For many artists, the process of making their art is fluid, intuitive, and even spontaneous. It can be as simple as picking some colours and letting the magic happen or if you’re like the rest of us…there’s a lot more planning needed to achieve your vision. Having a more structured approach to creating your art isn’t a bad thing though and can be a huge time and money saver.
First, let’s talk about what I mean exactly when I refer to process. This term in the context of creating art typically refers to the steps in which an artist goes through to either come up with a concept or execute the actual artwork. This can vary from artist to artist, and there’s no one right way to do this. The best process is the one that works for you.
For some, they may have a catalog of imagery that they refer to, or a certain subject or theme that they tend to create their work around. They then select an image or theme and create the piece of art. Where I think process really gets important though is the actual execution of the piece. To me, this is the difference between an experienced artist and an amateur one really shows. How you execute your work and the steps you take to do that, can be the difference in time, materials, and sometimes money.
Have you ever been working on a piece and for whatever reason diverged from your normal steps only to have disaster strike? Over the years I have developed what I feel is a pretty solid process for working in colored pencil, mixed media, and even other mediums. Process refinement and exploration is a great thing to do, but not necessarily appropriate for a commission or time-sensitive piece.
I recently did a small acrylic painting and somewhat naively thought I would just paint the subject I had chosen, be done in a day, and move on with my life. Well, that’s not exactly what happened. What should have been an afternoon, turned into two afternoons because I got halfway through the first version and promptly decided to abort and start over. This rarely happens to me. Not because I think I’m some sort of savant when it comes to art, but because I normally plan everything out so that my time is being used the most efficiently. So where did I go wrong? The acrylic paint I was using was supplied by someone else as part of a kit and not the same consistency as the paints I own. When I went to use them, I spent a good chunk of the time trying to get the feel of them which also contributed to my painting going off the rails.
My process especially when using a new medium always starts with making a colour chart. This may seem like a tedious and unnecessary step for most people but it’s a very valuable one for me. When I make a colour chart I discover the feel, consistency, opacity, and even wet vs dry colour of the medium or brand I am using. This preliminary step is a great testing and exploration phase. In the story I mentioned above, I didn’t do this. I wrongly assumed the paint I was supplied would be the same as what I have used before. Much like coloured pencils, all acrylic paints are not created equal and to be honest, I’ve been using acrylic gouache a lot lately which is very different as well. This one deviation from my normal process had me struggling to make the supplied paint work the way I wanted it to because I kept wanting it to perform like something it was not. Had I taken the time to even do some small studies before using it I could have saved myself hours of time.
The next thing I did wrong was that I didn’t really have a plan for the style I was going to paint my subject in. When it started going sideways I tried to change my technique in an effort to save it, which in my eyes, just started making it worse. It was at this point I said to myself it was time to jump ship. Luckily if you paint in relatively thin layers you can just paint a flat colour over top of your original piece and start over like it never happened. There’s evidence of even old master painters doing this too. Just because I messed up doesn’t mean I have to waste a canvas right? Not always the case in colored pencil though, which is my primary medium of choice. When it’s ruined… it’s ruined and that usually means a new piece of paper. So counting my blessings I was working in a forgivable medium I started over, this time with a plan.
How you determine or discover your process sometimes means going through a lot of these failed attempts first. Many artists will see these “failures” as bad things and can even take them as they are not progressing or just not good at what they are trying to achieve. I would argue, that if you become a student of those failed attempts and actually analyze where you went wrong as well as what you did right, you can use that information to do better next time. Think of it like playing a video game or learning how to play a sport. In both of those examples practice and also remembering what you did wrong before are part of moving forward. The same idea applies to creating art. This is a big reason I also advocate for people to use sketchbooks. Regular sketchbook practice allows you a safe space to figure out how to layer, practice new techniques and even keep notes on what you discovered about using a certain medium.
When you make a regular habit of noting these types of things, not only will your skills as an artist improve, but you will also feel more in control of your creative process. Being spontaneous and letting things “just happen” can be valuable for exploration, but not everyone can work this way successfully. If you find you are ending up with more pieces you hate than love because halfway through something just goes wrong, it may be worth taking a look at your current process and reevaluating.
What is the most valuable step in your current process?
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