Riding Spirals: Reflections on Creative Process

Surface detail, just beginning a new painting

Have you ever considered the idea that the way you go about doing something has a shape? Whether it’s finding love or buying a house or making a painting, some processes are like railroad tracks and others like meandering rivers. I’ve been noticing that the movement of my creative process does have a shape and pattern: like the movement of air, water and galaxies, it moves in a spiral. I’m referring to a 3D spiral, also called a conical helix, the kind that is bigger at the bottom and smaller at the top.

In Mind or Heart: Where is my Creative Source?, I wrote about the different “channels” or “modes” I might be in while painting a particular painting. Even though those do vary, no matter what the “channel,” I still have noticed this spiral “process pattern” that brings together progression with re-visitation.

When I begin a new painting, I first lay in the subject very broadly. I only seek to achieve just a general ballpark image of what is before me. At this stage whether I feel a sense of spaciousness and ease or a sense of urgency as I try to capture a fleeting effect (like the miraculous Rembrandt 8am visitation I described in Turning Illusions into Reality). I don’t feel the pressure of final commitment to the marks I am making. The relaxing and permissive concept of the “under painting” comes to mind. I know that I can, and probably will, change everything at least once. I feel in this “first round” that I can afford to be inaccurate in my drawing, values or color. I give myself permission to “think out loud,” to experiment, to be free. It’s a bit like the idea of “warming up” on an instrument before really starting to play or taking a “test run” on a track before a serious race.

Once the whole painting is treated broadly in this way, I come around for the next cycle. Now I can see the composition and I have a sense of how my subject fits onto the canvas. On the second pass big bold changes are still easy to make, it is all potential and I feel my power as a painter. I can move or remove trees, or even mountains, in minutes. I can scrape or scrub away whole passages and repaint them without any sense of loss. I am not yet attached.

In very rare cases during these early free-wheeling rounds, a painting is born, recognized and allowed to be finished. These are gifts, visitations, moments when I feel the work of art coming through me and I am just a conduit. (This phenomenon is discussed in When is a Painting Finished?) But these cases are very rare. Usually after the under painting and the second round of committing to the composition, I essentially begin again, only on the next level up on the spiral. I revisit every part of my painting, correcting the drawing, the values and the colors. This third time around, I slow down and find myself spending more time studying and considering, or sensing and feeling, or both. Often at this point the painting’s “style” is born  and develops as I come into deeper relationship with the subject and the way that particular painting treats it. One could say different points on the spiral correlate to different “styles” of brush work, paint bodies, level of detail and surface treatments. 

I wonder why some painters develop paintings in this spiral manner and others do not. Is this about temperament, mastery, or something else completely? Some painting mediums, like oil, lend themselves to this approach much more than others. This might be part of why I love oil paint.

 Perhaps that is a way of tricking myself into a more open, relaxed and unattached place. It also builds into the process opportunities to reconsider everything and this fosters a kind of fluidity and openmindedness that allows me to make new discoveries at any point. Could there be something fundamentally holistic about approaching practices and activities in a spiral fashion?

We know that the universe is filled with spirals and that that pattern shows up all around us from growing plants and animals to galaxies and weather systems. The Fibonacci sequence, which starts with 0 and 1 and increases based on the sum of the previous two numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on, yields a spiral. Although there is something profoundly natural and almost ubiquitous about this pattern, there is apparently no one reason for its recurrence. Spirals are caused by many things including movement of bodies at different rates and the need to maximize efficient use of space (as in a sunflower).

In creative processes, the spiral movement works beautifully to unite evolution with revolution. I am constantly trying to move my painting forward as one whole thing, never letting any of the parts get too far ahead of the others. My teacher in Italy, Charles Cecil, used to say “bring all the parts up together.” So I keep moving around as I move forward and find myself spiraling upward once again

Singularity, 5’x4′, 2013

4 thoughts on “Riding Spirals: Reflections on Creative Process

  1. Adam, I am impressed with your detailed description of the painting process; I have never actually paused to study / analyze my method.
    Taking inspiration from your piece, I realise and recall that my earliest works were done with the canvas on the floor; the room was large and I moved around with no fixed ‘top’ and ‘bottom’
    It was only when the painting was more or less complete that I had to face the task of placing it vertically, hang it on a wall or sign it – so maybe the last 20% was done with a clear idea of the top.
    Now that I find an easel more convenient to work with, I keep turning the canvas around so I can see with all sides on top, bottom etc; I guess the painting must ‘work’ equally from all sides.
    Also It was no physical strain to paint on the floor in my 20’s and 30’s and now that I am 67 plus,
    that seems daunting; another age issue is my spectacles that I need to read and paint, but every time I step back to look at the canvas, I need to remove the glasses – that’s a pain !
    There is also a scanner like process when I sweep eyes across sideways and up and down to find the weak places in the canvas that need reinforcement.
    More than half my work is on a smaller size, drawings on paper placed on the table or a drawing board and with ink and water colours; the element of abstraction is much less and I need to figure out afresh how that works between the eyes – mind – heart and the hand holding the brush !


  2. I love this! It so parallels the process of writing drafts. I recently heard author Lauren Groff say that she’ll write a first draft just to find the story, and then set it aside and write the book again, now that she knows the characters and events. I love the freedom you describe here, Adam. So often creative folks want to be “efficient,” and this seems to mean skipping the messy freedom of early drafts, of sprawling, scrawling tries. I have just started reading through a second draft of my latest novel, and seeing a lot about what needs to be moved or rethought. Your description of underlayers and exploration is so encouraging!


  3. Once again you bring a high degree of sophistication and access to your inner process of what you do when you are doing it(. Landscape painting).This image of spiral shape as organizer of how you work and what you think albeit unconsciously at times conveys what it must feel like for you when you paint.Impressive piece of writing(writings).For me shape speaks to rhythm and movement over time,only later the recognition.(of what one has done).I think this is true in artistic endeavors as well as in any meaningful interactions with other humans,even animals.Definitely nature.You continue your provocative meanderings.


  4. Hi Adam, Your detail is beautiful as usual — you’re a fine colorist. Am swamped right now so too much so to properly reply to your thoughts on painting. But I do so enjoy reading them and thank you for including me in your emailing. xo love, Judy


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