The case for visualization

Robert Genn

May 21, 2010

Dear Rodney,

Yesterday, Stephanie Quinn of Dallas, Texas wrote, "Athletes are taught to visualize winning and to set goals. Often, when I visualize my finished product and set out to work on a piece, it doesn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. Is there a way to bring these two points--the process and the visualized expectations--together so that there is less disappointment?"

Thanks, Stephanie. This is a terrific question. Fact is, in our game, a lot of prior visualization and painterly goal-setting are not always good for our art. Sure, you can visualize painting a show, or the exploration of a subject, or even the Lamborghini you're going to buy with the proceeds, but you don't want to be too accurate in your preconception of your art.

Here's why: From the evolved Impressionists to the greats of today, the most effective art-making processes follow the evolution of the works themselves. Process trumps plans. That's why our job is called "creative." One needs to beware of too much prior visualization. It is the inflicting of mind on an act that is ideally the progressive work of eyes and hands.

It's been my experience when artists switch from carrying out prior visualizations to a more open-minded experience of exploration and minute-by-minute adjustment, quality goes up.

Rather than proscribing a recipe, think of your art as a dynamic event. Know that the safe guide of visualization can also be a choking straightjacket. Planning is great, but you need to get into improvisation mode. Your mind is a tyrant. It can only be subverted by the persistence of your eyes, your intuition and your heart. An exciting trip of discovery is one that keeps you coming back for more.

Further, the problem with comparing art to sport is that the latter lives within an interminable romance with numbers. Distances, times, goals and even errors are measured and traced with alarming accuracy. Numbers define athletic success. Art, on the other hand, is more arbitrary. Prowess is often a matter of opinion. As the goals and values of art are difficult to quantify, art needs to be seen as a personal, private activity where the joy is in the doing.

Best regards,


PS: "The mind stands in the way of the eye." (Stained glass pioneer Arthur Stern)

Esoterica: This is just one more reason why preparatory roughs can be dangerous. If you expend too much energy on comps, particularly if somebody like you approves them, they can lock you in. Further, you may leave out the very flourishes that your final may need. I believe in "rough, rough, roughs." That way you're not too committed and you can jump into your venture with gusto, having not yet solved all of its problems. "Vision is not enough," said the great playwright Vaclav Havel. "It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs."