Explore. Research. Sketch.

I tell this story over and over because it made such an impact on my process: many years after I graduated, I ran into one of my printmaking professors, one with whom I had taken several courses. "Ken, what are you making these days?" I asked. "I'm painting!" he said. I asked, "What are you painting?" He said, "Everything. Anything. It doesn't matter." Ken died in 2006, but I continue to think about him and his answer.

It doesn't matter? I ruminate on this daily. Particularly these days, when emotions are so much more heightened and subjects are politicized. The answer is both freeing and overwhelming, I think, so I devised a way that makes it easier for me, and I hope for others. 

First, pick a card, any card. In other words, follow Ken's lead and pick something, anything. (I wrote about this six years ago, here in 2012,  when dealing with unfinished work.) Your project can start with the materials, a subject, medium, or a form, among other possible beginnings. Commit to it. Then focus on it: find the emotional connection for you. How does it connect with something you've been thinking about? I find that pursuing my emotional core is important to the work. It can be hard to go down deep. I have to be willing to do that. Find what I want to express or say.

If you get stuck, let it simmer as you explore it further. I find that doing research jumpstarts my process. Reading about the definition of a word or the history of a form can spark more ideas. I particularly look for quirky details. A dragonfly has one thousand eyes, for example. This fact can be used as a prompt or as a metaphor for another topic. What would it mean to have one thousand eyes? The characteristics of one thing can be shared with another. I described this in more detail in a post from 2011 here. Going to museums always gives me ideas by broadening what I already know. Once you have gathered your materials and ideas, start sketching them out. There is a constant narrowing down and building up until you can finally make your project manageable. Then you're back to Decide. Commit. and Focus. Again.