The Art of Zen in 66 Steps
A couple of weeks ago, I walked down the street to my local record store, and picked up a fresh copy of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool on vinyl. I’d already downloaded it on iTunes, but as many fans know, half the reason to own a Radiohead album in the flesh is for the ever-evolving, beautiful artwork of long-time artist and collaborator of the band, Stanley Donwood.
Donwood has been with the band for every album since The Bends, and is notorious for his unusual approach to each new piece of work. From flinging molten wax and paint-filled hypodermic needles to filming CPR dummies with old video cameras, Donwood isn't afraid to let things get weird. So suffice to say, when I discovered that along with my record I was getting a pamphlet entitled How to Create Your Own A Moon Shaped Pool Artwork in 66 Easy-to-Follow Steps by Stanley Donwood, I was ecstatic. In proper British, tongue-in-cheek humor, these easy-to-follow steps begin with:
Have an idea.
It’s rubbish, isn’t it?
Try another idea.
This one looks good, don’t you think? Well, maybe.
Before devolving into...
Oh no. OH NO.
This is awful
What’s gone wrong? WHAT’S GONE WRONG? AAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!
Over the course of these 66 “steps”, Donwood outlines his entire creative process on A Moon Shaped Pool. He begins with small-scale experiments, flounders for a bit as he wrestles with various obstacles, and ends on the last moments of his creation coming to fruition. At first blush, Donwood’s pamphlet might seem like a throwaway novelty. However, a few weeks later, and his essay has stuck with me for three main reasons:
1. The Struggle is Real
Yes, it’s petty. Call it human nature, but for whatever reason, creatives tend to take a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing their peers struggle. But beyond the initial humor of seeing Donwood thrash around as he bemoans the disaster of his first attempt at the cover, there’s a greater lesson for the rest of us. It's a warm reminder that even artistic behemoths like Donwood suffers from the same anxieties as the next individual. Trust in the process and push forward.
2. The Creative Process
What’s remarkable about How to Create... is Donwood has outlined not just the arc of HIS creative process, but THE creative process. Viewers of a piece of work (be it design, art, film, etc.) are only privy to the final result, and as such, they tend to think of it as a simple A to B progression with incremental steps in-between. They don’t see the multiple iterations, last minute rescue attempts or inevitable identities of crisis that occur. I’ve engaged in it a thousand times, and I’m still surprised when my next project throws a wrench into the gears and I’m forced to improvise. Here, Donwood lays it out publicly in all its awkward glory.
3. Zen and the Art of…well, Art
After some fiddling and further experimentation, Donwood seems to have righted his ship, and ends the piece by describing how he’s given up control to the medium’s natural qualities as well as the surrounding environment. He writes:
At this scale you’re going to have to work outdoors.
Unfortunately the weather here is cold and very wet.
Let the wind and the weather move the paint around for you.
Even the rain helps.
Let it happen.
Allowing the weather to affect (much less dictate) how a piece is created feels unconscionable at first as an artist. LET THE RAIN GET ON MY WORK? ARE YOU MAD! But here, Donwood embraces it. This kind of mindset of “leaning in” to the problem has been talked about for years and applied to everything from tackling careers to resolving interpersonal conflicts.
So why do we still fight it?
My senior year of design school, after turning in my final project, I sat down with my professor in his office. “I don’t understand,” I said. “I knew I had a great idea, but I couldn’t get it to work how I wanted. It was like trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.” My professor, in response, likened it to when a writer creates his characters. At a certain point, they take on a life of their own and begin making decisions that may run counter to where the writer initially saw the plot heading. As artists, it’s this loss of control that's terrifying. If we’re not fully in control of our work, then what otherworldly force is? And if it has the ability to resolve itself when it chooses to, whose to say there won’t come a day when it chooses not to?
I’ve idolized Donwood’s work for years. His ability to see the creative process not as a straight line, but instead as a chance to stretch his artistic limits is staggering. If you read about how he designed each of Radiohead’s album covers, you realize none of them came by easily. Seriously. None. Of. Them. You’d think that a man at the top of his game like Donwood would start to play it safe, but he doesn’t. That’s what makes seeing his next creation such an exciting prospect.
You can read How to Create Your Own A Moon Shaped Pool Artwork in 66 Easy-to-Follow Steps in its entirety here.