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On My Creative Process

about my art conceptual art materials process

Have you ever wondered how an artist comes up with their ideas? Chances are you have, as this is one of the most frequent questions I get as an artist (after “what kind of art do you do?”).

The truth is that there is no easy answer. Each artist has their own approach—which I suppose is what makes art so diverse and interesting. And the approach often changes and evolves over time as well.

There are certain things I recognize from other artists’ practices, for example when I read about them and their process. Let me tell you about my own.

For me creativity is being open and receptive to the world around me—being curious to see how things work, how things are put together, and how other people create. But also just being present and available to notice the beauty around me.

My creative process is the product of two distinct ways of working—one with ideas and one with materials.

Conceptual Thought

With ideas, I am always alert and receptive—even exploring. I keep an ongoing file in my head where I store and consider different conceptual ideas. I may let an idea grow and expand in my head for anywhere from days to even years. As I gain new knowledge and experiences, my ideas can evolve over time, or become “invalid” in some way, in which case I may abandon them.

Over the years I've developed practices which foster this kind of introspective thinking, which is crucial to exploring and understanding ideas. Years ago I gave up listening to music or reading while commuting or traveling. Instead I use this time for thinking, and I am able to focus and lock out distractions easily. Furthermore, I try to do more walking than taking public transport (I don’t drive at all), as this usually gives me more time, as well as exercise, which also helps the thinking process.

Another time when ideas come to me is during meditation. I first learned Transcendental Meditation in 2009—after becoming aware of it through the film director David Lynch—and have been meditating regularly using the TM technique since. Many ideas also come to me in the shower or at the gym.

This is not to say that I don’t write down any of my ideas. I do. But I seldom write down overly broad or general ideas. I notate specific details, such as a vision of something that comes to me or a relation of words.

My recent work no trace is an example of an idea for a series that came to me, which I then started to explore over several weeks. The concept is this: find words which are contained within the names of visual artists who are important to me in some way, and then form two-word phrases, or ‘dialogues’ with these words. In no trace the artists are Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin.

no trace detail

In the work you can just make out the “yoko o” and “y emin.” I then investigated the potential meanings of “no trace” and what a dialogue between Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin might bring to that, eventually coming to the final solution seen below.

no trace full image

Another current series—also involving text—illuminates how our understanding of certain words and concepts can become corrupted. For example, in the work TRUTH, each letter of the text is made up of different letters, which taken together spell ‘false.’ That is, the “T” is made up of “f”s, the “R” of “a”s, and so on.

TRUTH detail

This series of Subtexts questions our understanding of words we normally take for granted. In doing so it is my hope to encourage the viewer to question more of what they read, see, or hear every day.

Material & Process

While I can work with ideas at almost any time of day or night, anywhere, my other way of working I do less often, though it is equally important. This is the time I spend hands on, exploring different materials which fascinate me. You might call this my studio time. Similarly to how I consider concepts in a philosophical way, I explore the attributes and properties of materials. This has been something I’ve been doing since childhood.

While growing up in a working-class, single-parent household, I rarely had money to buy art supplies, so over time I developed a resourcefulness by exploring different materials.

Material and process became more important to me than any given technique. And as I got older, and studied and learned more about the world around me, I realized further that technique is not where true creativity lies. It is the thought process, and inventing new ways of seeing the world around us which are important.

Furthermore, while working hands on with different materials, I am able to get into a state of flow, which helps me to access my introspective, conceptual thought process. This is where much of my work comes to fruition.

Looking once again at my Dialogues and Subtexts series, materiality played an important role in bringing these works to fruition.

In Dialogues, for example, I wanted to work with precision, including specific fonts, colors, and shapes—so I decided to create these works digitally on the computer for printing on a large, flat, metal surface (40 x 40 inches).

These are the first visual artworks I’ve created digitally since the 1990s, when I worked as a graphic designer, and it was an interesting experience after so much ‘hands-on’ experience working with physical materials.

In Subtexts, I take advantage of the difference in reflectivity between the black background and the ink used to make the lettering.

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So the impetus for a work may come from either, but the two ways of working quickly become so intertwined that the question of the origin of the idea is of little importance or relevance.

You might say that my creative process is like two rivers, which continually flow into one another until they reach the sea.

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Perhaps after reading this you have a clearer understanding of what lies behind my work. I invite you to visit my artwork page with fresh eyes! What do you see now?

Do you have any questions about my work or creative process? Please leave a comment or email me at michael@michaelnicholasart.com



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