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What Artists Do While Waiting for the Next Inspiration

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The mythical view of artists has placed them in their studios or garrets, waiting for the Muse to inspire some great new idea or image. Were that the case, the wait could be a long one, leaving artists with little to do between brainstorms. In fact, most artists rely on good work habits to solve technical, aesthetic or intellectual problems. These include maintaining a regimen of drawing or painting for a certain amount of time every day as well as pursuing certain ideas to their completion in the hope that they might lead to other, new and interesting concepts. In the mostly hands-on profession of art, inspiration comes from doing.

In Search of the Muse

No artist is free from dry periods or mental blocks, when the old ideas seem to lead nowhere and new ones are hard to find. There are really two aspects to this problem: The first is the feeling of having run out of ideas, which tends to be a very temporary condition; the second is a general lack of enthusiasm about creating art itself and losing a sense of what makes art exciting, which can be far more troubling. For artists who have established a market for their work, fear of negative criticism or turning off past collectors may also enter their thinking. "When I'm at an impasse," photographer Sandy Skoglund said, "I try to do whatever feels good. The internal satisfaction has to be the focus." That may be more easily said than done, as some methods work, others don't. Jackson Pollock, who was stung by criticism of his later work, largely gave up painting in the last few years of his life. Italian comic opera composer Gioacchino Antonio Rossini's mental block lasted for the better part of three decades, as he wrote almost nothing of any length or importance for the last half of his life.

Different artists have approached the problem in various ways. Pablo Picasso, for instance, periodically looked for rejuvenation in various media (ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, stage design) and subject matter (copying Old Masters, ancient Greek mythology). Painter Janet Fish "started doing watercolors as a way of loosening up my use of color. I had begun to find that subject matter had come to dominate my painting." Ben Shahn, who by 1950 felt trapped in the socially conscious work he had done in the 1930s and '40s, took a teaching position at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which proved stimulating to him. "Black Mountain was a very argumentative place. A lot of the abstract expressionists were there," said Shahn's widow, Bernarda Bryson Shahn. "It helped clarify his ideas, and his work also went in a variety of directions after that. He moved from just continuing on with the same subjects that had come out of the Depression -- the poor, hungry and homeless people -- to more universal themes."

The search for a way out of a dry period may also lead to new ideas for artwork as well as energy for the task. Edward Hopper, who is best known for his paintings of urban life, lived most of the year in New York City but he frequently became restless there, unable to paint. His restlessness led him to travel around the country and to Mexico, subsequently yielding a sizable body of paintings devoted to people on trains and highways, at gas stations and hotels.

Painter Will Barnet, whose career is known for having undergone numerous stylistic changes, has also been prone to dry periods. Born in 1911, Barnet was a realist who focused primarily on social problems in the 1930s. His imagery became increasingly abstract by the early '40s, and he again returned to realism by the late 1950s. "The dry periods came more during the early years," he stated. "There have been fewer since then. In the early years, they also lasted longer, sometimes up to a year. The problem always was that I wasn't quite sure how to handle my forms. I was searching for something elusive, and it took a while to find the key."

One of the things that helped him find that key was printmaking, first woodblock and later color lithography. It was a natural choice for Barnet, who had worked in the 1930s as a printer and taught graphic art for 45 years at the Art Students League in New York City. "The flatness of the print, the solid blocks of color that you use, especially with the woodcuts, helped me get away from all the gradations of color, helped me get away from the realistic figure, to something more abstract." Barnet's interest in abstraction led to his participation in what was called in the 1940s and '50s the "Indian Space" school of painting, which adopted imagery from the designs of the Mayans, Peruvians and Native American tribes of the Northwest. "It was abstraction that wasn't so dependent on self-expression," he said. "You didn't only deal with yourself but with other, larger cultures."

By the late 1950s, Barnet had again reached a crossroads and was looking for a new key to painting, this time using more realistic, people-oriented subject matter. Like Ben Shahn, Barnet was also searching for a realism that went beyond social problems but he was unsure which themes held enough interest for him. Again, color lithography allowed him to experiment with ideas and techniques that he could take back to the canvas. "With prints, you are still drawing, still composing, still using color, just as in a painting," Barnet said, "but you can change the drawing or composition or colors in the print in a way that you can't with a canvas. The canvas is right there in front of your nose." He has continued to make prints from time to time, to sketch regularly and, until recently, to teach, all of which have provided him with a high degree of artistic stimulation.

Another source of inspiration, or an antidote to a dry period, has come from his fellow artists, seeing what they are doing, listening to the ideas they are pursuing, and talking with them about other artists and their work. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to live in the country all by myself," he said. "I'm a people person. I like to paint people, and I like to be with people. I like living in New York City for that reason."

A student of art history, Barnet also gained inspiration for new ideas from visits to museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Museum in New York. Honore Daumier and Juan Gris were early sources of inspiration for him -- Daumier for his portrayal of the social condition of the poor and oppressed, Gris for his use of color and sense of cubist form -- but, later, Barnet gained a new appreciation of the work of Jan Vermeer. "Vermeer could make a universe out of the corner of a room," he said. "I had been thinking about moving inside, from making paintings of people in the street -- the old social condition stuff -- to paintings of families, my family. A family is an interesting, organic thing. You can watch it start, as it grows and develops, and mark all the important changes that take place along the way. When I saw how well Vermeer could manage interior scenes, I gained the courage to try out what I had been thinking about."

While Barnet has remained interested in the art of the recent and distant past, which he calls "connecting up with art history," as a source of ideas, many other artists feel a bit more detached or want to get away from the art of the past altogether. Photographer Mary Frey noted that she gets "solace and sustenence from looking at the work of artists of the past but, after all, I'm a contemporary artist and I need to find the work of contemporary artists. I think that my work has become part of a dialogue with contemporary art, and so it is more important to me to see what similar or not-so-similar things other artists are doing currently." Noting that a mental block indicates "something that you are trying to avoid," Janet Fish said that a dry period "can lead you to stop working entirely. As they say, when you fall off a horse, you have to get right back on the horse because, the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to get back on the horse. You just have to keep painting. Going to museums can easily become another way to avoid working. It certainly is that way for me."

For many artists, the act of creating a work of art is analogous to following a train of thought, developing and reworking ideas that may or may not come together to form a successful piece. A dry period may arise when artists have not pushed their ideas far enough or when a particular problem has already been solved -- leaving artists only to repeat themselves.

Janet Fish has found that her response to a problem in her work is to open herself to new ideas and experiences, and to keep working. "Sometimes, I work small when I'm not sure about what I'm doing," she said. "Better a little bad painting than a big bad painting." Fish noted that it is important to distinguish between a dry period, when problems in one's work need to be confronted, and just having a bad day, when nothing seems to go quite right. A particularly rough dry period can lead an artist to "do anything to avoid dealing with the painting." To her mind, the worst thing to do is "indulge in a dry period and let yourself quit working altogether. That way, you lock yourself into a mental block. If you get too polemical, or overly embroiled in a certain narrow idea, you can't go anywhere."