Reflections on the Artistic Process


Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote: “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not something accidental, but are willed. What is drawing? How does one learn it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do.”

An artist is a person who attempts to be in touch with his/her inner self in order to communicate this information to others through their expertise in an abstract endeavor (i.e. an art). An artist’s body of work is autobiographical and, at the same time, a means by which the artist communicates both individual and universal experiences that all people share.

There are technicians (craftsmen) and there are artists. The former are technically trained and have the expertise necessary to produce works in their particular field. For some, these works may be convincing as art. But artists offer something more than just craftsmanship. They are aware of their role and need to express something of relevance about life through their art. From one perspective, the difference between art and craft can be compared to the difference between art and entertainment. Though great art can entertain, in the final result, entertainment is transitory while art is eternal. As well, meaningful art not only educates and raises consciousness but also challenges the recipient to be emotionally open to what is being offered. Art reveals one’s inner self to both the artist and the receiver.

The artist should strive to be cultured and aware of mankind’s eternal quest for freedom, beauty, and truth though the ages in all its manifestations, including artistic endeavors, but also through observation of all aspects of the human condition. Understanding matters of philosophy, history, the spiritual world, psychology, the humanities, etc., while at the same time empathizing with humanity’s successes and failures, all add to the reservoir of emotion and feeling that the artist calls upon when creating.

A central tenet of artistic creation is the dichotomy between the desire to be universal yet, at the same time, individual and unique (something that an artist is constantly working on). It is a polarity which as well mirrors the human condition. The artist is constantly striving towards expressing and integrating these two aspects to achieve a workable and intriguing balance. As Albert Einstein wrote: “Universality is a part of real greatness.”

All human beings are linked together through the timeless, universal chain of history and events. The artist is an example to others of man’s innate desire for freedom of expression through the ages. Once the artist has grasped the significance of this role, the next thought inevitably follows: that art should inspire people to better themselves and the world while serving as a means of perceiving the continuum of past, present and future.

Music is the most abstract and least concrete of the arts. Sound is intangible, offering the listener unending interpretative options. Bearing some commonalities with the field of mathematics, music finds expression in numbers and a symbolic language. One common element that music shares with certain other art forms is in the performance realm. Drama, ballet, even poetry at times, all have to be communicated in real time for the art to be realized. This concept of present time, trying not to be in the past or the future (which some refer to as “being there”), is an extraordinary aspect of performance and comes into play even more so for an improvising artist.

Art is a reflection of the varieties of people and cultures throughout the world. In music, there are differences in style, instruments, and content. When one considers, for example, geography (Greek odd-metered rhythms, Brazilian sambas, German polkas) or ethnicity (Jewish cantorial prayers, Gregorian chants, Hindu ragas), the possibilities are limitless. Hopefully, these contextual differences which one’s art naturally reflects do not obscure the universal qualities that all humans feel beyond culture, religion, and politics. The variety of styles and idioms available at any given moment of history serves to function as a transitory vehicle through which the artist expresses him or herself.

Much of the power of expression in a work of art is derived from its rhythm, which is omnipresent as a direct manifestation of the ebb and flow of life. Paintings, sculpture and poetry all have rhythmic characteristics as do the more obvious fields of music, drama, and dance. In the final analysis, rhythm is what moves people emotionally since it is basic to the human condition. Capturing a meaningful rhythm at just the right moment is a serious artistic challenge, especially in the performing arts. Rhythm exerts a major influence on the principle of tension and release, which will be discussed in a future column.

Mastering an art form is only the beginning of the artistic process. Communicating one’s art to the world-at-large completes the work. This “real world” process requires desire, courage, and discipline on the artist’s part in order to bring one’s artistic creations to the outside world. There exists a view that the value of an artistic creation depends upon its ability to communicate. This notion implies that the bigger the audience in attendance, or the more enthusiastic the approval it receives, etc., the higher the value of the art. Though this is arguable and dependent upon many outside factors, it does raise the point that art should somehow communicate to the lay audience. The essential consideration here is that the “ivory tower” image of artists creating masterpieces merely for themselves or for some esoteric circle is not a positive one. Communication completes the artistic process and involves an intense effort towards that goal.

The primary challenge for the artist is to decide to whom (s)he wants to communicate and to what extent. Simply put, at what level of sophistication does the artist manifest their work? Can we compare the kind of pop art that surrounds us daily to the level of emotional depth addressed, for example, in Picasso’s Spanish Civil War masterpiece “Guernica?” An artist should be aware of whom they are creating for. It could be said that one’s art implies a pre-destined audience and milieu upon its very creation. The artist has already made a choice by the nature of the work itself.


Tension and release

A successful artistic statement should include emotional as well as technical content to be fully balanced. The full range of human emotions (love, sadness, joy, anger, etc.) provide the source material from which an artist draws to create, while the intensity of one’s passion fuels the process. How an artist balances emotion and technique in relation to one of the primary aesthetic principles of artistic creation, tension and release, is a major factor contributing towards the success of a work of art.

From the technical standpoint, achieving a convincing balance between tension and release is concerned with how the artist uses available options of a particular artistic parameter. If a painter has to decide upon the right tool for portraying a specific figure, the appropriate selection may depend on the story line and what aspect of the picture needs to be emphasized or minimized, thereby influencing his choice of a thick or thin bristled brush. In music there is the juggling of dynamic levels which dramatically influences the denouement of tension and release in a performance or composition. This ever present ebb and flow of tension and release is determined by subtle and intricate technical matters to be chosen by each artist accordingly. Balance and contrast within the constraints of tension and release are omnipresent in artistic creation. An artist’s work should be flexible enough to absorb the extremes as well as the subtle shadings inherent within the tension and release principle.


Appreciating Art

A deep appreciation and understanding of an art form results from a combination of spontaneous emotional responses and familiarity with the work itself. The former is inexplicable and largely intuitive while the latter is developed through education aimed towards understanding the processes taking place. People have an inherent fascination and curiosity in knowing how things work. When one appreciates the thought and discipline involved in producing a work of art as well as emotionally enjoying it, admiration and respect follow. The bottom line to appreciation is education and repeated high level exposure to the art at hand. For the artist him or herself, it is important to be able to judge and enjoy work in one’s field in an objective manner, taking into account personal taste and the potential of a natural competitive element, especially if the work is in the same area of expertise.



A commonality to most serious artists is the quest for fresh information in one’s field as well as the ability to learn new material. Knowing how to learn assumes recognition of useful information, followed by comprehension of the concepts involved, concluded by incorporating the material into the artist’s already familiar milieu. The concept of “grafting” can be helpful when confronted with incorporating new material. This is the transference of concepts or techniques from one area to another, possibly quite removed in context from the source itself. It may also mean translating ideas from one medium to another. For example, many of the harmonic concepts of the outstanding 20th century classical composers have been “grafted” to the jazz language throughout its relatively short history. Instrumentalists might graft techniques which are natural to a specific instrument to their own, thereby creating a new context for the concept. Over the years, I have had several guitarists comment to me that they were trying to emulate a saxophonist’s concept of line construction, purposely avoiding the habitual finger patterns that are natural to their instrument. Visa versa, on the horn I have often tried to imitate the way a guitarist or Indian flautist bends notes. Grafting is a major tool for discovering new combinations.


Artistic Stages

The first stage of the artistic process involves absorption of principles and techniques that have already been accepted as standard in the field and the ability to duplicate these concepts up to minimum criterion. For a time, this may mean that the long term and overall goal of formulating an individual style is temporarily put on hold. After this imitative stage, the artist personalizes past and contemporary styles, meaning active participation in real world activity happening in the field. As this participatory process evolves, some artists will progress to the third stage of innovation. That is contributing something unique, potentially of major importance in the field but it could also be subtle as a different way to play something on one’s instrument or possibly a new fingering, etc. From the personalization (second) period onward, further study of technique and past achievements in the field broadens the expressive power of the artist’s work enabling a wider range of emotions and ideas to be conveyed. Study of the past need not be an obstacle to creativity, but rather a source for conceptualizing the present and future. Bela Bartok wrote “that only from the entirely old can the entirely new be born.” In jazz, study of older styles and artists can result in fresh insights when “grafted” onto a modern concept.

Stages of artistic growth reveal themselves in more obvious ways during the beginning years. For example, being able to recognize significant improvements in technique and conception at an early point of musical development can be easily noticed by simply hearing two recordings of oneself from several months apart. After the beginning stages improvement appears to be measurably slower since progress is more subtly revealed. An artist must maintain a sense of positive reinforcement at this stage. This is psychologically crucial, especially during times of frustration and self doubt which many artists go through at this stage or at one time or another. When I was working with drummer Elvin Jones, I asked him how he heard himself after so many years. He said that the ability to execute something with more ease than previously was indicative of musical growth for him. The mature and long practicing artist recognizes this activity as the refining and editing process. What is more important as the years roll by is that the artist vigilantly places oneself at the center of the creative storm dealing with any new challenges that arise in the field. Process becomes more important than results at this later stage of development.

When one looks to the past in the study of an art form, (s)he should aim at finding the original source of a style. Obviously, current exponents of a particular style may initially serve as source material and inspiration. But for true and honest artistic growth, second (or later) generation artists are not the most effective tool for learning what came before. For example in jazz, a student interested in the Coltrane style should be studying the music of the master himself, not me or some of my contemporaries. Our value to the learning artist is useful, concerned with how we each took one aspect of Coltrane’s music and developed an individual approach. (Of course, in the years to come, who can predict from where the new source will come?)


Being Objective

At the outset of the artistic process a student practices and learns on a mechanical level with little reflection about any deeper implications. This is advantageous for beginning learning of the craft which is after all to a large extent, rote memorization. As one matures past the early stages, a certain degree of self consciousness may occur which can complicate the learning process for a time; the danger being that one’s mind gets in the way of the laborious (and daily) discipline necessary to hone the craft. Clear objectivity is important at this point, meaning one must address the technical issues at hand and let the psyche slowly collect impressions, feelings, etc., which will eventually find their way into the personalization stage. The challenge is maintaining awareness of one’s weak points and organizing an approach towards improvement. As the craft is fine-tuned, achieving a balance between negative and constructive criticism improves over time.

On the subject of craft, it should be noted that in many cases artistic breakthroughs have been accompanied by technical innovation. Examples are numerous such as Picasso’s cubist renderings of the human anatomy or James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. In jazz, the instrumental technique has been extended or enlarged with every major breakthrough. Louis Armstrong extended the playing range of the trumpet; Charlie Parker seemingly doubled the fluidity of the saxophone; John Coltrane extended the range of the tenor sax; John McLaughlin, Cecil Taylor and Art Tatum pushed the technique forward on their respective instruments and contributed to the evolution of the entire music as an art form. For a beginning artist, technique can lead to more knowledge and advances, but craft should never supersede content. Self awareness and objective evaluation on the part of the artist is crucial at all stages of development.


Gaining Artistic Control

If there is one universal axiom which applies to the arts, it is that the process is arduous and lengthy. The results of study and practice must be seen in a long-term context. Certain technical and conceptual skills are learned quickly, but the more subtle aspects take time and perseverance. For the jazz improviser, one must find an acceptable balance between habit and spontaneity. Musically, habitual response means that a musical idea can be executed in real time without conscious thought, while spontaneous expression breathes life and immediacy into the gesture. Under the category of habitual responses in jazz are skills such as acquiring a convincing rhythmic feel, control of the idiomatic nuances of phrasing, instrumental mastery and tone, all encased in a viable soloistic concept. Longer term areas include composition and arranging skills, band leader experience and a deep grasp of personal expressive devices which immediately identify one instrumentalist from another. Real hours spent in a consistent study/practice routine are mandatory, no matter how naturally gifted one may be, while patience with a view towards long range results is necessary. Though one may feel pressured by the outside world at large to mature rapidly, this music demands a minimum amount of time, measured in years to yield positive results and a feeling of accomplishment. The pianist Bill Evans wrote: “An individual style develops out of a person’s musicianship and artistic need. It comes from being committed over a long period of time to a comprehensive musical development.”

On a more subtle level concerning artistic control, sensitivity can be developed but intuition is inborn. It is that inexplicable element which to some degree all people have about something(s). When intuition is involved the results appear to have come about due to no specific cause. (Maybe intuition is the result of knowledge gained from past lives?) An artist should trust their intuition as it is an important element of the creative process and continues to develop as one matures. Sometimes it is just a “feeling” that a choice one way or the other should be made. For improvising musicians, intuition is very important because there is so little real time to make musical decisions in the moment



In the beginning stages of the artistic process, inspiration comes from one’s idols, mentors and hopefully peers. The desire to emulate someone more advanced spurs the young musician on. Once the budding artist has their basic craft together as described above (which also assumes an understanding of the history and traditions of the art form), inspiration comes about as a by-product of being human. Life’s everyday interactions and the universal emotions that all humankind experience-love, birth, death etc., if observed as such provide ample opportunity to inspire one’s work. On a more subtle and personal level are experiences gleaned from the inner psychological states or “passages” of life as one matures. Self awareness of these cycles should, can and in the final result must inspire artistic creation. In actuality one’s art is a running autobiographical account of a life, available for all to witness, enjoy and for better or worse, judge. Being a true artist from this point of view is a challenging job, especially on the psychological level.

As a case in point as I traveled through my own passages, the titles of original compositions reflected an ever changing focus as I grew. The way I write, titles often precede the actual composition suggesting a musical idea to pursue. At first, inspiration for the titles came about as my subjective reflections of the world in relation to a personal and obviously self centered world view. Inspiration came from people, places and experiences that directly affected my life. In the next stage motivation derived from thoughts concerning society, the past and the world at large. Presumably, the later years reflect the individual in relation to the cosmos, spiritual matters and the passing on of eternal verities to future generations; in total the accumulated wisdom of a life. Of course, each stage coexists with and reflects knowledge gained from remembrances of past feelings, thoughts and events. This is what keeps the process fresh and ongoing-the mixture of old and new experiences-past with the present. Any artist who is aware of his or her surroundings and their relationship to the world theoretically could never run out of material for inspiration.


Matters of Personal and Artistic Balance

“Paying dues” is an expression which describes life for all people, not only artists. Resistance is necessary at times in life for forward motion to occur. When life and work are flowing satisfactorily positive energy is being stored up for the next cycle of trials and tribulations. What goes up must come down! Observing life’s cycles, it does appear that in periods of stress humankind calls upon both the best and worst in behavior. For an artist, heartfelt inspiration and real inner strength are often revealed at such periods and may result in personal creative pinnacles. Unfortunately it appears that artists, possibly because of their heightened sensitivities, are more prone than their fellow man to succumb to frustration, depression and self-pity which can lead to self-destructive tendencies and life styles. One of the challenges of an artistic life is how to experience and gain insight through life’s experiences while achieving a living and working balance within oneself and with the world at large. It certainly appears that sooner or later most people strive for some sort of balance in their life. There are times (especially in youth) when “being out of rhythm” may actually be helpful towards attaining self-knowledge. But ultimately, a realistic sense of balance is essential for a long, healthy and for an artist, productive life.

In the art itself, the matter of balance is concerned with the seemingly contradictory tendencies of control and freedom. The challenge is to use both aspects at the most constructive moments. Specifically in the area of improvising an ideal aesthetic balance might be described as total control of the language and tools of music, instrumental virtuosity, mental and intellectual depth along with a personal flow which allows these and other factors to mix together spontaneously producing lasting artistic results. The musician who sports a flashy technique to the detriment of musicality is an example of a poor balance. Another example of imbalance is the overly intellectual player who evidences little true passion. As in life, so goes art-a constant search for balance between opposite tendencies; the ultimate yin-yang paradigm.


Consistency and Growth

One criterion of what constitutes a professional in a particular field and especially in the performing arts is consistency. The ability to maintain a minimum standard with occasional leaps into greatness is expected. If one considers creativity as an ongoing process of problem solving (for example, the improviser hones in on one specific musical challenge posed by the composition be it harmony or rhythm, etc.), the professional is an individual who knows how to confront a new or intriguing “problem” in a disciplined and seamless manner with the audience none the wiser. Stravinsky writes in his Poetics of Music to the effect that “the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.”

By the time an artist has reached their second to third decade of the process, they are particularly ripe for creative breakthroughs. One still retains the energy and enthusiasm of youth, yet is mature enough to solidify personal goals not driven by the expectations of others. Furthermore, if an artist has any worldly success (in material

terms the ability to economically survive as an artist), this individual will have garnered some personal, if not public rewards. A sense of pride and accomplishment will be present yet at the same time there is ambition enough to attain further goals. The competitive element is still smoldering in one’s thirties driven to some degree by a combination of ego and peer pressure. As well there is the understanding that financial security can insure one’s artistic development and freedom to create will continue unabated. These “real world” forces may help stimulate an artist in a positive fashion as long as they are viewed in a proper perspective and do not control one’s life. In general it appears that by the time the next stage is reached the artist’s creative life is running along, one way or the other. Outside of any physical issues that accompany aging, the positive side for an artist is that one has had years of experience. Artistically, this equates to technical and emotional control and a level of inner freedom which allows the artist to dig deeper towards finding their own uniqueness.


Personal Issues

Artists face the same problems and challenges as anyone else in their personal relationships. Because of their unique lifestyle and heightened sensitivities there are potentially more complications than the norm. Especially in the performing arts, there is the ever-present danger of playing the same role in real life as one does in performance. An “attitude” and a public persona are necessary for the performer who faces a live audience (what actors refer to as the “fourth wall”). This reality vs. performer aspect can be tricky and balance is necessary between these two often contradictory forces at work, sometimes on a daily level. For some artists constant travel also places extra strain on relationships but there are untold creative rewards in seeing and experiencing the world. One does eventually recognize that what they do, though it does separate them from others in some respects, is after all a job like any other. After the flush of youthful adventurism, life usually calms down into a routine not so different from what takes place in the “real” world.

Western society from the Renaissance on has given special status to the artist, resulting in great works as well as heightened neurosis. It’s true that an artist who achieves fame in modern culture becomes a celebrity possibly enabling them to create without everyday mundane concerns. However, there is the danger and temptation of commercialization and its deadening influence on creativity. In this cultural milieu an artist is a prime candidate for anxiety and other mental (as well as physical) pressures. In more traditional societies the artist was a member of the community like any other person, fulfilling a specialized function necessary for the well-being of the populace, no different than the farmer or whomever. This framework was and in some parts of the world still is conducive to creativity in different ways than the orthodox Western framework. No matter the context or period of history, every artist within a given culture has to deal with the world they live in, finding a way to accommodate their creative impulses while at the same time forging ahead for the sake of their own sanity as well as the art and its tradition.



Concerning communicating art to the world at large, if at times it is difficult for the artist themselves to understand other works in the field, it may be easier to empathize with how the inexperienced public can have problems in comprehension. It’s important that the artist realize what impression a work has on an audience and without sacrificing quality attempt to present the work with as much clarity as possible. The desire to communicate with large numbers of people is a specific goal unto itself and for some the primary one. If an artist can somehow keep a distinction between the artistic merits of a work and its success as measured by popularity and acceptance, (s)he will remain on healthy artistic ground. One factor should not be a barometer of the value of the other. A successful commercial piece can be highly artistic and memorable, using Picasso’s Guernica or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as two prime examples, but these exceptions and others like them are not the norm. An artist must keep these matters in perspective.

In the final result an artist’s sense of humanity is what we see, hear and feel. How the artist sees themselves in relation to the outside world is reflected in their work. Everyone is responsible for their own actions and beliefs, even to some degree in societies where freedom of expression is curtailed. In any given situation there is a point where outside factors, though influencing the results, cannot be used to justify one’s actions or beliefs. This is when a person’s sense of humanity, compassion, respect for others, moral and ethical codes, etc., intersect a creative act. In the final result, an artist’s body of work is a clear indication of where they stand in relation to the world as potential seer, critic, observer, destroyer or creator of beauty and truth.

Everything one does has an effect somewhere, somehow and at some point in time, though it may not be contemporaneous. One never fully recognizes the real world influence a work of art can have. To my mind, if an individual perseveres in their chosen field and discovers through the artistic process the positive and life affirming values of creation, much has been accomplished, at least on a personal level, if nothing more. Like a ripple in the water, the effect will eventually be felt downstream. Being involved in the creative process and all it signifies, a person has taken upon themselves the responsibility of looking inward to communicate something of value to the world using their chosen art form as the vehicle to accomplish this. That is at the minimum, personal bravery of the highest order with the potential to change the world!