The Forest for the Trees

We’ve all heard of the forest vs the trees. By virtue of our personalities, some of us tend to see the forest and others the trees. We can, of course, train ourselves to see the other. Or life can train us. If we had a critical parent, for example, we might be hyper-tuned to the tiniest details. Anxiety and fear can cause us to not just see the trees, but feel compelled to create a perfect polish on one knot on one branch of one tree! But when we focus on the details, we miss seeing the whole.

Don’t get me wrong. Details matter, especially when it comes to craftsmanship. But so does the overall impression of your piece. How does it “read”? This is called “gestalt”, and it’s a handy concept used to describe this “impression” of what you are working on. Other people usually only see the gestalt of the piece. This is why tiny flaws don’t matter (unless there’s enough of them to impact the gestalt), and why people usually know instantly whether they like something or not. They are responding to the gestalt of the piece.

dense forest with trees

Make sure that you look at the overall gestalt of what you’re making. As makers, we see the nose that we struggled to shape, the spacer bead we stressed over, and the layer we tried three times to get right. Being “too close” to our work will make us see the parts we’re emotionally invested in. But so will inexperience.

New sculptors often focus on body parts rather than proportions. Those new to jewelry-making will focus on making beads and not the way a necklace hangs on a body. Experienced creators do tend to perceive the whole with more accuracy and balance, and that’s because they’ve learned to take a step back from the parts and details and see the gestalt of what they are working on. You can too, of course, but it is a skill that needs to be developed. (Especially if your personality or conditioning makes you see details more readily.)

Right now, look around the room. See your surroundings. Note the furnishings, the grime around the light switch, the cat fur on the ottoman. Now mentally see the room the way a stranger would. All of a sudden the cat fur disappears and you see the way the furniture shape fits well in the space. Very different! Practice this as you go through your day. See your neighborhood vs the houses. Feel the city vs the street (or the valley vs the dirt road). See where I’m going with this? Practice the ability to “flip” between seeing the details and seeing the big picture.

On the other hand, sometimes people readily see the big picture and the details are utterly unimportant. This can be a problem, too, as too many carelessly sloppy details can seriously impact the way a piece “reads”.

Now, look at one of your creations. Apply this exercise to that. See the details. Now see the whole thing. See both. It’s a valuable skill to have!

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2 thoughts on “The Forest for the Trees”

  1. Isabella (Rome - Italy)

    Dear Ginger, this one of the most impressive lessons I’ve ever got. I read my life in your words! I’m a newbie to polymer clay (less than a year practicing) and still trying to “find my Forest”. Now I know how to go on. Thanks!

  2. This makes me think of mica powder. When I first started with polymer clay, I became fascinated with mica powder. It just looked so pretty to me. But, I was never happy with my results. As time went on, I learned about design. I realized that I was unhappy with my results because they lacked contrast, a focal point, and movement. I was too focused on the effects I obtained with the powder, not looking at the entire piece.

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Polymer Clay Love is a celebration of the creative people, art, and community of polymer clay. It is curated by Ginger Davis Allman and is a community project from:

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