- This is the second of three posts about art and code, specifically about the similarities in chronological flow/process. I recommend reading the first post before this post: link.
- These are subjective views/opinions/not facts and are from the perspective of a novice programmer and visual artist.
- This topic deserves a much longer extrapolation and could easily become a book. These posts will be fairly concise.
- This preface appears at the beginning of each post in the series.
- I am passionate about this topic and believe there are far more similarities than differences in artistic and technical pursuits. I am, overall, at a loss as to why the two generally are held up in contrast to each other.
After one prepares, ideates, and writes the first line of code – what happens? What can happen in the middle of making art and code (or a combination of both)?
Since the middle is most of it, there’s a lot that goes into it. In my experience generally contains one or more of the elements listed below. They may occur in self-contained sequence, all at once, or not at all. It just depends.
The act of creating art or code requires periods of intense concentration, during which one does the creating. During these periods, it is possible to enter a state of flow.
What is flow? It is a well-documented and well-researched phenomenon. 🤔
Just kidding. Flow is… well. I’ll let others explain it better than I could. Please prepare for longer blocks of text as I try to stitch together the ideas of flow and creativity, which in itself, as been the topic of numerous books over the years.)
Technically, flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best…” … In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.Flow States and Creativity, Psychology Today
This when things are just. Great. Things stream from one’s fingertips. Interestingly enough, this is also when part of the brain may temporarily loosen its hold on its control of our reality.
Flow is also [theorized to be] caused by “transient hypofrontality”— the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is the part of our brain that houses most of our higher cognitive function. Why does our sense of self disappear in flow? Because self is generated by large portions of the prefrontal cortex and with large swatches of this area no longer open for business, that sense vanishes completely.Flow States and Creativity, Psychology Today
In other words, flow… could be an altered state of consciousness?
In a 2008 study published in the journal PLOS, Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at the University of California, San Francisco and accomplished jazz saxophonist, and Allen Braun, a speech researcher at the National Institutes of Health, designed a clever way to observe creative expression in the brain: an fMRI machine with a specially made musical keyboard. The two men recruited six professional jazz musicians for the study; while in the fMRI, the participants performed musical exercises ranging from a memorized scale to a fully improvised piece of music.
Observing the musicians’ brain activity as they performed each task, Limb and Braun found that when their subjects improvised, a region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) became less active. Like a neural mother hen, the DLPFC is connected to planning, inhibition, and self-censorship; its deactivation has been suggested to play a role in altered states of consciousness such as daydreaming, meditation, and REM sleep. (A separate imaging study published in the journal Nature in 2012 found a similar lulling of the DLPFC during freestyle rap.) This pattern of brain activity, Limb and Braun wrote, may be “intrinsic to the creative process,” which “can apparently occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control.”The Driving Principles Behind Creativity, from The Atlantic
Whew, okay. That was a lot to digest.
There’s so much more I don’t want to touch on here. Here are a few resources if you want to dig deeper into this topic:
- Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (one of my favorite books)
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (same author as above)
- Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis (a paper I found interesting)
TLDR; In creating art or code, it is a possible to achieve a state of being where nothing else matters except the creation process. It is theorized that flow is caused by/linked to part of the brain sort of… turning off.
ideas and discoveries
In art and code, ideas and discoveries are closely related.
- Idea: oh – I could do that?! When one thinks of something new to add.
- Discovery: ah – I made that?! When one realizes they’ve already created part or all of something, usually unintended. Could be mistakes or happy accidents, etc.
Either way, in both art and code, you have to decide what to do with it. This additive experience can be tricky and I certainly urge caution in this stage, because it can so easily lead to…
overworking the canvas
Some folks in visual art call it overworking the canvas. Some folks in commercial endeavors call it scope creep. Either way, it happens when we get carried away.
No, not spirited away.
In essence, we add more elements, to the detriment of the existing elements. Overworking the canvas and scope creep both degrade the overall quality of the creation. If we’re not careful, we’ll buckle under the weight, and then…
How do we know when it’s happening?
First, watch out for pennies.
There is a phenomenon that producers at Pixar call “the beautifully shaded penny.” It refers to the fact that artists who work on our films care so much about every detail that they will sometimes spend days or weeks crafting… “the equivalent of a penny on a nightstand that you’ll never see.”Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc. . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Pennies are tiny details that don’t really contribute to what the creation is intended to communicate or express.
Second, watch out for too many ideas. This is when, if this is happening, the act of creating may involve a sense of claustrophobia. When we try and squish faaaaar too much into this stage of the creation. No squishing. Maybe you can add them later, but not now; I recommend, when in doubt, writing down ideas and revisiting at a later date (maybe the next day).
What can one do to prevent scope creep/overworking the canvas, in both art and code?
- Constant vigilance.
- Notice how you feel when you sit down to work, and when you get up to take a break. Are you dreading your project? Do you feel like it’s just too complicated?
- Impose some limits, e.g. time.
Unless you impose limits, people will always justify spending more time and more money by saying, “We’re just trying to make a better movie.” This occurs not because people are greedy or wasteful but because they care about their particular part of the film and don’t necessarily have a clear view of how it fits into the whole. They believe that investing more is the only way to succeed… Limits force us to rethink how we are working and push us to new heights of creativity.Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc. . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In my experience, these usually take one of two forms.
… or withering self-doubt.
That’s it, really. Moving on.
Questions can come during pauses and the process of creating, and can range from and to all the below, and more:
- Am I on track?
- Does this function the way its supposed to/is it communicating what it is supposed to?
- How is it supposed to function/what is it intended to communicate?
- Why am I doing this?
- Who am I?
- Should I keep going?
- When will this end?
Questions are an expected element of the process. It’s more important to figure out how to field them in a way that is sustainable and kind towards the creation and the creator.
Sometimes, it’s just too much and I have to take a break. Breaks could be 20 minutes, 2 hours, a few days, a few weeks, a couple of months, or, in some cases, a couple of years.
Speaking of breaks. It’s time for one of those.
To be continued.