4 Ways to Challenge Yourself When Your Painting Feels Stale

It’s a form of creative block, feeling you’re repeating yourself, feeling unchallenged or unstimulated by what you’re painting. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your ability nor that you’re never going to produce a fabulous painting ever again. It means you’re ready to grow artistically, to move your artistic goalposts. Here are four suggestions of ways to do this.

1. Study a New Artist
We all have artists whose work we like, paintings we wish we’d created. Move from admiring mode to emulating: make a close study to unpick what exactly it is you like about it. It might be composition, colour usage, mark making, tone, a repeated element. Make notes in a sketchbook, do thumbnails, analyse, write down thoughts, don’t self-censor. Don’t settle for “I’m not sure” or “Everything” or “I know but can’t put it into words”. Work as if you were going to tell someone else, finding answers and explanations of what you like in that artist’s painting.

Use this info to paint a favourite subject, apply the new approach to what you’ve been doing. Or make a copy of one of their paintings as a personal (private not public) learning exercise. Don’t try a new subject and new style simultaneously because you risk confusing problems that are with the subject and problems with technique.

On my current list for a closer, slow investigation is Turner for his painting of atmosphere, beyond mere clouds, and at some point I still want to investigate C?zanne more, for his approach to composition and viewpoint.


2. Study a Long-Time Favourite Artist Again
Make a list of your favourite artists, arranged chronologically as you discovered them (as best you can remember). Pick one to study again; you’ve developed artistically and will look at their paintings differently, appreciating and learning new things. Vincent van Gogh has long been a favourite of mine, but which paintings I like changes and I still encounter ones I don’t recall seeing, such as Still Life with Vegetables (it helps he was so prolific!).


When is a painting finished
This life study was done using black pen and black ink applied with a brush. The strong negative space carves out the form of the face and shoulder. I’d seen it in other people’s paintings, but this was the first time I got it working for myself.

3. Change Mediums or a Habit
It’s easy to get into habits with a familiar medium, to do things a certain way through muscle memory and because that’s what we have learnt works. Change something, do something differently. Make a list of how you approach a painting, what the steps are in its creation, then select something to change.

For instance, if you always start on a white background, try different coloured grounds. Paint on paper rather than canvas. If you paint from light to dark, start with a dark ground and paint towards light. If you’re a watercolourist, add white gouache to your palette to enable you to add light onto dark. Never used a sword or fan brush, for instance; try one to see what you can do with it.

I typically do a loose sketch, then block in areas of colour, then work towards detail in layers. A change would be to work wet-on-wet, to complete the whole painting in one go rather than letting it dry before adding another layer. The challenge will be to get the level of detail I want with wet-on-wet paint (it’s possible, especially if I remember to wipe my brush regularly to help keep colours purer). Alternatively, I could do a completely monochromatic tonal underpainting in greys, leave it to dry, then glaze in colour.

At worst trying a new technique or material reminds you what you like about what you normally use or do. At best, it introduces new possibilities, ideas and inspiration.


4. Care Less About the Outcome
Creating a painting is certainly an investment in materials and time. But the more we worry about the end result, the more likely it’s going to be a dud because we second-guess what we’re doing and hesitate. If you’re worrying about wasting paint, use a series 1 colours, which are the cheapest, and investigate student brands for using in initial layers (such as to create a coloured ground).

If a painting isn’t going well, do something drastic, don’t tweak it. Spend a little time asking yourself “What if I…?”, and don’t try to protect the “good bits” (or if you really can’t help yourself, put masking tape over them, then paint over this). Add a lot of strong dark; glaze over with a semi-opaque colour; turn it upside down or sideways and continue painting the subject; exaggerate the brightest and darkest tones; loose areas into shadow; soften edges; suggest rather than tell. It isn’t easy to do, but suppress the doubt, ignore the butterflies, and do it anyway. You could make it worse, but it’s already not working so it doesn’t matter if you do.

5 Replies to “4 Ways to Challenge Yourself When Your Painting Feels Stale”

  1. Thank you Marion! Self-education is a routine part of my artistic journey.
    1.My current investigation originating from purchase of winter landscape of unknown artist lead me through hundreds landscapes with similar landscape, season and weather.
    It is scaring how it impacts my style. The more I learn the less original it becomes.
    2. I return to Monet pictures every time, I envisage whatever problems I have to resolve in my work.
    3. I just bought 2 gypsum heads to overcome my “fear of pencil”. I found and it was really great surprise that upon years of painting drawing skills developed by themselves. Bravo to Marion’s teaching method!
    4. This is obviously my weak point. I am always focused on the result. To match deadline, to paint on large canvas, to paint impressionistic landscapes instead of pop-art or abstractions. Even my landscapes tend to be more and more academic. For example I invested a lot of time in trying to understand Raushenbach’s book about systems of perspective to avoid possible criticism. At least I know now that if I have mistakes in perspective I can call it “perceptive system” and refer to Cezanne.
    In December I decided to finalize all my plain-air works. Well I have still a lot of them to work through.
    Thank you for idea with masking tape. I will immediately try it to fix my abandoned plain-air pictures that I considered as failed ones.
    Thank you again for your support and inspiration I gain from your posts!

    1. >It is scaring how it impacts my style. The more I learn the less original it becomes.>
      It’s inevitable our style will be influenced by others, and you’ll work through it and emerge with a new style. That styles develop and change is why it’s important to look at an artist’s work chronologically.

      Drawing through painting… amazing what can happen when we’re not paying attention ;-) Seriously, it’s why I believe that anyone who’s intimidated by drawing but wants to paint should simply get on with painting; you can always later get back to pencil.

      It is hard to not focus on the outcome, and even more so when you make a living as an artist. Aim to do a few paintings that are for yourself, to play and experiment on occasion, to ensure you’re continuing to enjoy it and develop, not merely producing a product.

  2. Thank you, Marion! I’ll try my best to do so and to find some time in my plan for “experimental painting”. My “internal supervisor” already shouts “What? Experiments? You have first to finish a landscape 100×120 cm with a lot of outstanding perspective problems and 2-3 minor pictures before the February,9, then a portrait 140×90 cm before March, 1, then a series of 4-5 pictures of garden before the (let us say) 16th of March, then 4-5 landscapes from Sumbar valley before the 16th of May, and to do even more to make a total of about 50 for my solo show to be in June (let us hope it will happen). That is why I am looking forward to resume work under your projects. They pull me off the routine and make me to try something beyond my plans.

    1. How about doing it at the same time, rather than separately? So you’re doing 4-5 pictures of a garden, do 6 and play around with one of them, pushing it further.
      Good luck getting it all done. I’ve got a solo opening at Easter, which is no longer quite so far away…!

  3. Thank you, Marion!
    I’ll try to experiment with abandoned works in acrylics first. And I have couple torn oil paintings just for collages.

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