Forget Inspiration—Just Trust the Process

I am “wowed” by the work of Chuck Close, and by his working process. Close is an artist whose work demonstrates a core premise of this blog—that we can move into action even when we feel uninspired, unmotivated, or upset. According to Close, inspiration does not generate behavior. Behavior generates inspiration.

This idea turns conventional wisdom completely around. It blows away people who assume that artists make art only when they feel “inspired” or “motivated.” Dig what Close told Charlie Rose about inspiration:

Everything grows out of work. I’m not sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea. I’ve always said that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. And everything happens in the process of making art…. Everything you do kicks open a door, and if you just go through that door, you find yourself somewhere you hadn’t anticipated.

In another wonderful interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio, Close pushed the edge even more. He defies another popular notion that graces the pages of more than one self-help book—that your creative process should mirror your personality.

Close disposes of this notion with two deft moves.

First, he describes himself:

I’m a nervous wreck. I’m a slob. I have no patience, and I’m rather lazy. All of those things would seem to guarantee that I would not make work like I make. But I felt like I didn’t want to just go with my nature and say “that’s who I am”—I can only make big, sloppy, nervous, quick paintings. I thought to construct a situation in which I couldn’t behave that way….

Second, he describes his working process. Close creates paintings by dividing each canvas into grids of small squares or rectangles. He fills each grid with a small, abstract image—a miniature painting in itself. If you stand back far enough from these paintings, however, what you see is a recognizable whole—a person’s face. From a distance, some of them even look like photographs.

These works are huge, by the way. Some are 9 feet tall. They are the kind of images that will stop you from 100 yards away. And while the resulting image is arresting, the process is delightfully mundane:

My paintings are built incrementally, one unit at a time, in a way that’s not all that different from, say, the way a writer would work. That is, there’s never any time that a writer is doing anything more than slamming one word up against the next and rejecting one word and slipping another one in and seeing how that works….

I do the same thing. I push little pieces of paint up against each another. And I work essentially from the top down, left to right. And I slowly build these paintings—construct them the way that somebody might make a quilt or crochet or knit.

The genius of this process is that Close can resume it every day without fanfare or inspiration:

I found that one of the nice things about working this way—working incrementally—is that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single day. Today I did what I did yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll do what I do today. I can pick it up or put it down. I don’t have to wait for inspiration.

There are no good days or bad days. Every day builds positively on what I did the day before.

“No good days or bad days”—I love that. Forget inspiration. Just accept your feelings and show up every day. Slam little things against each other, and tinker until you make something that works.

That’s good art—and good living.

(P.S. Close had a stroke in 1989 that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. He’s recovered enough to paint from a wheelchair with brushes strapped to his arms. This guy is a living portrait of resilience and tenacity.)


  1. This post really speaks to me. Incremental work — who can’t do that? I can do that. Right now I’m writing a literature review and it’s daunting and feels too big but what makes me feel less daunted is just to dig in. Read the literature and take notes. Read another article, take notes, craft a couple sentences distilling the meaning while it’s fresh in my mind.

    I appreciate hearing from Chuck Close, whose work I have admired for years, about his being a slob and lazy. “Everything grows out of work.”


  2. I’m one of those people who likes to “have written” because the process can be so painful for me. So I like this idea of just slamming words up against each other and trusting the process.


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