That moment when everything flows, everything works, it feels effortless and the results, when you stop, surprise you. That Zone of Creativity, ever-elusive, ever-desirable.
I don’t have a fool-proof recipe for how to get “in the zone”. I do, however, know how to guarantee that I won’t, and that’s by desperately wanting to and trying too hard. The harder I try, the more I second-guess what I’m doing, and things go from bad to worse to dire.
It’s only by thinking less about the overall outcome, by worrying less about whether something is right or wrong, by allowing myself to trust that I’ll be able to fix mistakes as they happen and work through and over them, by not stressing about ‘wasting’ materials and time if I don’t because I can start again, make another attempt, that I begin to create the conditions for being in the zone. (And, yes, that is a ridiculously long sentence; welcome to the inside of my head.)
A pristine new page in a sketchbook holds so many hopes and possibilities. The moment you make the first mark, you’ve narrowed those. But if it becomes dissatisfactory, you simply turn the page and start again.
With the ink drawing I did this time, it flowed right from the start. It felt effortless doing it; I was delighted with the result. But it wasn’t the first sketch of the day, it was the second. And the day before I’d also been sketching at this location (see photos). I swapped from pencil to ink, I narrowed my focus to a specific element that fits with line, and I’d just munched some ginger biscuits with a warming cup of peppermint tea. Which of these was the magic ingredient? All and none.
My intention was to capture a sense of the rock, the solid slab and the vertical cracks. I started on the left, and did it by looking at a specific point, drawing until the ink ran out, then dipped the pippette back in the bottle, focused on a new bit of rock and drew again. I didn’t worry about exactly where I stopped and starting, I wasn’t trying to get an exact representation of the rock, so it didn’t matter if I skipped a bit or made them the wrong size or shape. Ultimately the drawing stands alone, not in comparison with its source.
I was thrilled with it. Now the question becomes: what will happen the next time I try to draw on this location? To Infinity and Beyond!
Isn’t one of the rules of art that anything that’s supposedly an art rule is there to be broken? So why was I being so emphatic yesterday, asked the in-house art critic, about the no-kissing rule, using “should” rather than phrasing it as an option?
Well, it’s because some rules are more suggestions for pleasing results and others exist to prevent disruption. It’s like the difference between wearing odd socks and mismatched shoes.
What do you think? What rule would you always break and what never?
You’ve heard the motivational speech: keep at it, practice more and you’ll get the results you wish. But will it?
Repeating the same thing again and again isn’t going to get you anything but a pile of similar results. It’s not only about regular practice, it’s also about how you approach it. You need to look critically (constructive not destructive self-critique). Assess what you’re pleased with and what not, where the successes are and failings, where you want to be and where you are. Then work out what your next practice piece should be.
This week I’ve been practising painting a sheepdog in acrylic inks, with the aim to have detailed realism in the face, getting increasingly expressive outwards. I’ve a specific subject, style and medium, not a vague “I’ll practise painting dogs”.
I’ve various reference photos printed out to check details, but not with the aim of copying one photo. I think of it as a visual dictionary where I look up specific things as I’m working and to crosscheck my visual memories of sheep dogs I’ve met. I do it whilst I’m painting and afterwards.
I chose acrylic inks, working on paper, because they’re transparent and can be used like watercolour but without the danger of lifting existing layers of colour (or mixing them into mud which I still do too readily). Earlier this year I painted sheep dogs with tube acrylics on canvas and didn’t want to do that again just yet (which is not to say I won’t ever again, just that it’s not what I’m doing this week).
The photo below shows where I tried and tried again and tried again. Each has bits I am pleased with but none works overall for me. I like the nose on the leftmost dog and the sense of snout on the rightmost. The ears are too big, making her look like a puppy. I’m happy with the sense of fur in all three, but also the looser wash on the leftmost body.
The background on the centre piece came about when I tried to dab off a bit of excess ink and instead created a blob on the until-then-white background, so I repeated it to make a background. I think it distracts, it’s too busy, but maybe cropping in tightly would solve that. On the rightmost one I used tube white to re-establish the white of the background around the ears, and was reminded that you can’t get back to “paper white”, you have to start with “painted white” if you want it to match.
What will I do next? I feel I need to focus in on individual parts instead of doing the whole, spending time painting some noses only, to get the shading, sense of wet-ness, without the distraction of the ‘other bits’. These three paintings will stay propped up where I can see them for a bit still, as encouragement to keep going.
There’s a special magic in that moment when someone who thinks they’re “not particularly creative” discovers that they do indeed have more of “it” in them than they had long thought. Believing creativity somehow skipped you isn’t something that happens overnight, it creeps in slowly, as expectations set by yourself and others aren’t met, yet another road towards the destination isn’t considered and so you give up on ever getting there.
We all have things we do better than most and things others do better than us, but the enjoyment in the doing of something is ours alone. The end result is something separate and should not as readily be the aspect judged when it comes to deciding whether it’s worth doing, or not. The enjoyment is reason aplenty.
The setting: Big canvas lying on a plastic storage crate in the centre of the bit of open floorspace of my studio, so I could work flat on it with very fluid paint.
The problem: No space to walk around the canvas. Arms not long enough to reach top of canvas whilst sitting on floor.
The solution: Turn the canvas and paint clouds “upside down” onto the previously painted “dark sky” colour, starting at the top-but-now-the-bottom edge.
The happenstance: As the fluid paint spread it started to form a series of hills on the horizon, which could be the Outer Hebrides viewed over the sea or hills on the far side of a loch.
The photos: Top is how I was seeing it as I was painting it. Bottom is the canvas turned right way up. (Detail photos, not the whole width.)
I was using Golden’s High Flow Acrylic paint, which I’ve really been enjoying the past few weeks. While it’s not cheap paint it is top artist’s quality (though some pigments do head up into the “gulp” range); the intensity of the colours is astounding and the consistency unlike anything else. It flows yet has a surface tension that holds it, so it behaves differently to acrylic ink. The paint also doesn’t create bubbles when you shake it, which I’ve found happens with DIY flow paint created using flow medium + water + paint.
I’ve been using the paint straight from the bottle, enjoying the intensity of colour and the interactions between colours as they spread and mix into one another. Spraying water over the top encourages the paint to spread, and rapidly shows how level a canvas is, or not! Sticking some masking tape around the sides creates a ‘dam’ to stop the paint dripping off the side.
I can also see great potential for glazing with High Flow acrylics. Some colours in the range are transparent, some opaque; not only do the labels tell you, but on the bigger bottles the nozzle is clear or opaque too, a clever bit of packaging design. But right now I’m entranced by it “straight from the bottle”, and mixing colours in empty bottles.
I don’t believe “Art is never finished, only abandoned”.* There are definitely paintings and drawings in which you reach a point when it’s as clear as a road sign: stop now, it’s finished. More often though, you get to a point where you begin to wonder whether it might be, whether doing more will enhance or overwork it. Here are some things I use to help me decide if it’s time to down brushes or not.
Am I Tweaking?
If I find myself tweaking a little thing here, and another there, fiddling and fussing about with random small changes rather than doing something definite and decisive, then it’s time to stop. Put the painting aside for a while, overnight at the least, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes. Sometimes I’ll immediately see what it still needs, other times I’ll decide it was indeed finished, and, yes, there will be times when I’m still unsure so I leave it to be pondered.
A paintings I think is almost done, but not quite, I like to put somewhere I can see it often during the day, from different angles and distances, in changing light, as I go about doing other things. Not to forget the looking at it in a mirror and turning it upside down options, both of which help you see it anew.
Am I Bored?
Tweaking a painting also happens when I’m bored with or tired of it or just not in the mood for it. Never mind why, perhaps I’ve struggled too much with it, it doesn’t change that I am not fully engaged with it, so? it’s time to put the painting aside for now. I’ll decide on another day whether to continue with it or overpaint it.
Am I Protecting a “Good Bit”?
If I’ve stopped working on a section of the painting because I really like it, protecting a “good bit” for fear of messing it up, then it’s time to check it’s integrated with the rest of the composition. There’s the danger the “good bit” ends up feeling like it doesn’t belong and it may be the very thing that needs additional work.
There’s a balance between stopping before you overwork a painting and stopping because you’re too scared you’ll mess something up. If you always stop, you’ll hinder your artistic development. When I hit this point I may well stop working on that particular painting but immediately start another using the same idea. Not to create a duplicate, but to push the idea further, using what I’d learnt from the previous one without the fear of messing it up. Think of? the paintings as cousins rather than twins, a series rather than copies.
Am I Finished for Today?
Amongst the numerous things I’ve learnt from friend who’s a wildlife artist, Katie Lee, is the mantra “as good as I can paint it today”. That a painting may not be as I’d visualized it or wish it to be, but to allow myself to stop as it’s as finished as I’m able to make it today. A year from now I may be able to take it further because my skills, style and preferences will develop over time, but today I’ve gone as far as I can with it.? There’s no rule you can’t at a later date paint further on a canvas you once thought was finished.
Have I Consulted the Dark Side?
Does the painting want a stronger dark or lighter light? Is there sufficient tonal contrast, or have I been seduced by colour (again!) and it’s all too mid-tone? Is there a focal point or pattern (for more abstracted paintings) that pulls the eye around? Are there any stray bits of colour that sit awkwardly in the overall composition?
Stop Sooner Rather than Later
You can always add to a painting; it’s a lot harder to undo something. Tomorrow is a new day. Decide then whether to continue rather than now.
______________________________________ *Note on the Quote
The quote “Art is never finished, only abandoned” gets attributed to both Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. As far as I can ascertain it’s a paraphrase of the French poet Paul Val èry (1871–1945), from his 1922 poetry book, Charmes ou poèmes:
“In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished?a word that for them has no sense?but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.”
Whenever you find yourself thinking “I can’t do it” or “I don’t know how” add a three-letter word to your mental dialogue. Add the word “yet”. Say “I can’t do it, yet” and “I don’t know how, yet“.
Give yourself permission to spend time learning, as well as to stumble and fail while you strive. Abandon the expectation that it ought to come easily (whatever that “it” is) and use the fear of failure as motivation to continue rather than quitting or not trying at all. Learn to “Fail better”1, be open to “what if I…” curiosity.
In the same interview that yesterday’s motivator quote was taken from, artist Alan McGowan mentions the Zen philosophy of a “beginners mind”, saying it is
“not easy to do and it’s quite scary because there’s always the chance that it will not work at all, that it will turn into a big mess… There can be an expectation from others that one should always be successful, that a picture should in some way be an expression of expertise, especially as I teach as well. But that’s a bit of a trap. The risk of failure is for me an important part of the whole process of painting (and drawing) and so you want to keep that possibility open; that it could all collapse.”
Stop caring so much about it looking to others as if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re busy learning and discovering as you go along, so you do indeed not always know whether what you’re doing will be successful. But the end product (a “good painting”) isn’t the sole objective, and often not relevant at all. Having an intriguing and interesting journey is also an objective. A drawing/painting that’s about observation, about the process and techniques, not about ending up with a pretty picture.
A beginner’s mind means: 1. Focusing on the moment. What might be the next step in a painting’s creation. Not obsessing about what the finished painting will be.
2. Endurance. Sticking with it, layer after layer. Don’t be preciously protective about any “good bits” in every single drawing and painting. (Ideally none, but that’s near impossible.)
3. Embracing uncertainty and working through it. Don’t habitually erase and restart; go forwards not backwards.
4. Enjoying the journey. Enjoy the art materials you’re using and try different paints, papers, brushes, colours etc. to find new favourites and fall in love anew.
5. Being patient and impatient. Grant yourself time to learn while being constantly eager to learn more.
If you’re to keep yourself interested in and stimulated by your painting, how do you combat routine and monotony? How do you get from blank canvas to “the interesting and challenging bit” without being bored?
1. Work Faster
Get through the initial blocking in of colour in as little time as possible. Use a bigger brush, paint faster. Focus on what you’re doing but also think about what you’ll be doing next.
2. Vary Your Approach
Don’t always paint the same size, on the same surface, or with the same medium. Add texture, use a brush that leaves strong marks.
3. Paint in Series
Investigate a subject in depth, don’t only do the one impression of a scene, but look to vary the lighting, the viewpoint, the style and the focus.
4. Add a Colour
If you fear monotony, then introduce a small segment of unusual colour to the painting. This will give the art work a bit of omph, and may well highlight where, in the rest of the painting, you are loosing interest.
5. Change Your Hand
Hold your brush in your other hand (the “wrong” hand). It will get you thinking more about the physical process of painting (because it doesn’t come so automatically), and free up that part of the mind which is worrying about aesthetics. Step back after a while and consider the painting from a distance, some of it will feel new and fresh for the simple reason that you mind has been concentrating on other things.
6. Swap Subjects
Whatever your ‘usual’ subject is — still life, landscape, wildlife — there’s no reason you have to paint only this. It is feasible to be successful painting more than one subject, whether you’re swapping between them or evolving from one to another. (As an example, take a look at the paintings of South African artist Peter Pharoah, who paints wildlife, abstracts, and figures.) If what you’re doing is feeling stale to you, the artist, what do you think the audience is going to feel?
7. Consider the Alternatives
Remember, you could have become a [insert: whatever you regard as the most dull of careers]. Now, doesn’t painting seem so much more exciting and fulfilling?
“My goodness this hit a really raw nerve?! I so so soo want to paint. …But I never ever start. Why? I can?t draw/paint. Of course I?ve always desperately longed to. Can?t afford classes. And if I just ?go for it?? Well, just what was said… I will be so upset if it?s a heap of rubbish.” — Jax
We need to permit ourselves the time to learn (and onlookers need to give us time too). Remember how many years it took you to learn to read and write fluently? Art is not instinctive like breathing, or inherited species memory like running from fire. It’s a learnt skill. It takes time to acquire. Time that’s hard to give ourselves.
Set aside the time as if you were going to a class and never skip a week. With a pencil and sketchbook work your way systematically and thoroughly through a good how-to book. Every week, as if you were paying to spend this time.
I recommend wildlife and botanical artist’s Katie Lee‘s book Fundamental Graphite Techniques — it’s practical, thorough, lacks arty-farty gobbledygook, and full of exercises to do. Katie’s a friend, and it’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m being too heavy-handed with a pencil (“layers of tone, Marion, not pressure”).
Don’t tear pages out of the sketchbook, keep every attempt, the good, bad and ugly. Week after week. Permit yourself the time. It’s the only way.
Failing to reach your painting aims? Perhaps it’s not that the destination is wrong. Try changing the starting point.
There’s that story about the tourist who stops for directions in the Scottish Highlands and asks for a famous beauty spot. He is told: “If you wanted to get to there, you shouldn’t have started off from here.”
Budding artists saying they are unable to achieve their desired results in a painting invariably assume the fault is somewhere in their ability to finish. But you should consider that perhaps you have started off from the wrong place, and this is why you’re unable to reach your destination.
So let us look at beginnings, starting points for paintings. A blank canvas is the starkest of all beginnings for a painting. It is a void which is often spoken of as having ‘great potential’, but often it causes consternation and procrastination. If there is no clear start, how do you take the first step. There are several, classic, methods for moving the starting point.
1. Preparing the Ground
Psychologists tell us colours are related to emotions. These relationships need not be the same for everyone, but by simply covering the canvas with a monochrome colour you have taken the first step on the path, created the first signpost, set the emotional quality of your art work in progress.
2. Creating an Ink Blot
Most people know about ink blot tests, those images used by psychologists to spur the imagination and access the deeper parts of your psyche. Well you can do the same with your painting. Smear one or more colours across the blank canvas. Not only does it remove that frightening field of whiteness, but you will start to see things in the abstracted patters of colour and tone. You will be starting your painting with a greater degree of creativity, the colours will act as a muse, getting those ideas sparking. Its easier to get to a destination when you start up high; you’re now rolling down hill and picking up momentum as the destination approaches.
3. Getting the Packing Right
The two ideas above take you forward in the journey, but what about stepping back slightly? If the problem in your final artwork is the composition, then you should take the time to work on thumbnails. Vary the shape and size of the thumbnail; it could be your initial choice of shape for the canvas is wrong, that it should have been an extreme landscape rather than a squat portrait for instance. Or the positioning of major elements in the painting didn’t quite come together, and the thumbnail gives you the opportunity to move things around. A thumbnail gives you the chance to ‘pour over the atlas’ a bit before stepping out on the journey.
4. Taking your Studies Seriously
The first step with any holiday destination is to look at the guide books and holiday brochures, right? So what about a painting? The first step for inspiration is to get out there and paint a few studies. This is not the same as making thumbnails, you are not looking to find the best composition, but at what inspires you to do the painting in the first place.? Studies are about form and colour and tone, capturing what you see and/or what you imagine. They should be done with a free hand, allowing the creative side of the brain to take over, and allow you to discover those little aspects of a painting which will enthral and mesmerise the eventual audience. And remember, once you have your masterpiece, there is also a market for smaller, modestly priced pieces of original work.
Next time you finish a painting and are dissatisfied with the result, think about where you started the process, rather than thinking your artistic skills are at fault.