Will Gompertz: doubt is the fuel that powers the creative mind

Will Gompertz is the BBC's arts editor and an author. He was previously a director at the Tate gallery. His book about creativity, Think Like an Artist, will be published by Penguin in July.

BBC arts editor Will Gompertz believes doubt is what fuels the creative mind
BBC arts editor Will Gompertz believes doubt is what fuels the creative mind

Sometimes, amid the hurly-burly of deadlines, meetings and Twitter streams, it is easy to forget that we are all creative; that it’s one of the big bonuses of being a human. No other animal – or machine, for that matter – has the ability to conceive complex ideas and realise them. It’s a marvellous gift we alone have that, when cultivated properly, can help us achieve the most extraordinary things.

It's easy to forget we are all creative

It is also the way in which I think most of us are likely to find contentment, purpose, and a place in the frenetic landscape of our digitised age. Nothing else can make us feel as truly alive and connected to the physical world as bringing our ideas to life.

Being creative is, I suppose, the ultimate affirmation of our humanness.

But how do we do it? How do we take our natural creativity off autopilot? How do we go beyond using it to send a witty text message to a friend, and learn instead how to trigger our imaginations to conjure up the innovative thoughts that could be turned into something material and worthwhile? How can we all think like artists?

A sceptical attitude is essential in successful creative people.

I have had the privilege of being able to observe and meet some of the greatest exponents of creative thinking today, from the audacious British artist Damien Hirst to multi-Oscar-winning US actress Meryl Streep. Obviously, they are all different, but, in one regard at least, not as different as you might imagine.

Clearly identifiable traits

It has become quite clear to me that a handful of clearly identifiable traits are common to all successful creative people from novelists and film directors to scientists and philosophers. I’m not talking about fanciful, other-worldly qualities, but the basic practices and processes that allow their talents to flourish. Practices and processes which, if adopted, could help the rest of us realise our own creative potential.

A sceptical attitude, for example, is essential. Doubt is the fuel that powers the creative mind. Having the confidence and courage to question preconceptions, received wisdom and so-called ‘facts’ won’t necessarily make you popular, but it will put you in a position to produce remarkable work.

Dissappointing the fans

He showed the world that the process of questioning is not about making creativity more difficult and complicated, but the reverse: to bring clarity, brevity and purity to our ideas

I remember talking to JJ Abrams while he was making his first Star Trek movie. I asked whether he was worried about disappointing the millions of Star Trek fans in the world. "No," he said, without missing a beat. What was worrying him, though, was how to move Captain Kirk from one part of the USS Enterprise to another – and, once there, whom would he meet and what sort of conversation might take place. Or, maybe it should be an argument – or, possibly, an assignation? And so on. Question after question until he finally had a shooting script.

Paul Cézanne, the great French Post-Impressionist artist, used the same technique. He sparked the entire Modernist epoch by asking one very simple question. When he painted a landscape early in his career, he did not proclaim, as all previous artists had, "This is what I see," but asked instead: "Is this what I see?"

Depicted in perfect focus

He realised it was not. He had followed convention and painted a lie. Everything he depicted was in perfect focus: the grass, houses, horses and fields of hay. But when he – or we – look at a landscape, very little is in focus. We see an overall image made of colours and shapes.

Cézanne began to remove detail from his pictures and started to assemble a patchwork of rectangles, squares and circles which he fitted into a grid of horizontal and vertical lines. His innovations led directly to Cubism and the stripped-down aesthetic of Modernism. There would be no iPhone without Cézanne and his sceptical mind.

He showed the world that the process of questioning is not about making creativity more difficult and complicated, but the reverse: to bring clarity, brevity and purity to our ideas.


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