Genesis • June 2016
Spontaneity and creation



Is there room for spontaneity in visual arts? Answering this question is to consider the possibility of creating works of art without any planning of their future form and no preliminary sketches. This article will determine what are the conditions and reasons for spontaneity, while situating it in regard to instinct or habit, establishing the affinities between spontaneity and spontaneous creative acts, revealing the links between spontaneity and immediacy towards an unexpected act of creation in the form of a surprise. There would then be no dichotomy within material works between action, memory and the tangible record of the experience. ‘Beginning a painting: an adventure no one knows where it will lead’ (Dubuffet, 1973, p. 28). This article focuses on spontaneity in the creation of visual art works, creation being understood to be both a work of art and the process that leads to its conception. Does the project – in the sense of an established plan, a sketch, a purpose developed in view of its realization – precede all creation? Is there an alternative, another approach? Would this pave the way for experimentation, which drives freedom and creativity? The purpose of this article is to consider the possibility of art works created without any preconception of their future form. What are the conditions for this? How and why minimizing ‘the amount of control in favour of spontaneity’ (Mathieu, 1973, p. 212)? What does working without premeditation (other than perhaps the intention of creating) mean? This series of questions means considering notably spontaneity and its developments.

Article's keywords

Act, attention, action, flow, gesture, habit, immanence, immediacy, improvisation, instant, intuition, present, surprise.

Table of Contents


The conditions for spontaneity are closely and intrinsically linked to the definition of what one means by ‘being spontaneous.’ Is it to be instinctive? Why should spontaneity be sought after in the arts, and would it not be paradoxical if, as implied by its association with instinct, it was related to animality? Is ‘being spontaneous’ being able to give an answer to a particular solicitation, guided by habit? Or does it mean, in contrast, ‘being free?’ Does ‘being spontaneous’ mean being in a constant state of invention? Here are some hypotheses that seem to broaden the meaning of spontaneity, it is also a way of concentrating it after having, obviously, analysed it. One then discovers a form of plural – therefore ambiguous – spontaneity. The term itself covers very different, if not irreconcilable, real situations, sometimes resulting in a suspicious attitude towards spontaneity.

Spontaneity and instinct

First hypothesis: being spontaneous would mean being instinctive. Spontaneity ‘depends upon us […] as the soul has within it the principle of all its actions’ (Leibniz, [1710]1969, p. 291). In a general sense, what is spontaneous is what the agent makes by himself. Organic, physiological and instinct-related data differentiate the animal condition from the human condition, which cannot indeed be reduced to it. To act spontaneously, an agent must perform a gesture or an act upon his/her own initiative. But where can initiative – which refers to two principles: autonomy and freedom – be found in an instinctive response? The spontaneity of instinct is only an illusion. It is indeed independent from learning, imitation and experience. But one calls ‘instinct’ a hereditarily transmitted behaviour, characterized by an innate knowledge of life. This is why one cannot confuse instinct and spontaneity. If instinct is today a scientifically controversial [ 1 ]  concept, it can still be defined as ‘an innate plan of life, perfect, preformed, which, driven by a vital force, inevitably and inexorably leads animals toward one goal (which is the conservation of the species)’ (Doron & Parot, 1991, p. 368). Instinct allows us to respond immediately and accurately to stimuli in a given situation. But it offers nothing new. It does not express the whole being but complements reflex as an impersonal principle, often a defensive reaction. However, getting back to what G. W. Leibniz said, spontaneity is similar to a certain form of self-determination, as defined by Camille Bryen (b. Nantes 1907 – d. Paris 1977) and Raoul Ubac (b. Cologne 1910 – d. Dieudonne 1985) when they wrote: ‘Poetic activity commits the individual completely without any subordination external to it’ (Bryen & Michelet, [1935]2005). This approach has accents of spontaneity with terms that have a certain self-sufficient quality. Artistic practice can therefore be seen as a primal movement that only owes its cause to itself.  It results in an interlocking between life and the work of art. ‘The life and work of a poet are identical. The poem is only the objective witness of it, an absolutely selfless creation, the testimony to its author’s existence as well as an irrational method of knowledge’ (Bryen et Michelet, [1935]2005). One could thus talk of spontaneity in the arts if one considers the works themselves as well as the method and time of their creation. Untitled watercolour by C. Bryen dated 1947 (53x37cm) is the drawing of a recording where decisions are made during the action, with a continuous line created by the pencil and a mood-related fluidity of colours that emphasize or dissolve. C. Bryen wrote in collaboration with Alain Gheerbrant: ‘Poetry can be regarded as the expression of an immediate consciousness that has no other criterion than that of its own existence’ (Bryen & Gheerbrant, 1949). The spontaneous form is there. To follow this example, at the same time, in 1948, Wolfgang Wols – of whom Jean-Paul Sartre said that he ‘has understood that the experimenter is inevitably part of the experience and the painter of the canvas’ (Sartre, 1963) created Fleur vénéneuse (Wolfgang Wols, Fleur vénéneuse, 1948, ink, gouache and watercolour, private collection, 21x12cm). Both drawings, Untitled by Bryen and Fleur vénéneuse by Wols, are the expression of a forever volatile moment, never the same, preserved in the line and the colour. In their artistic practice, the two artists were certainly driven by comparable forms of spontaneity, that relate to ‘a long-developed demand in Western art for the immediate in experience and expression’ (Schapiro, 1996, p. 85).

Another example: starting in 1948, Jackson Pollock (b. Cody 1912 – d. New York 1956) used the technique of ‘dripping’ to transform the canvas into a field on which to paint, he borrowed this technique from the Surrealists and notably Max Ernst, who, as early as 1942, used it to evoke the flight of a fly in all its unpredictability. This technique offers the freedom of action that one can see in the two short films and photographs of Hans Namuth (1950-1951), showing Jackson Pollock absorbed in the act of painting. His steps around a canvas laid on the ground make him look like a dancer letting the diluted paint flow onto the canvas or projecting it depending on the energy of the moment. His gesture is both the expression of his vital being and the experience of a field of action specific to the painter. Art is no longer only identified as the work, it can be found in what generates it. There is an extensive shift in what the work is: it is the canvas, i.e. Number 26 A ‘Black and White’ (Jackson Pollock, 1948, enamel on canvas, 208×121.7cm, Pompidou Centre collection, Paris), and the action, both time and space, that produced it.

This canvas, like any other painting, is an ‘action painting.’ The spectator or observer cannot forget that fact in front the canvas hung vertically on the wall of a museum. ‘My painting is direct’ commented Jackson Pollock off camera. His approach is spontaneous. Here, one must consider the immediacy of creation, highlighted in the fact that the painting, or the drawing, is created without any preparatory image, without any image premeditated by the artist, otherwise there would be no action painting. All Abstract expressionists refused to undertake preparatory sketches, they were guided by intuition, in order to find a tension in the creative act, so the canvas is ‘a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need’ (Mark Rothko, 1999). In The Tradition of the New, H. Rosenberg emphasized and highlighted the element of surprise: ‘If Lucrece should come out she will be among us for the first time—a surprise. To the painter, she must be a surprise. In this mood there is no point to an act if you already know what it contains’ (Rosenberg, [1960]1962, p. 25). Thus Pierrette Bloch (b. 1928 Paris) wrote: ‘it happens, it wakes me and surprises me: a rhythm, a cadence, a form. An adventure can begin’ (Bloch, 2002, p. 27). This is an important point. It would indeed prevent the potential pitfalls of a form of improvisation simulated through habit. Even so, would it then be simulation? Can one find, in the same artist, both technique and spontaneity?

Spontaneity and habit

With habits, one enters the domain of customs, practices and exercises. Our genetic heritage is not the only explanation. Much of what one still calls ‘spontaneity’ lies in the habits, ways of being, permanent forms of behaviour acquired through repetition and tending to be performed automatically, without thinking, as one says.

What relationship does spontaneity have with habits? Are social habits, memorized gestures and acquired practices spontaneous acts? ‘As soon as a thing has become habitual, it is virtually natural; habit is a thing not unlike nature’ (Aristote, 1976, p. 100). A second nature. Hegel gives us the keys to this term: ‘Habit is rightly called a second nature; nature, because it is an immediate being of the soul; a second nature, because it is an immediacy created by the soul, impressing and moulding the corporeality’ (Hegel, 1990, p. 235). This is interesting because, in this second scenario, nature beckons. It participates, through integration, in what is spontaneous, sua sponte, on its own accord. Habit is not innate but acquired. You put the top back on a bottle of ink without thinking. It is identical repetition, exact reproduction. You no longer think about the gesture you make (and your mind can then do other things). This is perhaps why, for Alain, reflecting on habit, defined it as ‘an art of acting without thinking and even a better act than when thinking […]. The habit, in dividing the action of the muscles, and leaving aside those which do not intervene, enables rapid and flexible action, without any embarrassment or discomfort’ (Alain, 1990, p. 1063). Fluidity, speed and flexibility are all valuable qualities. Regularity and practice lead to precision; the hesitation of the start is replaced by the obviousness of habits that occurs when learning is completed. Only then is the habit recorded in ‘what can be called a motor memory of movement’ (Berthoz, 2008, p. 55-56).

One must therefore question, in the artistic process, the degree of habit and its link with potential spontaneity. Habit produces a ‘method,’ ‘not in the logical sense, but in the sense of “an average probability of similar cases,” which results in a “normally” adapted working method, which, as it is gradually assimilated, “becomes a habit,” transforms itself into a “routine,” and can therefore be used in the emergency of the act’ (Jullien, 1996, p. 27). A habit may therefore well be a response parameter to a sudden solicitation, and in fact, contrary to what one might have expected, the habit participates in spontaneity. Both are at the basis of creation.

It is at this point that one can raise doubts about the inventiveness of certain works of art. The artist can, of course, face the unexpected, ignore his/her artistic response in front of a blank piece of paper, canvas or object, and therefore, from his/her point of view, work ‘nestled’ in spontaneity, accepting the baggage of what constitutes it, both innate and acquired.

The visual artists opting for spontaneity count on ‘the breakthrough of the moment and direct sensation’ (Greenberg, [1988]1994, p. 235). In the work of Pollock, C. Bryen and Wols, Pierrette Bloch and in many others, the act of painting is related to the immediacy of being, the attractiveness of an immediately perceptible vitality. If artists finally give us images to see, they also engage themselves in actions. The exploration of new artistic materials goes hand in hand with the experimentation of ‘gestures’ as forms of expression, the same gestures that create the work.

Without any guide, any anticipation, planning or programme, without all that participates in the predetermination (of the situation or the artistic process) that is incompatible with spontaneous artistic practice, there would be preliminary data, a starting point, a moment in time: the present. Because, beyond the moments in time developed by such practices, it appears that the very existence of creation and of the search for a form of spontaneity depends on decisions made on the spot and in the spur of the moment.

Immediacy or the time of spontaneity: creation of the instant

Spontaneity commits the artist to consider his/her time, the present time and more particularly time in its most minimal unit: the instant.

If the word has its origin in the adjective instant: imminent, pressing, urgent, the instant is also ‘a very short interval in time that passes’ (Souriau (Ed.), 1990, p. 891). This definition appears to contain two notions: on one hand, extreme speed, or even the suddenness that is characteristic of the instant; and, on the other hand, the association with the interval, contained duration, however small. A question arises: can the instant be compared to a dot or a hyphen (‘trait d’union’ in French)? In other words, does it belong to the order of what ends or of what links? Is it isolated or is it a puncture operated in the continuum of time? The instant is considered as a concept of psychological aesthetics, as it is involved in the perception of the arts of the time ‘(situated) by psychophysiology between 1/16th and 1/20th of a second. An atom of perception, the instant is an indivisible moment.’ (Souriau (Ed.), 1990, p. 892). In mathematics and physics, 1/16th and 1/20th of a second could potentially be fractioned; but perception is halted and cannot go beyond it. Does this imply considering the instant as the smallest unit of duration measurement, the shortest time interval that can be identified? Or is it fundamentally distinct from duration? The Dictionnaire de philosophie by Jacqueline Russ (1991) considers it as the smallest unit of the measurement of time, but without any link to duration. S. Kierkegaard wrote: ‘The moment signifies the present as that which has no past and no future’ (Kierkegaard, 1978, p. 90).  The development of the usual conception that binds past and present or present and future comes to a halt, the present stands alone. The present is the only thing experienced, a volatile succession of instants. Kierkegaard emphasized the current character of the instant (it should be noted here that, in French, the words actuel and acte belong to the same lexical field; is actuel what is part of an acte). Being attentive to life implies consciously placing oneself at its centre. The instant is the centre of the feeling of existence. ‘There is an absolute identity between the feeling of the present and the feeling of life,’ explained G. Roupnel (Roupnel, 1927, p. 108). In Intuition of the Instant (1931), G. Bachelard supported the hypothesis according to which ‘Time has but one reality, that of the instant’ (Bachelard, 1931, p. 13). Rather than subordinating the instant to time, here time is defined as ‘reality compressed into an instant and suspended between two voids’. From the beginning, Bachelard prepares us: ‘to understand, […] we must enter the full equality of the present moment and the real’. This precaution applies to the metaphysical idea that is the main subject developed in his reflection. ‘It is this and only this which we are conscious of’ (Roupnel, 1927, p. 108). This state of consciousness is linked to the recognition of the present. Bachelard believed the instant to be at the centre of the sensation of existence. This consciousness of the instant is embodied in what he called ‘acts of attention,’ which he defined as ‘sensational sequences extracted from the continuity of time’ (Bachelard, 1931, p. 21).

The instant is present, full, whole and partial, punctiform and vast, complex and perhaps thinner than a sheet of paper. From this relationship between the instant and the ephemeral comes its aesthetic value, the instant is both unique and doomed to an inevitable demise. There is no return.

An internal awareness of time

The instant is related to the time lived. Edmund Husserl began his book Phenomenology of internal time-consciousness (Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie of inneren zeitbewusstseins) by putting objective time aside. Using phenomenological analysis, Husserl refused the idea of a pre-given objective of time whose subjective conditions of occurrence would still remain to be defined. The problem is not how a constituted time would appear but how ‘appearing time and appearing duration as such’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 7) are constituted. This seems in opposition to the most common or the most accepted order of data.

Husserl’s ‘time lived’ challenges our common views. Spontaneity seems related to the instant due to its characteristics of currentness and change. These qualities are what Husserl called ‘flow.’ And in the flow of the moments of time lived, ‘there is no duration’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 151). Indeed, ‘duration is the form of something that lasts, constancy, and in the flow, by definition, there is no constancy’ (Frank, 1993, p. 187). In a spontaneous act, it seems to reconcile inherent movement, a certain time span (plural) and great mobility. As Husserl wrote: ‘In the same way as each instant (and each lapse of time) is ‘individually’ distinct, so to speak, from the other, and in the same way as none of them can happen twice, no type of flow can take place twice’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 42). This time lived is that of improvisation, spontaneity, urgency. And the philosopher continued: ‘From the flow phenomenon, we know that this is a continuation of ongoing changes, which form an inseparable unit, inseparable in fragments that could be for the self and indivisible in phases that could be for the self, into points within continuity’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 41). This implies breaking the dichotomy which could exist between currentness and a certain development.

It is as if everything happened at the same time, in the sense of a present time, with the instant as the centre point or as a ‘singular flow’ to use Husserl’s term, which includes the internal possibility of extension. The spontaneous act marks the repairing of the separation and the end of moratoria, to use the Latin term designating the temporal gap between today, tomorrow and yesterday. What is current.

However, how can one not give a point of origin to this present time? In his thoughts, E. Husserl observed: ‘the original impression is the absolute beginning […], the original source from which everything continuously happens. But it does not happen itself, it is not created as something produced, but through genesis spontanea, it is original generation. It does not develop itself (it has no germ), it is original creation.’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 131) Would this be its spontaneous form? Moreover, as Husserl expressed in what follows immediately, if he uses images, the sudden burst of a spring or the continuity of what is taking shape in the now, it is to express that ‘consciousness is nothing without the impression’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 131) [ 2 ] .

All this leads us to reconsider and re-address the issue of beginning and end in creation, its potential spontaneous form, following on from a fundamental remark by E. Husserl on this subject: ‘One must first note that the types of flow of an immanent temporal object have a beginning, a source-point, so to speak. This is the type of flow by which the immanent object commences to be. It is characterized as the present. In the ongoing pursuit (types of flow); we then observe this remarkable fact: each subsequent phase of the flow is itself a continuity, a continuously growing continuity, a continuity of pasts’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 72).  The ‘source-point’ referred to here is a new opportunity to progress further on the issue of the emergence of the artistic act. P. Picasso (b. Malaga, 188 – d. Mougins 1973) said: ‘The whole point of art is in the beginning. After the beginning, it is already the end’ (Tériade, 1932, 15 juin).

Why is the instant so insistent in positioning itself as essential in the concept of spontaneity? Because we are thinking beings. In psychology, spontaneity opposes thoughtfulness; spontaneity occurs or takes place without any reflection of thought or consciousness on themselves. How do you stop thinking or dreaming that the gesture is faster, that the act is an inconsiderate act? If it may be a condition for spontaneity, it then must happen quickly; it must act before reasoning takes over. Acting spontaneously (because there is always an action) will always mean acting fast.

Thus this great detour through the instant leads us to reconsider what is spontaneity. Its conditions, among which instantaneity, now appear as a place, a nourishing and active soil.

To those who object to the low turnover in a series of works by an artist in search of spontaneity, let’s suggest that we put ourselves in the place of those who create and decide to trust them.

Does the value of an artist not lie as much in the discovery of what he has produced as in the artistic process? The visual and artistic distinction can be narrow. There lies experience, in which, as Gilles Deleuze wrote: ‘Only differences are alike’ (Deleuze, [1968]2011, p. 153). The resemblance also creates the gap that can make a difference, the constitutive gap of singularity.

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. On the study of instinct, see Tinbergen, 1971.
2. Please also see Supplement III: ‘Sensing is what we consider as the original time-consciousness […] Sensation is the presentative time-consciousness’ (Husserl, [1905]1991, p. 141).


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, Spontaneity and creation, published 03 June 2016


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