How do I start?

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Starting something can be both frightening and magical: beginnings require us to transcend our fear of failure. They are where our hopes of potential successes meet the realities of our abilities and willpower. They are complex things, and can let people stall: to end before ever having begun. Yes, you might not know what to do, or how to go about it – but you feel that you want to get going. This is the magical aspect of every beginning, which often lets you remember your first steps into a new territory – a venture, iconic beyond the ordinary. Beginnings are a frequent situation for artists, maybe more so than for others: entering a new project with unknown parameters, a collaboration with unclear outcomes. Kicking off a new medium. Starting one’s first sculpture ever, or a new series after the previous one didn’t sell at all. For conscious beings, beginnings require hope – and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

The way that artists start is often erratic, since they can’t rely on external quality ideals; instead, artists need to define and refine these on their own. Their processes tend to be experimental; so much so that once they become more production-oriented, clichés sometimes portray them as untrue or cynical – as if idealism could only exist in what’s not yet established, in the pursuit of unknowns. Quite often, artistic processes don’t have a clear sequence of steps to pursue; there might be knowledge about tools and materials, but little absolutes about how to reach the goal (which can be undefined as well). This results in artistic processes to often start radically erratic and open-minded – with neither processes or goals being clearly defined. But how to ever reach something without this clarity?


Exploratory Processes

While many non-creative processes follow a predefined, sequential formula (“do this, then that, then that, ..”), exploratory artistic processes obviously need to establish these first. In the case of process-oriented artistic practices, this pursuit can even represent the goal, with a specific end condition being used instead of otherwise defined quality criteria: a certain time having passed, materials having being consumed, etc. These practices ultimately don’t need anything but the urge to start: one can doodle and experiment freely, to end whenever it feels right. For goal-oriented practices, the artist needs to develop some sort of understanding of where to get, and how to get there. For production phases, one would usually want to know both these aspects; for exploratory phases, one ultimately needs neither: it suffices to understand the urge to get moving.

Various Process Modes
Formula-, process- and goal-based processes

Finishing and Quality Criteria

Finishing something requires its author to understand and reach that thing’s finish line – which in arts is represented by their ideas about quality ideals: when does a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a dance fulfill the various criteria that its author requires of it? These quality criteria can be aesthetic (“A blue sun has been sculpted in a way that’s pleasing to me”) or conceptual (“Thirteen body movements have been made between 6:07 and 7:06pm”) – offering endless potential for confusion to laypeople. This is made even more volatile by quality ideals not only being highly personal, but also being subject to time: a specific variation of a sculpted blue sun might look beautifully complete to artist A, but decidedly worthless to artist B; these personal points of view do not stand in conflict with each other (although certain people will, antagonistically, lecture others about which quality criteria they deem “right”), since everyone is actually required to have their own ideas about what’s finished or good – it serves as the basis for contemporary arts’ endless multitude of quality ideals and works. In addition, an artist’s ideas about finishedness and perfection don’t have to be consistent over time, but can vary in extreme ways.

Volatile Quality Criteria in Art
Quality criteria usually change over time (Artist A), and between people (Artist A vs. Artist B)

While it’s impossible to finish a work with unclear quality criteria, it’s absolutely possible to start working on it. Quality is a vacuum, which can eventually be replaced with purpose and intent. Quality can emerge from exposure to, and being embedded in a process. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t a bad situation – it’s like hiking to get somewhere unknown: you can’t get there without starting off, even though you might not always know whether the direction makes sense. You start without a compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and where it all might lead to. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t a hiker because you reach a goal; you are a hiker because you hike. Art requires a lot of wandering – the more you can set up processes whose views you enjoy, the better your life will be. Having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

In an open field like art, it can be hard to understand why to choose any specific direction over another – all of them are possible, and often mean the same to a beginner. There’s just not a strong compass yet. To establish one, consider using the following 3-tier structure:

  1. To focus
  2. To investigate, and 
  3. To gradually increase your commitment (and thus pressure).

Consider reading the chapters for a detailled discussion of each of these topics.

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