There are four levels of artistic understanding.
- Unconscious Incompetence
- Not understanding a lack of knowledge and practice
- Conscious Incompetence
- Understanding a lack of knowledge and practice
- Conscious Competence
- Understanding a high level of knowledge and practice
- Unconscious Competence
- A natural flow of knowledge and practice beyond understanding.
The last is the level that all of us who create strive for, that natural flow of working that transcends the conscious choices. I’ve heard it described as “being in the Zone” or “I’m feel’n it.” Whatever you want to call it, that is what artists across the broad scope of disciplines would give their left big toe for. What the artistic community does to achieve this often reaches a level that’s illegal and dangerous. Alcohol abuse, drugs, and other scary stuff can come from the pursuit of unconscious competence.
I designed a table for a customer. The original design of the piece had turned legs. There’s nothing wrong with turned legs. In fact, it’s one of my favorite treatments for a classic table design. Yet, as I worked, the idea of the legs kept nagging me. Like a kid that wanted a different toy and was on the verge of throwing a temper tantrum, it wouldn’t leave me alone. But I was on a deadline, as usual. I had to just push through. As I pulled out the leg blanks, it was as if a force came over me. I didn’t even look at the lathe, I went straight to the bandsaw and proceeded to start cutting cabriolet legs. Unfortunately, I wish I could brag that this is how I always work. Sadly, this was a rare flash of clarity.
The table turned out perfect! I couldn’t have asked for a better look. You know that you made the right decision when the customer loves the changes you made, even though you didn’t consult them. This got me thinking about this phenomenon.
What do drugs and other things artists use to induce “the zone” have in common? They remove inhibitions. “Second guesses and over thinking, go away.” The issue is trust, and you can’t buy that in a bottle. No one can give you it, either.
Plan ahead, the more you have figured out before hand the better the project will turn out, right? Some media takes more planning than others by their nature. However, exhaustive planning is a sure way of settling for conscious competence.
Don’t plan out your stair traction. To allow those wonderful serendipitous things to happen in your work sometimes its a good idea to intentionally leave out a detail here or there to be dealt with on the fly. Don’t know what you’re going to do about traction on your spiral stairs? That’s ok, you’ll think of something. The eye loves something unexpected, and so do those who experience your work. If you are planning on something, it’s not going to be unexpected. Over planning is a good way to get the same ol’ same ol’ over and over again.
So, if you find your work constrictive and static, plan an unplanned event. Don’t worry about messing up. In the words of the eternal Boss Ross, “We have happy mistakes.”
Thanks to Tom Dimond for his four level of artistic mastery!