Submitted Date 11/26/2019

The Importance Of Processes

When I was teaching English Composition at the local community college, a math teacher told me that he did not grade a student just for a correct answer. In fact, the right answer was only about a third of the grade. I thought this was a unique approach to teaching, so I asked him to explain.

"Most important than the correct answer is the process the student went through to get to that answer," he said. "Now that's a different approach," I thought.

He told his students that he wanted to look at a complete set of calculations from beginning to end, without skipping any or combining any. And this way the teacher could see if the student understood how the answer was derived. Sometimes a student might get a B even though her answer was incorrect but because she had a good grasp of the process. On the other hand, a student who had come up with the right answer might get a C because he had left out some of the steps involved.

The teacher's answer pointed out the difference between our focus on the final result, whether it be a math problem, an English paper or a painting. While, of course, the final product is important, the process is in many ways more important. Because without that process, the final product could not have come about.

For this reason, I have spent quite a bit of time developing my own processes, testing my ideas by teaching those processes, and also studying the processes of other people. And there are a surprising variety of ways to make a painting, for example, or writing a song, or being at the right place at the right time when taking photographs.

While your process will not be obvious in your finished work, the process you go through will determine your final output. This is why it is important to study processes.

So if you find an artist whose work you really like, I would suggest you dig a little deeper and find out as much as you can about the way a specific work developed and also their general approach to developing their work.

Take the example of Jackson Pollock who was committed to an immediate way of creating. He explained his process this way:

"When I'm painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It's only after a get acquainted period that I see what I've been about. I've no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own."
Jackson Pollock

Pollock came from a surrealist background which meant he tried to tap into his unconscious and he often began his paintings in a trance-like state.

While his quote tells us a lot about his approach, he had, nevertheless, made a number of conscious decisions before he started a particular painting. For example, he first would have chosen a certain kind of canvas as he used a variety. He would have needed to decide on the colors he would use, whether he would use a liquid flowing paint or a more traditional tube paint and whether he would use brushes and/or a variety of sticks.

Hans Namuth photograph used in accordance with fair use.

The process for the French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat was almost the opposite of Pollock's. For his large painting, "Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte" or "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte," he made a dozen or so studies. Then once having carefully mapped out his composition he painstakingly built up his figures and landscape with small colored dots using only a few basic colors on the canvas, These dots were so small they were seen at a distance as a full range of colors. His method is known as pointillism.

Studies (above) for Seurat's large painting.

If you find an artist whose work you really respond to, I suggest you immerse yourself in that person's work. Look at all of their output from the earliest to the latest. This, in a sense, is another process, the process of a life-long progression. I especially like to look or listen to or experience (whatever the art form) the early works. These are often a bit rough and unfinished but may signal more clearly the passions of that artist. Then if possible, read about her or him. How did they become an artist? Who were their influences? What was their family life like? What were their major life-changing events?

Sometimes when you start poking around, you will find surprising influences and major events. For example, the great trumpet player, Miles Davis was greatly influenced by the French classical impressionist music of Claude Debussy. And once you know that, his music takes on a slightly different meaning.

Alexander Calder who became famous for making moving sculptures known as Mobiles and then huge metal structures known as Stabiles, started out by making very small miniature figures in what he called his circus, his "Cirque Calder, a miniature circus fashioned from wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork, and other found objects. Designed to be transportable (it eventually grew to fill five large suitcases)..." ( The circus remained one of his main artistic themes all through his life, along with the solar system which inspired his Mobiles.

Today if you find a little known artist or musician whose work you really like, you could even email them and ask them about their background, their early work, etc.

I believe you can learn as much from another artist's process as you can learn about their imagery, or songs or films. And these can help you develop your own process as you continue on your artist's journey.

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  • Andrea Hope 8 months, 1 week ago

    Great article, Rick. Definitely applicable to many fields, and helps take out the fear of gaining success due to one-hit-wonders or luck, which I think can be nerve-racking for many students and artists.

    • Rick Doble 8 months, 1 week ago

      Yes, I agree. And I had not thought of it from the POV. If you get the process right, then great work will follow.