"Spontenooity," technique, and style

Most artists value spontaneity, and related pleasures/virtues such as play, freshness, originality, feeling (as in "soul"), improvisation.  A RISD illustration student I had once memorably, repeatedly, cautioned us about the risk of losing the spontenooity in some work we were reviewing. I didn't have the heart to correct his pronunciation, because he was making such an important point, and we all knew what he meant. But while untutored naturalness can be very charming, acting on personal impulses, being guided by intuition, may actually require quite a bit of preparation before it can appeal, or even make sense to, an audience.


Technique, from from the Greek, "to build."

Our modern culture is obsessed with "tech"(nology) and so we value it far above other, seemingly less practical, types of knowledge/learning (such as observation of the natural kingdom, for example--where we are actually losing knowledge we used to possess about plant and animal species, -- or the "humanities,"). But when we talk about technique there can be a derogatory sense which people associate to the concept, tothe impression of smoothness. "Technique" like the kind a practiced, cynical sexual seducer might wield, is viewed almost as a trick, which is why craft, which seems positive, can become "crafty," and connote deception, a sinister premeditation--one may practice to deceive, or "practice upon" someone, a slightly antiquated usage which means the same thing.  But when I look at the creative process, I mostly noticetechnique being a big help. It really is about building. Think of it as a collection of tiny, useful bits of learned process. Ease --smoothness and fluidity--will come, just as a physical object will lose its roughness with handling, over time. Part of what respect technique commands is tied up with this obvious investment of time: practice, not as hollow repetition, but as an accumulation of various experiences. An artist's technique is a catalog of attempts, of experiments, of lessons absorbed. A great part of the value of having “chops,” the phrase musicians use to describe technique, lies in the fact that it/they(?) cannot be attained quickly or easily.

How can you develop a style? Illustration students often feel anxiety over the pursuit of style-- yet having a style ought not be a goal in itself, something one can plan in advance, or pull off a shelf ("Style is not something I pull off a shelf" Frank Lloyd Wright) . It should emerge organically: you want to actually be, not just seem, a certain way.


Style is partly aspirational, and we learn through imitating what we admire. Later influences seem less like "nicks" --they are assimilated, merged with other input, transformed, or subsumed--they come to feel like part of you.

You must be familiar with the conventions in order to speak any language articulately. Intuition is important, but "art"  is also related to "artifice,"  striving for effect -- the illusion of naturalness. Style comes into this; as does technique--of necessity, one works in a particular "manner"--you develop your own conventions, a bag of tricks which have been learned, a kit of parts to use--which is the opposite of rawness and authenticity. Or is it? Practice begets improvisation. Conventions beget invention. Think of a blues song, a nice general skeleton any number of variations can be hung upon. A genre: like a murder mystery--the form is simple, so that content can vary, and can be renewed and innovated.

The mediation of an observing consciousness, though it can also be intrusive, is necessary. Another student, who was working on a long independent study project, his senior thesis, once complained- to my delight, because I found it so funny-- that "deadlines severely interfere with the creative process." We need structure. Of course is easy to pit these against one another, as an either/or, and see the intuitive as being of greater importance than boring old rules of any kind for governing creative production--but to do this is to take a romantic or sentimental, mystifying, view of art. Many good "instincts" may be gradually acquired, learned as habits. We need critical faculties, and also humility and realism about capabilities and strengths and weaknesses. Some may have "divine spit," a theory my friend Jeff invented when we were at art school: the idea of an individual so naturally and intrinsically extraordinary that anything at all he produced would be of great value (I am reminded of the SNL skit where Picasso blows his nose into a kleenex, andthen pays his bar tab with the crumpled tissue). The rest of us need to study and practice and learn to be good.

Once you have some bits of technique, some "words" and syntax of a a language to employ, you can begin to voice what is in you, and this is where authenticity and the expression of your true tastes and impulses can begin. Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps the most original American writer ever, wrote an essay on creative composition which touched on the issue of authenticity-- the importance of being yourself.

When someone is "being themselves," not imitating others, they may be at their most involving, most appealing. Just as improvisation in comedy or acting can reveal what is true more effectively and surprisingly than premeditation ever could. Mr. Poe offers this advice: “Do not neglect to be original, for he is untrue to himself, and foolish, who dispenses with so easily obtainable a source of interest."

Poe seems to say that originality as available to those who permit the expression of, or perhaps simply avoid suppressing, the ways in which he or she is unique. In our experiences and worldview each of us is different. To allow evidence of their idiosyncrasies to emerge in their work runs counter to an impulse many students share, namely the desire to provide what they assume others expect to see. Sometimes an impulse to please others and conform will cause us to suppress what feels too unusual, potentially embarrassing. But sometimes this is the very stuff that is solid gold.   It is often true that when we hide and feel shame, assuming no one else could understand, we are actually experiencingrelate-able, even universal, feelings. Furthermore, being unusual can get you noticed, and that is a good thing in a field zillions of newly minted aspiring illustrators pour into every day from art schools around the world, to vie for a limited number of print-media commissions. Being memorable is an asset,  if you are trying to market your work.