The Stages of Creativity

Rousseau, "Landscape with Monkeys"

Rousseau, “Landscape with Monkeys”

I’m sharing today a magical Jacques Prévert poem about the different stages of the creative process, including choosing the subject, “capturing” it (perhaps on canvas, but the process applies to any artistic medium), erasing the scaffolding, and finally deciding whether your depiction is authentic. If it is, Prévert, tells us, you can sign your name.

The poem was translated by my father. I’d love to hear from artists about whether they’ve experienced any or all of these stages. Enjoy:

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

 By Jacques Prévert

First paint a cage
with the door open
next paint something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then place the canvas against the tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but it can also take years
before making up its mind

Don’t be discouraged
wait years if necessary
the time of the bird’s arrival
having nothing to do
with the success of the painting

When the bird arrives
if it arrives
observe the deepest silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when it’s in the cage
carefully close the door with your brush
erase all of the bars one by one
taking care not to touch a single feather of the bird
Next paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful branch
for the bird
also paint the green leaves and the coolness of the wind
the sunbeams
and the rustling of the animals in the grass during the heat of the day
and then wait until the bird decides to sing

If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting is no good
but if it sings it’s a good sign
a sign that you can sign

So you very gently remove
one of the feathers of the bird
and in a corner of the painting you write your name

Trans. by Scott Bates

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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