Improvisation, Part II

Last night, Andrea, Ingrid and I were talking about changing focus from the fact that the glass is half empty to the fact that the glass is half full. When one is true the other is true. They are facts. When the situation changes, the facts change, too. If the glass is sitting outside and it begins to rain, the glass will fill up.

In life, just as in physics, there really is no such thing as an uninvolved observer: when someone chooses to observe something, they change what they’re observing. If I focus on finding more work, I will tend to find more work. What you focus on expands.

One traditional technique used to teach art is still life. In the middle of the room, there is a table with some objects; perhaps a red apple and a blue bowl of water. Each student is given a piece of what looks like charcoal-colored chalk and a sheet of paper. Each student immediately faces a choice: focus on the factual limits they’ve been handed or focus on the factual capabilities they’ve been handed.

Like improvisation, this is also a kind of game. With any game, we agree to the rules including the rule (spoken or not) of agreement. Cheating is bad form primarily because you’re not following the agreement rule.

A student who dwells on the limits they’re stuck with has lots to think about: they don’t have red, they don’t have any way to make the apple shiny, they don’t have blue for the vase.

If the student focuses on what they can do with that piece of chalk, they’ll see a completely different situation. The chalk has a small tip and long narrow sides that can be used as two different drawing tools. The chalk can be worn down to turn one end into a sharp point or an angled tip. They can apply different amounts of pressure to create anything from light grey to a very dark grey. They can use all of those capabilities to capture the shadows, curves, reflections of the shapes, the form of the objects that lies beneath all the color. In the process, they can strip away the surface and get at the essence of the thing itself and how it interacts with the world.

When I was in graduate school, I took a class in painting. Unless it was time to review our work, the teacher would show up, tell us something and then disappear. We would then spend the rest of the time, doing something. In most realms, a teacher that spent five minutes talking wouldn’t have a job for very long. But, often, what needs to be learned can be said in a few minutes. Learning that lesson takes far longer.

The goal of many artistic and improvisational games is not to dictate the results. Someone doesn’t go to art school to become Rembrandt. They have a vision or they’re pushed by a need but they can’t fully realize “it”. Something is in the way that they have to push past. Art school can be thought of as a way to teach people to focus on what is possible until it expands to the point that the half full disappears and they’re free of whatever held them back.

In that graduate painting class, I usually had some idea I wanted to talk about. One day, I had no idea what to paint, a blank canvas and a palette with white, blue and black so I just started to paint. Very quickly something started emerging from the canvas. I spent the rest of the time following what I was seeing. The painting that emerged on the canvas now hangs in our living room opposite the sofa.