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!).
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.