Drawing Medicine for Decision Fatigue
Constraints, Chance, and Collaborating with the Universe
DT and Grown-Ups Table friends! Hi, it’s Wendy. Happy you’re here. A little overview for the newly joined: Looking for DrawTogether videos and podcasts? Find them here. DrawTogether Classrooms for educators is here. What’s this newsletter? Every Sunday I sent out a drawing/life-related dispatch called the Grown-Ups Table (AKA the GUT). It’s DrawTogether for grown-ups. If you signed up for free DrawTogether updates, you get to read a bit of the GUT lesson each week. Supporting members (woot woot!) get the full dispatch, a weekly drawing assignment, plus access to the members-only art share where we cheer each other on. Members keep the GUT and DT (and me!) going, and honestly it’s the best community/art club I’ve ever seen. So thanks, Members. I love you to the moon. (Don’t forget to introduce yourself.)
Thanks again to last weeks Visiting Artist Beth Haidle for sharing her new book and offering us an assignment. I’ve featureed a few GUT Member’s drawings at the bottom this dispatch, and a Members only signed-book giveaway of Beth’s book. See you at the P.S.
Now onto this week.
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” - Orson Welles
This week’s GUT dispatch is one of my favorites so far. I wonder if you’ll agree. Our topic today addresses something a lot of us are feeling, deep down. The art assignment offers a little creative medicine. At last it felt that way to me. And I hope it does for you, too.
So, without further ado… Let’s stop making….
Or rather *clears throat* what is “Decision Fatigue” and what can we do about it?
Q for you: How often do you flip through the TV looking for something to watch, and despite the 1.2 Million options we have these days, it still feels like there’s nothing on? Or how often do you have some free time to do something fun or restorative, but you’re so exhausted from an overwhelming week that you’re unable to decide what to do, so you stay on the couch and do nothing. Either feel familiar? Maybe both?
Maybe after a 3 years of a global pandemic, political turmoil, social media, anxiety, and stress we ALL feel that way ALL THE TIME?
There’s a name for it. It’s called Decision Fatigue, and it occurs under two conditions: 1. when we have too many choices, and 2. when we are exhausted from making decisions.
I think a lot of us are experiencing Decision Fatigue right now, or have at some point in our lives. I also have a hunch my GUT peeps have experienced it not only in our lives, but also in our art.
Like life, a lot of making art is making decisions. We start the moment we decide we want to make something. Then we decide what we want to make. Then how we want to make it. Next how to approach it. Maybe what surface to use. What medium to select, what light to use, if we want to introduce color or not… then onto decisions about every single line, dot, stroke, erasure… all of it.
A bazillion decisions go into every drawing. And each decision narrows our path, helping us navigate forward. If we don’t have any restrictions to butt up against, it’s almost impossible to start making something, let alone finish.
Every artist, writer, musician, choreographer agrees: constraints are a gift. As Orson Welles famously said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
When you feel overwhelmed by choices or burnt out on making them, instead of looking more widely for inspiration, try narrowing your perspective. Put down the endless news feed or instagram scroll and give yourself some constraints. It’s a lot easier and more interesting when everything is not all up to you.
That’s what we’re doing this week.
I’m going to share with you some examples of artists who removed almost all choices from their art-making by creating work that is so full of restrictions it forces them to leave their drawing completely up to CHANCE.
And then we are going to try it ourselves and see what happens.
Sound good? It better… Because, my GUT friends, in this you have no choice.
The Art of Chance
Dadaist and Surrealists: the Original Chance Makers
Western artists began experimenting with chance starting in the 1910-1920's during the Dada and Surrealist movements. The stress and devastation of World War 1 left people feeling exhausted, and the introduction of relativism in science and philosophy overwhelmed people with choices. 1 It makes sense they wanted to create more structure and relief in their lives, and it manifested in their art practices.
(Sound familiar? Maybe like how we'd feel after a global pandemic, and infinite content on the internet and non-stop connection via social media? Like the Dadaists I think we’re both exhausted and overwhelmed at the same time. AKA Decision Fatigue.)
Seeking a new way forward in art and life, many Dadaist and Surrealist artists used chance as a way “to embrace the random and the accidental as a way to release creativity from rational control”2
Here is an example. This is a chance collage by Jean Arp from 1917:
As the story goes, Arp had been working on a drawing for some time and it wasn’t coming together. He got frustrated, tore it up, and let it drop to the floor. Looking at how the pieces landed, he thought, “that’s an interesting chance composition” and called the piece finished. That became his new jam, and it was all chance all the time from there on out.
Another game of chance played by artists around the same time was called “Exquisite Corpse”. In this game, a group of two or more artists draws a picture together, but nobody can see what the other people drew. Here’s one made by five artist-friends in 1934. You can see the horizontal creases in the paper where they folded the drawings so they couldn’t see one another’s drawing.
I just had an 11 year-old staying with me some of this week, and he loved this game. It never gets old.
Flash forward to the 60s for a new kind of chance drawing. Artist Yoko Ono’s “22 Instructions for Paintings”, and her book “Grapefruit” were both collections of instructions for making art. Most of the instructions were conceptual and more like poems or ideas. But often the result, possible or not to create, were about chance, and pointed to the freedom we can find in restrictions and instructions.
If you follow Yoko’s instructions, the result would be a collaboration between Yoko, you, and Chance. Or the universe. Or fate. Or god. Art goes by many names. Yoko’s work always leaves space for that thing - that chance - to intervene.
A decade before Yoko made her instruction paintings, painter Ellsworth Kelly abandoned figure painting to make minimal, geometric paintings and soon started experimenting with chance. He said he wanted to “remove the ‘I made this’” from the process.
In one of his bodies of work, Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance, he assigned numbers to colors, then randomly assigned those same numbers to squares on a grid on a canvas. Then he cut paper squares of the colors he assigned then glued them in their randomly designated squares on the canvas. Here’s what happened:
Sometimes Kelly created elaborate games and systems to select his color. He even used a slot machine!
John Cage & Merce Cunningham
While this isn’t visual art per say, any discussion of chance in art would be incomplete without mentioning John Cage and Merce Cunningham, the famous artistic collaborators and partners who often used something they called “Chance Operations”, or “artistic decisions based on unpredictability”, in their artwork. In one simple example, Cage created a musical score and Cunningham choreographed a dance, and neither had any idea what the other created until the performance started and the music and dance both began, together!
When we set up constraints and let go of infinite decision-making, we start to collaborate with the universe.
These are just a few examples of the how artists have used restrictions (in this case, instructions or rules) to eliminate their subjective decision-making and create the conditions where they can leave the outcome almost completely to chance. When we set up constraints and let go of infinite decision-making, we start to collaborate with the universe.
My Chance Drawings
Inspired by the artists like the ones I highlighted above, I created a series of drawings using a set of circumstances and rules I made up, and I was DELIGHTED by the results.
Here are my favorite three:
Red Chili Star Scatter
I dropped red chili flakes over a piece of paper and let them fall where they may. Then I took a pen and outlined the flakes. Then I filled in the negative space with black pen. It took hours. And it turned out to be incredibly meditative and exactly what I needed. The result, while not as important as the process, is still pretty cool: it looks as random and predestined as the cosmos.
This was a multi-media three stepper!
First, I filled up a dropper full of India ink. Next, I held it above a sheet of paper and slowly squeezed it as I wrote “Yoko Ono” with the dropper in the air above the paper. This is what happened:
After it dried, I turned each dot into a music note.
I don’t play or read music, so I sent the drawing to my dear friend and DT drawing music composer, Chris Colin, to translate into music. He looked at in on his phone so it was hard for him to say for sure, but if he had to guess, he said it could be “C E E C E F# CC F# EEE.”
I played that in a digital piano program, and here’s what the drawing sounds like (I think!):
A little atonal. But hey, so’s Yoko. (And if I totally got the notes wrong on the computer program, pls send me YOUR version of this tune. I’d love to hear what you think this drawing sounds like.)
Chance Color Grid
Finally, I created a Chance color grid inspired by Ellsworth Kelly.
First, I assigned numbers to each of the 48 paint colors in my water color palette.
Next, I drew a grid on a piece of paper and cut up numbers on little strips of paper. Then I randomly selected numbers 0-48 and put them on the grid.
Then I painted the squared their assigned color. Heres what that looked like:
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