The initial idea: working with inspiration

I came across a great series of blog posts about drawing in the New York Times, by the commercial artist James McMullan.

In one post, he talks about his process in designing a poster for a play at Lincoln Center. He started by describing his initial idea, and then all the steps he went through to arrive at the finished product, which is the image above.

I was really impressed by his insight into inspiration. In a nutshell, an initial inspiration can take us into a creative process, but we don’t have to be constrained by it.

This is mind-blowing for me. As a writer of short stories and novels, I often start with some scrap of inspiration: an image, a glimpse of a character, a few lines of dialogue that echo in my brain. My job is then to take this inspiration and grow it into a full-blown short story, or even more daunting, and entire novel.

For my first novel, ‘The Caretaker’, all I had were two ideas: One, a vision of six soldiers high up on a mountain, knee-deep in snow. Two, wouldn’t it be cool to write about a guy in Martha’s Vineyard who looks after rich people’s summer homes in the off-season? From these two ideas, I ended up writing a 400 page novel.

More and more, I’m learning that an idea can take me into an intense, creative process, but that’s all it is: a way in. I then have to be free enough to explore the world I’ve entered, and to be willing to drift away from the generating idea. In some cases, the generating idea gets thrown away entirely!

For example, I recently finished a short story. It started with an idea I had about…garbage. Specifically, an American woman who loves to recycle and then moves to India, where she is appalled at all the garbage lying around. I ended up with a story about a childless couple who move to India to distract themselves from the pain of not having children…

But it’s a lot cooler–and clearer– to see how this process works for James McMullan as he designs a poster for an upcoming play. (I’m paraphrasing here, go to his post for the entire article.)

The problem at hand: design a poster for a play about an artist who goes to Mexico, has a hard time painting, and hires an assistant who may, or may not, have painted some artwork that the artist claims is his own.

Step I: Initial inspiration: James thought about some way to represent ‘painter’s block’, and came up with the idea of depicting a blank canvas:

Yet the idea didn’t ‘feel right’ to James. Here’s how he describes it:

“There’s a theory about writing that applies — that, when you reach a serious sticking point, the key to moving on successfully is to throw out the element that you had been hanging on to because it is your favorite thing. My favorite thing here had been the canvas, and in a moment of clarity I realized that if I got rid of the canvas I’d be left with an empty easel, a much more powerful and poignant way of expressing the painter’s sense of creative emptiness.”

Here, I think that James was subscribing to the idea that all writers have heard, which is to “Kill your darlings”, IE: cut out all the fancy pieces of writing that you’re so pleased about, but which do little to further the story…

Step II: Leaving behind his initial idea, he still used the framework he had developed, and concentrated on the easel, instead of the canvas. And because it was set in Mexico, he made the artist bare-chested, which gave the scene a primal force.

Step III. Liking the way his sketch turned out, James used a friend to model the figure. He made the easel dark to anchor the scene, posed the figure off-center, and painted in a doorway diffused with soft light, which underscored the moral murkiness of the scene. He also decided the the title of the play  (“The Ten Unknowns”) would fade away at the edges… into the unknown!

At this point, I’m betting that James was feeling pretty good about his artwork. After all, he’d had an inspired idea that took him into the project, had the courage to discard his initial idea, and come up with some nifty visual ways to show ‘painter’s block’, and illustrate an artist stuck in an ambiguous underworld.

Time to wash off the brushes, call it a job well done, and go out for a drink, right?

Not quite….

Step IV: So far James had been working with a generic figure, as the star of the play hadn’t been cast yet. But then the great Donald Sutherland got the role, and the producers wanted him on the poster. So back to the drawing board for James.

Instead of fighting or bemoaning the situation, he had Donald come over to his studio and pose by an easel. And being an actor’s actor, Donald struck some evocative poses…

Working from the photographs, James made some more sketches, and decided that he liked the one in which Donald’s expressive face was visible. (In the previous sketches the figure’s face was quite blank.)At this point, he also added a table in the foreground to create some interest, and began to tinker with the idea of playing the lettering off against the shape of the easel.

Step V: James made a painting of the photograph, and realized that he liked the way Donald’s black pants worked against the background. He also realized that his initial murky idea, with a softly lit doorway, wasn’t working for him. This painting is an intermediate step between the world of his initial thoughts–an anonymous figure– and what was emerging- Donald Sutherland’s expressive body and face.

Step VI: Taking a bold step, he flattened out the painting, and did away with the background altogether, painting it orange, in sharp contrast with the figure’s white shirt and black pants. The focus of the painting now became Donald’s face, which adds a lot of emotional intensity to the composition.

So here’s the final product again:

Here’s how James describes this stage:

“I wasn’t bound by the things I had learned from the earlier sketches — this felt like a piece of art that was making its own rules. It was one of those happy experiences where I made the painting in a state of complete focus and in the space of three or four hours.”

Phew. I wonder how long the total process took him? Weeks? Months?

Yet the final product has a certain integrity to me. It’s arrived at intelligently, by a process of discovery. Being an experienced artist, James had the courage to try, discard, and develop many ideas.  

I think that if he’d stuck to his initial idea of the blank canvas, he would have limited his process of discovery. There’s a real richness to his final painting, which only comes from a deep thought process.

I, for one, am inspired….

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6 thoughts on “The initial idea: working with inspiration

  1. What an awesome post! I love the idea of not being wedded to the initial idea that sparked the project. It’s great that you took something from a different creative field and applied it to your own, writing. I just got a book today on film editing, not because I’m doing anything in that field, but because I’d heard that it had a lot of good ideas on how cutting scenes can strengthen the whole story, which is something I need to really work on for writing. Anyway, I’m definitely feeling inspired. Off to write…

    • Thanks, Angie. Film editing is a fascinating field to study, and I highly recommend “In the blink of an eye” by Walter Murch, and also “The Conversations” by Michael Ondaatje.
      As writers, I think we have to explore the creative methods of other fields- especially film, as we live in such a visual culture!

  2. Wow, this is a rich and fascinating blog post. I love hearing about James’ process and having the illustrations is a marvelous experience. It made me think of Richard Hugo’s little book on poetry called THE TRIGGERING TOWN — which admittedly I haven’t looked at in years. But I took it down, and here’s a quote: “A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.” He goes on with more, but I thought this fit with that idea of starting with something, but being willing to go into something totally different. Thanks, Amin!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Paulette. The concepts of “triggering idea” and “generated subject” are very helpful.
      After many years of writing, I think I can now distinguish between a piece of writing that is a one-liner: IE: stays close to its “triggering idea”. That writing tends to be fairly thin.
      Writing that explores its subject matter is so much richer, and has a certain “thickness” and richness, which you wrote about in an earlier post on your blog.
      So much of the current vogue of commercial fiction has one, and only one “generating idea”, which stays close to being a gimmick.
      Thanks so much for your insight!

  3. This is really helpful for me, as I tend to cling to my initial (or what I think of as “grounding”) ideas as though they were life rafts. I’m like the shipbuilder who keeps adding coat after coat of varnish, when what I really need to do is spend more time sailing into uncharted territories. Thanks for the inspiration.

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