Lucrezia Di Canio, May 2019

Almost everything we do is dictated by some sort of rationality. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, there is always rational thinking behind what we might consider a random decision or an instinctive action. But does this apply to artists when creating work in their studios?

As an aspiring artist myself I still question whether what I do, or the decisions I pursue when making art are dictated by a rational or an irrational train of thought. To clarify what I intend by the terms “rational” and “irrational” in reference to the making of art, a rational way of making and thinking about art could be considered as an artist knowing what they want to make and then working methodically to achieve that artwork. An irrational way of making might involve an artist either knowing or not knowing fully what they want to create, but when making it, embracing the elements of chance, failure and experimentation.


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Dying Slave

After an original, 1505-45, Plaster

Credit: John Taylor Johnston Memorial Collection, 1895

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection

The relevance of a more rationalistic way of pursuing art can be found throughout art history. From the Classical to the Renaissance and Baroque, art has been a means of representation. It was Plato who suggested that art is a copy of a copy of the world. From representations of victorious warriors, gods and goddesses, to the depiction of religious scenes from the Bible, artists have been occupied by this pursuit. Seen in this way, artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo can be considered as being driven more by a rational mode of creating. With the development of Modern art movements, establishing a distinction between the rational and irrational becomes more difficult. For example, in Impressionism and Cubism, artists continued to represent a subject, however, they began to move away from a realistic “copying” of the subject. The impressionists were more interested in showing the subjective viewpoint of the artist at a certain moment in time. Landscape became more dynamic as seen through the lens of subjective perception. Having said this, I believe artists associated with these movements did still work with a rational drive. This is not only because the artworks retained the ambition to represent a subject, but also because the objectives of Impressionist painting were pursued in a rationalistic manner. Surrealists were inspired by unconscious fantasies as a central subject to their paintings, thereby incorporating the “irrational” as subject matter. Yet their work was executed with precision and a rational mode of representation. The Abstract Expressionists were concerned with representing feelings and emotions in abstract form. Their work is characterised by an absence of narrative and representation. Following the definition of irrationality outlined above, I believe that the abstract expressionists embraced an irrational approach to their practice. Jackson Pollock and his action paintings, for example, created with the dripping technique he developed, makes rational decisions in terms of how to move his arm when flicking the paint, and what colours to throw where.

However, by making the decision to drip paint, chaotic and dynamic paintings emerge, which suggest a seemingly irrational result and process of production. On the other hand, clear patterns can be seen to emerge through the mark-making, suggesting some sort of order to the artist’s gestures.


Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899

81.3 x 101.6 cm (32 x 40 in.)

Credit: Gift of Victoria Nebeker Coberly, in memory of her son John W. Mudd, and Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Collection

In today’s contemporary art world there are so many different artists working in completely diverse ways. It seems impossible to identify whether there is a predominance of either rationality or irrationality in the way artists today think and talk about art. The romanticised reputation of artists is that they create work by channelling pure creativity and internal emotional drive, in other words through an irrational mode of working. This could be true in some cases, however in many others there is a structured conceptual and material research background that informs the practice. I think it must be true that there is always a coexistence between the two opposites when making art and consider both rationality and irrationality vital to an artist’s work in the studio. This is because rationality drives our decision making and brings us to the moment of carrying out the action that will lead to creation, meanwhile irrationality is the acceptance of a mistake or something that occurs out of chance resulting in something unpredictable, and often more interesting than what was anticipated.


I myself make considered decisions when creating something in order to achieve a specific final product. However, when something unpredictable happens in the process of making, I tend to embrace it in the work. This, to me, is an interesting way to embrace “irrationality” in my practice. Making the “unexpected” the real work of art.

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Lucrezia Di Canio

Lucrezia Di Canio, Free Pigments, 2019

Installation: Batteries, fans, black card, clear plastic sheets on plinths.​

Credit: Lucrezia Di Canio