What is a commonplace book?

"The formulation of a problem is often more essential than it's solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical of experimental skill."  - Einstein

Einstein's Journal

Commonplace Books emerged during the Victorian Era as a popular way to gather and manage information, as a kind of memory aid and personal reference. A person would have a kind of scrapbook filled with things that they were interested in. They would make notes on the things they had entered, write in quotations from other people who had written or spoken on that topic, paste in images etc. And it was not unusual for a person to have a multiple commonplace books going at once, using different ones for different interests or subjects. 

If this sounds a lot like a journal that's because it is. But, there are important distinctions to be made. Commonplace books tend to be on one subject. For example, you might have one for your major, if you're studying botany you would have a commonplace book in which they accumulate all of the most interesting and important things they come across relating to botany. An Anthropology student would have one on the particular area of anthropology they were interested in, and so on. Commonplace books are focused. Journals tend to be more like diaries and cover a given period of time. They're just as varied and scattered as a person's life is, becoming filled with any little thing that comes into a person's mind. Often they contain information that their maker has come across and found interesting but they mostly contain that person's thoughts. By that I mean that the information journals contain tends to come from within the person who makes them. With a commonplace book the person who makes it is gathering information from the world that he or she wants to remember. That simple distinction makes the commonplace book a tool of study.

Commonplace book by Henry Tiffin

As an ongoing assignment in this class you will keep a commonplace book. This might be the most important aspect off this this class.  In the short term it's important because I am not going to tell you what to do. If you compile a book you have material to work with. More importantly, to paraphrase Einstein, it is equally important to be able to think about what you are doing and why as simply doing it. And in the long term, you will lay the foundations of your future creative pursuits through keeping notes and jotting ideas that you will be able to refer back to and refine.

Ideally, what you are doing is becoming an expert on the things that interest you and the cultural contexts that your interests occupy. Watch this clip from The Devil Wears Prada. It might seem like this scene is about what a bitch Meryl Streep's character, Miranda Priestly, can be. It is partly about that, but it's illustrative for our purposes because it demonstrates the depth of knowledge that the makers of culture have about the things they are making. Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor who Miranda Priestly is based on, could probably write a twenty five page paper on the color cerulean without opening a book or using the internet. And that's just one shade of one color.

Johnathan Lethem put it another way; "Most artists are converted to art by art itself."  He is saying that some work, or multiple works, of art have inspired people to want to try to this art thing on their own. Maybe a novice will spend some time making their own versions of inspiring works but eventually they'll have to find their own voice if they're going to make work of any consequence. Finding one's own voice isn't just moving beyond one's influences and creating art work out of thin air. It is "an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses." It is making work based on the understanding you've developed of the world around you and of the work of artist's both passed and contemporary who have influenced you and who have tackled similar themes.  

The makers of culture are not just making random stuff. They're making calculated choices based on a broad and deep base of knowledge. And those choices trickle through our culture to you and to everyone else in the world. You would have a hard time finding a thing that you own or are interested in that was not created in this way. Now you, in this class, are a maker of things and therefore a maker of culture. The most important aspect of your making is the development of that depth of knowledge. You can never know enough. Your work will be better for it and will suffer without it. Without it even the greatest craftsperson in the world is simply an imitator.

Leonardo DaVinci's notebook

At this point you are probably not an expert on any one thing and you will likely tend to collect ideas in a unorganised way. That's fine. The important things are that you are gathering information and material and that you can generate works of art out of your commonplace book. Over time, your compiling of information will help you to develop a broad base of knowledge and eventually to bring a set of interests into focus. This will eventually lead to works of art created in series spinning off new questions, new ideas, and new series.

Until you become an expert, the ability to experiment and move forward constructively is another characteristic important to success in any pursuit including the arts. You should do several "experiments" in your book before you move on to making the actual artwork. Make a sketch, refine it, improve it, refine it, etc until you are satisfied with it. Then refine it again. Then plan how you are going to execute the final artwork.

The Creative Problem Solving Process may help you. This is a form of problem solving in which solutions are independently generated rather than learned with assistance. Or, in the context of this class, the content of your artwork is generated by you rather than assigned by me.  

 1. Identify the problem. => How do I integrate my interests with the assignment?

                                       => How does all this stuff in my sketchbook get translated into a work of art?
     -Reframe and clarify the problem by putting it in your own words. 

 2. Generate ideas and gather data.
     -Brainstorming, free association, cross-disciplinary links, diverse thinking.
     -Investigative, interdisciplinary, and multi-sensory research.
     -Integrate and apply education specializations to creative strategies and solutions. => Apply what you've learned in other classes.

 3. Identify a solution.  

     -Reframe or recontextualize the problem.
     -Perform small scale trial and error experiments. => Make Sketches.
     -Edit possible strategies toward meaningful ranking and narrowing of options.
     -Create a plan and implement your solution at full scale.

For Printmaking and 3D courses, yours does not have to be a bound book. It can be difficult to transfer an image from a book to a matrix, or substrate, and printmakers will find tracing paper very helpful. You may prefer to make a book of your own (see online resources for instructions), use a binder, portfolio case, or even a box (a sturdy, presentable box) to keep your materials organized.  The book should be utilized as a tool of personal investigation from life and/or imagination and a tool of study. Therefore, you may use whatever is the most effective tool for you.  

A few ideas to get you going:
-What are you interested in? If you could do anything you want right now what would you do?
-When you and your friends get together what do you talk about?
-Think about building a home for your thoughts.  In what kind of environment would your thoughts and ideas want to live?  What would they need to survive and evolve? 
-If you could have your own studio, what would be in it?  In what kind of environment would you want to go to work in every day?  What would it feel like to be in your studio?  
-If you could curate a show of artists whose work is like yours, who would be in it?
-What would the world look be if you had made it?  What's right with the world?  What's wrong with the world?
-Start a list of quotations that you relate to and write about what they mean to you.  
-Write your own definitions for terms related to your interests.    
- What's important about your ideas?  Why would anyone (anyone who's not your mother) care to look at your work?  
-Do artists have social responsibilities? What are they?  How can you contribute?
-Is art political? Can art stimulate change in the world?
-What does art have to do with nature?
-What have you learned? What do you know to be absolutely true?
-Is there something that you've always been interested in and haven't made time to explore?
-What are you afraid of?  What stops you from doing the things you want to do?
-What is important to you?  What’s not important to you?  
-Or, what's important or unimportant to "everyone else"?  Is everyone else focused on the right things?  

There are many links to artists and artist's books provided on this page.  These are for inspiration more than example.  While your book should be thought of as a work of art meant for viewers, it is still primarily a tool of study and place to work out ideas in support of the work you will do in this class. You are the viewer for this work of art. Make it something that you want to interact with.   

Your commonplace book should:
-Have your name on the cover. 
-Be idea and image driven.
-Be organized so that a viewer can make sense of it. 
-Be organised so that you can make sense of this class when you look back on it.
-Contain a clear set of critique steps in your own words. 
-Contain clear notes on the processes introduced in the class, readings, slide lectures, and critiques. 
-Contain notes on my critique and your classmates' critique of your work.
-Reflect thought on the assignments and the steps, through a number of sketches, by which you arrived at your image and developed form within the assignment’s designated format. 
-Contain everything you do this semester.  No tearing out pages or throwing ideas away.  
-Reflect thought on your artistic interests and development of thematic trends.  
-Your journal must not merely be a scrapbook. 

Commonplace books will be reviewed at midterm and the end of the term.  

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