Dan Sankowsky: from the inside
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Essays/Articles :: Art
Birth of the Windows Gallery (pdf)
Smudging had opened the door to blending and shaping on the computer. Rather than do most of that by hand, I now used the markers only to produce color swatches and let the effects menu do the rest. In the course of discovering aspects of smudging, I right-clicked on the icon and saw I had a choice for how large to make the brush as well as the shape it could have. All of a sudden, I had two variables, one continuous (or at least effectively so) and one discrete. I found that I had been setting the brush on 28; I already sensed that a relationship existed between the size of the brush and the size of the painting (in kb). The smaller the painting, the greater the impact of the brush (the smudging instrument).
I decided to set smudge at its maximum value – 50. Then I didn’t have to resize the larger paintings when I wanted to smudge without a struggle, when smudge would blow right through designated areas easily, fluidly, and quickly. I learned that I could produce a milky texture with smudge on light colors and even on blank parts of the “paper”: this worked especially well in tandem with water color on napkins as the latter’s texture yields just enough bite for the smudge to do its thing.
While all this went on, I made a simple discovery outside the technical realm, but pertaining to it. I had mechanically launched into smudge mode as if following a self constructed algorithm. In particular, I automatically blended any selected area so it did not stand out as separated in any way from the rest of the work; this always entailed destroying the rectangle, e.g. smudging the edges so any trace of that original geometric form vanished. After all, this had been smudge’s original purpose: blending came first, then shaping and adding texture (with circles, for example).
I remember watching hockey great Bobby Orr and observing his economy of movement: sometimes, he faked people out by doing nothing, just standing with the puck. He had included no move in his arsenal, enriching the movement variable. I thought of doing that with my art. Now that I had a choice, I could elect to do nothing or at least less with the smudge on the rectangle.
And so I had a new style, called windows paintings. The windows are the little semi-preserved rectangles. I would select various areas on a blurred and smudged painting (with some discrete coloration left), making a composition by doing that; then I would apply various filters, especially water color; finally, I would very judiciously blend by smudging so that many of the rectangular shapes remained recognizable as such, if not virtually intact. This created a sense of many little worlds in interaction.
I also had a variable for what I chose for my inputs. I settled on two main sources for windows: complex (and often unsuccessful) color rich previous paintings and basic one or two color swatches (not considered paintings as such). The art is choosing the composition, the size and placement of the rectangles (i.e. the windows) as well as knowing what buttons to push, literally, on the computer. Once again, I let the medium dictate as I learned under what conditions the effects operated – how water color, the most tricky for example, performed in areas designated as uniform in color or multi-colored, and with a range from lightest to darkest.
While it frustrates me not to be able to pin down and articulate my creative process more clearly, I have some observations about my own approach that may transfer to others. For the rest, I’ll have to content myself with the notion that writing about it has the purpose of describing/prescribing what it takes to put me in a position so I see and capitalize on new ideas. The specificity of those ideas and how specifically I came up with them will remain a mystery and that will have to do.
From what I’ve already noted, I approach painting with the orientation of respecting the medium and working with it. I seek to learn what it can do. So I never have too particular a notion of what the end product should be: I won’t try to draw an exact likeness of Elvis Presley; any people I do depict will suggest human form and leave it at that, somewhat ambiguously by design so as not to detract from the overall feeling of movement and balance. Someone else may choose to gain the technical skill to draw Elvis. That’s a different process and it puts creativity in a different place.
With this in mind, I proceed in scientific mode first, investigating the medium within my technical limitations. When, for example, I began my work with oil-based markers on porous memo-style paper, I conducted an experiment on drying time. That was something I could do and the results gave me a direction to pursue – namely the ridge between two adjoining lines or curves, the first of which had been allowed to dry. Today I work on the computer with Microsoft Photo Editor. It may not have the cache of Paint Shop or other more sophisticated programs, but it contains enough richness to make for hundreds of new painterly ideas.
In particular, lately I’ve worked with variations on a theme, tweaking variables to get a new look. The previous pages noted my considering “amount of smudging” as a variable with no smudging at all a viable option – this pertaining to the micro, i.e. to rectangles selected within a painting. That led to the discovery of windows and a fresh methodology for creating context – or more accurately for expressing the relationship between communities and context. The paintings look unlike others that preceded them.
After beginning in scientific mode, I eagerly switch to my aesthetic side, looking at the results and reveling in any visual gold that emerges. If it looks good, I go with it, enhance it within my technical capabilities, and then routinize it. That is, I make it a staple: I can do that if I understand what went into it and stay grounded. Not trying to exceed my technical limitations does not mean I’m not interested in growing in technical ability; it just means that such growth comes naturally when the focus remains on the process.
I have to trust my sense of what looks good. Generally if I remain in process, I reach a psychological state of engagement and openness. The latter refers to my receptivity to seeing in a new way, capitalizing on creative opportunities by parsing out the gold, enhancing it within a painting, and opening the next painting by repeating what I had just learned about the experiment.
Recapping, the ORIENTATION of letting the medium dictate what to do, given that I present it with a general issue or experiment, a loose structure, combined with SCIENTIFIC mode, i.e. initiating an investigation leads to a PSYCHOLOGICAL state of engagement and openness, aka flow, allowing me to use my AESTHETIC sensibility to identify new and striking images and ideas. This describes a process that can not only be replicated, but builds on itself through a feedback loop of REPEATABILITY in which the starting point of the 6th painting, for example, is the end point of the 5th. Once I know the results, I reenact them many times over. The process continues: eventually, some product will vary enough so as to suggest a new structure. The PROCESS can thus be considered generative, or self-sustaining, automatically, and seemingly paradoxically fostering GROWTH through routine implementation.
That view of process may appear to have inner contradictions. But I want to differentiate process within painting and process between paintings. Consider this example: I took yellow as a single color and applied the windows technique to it, i.e. to a yellow “canvas.” In switching to red, now routinely varying the color as a parameter, water color lightened rather than darkened the rectangles. This led to different choices for smudging and a greater reliance on ancillary effects such as stained glass. Over time, I tweaked the experiment to now take in two-tone backgrounds and then two-part backgrounds – one a color and one a selected portion of another painting. These works have a different quality from the original imposition of windows on an existing painting.
The relationship between new/emergent and familiar/replicable is ideally dialectic: one feeds into the other, enhancing it and gaining strength from it. This differs from the either – or dichotomies we tend to slide into. Consider the following parallel to the relationship between policy and judgment:
People will often argue that clear policies are needed to establish guidelines for equity and decision-making; others will press the point that these matters must be determined on a judgment basis. Of course, neither side excludes the other’s position entirely: the policy proponents understand the need for at least a modicum of judgment in applying the basic regulations and the judgment advocates acknowledge an underlying set of norms that, along with experience and wisdom, guide them. And yet, depending on how one balances the two poles, an individual is typically seen as in one camp or the other – “oh, she relies on the regs; he flies by the seat of his pants.” People type each other quickly and tend to react automatically to one another in a given context, expecting resistance before it is even proffered.
What is often missed by staunch advocates of either side? It is the generative process connecting them. To understand this, we first note that the edicts and language of policy are on a different conceptual level than the particulars of a given case. It may seem trivial to point this out, but it is critical to grasp that one applies policy to a specific situation to come up with recommendations for action. And it is in that application process that a dynamic is created, ultimately leading to the further refinement of existing policy in most cases and in some cases, a discontinuous break in policy.
How does this take place? Most of the time, individuals applying policy to a given case seek to stick to the blueprint the general structure provides – for policy is written in “if, then” language (under certain circumstances, engage in certain actions). This presumes clear recognition of particulars: this case is identifiable as X or various aspects within it can be so readily identified. Sometimes, lines are blurred and then questions are raised as to how to apply the rules. Sometimes, a situation is strong enough in its uniqueness to challenge those rules or to trivialize them or to suggest amendments to them. (There may have been elements of the policy that do not stand up to close scrutiny; they may wilt under the pressure of a particular situation). Sometimes, a situation simply brings up issues that policy setters did not consider, i.e., they go beyond the existing structure.
This interaction between policy and situation through the application process triggers the need for judgment and ultimately, further development of process. That is, to deal with the blurred lines, one needs judgment; to evaluate the status of a given situation, one needs judgment. If an individual is rigidly committed to an existing policy, he or she is likely to only be tacitly aware of the judgment required, and thus will not be open to implications in policy development. The case we make here is for policy over time, rather than policy at a given time.
This then is the connection we seek. This encapsulates the generative process between policy and judgment – or does it? Not entirely. We have come to the plate holding the policy bat and then seeing what happens interactively. What if we start with a judgment orientation to life, dealing with situations primarily on a case by case basis, throwing out the rules (or appearing to do so)? Over time, patterns will emerge. Individuals will inevitably fall into certain default positions with respect to certain types of situations. Situation types are on a different conceptual level than the specific cases themselves: policy creates itself as the codified set of tacit reactions to a given type.
In general, each creates a need for the other in a dynamic manner: policy, when applied, requires some judgment, even if trivial; and judgment, over time, either tacitly suggests a policy or calls out for organization (in the form of policy) to avoid total chaos. And each comes back to itself, creating the generative loop: policy requires judgment which requires policy. Policy at time 2 is not the same as policy at time 1. Rather than visualizing a circular flow, where one comes back to where one starts, it is more helpful to see a spiral and to conceptualize a sense of development. At any one time, there may be (a) policy. But there is not necessarily one policy, the policy, for all time. There is just policy in motion and judgment in action.The term “dialectical” is also used to describe this process. Dialectical movement takes place when two apparently opposing forces are reconciled to forge a new entity, one which contains elements of the previous ones, but transcends and enriches both. So, the process of policy development informs a given policy -- when it marries well with judgment and opens itself to a continuous stream of new features, even allowing for its ultimate dissolution. Policy development is on a higher conceptual level than any given policy. Similarly, judgment development is on a higher conceptual level, and therefore more valuable, than any given judgment (in a given situation).