Recently I came across an old Zen legend, about a scholar and a Meji era Zen master by the name of Nan-In. Nan-in received a visit from a scholar who came to learn about Zen. Nan-in offered the scholar cup of tea. The scholar accepted. Nan-In poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The scholar watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
This story reminded me of a time during my undergrad studies. I spent half a semester in my drawing class without seeing any improvement in my work. I had an encyclopedic knowledge of theories and techniques and could execute them flawlessly, but as much as I practiced I still saw no progression. Frustrated, I consulted my professor, he said one word, “experiment.” At first I had no idea what he meant, but then it hit me. I spent so much time relying on what I knew that I had not allowed my self to learn. I forgot the key competent to the creative process, discovery, without it we cannot hope to move forward. I needed to empty my cup.
In art learning is always self directed. As artists we are constantly reaching plateaus in our craft. We get to stages where we cant see any growth in our work. Often times what holds us back is our own experience. We get bogged down by techniques and methodologies of how to approach a certain aesthetic problem, and in doing so block the creative fluidity of our mind. To move pass it we just need to change our perspective.
The beauty of the creative process can be seen in children. Their cup is always empty. Every action they take is a new discovery. Our experience will be there to guide us, but if we empty our cup, and see things through the eyes of a child, we can discover new concepts that may have eluded us before. And we just might create something we’ve never thought we were capable of.