I can move on to the next experiment and produce something else new and unexpected.  This allows me to cover more ground, stylistically and technically.  I can learn more by attempting more.  My technique tends to improve much more rapidly, as a result.  Sure, I make more mistakes, but I make them more frequently and perfect my first efforts by a series of fresh attempts, rather than by shaping a less than perfect piece of art into an acceptable one.  Being ok with your minor mistakes stops you from getting hysterical about your imperfections, to the point where you can’t finish anything.  Finishing is important.  If you can content yourself with your first drafts and make sure they’re pretty good, then you learn to complete your work, rather than collecting a lot of half-finished and unfinished works, which aren’t much good for anything, other than practice.

Originality – I dislike repeating myself, if I can avoid it.  Coming up with new, original things is a far more interesting proposition, to me, than churning out a series of almost identical works.  I know that there are practically infinite paintings to be painted, songs to be played and subjects to write about.  Getting to touch each of those areas, even if briefly, gives me more of a thrill than doing one, narrow thing to death.  The opportunity to accidentally come up with something unexpectedly good is amplified, if you take more chances and cover more ground.  Repetition constrains you from doing that.

Speed – If I get good at capturing first takes, drafts and drawings, I gain an advantage, productivity-wise.  You simply get more done, in the time you can find to work on your art.  You also have to work at the speed of your thought and imagination.  As a result, your dexterity and craft skills have to catch up with your mind, so that you are able to put your pure, imaginative thoughts straight onto the canvas, page or recording, without the mechanics of actually performing getting in the way, or losing the idea in translation.  Being able to work as fast as you think allows you to immerse yourself in the creative flow more deeply.

Purity and Freshness – Working fast and moving on to the next work is a high-fidelity method of taking what’s in your imagination and freezing it into a tangible object.  The brush strokes are bold and clean.  The music is played straight from your emotions.  You write as the ideas occur to you, explaining to others at the same time as you are explaining it to yourself.  There are no filters or distortions to get in the way, other than your own lacking technique.  This vitality is really noticeable, in the presented work, as it happens.  It doesn’t seem quite as contrived and overly ornate.  There is a rawness and intensity about first drafts, first takes and alla prima paintings.

Honesty and Integrity – What you see is what you get.  While I often think about what I am going to create, sometimes a long time in advance, when I actually sit down to create, you are seeing it as I first saw it.  There is no self-censorship, as a rule.  I just blurt my paintings, music or writing out.  Here it is.  This is as close to how it was in my head, when I thought of it.  It’s unadorned and unadulterated.  This is an expression of me, in its most vulnerable form.  If you dislike it, you’re really saying something about what’s inside of me.  It takes courage and bravery to put your inner life out there, so publicly, so exposed and so unprotected by artifice.  Those are good things to learn to do, in life, too, I think.

Boredom – I get really bored with the process of editing and correcting.  Seeing my own work, over and over again and trying to tart it up, or tidy it up, holds very little attraction, for me.  It’s like a sort of self-imposed punishment.  The playful child prevails over the perfectionist pedant, inside of me, almost always.  I’d rather have more creative fun than have to dicker over something whose imperfections I am deliberately trying to find.  It’s a happier existence to not be so aware of the flaws and faults, rather than having to see them, feel the pain of acknowledging them and then have to figure out how to correct them, without making the correction look too contrived or obvious.

Loss – I find it had to go back to a creation and prune pieces from it.  I think that it all has some value, because it came out of me spontaneously.  If it had been valueless, it wouldn’t have emerged at all.  I’d much rather record all of the creative gifts my imaginative mind gave me, than pick and choose from them, discarding the ones I don’t favour, at this particular minute.  I think every little piece of creativity that emerges from you tells you something important about yourself, even if you don’t understand it at first.  Throwing some of it away guarantees that you can never come to understand it.  I’d rather keep an overly rich stream of consciousness, that risks being boring, than try to embellish or decimate the work, to please somebody else’s aesthetic tastes.  The gifts of your creativity are sacred, precious and to be respected.  Chopping pieces away and throwing them in the bin seems sacrilegious, to my way of thinking.  Such creativity might not always be so forthcoming.  I’m the kid that was always fascinated with the outtakes and footage on the cutting room floor.  The piece of wood cut off from around the finished article was always as beautiful and wondrous to me, as the piece itself.

Damage – The fear of loss of those serendipitous, happy accidents that are always a feature of spontaneous working is another reason why I stop at first efforts, so frequently.  Sometimes you don’t appreciate which ones are the happy accidents, until much later.  When you mess with something that you’ve just painted, written or recorded, there is a great danger that you will smear, obscure, disrupt, ruin or otherwise entirely lose something that you didn’t plan to put into your work, but which came out nevertheless.  Those accidental pieces of brilliance came from inside, so they have value.  They didn’t come from alien civilisations.  Looking after them is important.  Obscuring them is a mistake, in my view.

Aesthetic Preference – I much prefer underworked art to overworked art.  Overly perfected work is sterile and dull, to my eyes and ears.  It lacks vitality.  This is a purely personal preference and indicates a tolerance for imperfection, but I think that’s something that all human beings need to work on, to be frank.  We don’t live in a perfect world.  Insisting on one is bound to result in disappointment and frustration.  Getting used to the idea of loving the errors, blemishes and unwanted glitches is part of learning to accept our fellow humans, as they are.

So, that’s as well as I can rationalise it, with hindsight.  My gravitation toward first efforts has been telling me something important and as best as I can discern, the above is what it has been telling me.  It reveals a value system that perhaps not all artists share.  Other artists might have equally compelling reasons for going about their art in another way, but these are my reasons.  I work this way because I must.  I can work in other ways and produce other results, but in so doing, I compromise some of the important aspects of my soul and hamper its ability to express itself faithfully.

When you read my first drafts, see my alla prima paintings and listen to my first takes, you are peering as directly into what makes me tick, as a human being, as it is possible for me to reveal.  This is me.  This is who I am.  If you don’t like it, then I’m sorry about that.  I would much rather that you liked me and my art, but then if you don’t, I’m sure you have your reasons.  I can’t easily change these characteristics.  It’s how I am wired.

That’s why I like first drafts, first takes and alla prima painting.


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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