Creative Storytelling Research: Build Your Own Atlas

In my previous posts I talked about how to jump-start your creativity by busting your mind-numbing routines, setting up creativity-enhancing rituals, and about creating your own tailor-made notebook to collect your thoughts and ideas. Now that you’re off the starting block, creative juices flowing, let’s go to the next essential step on your creative journey: research.

Why is research essential? Because it tests your assumptions, it lets you discover new ideas, it makes your project unique and richer in detail, and it tunes you in with what’s going on around you.

Research shouldn’t feel like a chore but like a creative task.

When you hear the word “research” you may get a flash-back to your student days, hunkering down in the university library with a stack of books, the smell of dust and photocopier toner in the air, desperately longing for a latte. That’s not the kind of research I’m talking about. I’m talking about creative research that is fun and inspiring, research that doesn’t feel like a chore but like a creative task.

Gerhard Richter, "Reader", 1994 oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter, “Reader”, 1994, oil on canvas

One of my favorite creative researchers is German artist Gerhard Richter. He is a veteran painter, an icon in the contemporary art world who frequently tops the list of the world’s most expensive living artist. While I adore his energetic abstract canvases and his subtle figurative work, let’s look at his life-long research project: Atlas. In 1962 Richter began collecting photographs, sketches and clippings from newspapers and magazines, and pasted them onto large sheets of paper. Each sheet has it own theme – interesting tree shapes, faces, types of clouds, colour swatches – and by now this vast collection consists of over 800 pages.

Gerhard Richter Atlas Clouds Trees

I remember seeing Richter’s Atlas live in Kassel, Germany, during Documenta 10. I spent hours wandering from sheet to sheet, both overwhelmed and intrigued by the avalanche of images. The Atlas is an archive of pictures and ideas, much like a massive sketchbook. It is a catalogue of images where, over time, a vocabulary of motifs emerges. Richter’s Atlas illustrates how you can hone your attention to detail through the act of collecting. One image of a flame is beautiful, but take several images and the intrinsic characteristics of a flame are revealed. Over the last 60 years Richter has created a mesmerizing world where everything has the potential to become art.

Gerhard Richter Atlas fire

I would like you to become a collector of images. You don’t have to go epic like Gerhard Richter, but set up a structure – a scrap book, or a folder system on your computer, or a Pinterest account – and start collecting. Find a motif that interests you, like an interesting tree trunk, a reflection of sunlight on the pavement, or a bald guy with a big mustache, and either start collecting more images of the same motif (more bald guys with mustaches) or take photos of your chosen motif from as many different angles as possible. Notice differences and similarities, subtleties that you may have otherwise overlooked.
Over time you will build up a library of unique, idiosyncratic images that you can draw from for your storytelling needs, while at the same time sharpening your eye for detail.

Have fun, and if you have an interesting Atlas page to share with us, please email me, and I will post my favourite ones on The Sproutive Way.

If you would like to find out more about Gerhard Richter, his work, and his Atlas project, here are a few interesting links (see, you’re already doing research!):
Gerhard Ricter’s website
Video: Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (21 minutes, German with English subtitles)
Movie: Gerhard Ricter Painting (97 minutes, German with English subtitles)