Friday, July 8th, 2022
Look we all of us hate it in some way- at least reflexively. Getting lost means delaying you from where you were going. It makes us anxious, as all uncertainties do. Panic, a questioning of choices, a desire to retreat to familiar ground, call for help, curl up in a ball and die fast on an Arctic hells-cape before the last two polar bears make lunch of you. The imagination runs wild in such a panic. As it should. it’s our bones to avoid this scenario, because it places us in jeopardy, invites danger and encourages common falls when stumbling into unfamiliar ground. We are compelled to freak the fudge out. And that’s why getting lost is so important to any creative act.
All the things we hate about getting lost are why getting lost helps us grow as creatives. And let’s be honest, as people. We need it, because we don’t want it. Warm, familiar blankets are super comfortable, and if you’re getting a flood of affirmational support, then it’s easy to stay there and enjoy yourself. The internet is awesome for this as it is cruel when it’s other direction. The Rolling Stones have been playing “Brown Sugar on stage for longer than most people have been alive. It feels weird to say it, but DON’T be the Rolling Stones. It’s bad for your art, and art is growth or it’s dead. I think of it like running from a predator, that’s just how I’m wired. Maybe it’s skipping down hill over-fast with your best friend or a Miyazaki antelope. Whatever- for me it’s a Tiger hunting me down, and my goal is to stay out in front of it for as long as I can manage- even with the full knowledge that in the end, the Tiger gets me. Good art comes from traveling new ground, even and especially when forced to.
When you’re lost your forced to self question. All the lazy automata of your way of working melts like ice cream on a summertime Mexican sidewalk. Your senses are keyed up to maximum- looking for danger and a way out from it. You get frosty and alert, and all of this, if channeled properly, is not how you survive the unknown wild, but how you thrive in it. The goal is to conquer it and make it part of your ever expanding kingdom. Manifest Destiny- Art Edition. And better than the actual thing because the creative wilderness isn’t anyone else’s to steal, it’s wholly yours to discover.
The first thing to do is not panic, surrender to the wave & let it carry you. If you were at the beach it’s a bit like getting caught in a riptide: you’re only dead when you panic and burn yourself out to drowning. You let the riptide take you, you don;t swim against, or recapture territory you lost- you become part of it, ride it and start to steer it in small ways to get you back to shore. You use its energy and make it your own, and a force that you master, not the tide. In New England Parlance it’s why you don;t break and turn away from a slide on the ice in your car. You take control of the chaos by joining with it and making it your own to command
The second thing to do is do receive the gift being lost wants to give you first: the opportunity to discard old thinking. To erase what you knew. To start over fresh- but better than blank canvas fresh, because you already went to a place that only ended up getting you lost. Shake it off, go for a walk, come back and turn the piece upside down, reverse it mirror-style, invert the colors if you’re on a screen. Start making another drawing if that is all happening on paper. YES there’s always babies that get lost in the bathwater you toss- make peace with that. Make notes and try to preserve them. You got lost for a good reason, so stop clinging to the cause and let go so you can avail yourself of the solution.
There are times that getting lost made a far better piece than the one I thought was going to be the end all. There’s been many more times where getting lost made for me nothing but lesser works that not only affirmed I was on the best path, but by getting away from its tunnel vision, led me to solutions for it that I was incapable of seeing. Sometimes getting lost really is just a warning light that something’s wrong you need to fix. Sometimes it’s like that riptide coming out of nowhere and scooping you away.
I had a situation while working on In the Mood for Love with Mondo, for an LP soundtrack and film poster pair: I had done work that worked some I still love today, but all of which was both within my own usual safe place and subject to the already over used style methods out in the world. Wong Kar Wai’s seminal masterwork was celebrating a big anniversary and everywhere, literally around the globe, different countries and publishers were making new editions of the film and its fantastic soundtrack to cheer it on. Since we were apparently a little tardy to the game comparatively, by the time Wong saw the work I had done, and was self assured was ABSOLUTELY going to be approved if not celebrated, he felt he’d seen this approach too many times already, was bored. Rejected. I think even Mondo was surprised, (though this does happen a lot and while it might always be surprising and no less heartbreaking, it is a familiar stab in a way too familiar wound). Basically it was cut bait, set fire to the boat, go do something else… or come up with something completely new that he hasn’t seen before and wants. This was throwing a dart in a dark room and hitting the bullseye, times ten thousand. And I only had one chance to do it right, and handful of days to execute it. I freaked out, I got angry and went through all the stages of grief and promised Mondo I’d find a solve and the next day, through the insane madness of working a dozen different ways, looking at hundreds of pages of old magazine art, jazz records and classical paintings, I somehow managed to stumble on a new approach that got a hearty thumbs up to chase. From nosedive to high flying. It’s the thrill-seekers crack and every artist’s too. It is often why I love taking on jobs I am not sure I know how to do. And that brings us to the gift of getting lost, Stage three:
You can’t engineer getting lost, you have to let it come get you. I love driving around the countryside, and often enjoy what I call “getting lost” by taking some never before travelled route or follow some uphill dirt road to someplace. It’s a beautiful part of the country here and there’s always surprises up and down these hills. But this is not what I’m talking about. This brand getting lost isn’t really that serious, because, well it’s the country and there just aren’t that many roads to begin with- they all of them, will eventually lead you to a road you know. Plus Google maps. It’s video game danger, not running through the dark woods of Nigeria at night while something growling is chasing after you danger. When your a professional artist, and a neurotic weirdo like I am, losing a job because you failed to succeed at it is THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD EVER I”M SERIOUS. I’m not an insane person, I KNOW there’s not actual harm at stake, but because I care too much it feels like it is, and I use that as much as I can muster. I only am able to even speak to this because I’ve been doing this dang work for a long long ass time now. It’s a bit like surviving a lot of earthquakes: you start to get used to the surviving them part, rather than the worrying you won’t bits, out of habit. I can channel the terror of being lost better and with a lot more aplomb than I used to, but I do try and make sure I don;t over do that either.
Full confession, I don’t want to be lost and terrified while working every time I work. That would be miserable. But when the Churn comes and everything gets tossed upside down, I try to take best advantage of it, and always in the end am glad it happened because I am always in a better smarter and wiser place for having gone through it. And the work is better too. I can look back on the thousands of book covers, film posters, children’s picture books, dvd/blu ray/LP designs, spots, banners, web design, package work and gallery painting and the evidence of each marker there for when I got lost and found my way back, and those that just sailed on through. Even now remembering almost nothing else about what went on then. If you’re in a constant state of being lost, something else is wrong. You are maybe way out of your depth, operating subconsciously in some weird self destructive ways… it’s the classic “assholes-in-the-morning problem”: You meet an asshole in the morning, you’ve met an asshole. Meet assholes all day long? YOU’RE the asshole. So check yourself if you find you’re having too consistent a string of crisis events. I may court a lot of them because, as I mentioned before, I am a neurotic weirdo and it makes a lot more work for myself than is needed. But I do manage to avoid a lot of those episodes in the wilderness now because I can see them coming more clearly and get in front of the problem when it’s small before it becomes so big that it stops the car. It’s why I present so many damned concepts for a criterion cover, or a movie poster- sometimes they’re not just thumbnail concepts- I’m talking about a dozen really executed pieces. We pick the right horse, the guardrails go up, the job gets done. But it’s the well-worn process and familiarity that makes me leap at some crazy new job, making me do something I’ve never done before or some lifelong bucket list gig I can’t believe I get to do. I seek the adrenalin high of getting lost. Or I start to feel stale about a certain schtick I did or some design that I keep getting asked to emulate.
In short I’ve gotten lost a lot and I mean a LOT… and I did not catch on fire or destroy my career or admit myself into a mental institution much needed rest. (Yet). SO I can tell you from a place of direct first hand knowledge: it stings but it doesn’t have to hurt. It’s certainly scary, but the good kind, not the bad version of scary. The real proof is that I have never once in my life gotten lost and not appreciated getting through and back home at the end. I’m ALWAYS better for it. And this doesn’t mean it always shakes out for the gig. I have surrendered, gotten kill-fee’d, and had to cut bait on my fair share of enterprises, and while I almost always regret those things, I never ever once have regretted getting lost while trying to save them. Sometimes it’s like pouring water on Chernobyl’s reactor fire: it just makes it worse and the flames barely notice. And to over extend the metaphor- Lock it down get out of the exclusion zone, start again someplace else NOT radiated by the failure. There’s a lot of peace in trying your hardest and failing anyway, and you are always better at your work, and more prepared for next time as a result. And not in a way you could have ever been had you not gotten lost in the first place.
So get out there and go fall off the map. Bring snacks.