Giotto drew a perfect circle on a page without moving anything other than his wrist. The act was the result of stillness, a steady hand, and practice. His geometric perfection demonstrated that he could depict any worldly scene with a graceful stroke of the brush. (he got the job)
Leonardo would put a single point on the canvas and stare at it in stillness. Soon images and colors would begin to swirl around it in his imagination; inspiring visions, faces, landscapes. His process was the result of focus, a receptive state of mind, and a gift for visualization.
Michelangelo said that a sculptor should not create, but simply reveal the figures already contained within. He would study the blocks of marble, search it for clues, then see the body trapped in it and free it. His ‘non-finito’ Slave statues show his process — whole figures emerging, but not yet fully free. His skill was the result of concentration, visualization, and indefatigable determination.
Their genius was in their ability to steady the mind, to see something others couldn’t see, and to bring the visions of their minds into this world. The genius of all of us who create–from the stone age to the digital age– is that we bring our visions into the world, our imagination into form, our ideas into work — into play — into view. That’s the definition of what we do, but how does it work? How can the intangible take shape? The secret is in the direct correlation between the openness of the mind and the emptiness of our canvas…our page…our screen. The negative space that defines the designs in our minds connects with the negative space of the page and allows us to transfer our ideas from one space to the other.
This process is what makes meditation so natural for artists and designers. We can gently shift our focus from the form to the space that surrounds it…from the image to the canvas… from the concept to the vast openness of the mind. Most people remain fixed in the identification with their thoughts. They think they are their thoughts. We are, by the nature of what we do, working with ideas and mental fabrications, not within them. We can step back and look at our ideas. This means we can also let go of them altogether. That’s where meditation begins. We let go of our ideas. Instead of struggling with how to kill our darlings, we can just set them free and relax in that freedom. And that freedom from clinging to our ideas and creations…even from the very idea that there is a ‘me’ who is creating…is a state of openness in which the mind can see everything anew.
Contrary to what many people think about meditation–that we’re trying to stop thoughts or control them–the most powerful practice can sometimes just be sitting and shifting our focus from our thoughts to the open space in which arise; the sky of the mind in which our ideas and inspirations take shape. We just need to stop there and breathe. Inhale…exhale…let the mind relax and blend with the space through which we perceive, and blend into the space in which our thoughts arise. It’s like the subtle shift of focus from the cloud that’s in the sky to the sky that the clouds are in.
No matter your medium, design starts in the open mind. No matter your method, creation moves from that openness to the openness in front of you. No matter what shape your work takes, it’s the negative space that delineates it. No matter the state of your mind, as a designer you can learn to shift your focus into that space…and let it rest there for a while in meditation.
From Giotto’s “O” to the dot of Leonardo… that’s a path of inspiration all of us can follow.
David Scharff, an award-winning art director, photographer (and meditation instructor), was the Creative Director for the Annenberg Foundation and the Annenberg Space for Photography from 2008 to 2017, and has led Special Projects at the Photo Space since then. He is now launching a new creative consultancy called Compassion Unlimited.