Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Hello everyone, welcome back to Fresh Perspective where we’ll be taking another look at life with someone who’s almost a lifelong friend of mine. We met in high school. We’ll be taking a fresh perspective with Dian Wessels. Welcome!
What do you do, Dian? That’s the first question I ask all the guests. It’s kind of you introducing yourself.
Is as little as possible a good answer, or not really?
(Laughs) If you can get paid for that, yes, that’s a great answer.
(Laughs) I’m a graphic designer by trade, but I don’t actually like using the term because you get a certain picture in your head when you hear graphic designer. You see someone that designs logos and brochures and marketing material, and that’s all good and fine, that is also what I do. But I actually like the term visual communication designer better, because it describes, I think, in broader terms what graphic designers actually do. It’s about any form of communication that is visual. Something you can see, and that you have to derive meaning from. So that’s one part of what I do. I’ve pivoted about two or three years ago into UI and UX design.
UI stands for User Interface. So every time you do something on an app on your phone or on your computer, you are interacting with an interface that someone had to design. So with human interface design, user interface design or UI-design, you have to bear in mind what the limitations of human interaction with the device are. For instance, we only have five fingers on one hand. When you hold something in your hand, your thumb cannot reach all the way to the top. So you want primary activities in the area where your thumb is, for instance. So there are all sorts of principles and limitations that come into play when you are designing for human interaction with a device.
UX design has to do with the user experience. So in the UI design, it’s just the interface, where are the buttons, where’s the menu, how do I get from this place to that place. The user experience is your whole experience from the first time you open the app and you on-board, and you try to do something. Was it easy, was it frustrating? Did you feel it took too many steps? Et cetera. So it has to do with your whole experience of the environment of the interface. I’ve been doing a lot of that the last few years, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m working with developers, which is great. Most of them are geeks like myself. So we like to talk about tech and games and all sorts of interesting, geeky things. That’s in short what I do. I’m a visual communication designer.
Okay. It almost sounds like you are doing nothing. Playing games, you said.
No, that must have come out wrong. We sometimes play games to forget the troubles at work.
I sometimes wish I was a game designer. That also looks like a very interesting field of work.
All right. Let’s talk about this visual communication a bit more. So the communication is not really about, maybe a script or words, it’s also about colours and things like that. What are behind-the-scenes thought patterns or ideas that determine which colours you use, which shapes you use when you design something to communicate different things? Maybe you can give us two examples, two extreme examples of designing and what colours and shapes you use.
So there’s a couple of principles. Let’s talk about UI design specifically. When you look at a little dashboard, and you are looking at sales, for instance, it’s important to know that colour has intrinsic, symbolic value. It is something that’s learned, but it’s also something that is natural and organic to a certain extent. If you think of the colour red, you typically associate it with danger. It’s not something we thought up. It’s the same in nature, right. So certain animals or plants are red and poisonous, although you also get red fruit that’s not poisonous. So it’s not always the case. But the way we use it, if you think of something like traffic lights. We associate green with everything’s fine, you can go. Orange is a warning or something you might need to reconsider before taking action, and red means stop, or danger. So typically in dashboard design, you would use those symbolic values of colours to communicate a certain status to a user. That’s one example.
Other examples would be that colour has certain emotional effects on users as well. So very bright colours draw our attention, so you wanna use that for something that needs to get the user’s attention but only for a short time. You don’t wanna over-use it, otherwise it’s kind of like the boy crying wolf. If you say, look at me all the time on the dashboard, the user gets desensitized. And if you shout at the user in that way and you actually want to get their attention for something that’s going wrong, how are you gonna do it? You’ll need some kind of flashing animation or something. Colour needs to be used in balance, so that’s why we mostly use neutral colours in a dashboard and only use a bright colour to communicate important things because our eyes are drawn to bright colours in that sense.
And then I want to say something about the emotional effect of certain colours – like blue communicates steadfastness, trustworthiness, a sense of calm, of being in control. Orange can also communicate creativity and innovation. So every colour has some sort of symbolic value that you can use to your advantage. Colour’s only once aspect in visual communication design. Something like shape is also very important. We use shapes in icon design, and icons obviously need to be recognisable. If you don’t recognise an icon, it’s actually useless. And you’d be surprised to discover how few icons are universally recognisable. It’s a handful. Maybe a little heart for love, or the hexagon for a stop sign, and a few others. So icon design is quite a tricky thing to use in user interface design. I always use this test: if I have to think up an icon for something specific, like – let’s say I need an icon for the word conversation. It’s best to go with the thing that’s most obvious in your head. It doesn’t make sense to come up with something creative or innovative, and it looks very cool, but people have to look at it and kind of figure out what it’s about. So if I do anything with a conversation, I’m gonna use a speech bubble. Or something similar. That’s immediately recognisable as conversation or talking, or chat, message, something like that. So you kind of have to meet users where they are. What is the obvious thing for users? One of the main, main principles of UI design, don't make me think. The user doesn’t want to think about what he or she wants to do. They just want to do it. You wanna log into an app, and you wanna do this thing. Make a payment, or send a message, or whatever. If it’s too complicated, if it’s not obvious, then you’ve kind of failed in what you wanted to do.
That’s quite interesting. So you touched on creativity and innovation, which is something I wanna talk to you about as well. And when we create art, we kind of wanna go to the opposite side of that. We want the person interacting with the art to think and engage with it in more than just a visual way. Also emotionally, and even intellectually, engage with an art piece. So what are your takes on creativity? What determines if a person actually utilises their creativity?
The interesting thing about the work that I do is that it’s applied creativity, right. So there’s always a brief that the designer has to work with, and a brief contains certain requirements and constraints. You have to come up with a solution that fulfils that specific brief or set of requirements from the client. So creativity is always guided by these principles. But when it comes to art and personal expression, there isn’t a brief per se. Not necessarily. And it depends on what you wanna do with your art or your creativity. So on the one hand, you might want to make a personal statement or a political statement, on the other hand, it might just be a way to express a certain state of mind. Et cetera. But one thing I do know and believe is that we are all naturally creative. It’s part of being human.
I think what activates our creativity, is any form of constraint. So even if I want to do something creative, right, I’m not going to stand in the middle of a field and then start jumping around and pulling out leaves and making marks. Maybe that’s your thing, but you know, you’ll have a certain idea – I wanna make a painting. That’s a constraint. Okay – what medium? Oil paint. On canvas? Right – how big? Well, I wanna do something smallish. So you keep adding constraints, and that helps to focus the mind and eventually you come up with something that you do with your hands or your feet, or whatever. So I think it’s really, really difficult to be creative if you don’t have any form of constraint. I think that’s how our brains evolved. So you’re a caveman, and you wanna make a hole in something. There’s a specific constraint. I see there’s honey inside this tree. I can see the bees coming out of a small hole, and I wanna get inside. How do I do it? Now the brain starts working. The guy that couldn’t do it died. The guys that figured out something, they survived, and eventually we all have these wonderful organs that are activated when there’s some challenge. Some kind of constraint. Something I need to solve. And I think that’s where creativity really, really becomes -
So what’s your answer to people who say, no, I’m not creative? You say everyone’s creative, which I agree with fully. How do you engage with people who say no, you know – I wish I was as creative as you.
Or I can’t draw, or I wish I was creative. Something like that.
What’s your take on that? Or your encouragement or message to people who feel that way?
In the first place, I think it’s a false belief. I think it has to do with the way we were brought up and the way the education system is designed, unfortunately, to promote some form of a fixed mindset. So we are assessed with testing and exams from a young age, creative work is also assessed, but it’s more difficult because it’s subjective as well. So now the teacher doesn’t like your expressive style, and she says, F for this painting. The message you internalise is, I can’t draw, or I can’t paint, I am not creative, because of a very specific idea that that teacher or system had about how you needed to express yourself. So it’s just something that needs to be unlearned. And the challenge is to go from a fixed mindset that says,I cannot draw, orI’m not creative, to a growth mindset that says, I can learn to draw. I can learn to be more creative. And then doing an online course, or watching some Youtube videos, trying different things, and eventually discovering or re-discovering your creativity. So it’s really about a growth mindset in the end.
I’m assuming you’re referring to Carol Dweck’s work in the book Mindset.
I’ve also been thinking recently, how this affects that common thing we see in creative industries. Impostor-syndrome. You know, that dreaded feeling that I don’t belong here. Or, I’m going to be found out. People are going to discover that I don’t have what it takes. That I don’t have enough talent, I’m going to be exposed as a fraud. Many creative people, ironically, or people in creative industries, feel this way. What happens, is we look at other designers’ portfolios, and other work online, and it all looks amazing. But we see the fruit of many hours and hours and hours of labour. We don’t see the process work. So we see the culmination of that work. And we think, somehow, this is all that person is creating, is all these amazing things. And you compare it to your own – not your own best work, everything you do. And a lot of what we do is just mediocre. It’s just the way it is. So I think someone like Picasso – I’ve seen a lot of his process work. A lot of it was crap!
But we only see the fantastic paintings in MoMA, the Prado. We see this painting, that painting, and we’re like oh man, this guy is so amazing.I wish I was like that. But they’re not like that all the time. That is the fruit of a growth mindset, by learning and learning, and trying new things. Experimenting. Failing. Okay, this looks crap. What can I learn from this? Okay, I’m gonna try this thing next time. And so you grow little by little, and eventually, you start producing more high-quality work that goes into your portfolio, and people say, wow, that’s so amazing. But in the end, if you don’t have that kind of mindset about your own work, you are going to feel like an impostor. You are going to compare all your process work to what you see out there and think, well, it’s not nearly good enough. This is only something I discovered recently. Even when I get critical feedback from colleagues or clients on my work, my knee-jerk reaction was always to kind of want to justify myself, like –it’s their opinion. Or you start internalising it –maybe I am sh*t. Maybe they’ve got a point. And then you go into that whole negative spiral of the impostor syndrome, versus okay, what’s the point they’re trying to make? What can I learn from this? And applying that in your work. With that kind of mindset, you’re always on the up. You’re always growing. I just think that’s a lot better than any kind of fixed mindset thinking.
Yeah. I want to dive into the limitations. So self-imposed, kind of, constraints. But also, I want to make a comment about how we get into this mindset of believing that maybe we are not creative or not good at drawing or painting or whatever. I mean, we don’t see that in kids, right. Kids are very proud to show all their drawings and paintings to anyone (laughs). So I think one book that comes to mind, is Austin Cleon’s Steal like an Artist. Don’t know if you’ve read that.
I’ve looked at a few pages. I don’t think I’ve read the whole thing.
So I think he quotes Leonardo da Vinci, who said something along the lines of, a good artist imitates, and great artists copy.
Well, yeah. Supposedly Picasso said that.
Oh, thank you.
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
Steal. Oh, there we go. What I like about that idea is, I think that musically as well, being a musician, I found that as you steal, as you copy, as you imitate, all of those things combined, you find your own voice. You discover – wow, if I can copy this great artist or this great musician, that builds confidence. And within that, you learn different things. So could you maybe say something about that whole process of copying and imitating and stealing others’ work in a legal way, not in a plagiaristic way? (Laughs) And developing your own voice.
This is a very relevant topic for me. When I was at the 99U conference a few years ago in New York, the Adobe conference for creatives, a really inspiring place to be – artists show their work, and again that impostor syndrome comes in. I remember clearly, how during one of the breaks, they asked us to share our most pressing question with the person sitting next to us. And mine had to do with finding my own voice. I had a great conversation with a designer there, and you know, he also expressed the hope that one day I’d find my own voice. It’s such a thing to aspire to for creative people, because we all want to feel that we have a unique voice, right. The thing is, we do have a unique voice. It’s not something that you can actually get rid of. It is there. It’s there from the beginning, as a kid, like you said, when you’re playing and drawing and making marks of any kind, your voice is already in that. And then we lose that sense of play when things get measured, right, when it gets assessed. When they say oh, this drawing is 3 out of 10, and this one is 9 out of 10. Then we get that fixed mindset, where okay, I’m a 3 out of 10 when it comes to creativity. So my voice, even if it is unique, is just not very good. And then, you know, you become an adult, and you’re stuck in that way of thinking. And I think it’s problematic to try and find your own voice by just sort of mucking about. Because you are going to feel discouraged, as you are working, measuring, you will be disappointed with the results. And eventually, you might give up, or you say to yourself, well maybe I’m just not very good.
The other option is to have a growth mindset. Start copying others to get a feel for different kind of styles, and then from each style that you copy or emulate, you take something and you make it your own. You latch it onto your unique style, your unique voice. And because it is expressed through your voice, it looks a little different. I think that’s what Picasso meant. A good artist might just copy. So it just looks like the original artist’s work, and there’s no real skill or excitement or anything personal about that. But if you steal it, if you take it, and say okay, now it’s mine, and you express it through your voice, or the accumulation of all the different styles you’ve experimented with, that’s sort of transmogrified through your voice, then it is something new. It is something unique.
So you might be able to identify a certain influence, but it will still be your voice. And I have a very good example of this. When I was a lecturer in Potchefstroom many years ago, 2004 I started there, I also did an after-hours course for adults. Anyone interested in design. And there was a guy there, Gert Schoeman, and he applied for the graphic design degree at the university. He got rejected. So we said, alright, your portfolio is not good enough, we can’t allow you to come and study. Not good enough, basically. So Gert did this after-hours course with me, and it was so cool to see his growth mindset. He just wanted to learn and experiment and try new things. I remember the year after that, he applied again, and he got in. So now he was in my first-year group. And with every project I gave them, he tried a new style of design or illustration. Like a totally new style. Sometimes it failed, and sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it was great. But he just kept trying new stuff. He just kept stealing. By the end of his second year, he was already best in class in terms of his skill and the myriad ways that he could solve any creative problem. Because he’d now emulated so many different styles. In the end, he went to go work for this amazing illustration studio in London, and he started a branch of theirs in Cape Town. He’s one of the most successful and brilliant illustrators and designers I know. He’s way better than me. And I told him that. He’s such a humble guy. He said, wow, that’s so great coming from you. And I’m thinking, are you kidding me? Look at what you’ve done. Look at how you’ve grown and learned and expanded your skill-set. So that’s a good example of what can happen if you’re not precious about the process and think, oh, I must find my own voice on my own. I think that’s rubbish. Go find it by copying other voices. In the end, you will find your own, and it will be a beautiful mix of different voices. I hope that made sense.
Yeah, I like it. Thank you for the story as well. So when it comes to constraints, right, some constraints are mental, meaning – we believe certain things that limit us. And that stops us. Like, you shared the story of Gert now, he did not allow that to happen to him. So I’ve got a few comments and then another question.
I think when you look at something like art, you can only really give it any kind of mark or point or percentage when you have to duplicate something and someone can say, okay, you did a good job of duplicating, of copying what you had to play. Like with piano, music, or art. But otherwise, it is truly very very subjective. And it’s very unfair to give a mark for people that do different things. If they are supposed to all do the same thing, you can critique them on technique and things like that, but I think that robs a lot of people of the confidence they need. And places that limiting belief, kind of constraint. But what I love about consciously putting and imposing constraints on yourself, is what that unlocks in the mind and the possibilities that open up. Like with Gert as well, choosing different genres or styles – that’s a constraint because he wasn’t as fluent in that language, but that obviously helped him develop that language. I’m thinking of Peter Gabriel, a musician that I love. On his first four albums, he wanted no words. No letters on the covers. And he also at once stage said, no high hats for the drummer, no high hats at all. He felt like it stole all the top-end space in music. Even after that, he’s like – only two letters on my album cover design. He’s like, we spend all this money and time in designing this beautiful cover, and then we put words and things like that on it. Instead of, you know, using that beauty. All of that is great. It’s just awesome. Also, another example with Peter Gabriel – Steven Copeland the drummer from Police, actually for another album, he got him in and said, you only do high-hat work. So you only do the high hats. Things like that. All of that is examples that I know from Peter Gabriel. Constraints.
If I think of one of my favourite games of the last ten years, it’s the game Limbo developed by Playdead Studio. Guys in Denmark. They decided to do the whole game in black and white. The overall effect is so amazing. The main character is a little boring, he’s basically a silhouette with two white dots where his eyes are. But the mechanics otherwise – and that’s the interesting thing – the game mechanics, every time you die or interact with something, it feels like a real person. So they didn’t use that as an excuse to skimp.
No hiding away by saying, it’s only black and white.
Exactly. When I was a lecturer, I often heard students say,I wanna go for something simple. Which is just student talk forI’m really lazy and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this. That has to do with simplicity on the far side of complexity. That’s another topic. But the point is, using constraints to be creative and still doing the work and then having an end result like that game, Limbo. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in such a long time. It’s because of the constraint. The guys decided okay, we’re not going to use colour in this game, the colour would be superfluous to the gameplay, the kind of atmosphere we wanted to create because it has a very melancholy feel, the music is ambient and droney and dark. It’s just a beautiful end result.
I also want to tell you another story from my lecturer days. I thought one year, it would be a great idea to give the third-years an exam project where I tell them, you can do whatever you want. So you’ve got an A3 sheet of paper, and the brief basically said, show off your design skills. It was a ridiculous failure. Total balls-up. The students did not know how to engage with something that was so wide. There were nearly no constraints, right. Out of the thirty or so students, two of them got it right. But they also created their own constraints. The one decided, okay, I’m going to do a collage of different designs. I can’t remember what the other one did. But the point is, they had to create their own constraints. The rest just – you could see in the end result, they were lost. They didn’t know what to do. So constraint is very very important when it comes to creativity. You can try it yourself. I mean, if you – let’s say you wanna do something creative over the weekend, right, and you give yourself a sheet of paper, and you wanna do it in colour pencil. Then you say,mmm, I’m going to use only one colour. I’m going to use green. And I’m now going to draw every green object I can think of. Also, I’m not going to lift the pencil from the paper.I guarantee you will find something much more interesting than saying, here are all the colours, draw something.
So we can use constraints to our benefit if we want to express our creativity.
I like the idea that it’s conscious. You choose the constraints to challenge your creativity and to almost show yourself what you can do, and what’s possible if you do that. I like that a lot.
I think it’s just a way to activate the brain.
And I believe that’s how the brain evolved, is to flourish under circumstances that are severely limited. It’s the saying, necessity is the mother of invention. We get creative, innovative when we have to. And the way to create that have to is by adding constraints. Even if you do it manually. But it’s still very conscious, as you say. You decide I’m throwing away all of this, all of that, I’m only doing it with these few constraints. And you’ll be surprised at the end result. It’s magical.
Yeah. Let’s talk about being creative. I know you also, a few years ago, started Mind the Shadow. So maybe just tell us what that is.
Mind the Shadow was born out of the idea that – I don’t think it’s healthy for a graphic designer or anyone in visual communication to just do work that is based on briefs from clients.
So not only applied creativity?
Exactly. Or what you can call commercial work. In other words, there’s always some specific game to be made from it, you know. It’s work that you get paid for, it’s for a specific client. You can’t reuse it for anything else. It’s not necessarily something that you would want to do if you had a choice. So I got this idea to start an account on Instagram that links with the Jungian idea of the shadow as part of our unconscious mind. So that’s the part of ourselves that we are not necessarily in contact with. It might be part of your lost self, or suppressed ideas about yourself. It’s anything that’s hidden from plain view, that’s not part of your day-to-day consciousness.
And your denied self, which includes creativity.
Exactly. The point is that it’s a place with a lot of energy, with a lot of latent creativity. So if you can tap into that unconscious mind, that shadow, you can open up a whole Pandora’s box of creative ideas. It’s actually quite scary because it’s much bigger than just the part that you call yourself, right. The ego. That part that you manage from day to day. The part that’s having the thoughts all the time. I think it’s scary to access your shadow, but also exciting.
So I called it Mind the Shadow because we will benefit if we have the courage to engage with the shadow. If we mind it, as opposed to not minding it. Forgetting about it. Suppressing it. I feel I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, really. I mean, I’ve got some cool drawings and cartoons and things on the account, but I feel that there’s still a lot to mind in the shadow. More to explore. But I do find that it’s a good place for me to express myself if I’ve got any cool idea, an idea for a drawing, or a painting or whatever. I post it there. It’s just a great way to balance all the commercial work, client briefs. Things that I do for myself and for the enjoyment of others. So yeah, that’s Mind the Shadow. Anyone listening can go check it out, please.
Yeah, give us the handle.
@mindtheshadow on Instagram and Facebook.
Perfect. I wanted to talk about another barrier, or barriers, that we sometimes have. So sometimes, we want to be creative, we wanna do certain things, we wanna draw or paint or… you know, create music. Or write or whatever. But the brushes and the paint is in this cupboard in the garage, and the canvasses are stored away on top of a cupboard, and… so those things all create barriers between us and actually starting the creative process. Can you comment on that and how you get around things like that? How do you set up things so that when you have an idea, you immediately just get going?
In our house, there are notebooks and sheets of paper and paintbrushes and bottles with ink all over the place. In the studio where I’m sitting now, there’s a bottle full of brushes and there’s a tin container full of markers. If I walk down the hallway, there’s… there are just things all over the house. So you have to make it easy to get started when you have an idea. If I wake up in the middle of the night, there’s a notebook next to my bed. I can just scribble down the idea. Just be very practical about it, and plan for creativity. Think of the spaces that you can typically do that.
I like that. Sorry to interrupt you. Plan for creativity. Elaborate on that.
Exactly. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s the only way you’re gonna do it, schedule the time. Say to yourself, okay. I’m going to use Tuesday evenings after work for an hour – I’m just gonna be creative. Start out making marks, add some constraints. I’m just gonna use a 6B pencil, and I’m gonna use this sheet of paper, and I’m only going to draw organic shapes. Leaves, trees, whatever. And I’m gonna find some inspiration online first, that’s very important to me specifically. For me to get energised, it typically helps to get inspired. I think it’s Picasso that also said something like, inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just do the work.
The point is, do what you need to do to activate your excitement about the work. Because it might feel like work, and a lot of it is work. But if I go onto Pinterest, for instance, or Instagram, and I scroll through a feed, and I see what other people are doing; maybe I see a specific style of line. Like, I see a portrait of a woman and a man and it’s stylised in such a way that the person had to look at a reference, but they also tried to be a bit more expressive. And then I’m thinking, okay, maybe I can emulate that in a way. But even if I do that, I know it will not look exactly like this. Because my voice – it’s like your handwriting, right, your handwriting is unique. It’s the same thing. So you’re just using that handwriting as a way to draw. And in the end, you create something that’s uniquely you, even though there are other influences. So I find it’s good to be inspired.
And then you just need to be very practical, as I said. Plan for it. If you said,I’m gonna do that on Tuesday evening, that means on Monday, or over the weekend, you need to go get the canvas or whatever from the top of the stack in the garage. Prepare the space so that you can just start working. I also just wanted to mention that I do think it’s good to become more childlike when we do these kinds of things. I’ve got a definition of creativity – trying to remember what I said, I think it’s something like –creativity is the process of mindful play.It’s one part of creativity. But the idea to steer a process in the first place – it’s not to create something with a specific end in mind necessarily. Often it is. But just the process of being creative, of expressing yourself. If you don’t measure the end result, if you don’t frame it and put it up somewhere, then you can actually do it without a sense of fear. Because that’s the thing, it’s fear, right – where we are scared that the end result will be bad. Will be, not good enough. So if you can let go of that idea, see it as a process, and also not be precious about your work. This is some very good advice. I was a student as well – don’t be precious about what you’re creating. Not every mark you make is worth something. It doesn’t have to be. It never was supposed to be, you know. Most of it will be crap. But it’s fine, it’s part of the process. And then to do it mindfully.
So you make a conscious decision, I’m going to be creative Tuesday evening at six. I’m going to be creative for twenty minutes. Then being playful about it, just – you’ve got your constraints, but then within the constraints – really go wild, and be free. Again, it seems like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. Real freedom is very scary. And it’s actually paralysing. But with constraints, you can be very creative and free. So that’s my advice.
I like that. So it seems to me if we – if we kind of try and structure this – we need barriers in certain places, right, so we need barriers in terms of, or constraints – in terms of how we channel our creativity – I think we also need barriers in terms of when you’re looking for some kind of inspiration or spark, you know, and you’re on social media or something like that, it can be very tempting to just stay on there and skip the creative part. So I think we need barriers and constraints there. But then we need to remove certain barriers. So, the barrier to starting, we need to remove. Make it as easy as possible for you to start, plan for creativity like you said, and the limiting beliefs that we have. Another barrier that we can remove.
Yeah. And then, to be very intentional about it and to be consistent. So if you set aside a whole weekend to be creative, man, it’s gonna fail. It’s too big a time slot. But if you say, fifteen minutes every Saturday morning after I get up, or whatever works for you, then you can repeat that. It can grow from there. I also think a good practice initially, to get your head around not being precious about the end result, is to destroy the work after the first few sessions at least. So whatever you do, no one else has to see it. You can destroy it. Set it on fire. Or tear it into pieces and chuck it in the bin. You’ll feel, okay great, this is not being measured. Mrs Cruywagen is not going to come to look over my shoulder and say ooh, you better not become an artist, you know, or whatever.
It’s very hard to unlearn these things, you know, we –
I want to comment on what we’re learning and developing as well. It’s a skill. So the skill of being creative and skill of using certain mediums or whatever. But it’s also the skill of getting into the zone. The skill of doing the work. That’s a skill. And that’s something that I feel I’m still developing. The skill to just make the choice to go into a certain space now, and do stuff. So it’s about focus and whatever, but I feel like that’s a skill that we can also develop. And if we are able to just maybe, let’s call it a bit more discipline, to set aside certain time slots and say, that’s the time when I do this. And it’s twenty minutes, and I go into that space, whether I feel creative or not, I just go and I explore. I draw, or I paint, or I play. If it’s music, or whatever it may be. And then I stop after that time slot. Tomorrow, or the next day, whenever, you do that again. I feel that’s a skill that’s helped me, in terms of – I play the bass, to become much better than I used to be. And to keep improving, instead of thinking you have to practice two hours every day, twenty minutes every second day. That consistency, and being focused on what exactly it is that I want to learn, or which skill I want to develop in terms of that. It helps a lot. But it’s hard. It’s hard to beat that decision when it comes to creativity. Especially when it’s not applied creativity, you’re not being paid for it, it’s just for fun.
Yeah. I do think it’s important to mention the fact that if you repeat something, you’re not necessarily going to become better at it. Meaning, if you want to develop a skill, you need to learn from someone, right. If I want to learn to be a better bass player, I’m not gonna figure it out if I hand you a bass and say good luck, you go live in the mountains for two years, come back and then you’re gonna slap it like… who’s a good bass player?
Peter Wooton (laughs).
Like Peter Wooton, you know. But if you look at videos from Peter Wooton, you try to emulate him, and you do an online course, et cetera, you learn the principles, then you can learn variations and scales, and so on and so on. The same thing applies to creativity. I mean, I see a lot of people that decide late in life, they want to be creative now. Then they start painting, they start expressing themselves. Then they go put things in art galleries and so on. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be good yet, you know. So there’s something to be said for visual literacy. Which is something you learn through exposure. Work that is good is based on timeless principles. There is work from the beginning of all time, since the first time we made a mark inside of a cave until now. We’ve learned what well expressed creativity looks like. Now again, it is subjective. But there’s also a lot of it that’s not. And that is something that you learn through exposure.
I think it’s a good idea to find some kind of course online. There’s a lot of platforms, like Skillshare, or the great courses, or many different universities offer courses in creativity or painting or drawing, whatever. So I recommend doing that. Learn the principles, the timeless aspects of the craft, and then do your own thing. That will get you to a much better place, I think, if you want to become better at being creative than just putting in the time week in, week out, and hoping that magically, you’ll learn how to draw a hand better, you know. It, unfortunately, doesn’t work like that.
It makes sense to me. My wife, who’s an artist, studied at Michaelis in Cape Town. She’s created a lot of work, and also thrown a lot of it away, which used to horrify me. It’s like what? That was beautiful. And she’s like, no. I want to do something else or do something different. She recently started doing a course by Proko, I think it’s the guy’s surname, just on drawing. And after drawing her whole life, really, she even did art at school, now changed the way she holds the pencil. And she’s like, this changes everything in the way I draw. So I mean, even now, she’s learning new things to improve. And it unlocks other possibilities and creativity and skills. Shows you how other things are possible, which might have been more difficult with a different technique or skill. I can see in her drawing, the change. Not that I’m an expert on drawing, but I can see, wow, you know. You do it quicker and it engages me emotionally much better than it used to in a shorter time.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. People have honed these skills and these principles over centuries. I’ll give you another example. I did a self-portrait last year in the Stellenbosch Ateljee. It’s an art class both Liezel and myself are doing with Vivian van der Merwe and Fiona Metcalfe. Both established artists in South Africa. They are very good, and they’ve got a specific way of approaching the teaching and the painting and so on. So what I did with this painting, was to try and draw my face accurately so that I have, you know, a map to fill in as I paint and sort of sculpting the face. Didn’t work. Drew it, okay, no, doesn’t look like me. Rub it out. Next class a week later. Tried again. I must have done that three or four times, I think, for a month. I tried this approach, and in the end, still had nothing. I hadn’t made a single mark of oil paint on the board. I was getting very frustrated, and then I talked to a friend of mine who’s also an artist. Oliver Scarlin. He’s also an ex-student of the Stellenbosch Ateljee. But he took it further and studied at the Florence Academy in Italy. So he’s made art a career. And in art, there are different schools that approach the same thing in different ways. So you’ll see there’s a Russian school of drawing. And if your visual literacy advances to a point, you can see the differences in drawing. Like, oh, that’s a Russian school. That’s Florence. That’s… you know. So he learned various techniques at the Florence Academy. And the way he approaches painting was to look at the composition and then he doesn’t try to draw it accurately. He takes a paintbrush, with some dark brownish colour, does a basic outline, like very basic – it’s just more or less where the different things are – and then he mixes a light value and a shadow value for all the biggest areas in the composition. He makes sure that those colour areas sort of resonate with one another.
I was just amazed to see what he could accomplish in two hours. In basically half a morning, he had a painting that looked like the real deal. I went back to the studio and started doing my portrait like this. Mixed large areas of colours. And in one evening, I put down light this side of my face, the light on the beard, the shadow on the beard. The background. And voila. There is a very basic portrait. But it looks okay. And then when I started doing the detail, I moved this part up, made the nose a little bigger. Then you take away all the hair that I put in because there is none.
So it just goes to show that there are various ways to do the work. Different schools and people have already learned how to do this. So you don’t have to figure it out yourself.
That’s very cool. Obviously, I saw that self-portrait, and it’s amazing. It looks like you. Mainly because the guy in the painting also doesn’t have hair (laughs).
Yes, that kind of gives it away, yeah.
All right mate, thank you so much. Thank you for chatting away with me about creativity. I appreciate you, and I appreciate your creativity. Always challenging me to try new things, like taking English first language at school, or entering the redenaars, things like that (laughs). If people want to reach you, where can they find you?
There is a website, mindtheshadow.com, but it’s kind of just a place that takes you to the social media accounts. I think there’s also an e-mail address on there. Otherwise, firstname.lastname@example.org.
All right, cool. So mindtheshadow.com will give them access to all of that.
Yeah. And for a look at some of the commercial work I’ve done over the years, sunflood.co.za. And the latest project that I’m working on now with a company that I work for, is bank.tech. That’s the latest… well, it’s a website, but we are working on the app at the moment. So it’s very much UI and UX design at the moment for me. But it’s nice to have a wide variety of creative outlets. So - whatever floats your boat, go for it.
Thanks once again! Chat soon.
Books referenced in this interview can be found on Amazon using the links below: