The Advantage of Watching Artists At Work

When people look at art, it affects them in some way. The beauty might stun them. The subject matter may make them think. They can be inspired, amused, entertained, surprised, or maybe even repulsed, as in the case of Damien HIrst’s cut-up cow—or possibly even bored. When a person looks at a work of art that is complete, they have reactions of one kind or another. But when someone watches an artist work, the experience is absolutely different. It triggers the creative inclinations people didn’t even know they had.

Humans have the constant inclination to “fill in the blanks” of their experience. We form assumptions based on what we know. If we observe, for example, that two people live in a tiny, studio apartment, we assume they’re a couple. If we look at a car on the street, we assume it runs on gasoline, even though it has been altered to run on used cooking oil. We know about the corruption in politics and assume there are no absolutely honest politicians. Our knowledge of generalities enables us to form conclusions and fill the blanks, correctly or incorrectly, of the unknown.

Watching an artist work doesn’t give us a set of generalities to work from, because the piece of art in progress will be different from anything we’ve ever seen. An absolutely original work of art gives us no “knowns” to draw on, unless we are very familiar with that artist’s style—and even then, we don’t know.

A painter working in a highly realistic style may not offer the same experience that an abstract painter provides, because what they are painting is more or less an exact replication of what we see. But when we watch an abstract painter at work, there is the question of what will the next shape, color, or line look like? Watching a sculptor assemble pieces of metal in some design known only to him or her, an observer is left to wonder what that work will look like when it’s done. Even if the person watching has no special interest in art, they do have the natural human desire to fill in the blanks.

In the process of wondering, our own sense of aesthetic comes into play. We observe a field of colors and shapes on a canvas and the artist contemplating the next addition. What will it be? We can find ourselves thinking that we would add a certain color in a particular place, even though it has never occurred to us to pick up paints and canvas ourselves. The artist will probably do something else entirely, because they have their own aesthetic that fills in the blanks of their highly individualistic work.

As we think about filling in the blanks of someone else’s work, we trigger our own creative process. We may not have the desire to paint or sculpt or write music ourselves, but observing the artist’s process opens up our own creative thinking. Creativity is latent in everyone, requiring only a spark to set it in motion.

Thinking creatively can be an asset in every thing we do. When we cultivate it, we can harness that thinking to make life more interesting. One of the most interesting ways we can cultivate it is being in the midst of creators in action—yet another reason why our cities should be full of artists.

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