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Taking risks as a painter

August 20, 2015

Beets from garden - oils 50 X 60 cm

Beets from garden – oils
50 X 60 cm

Have you ever attended a painting workshop and been given a chance to work completely outside of your habitual approach? You’re freed up, you make some pieces that really surprise you during the day, new possibilities suddenly seem endless. You go home on a ‘workshop high’ resolved to start working more freely from now on.

Here you are, back at the studio- there is a blank canvas in front of you, all your materials are there arranged as usual, your workspace is the same. The stimulation of the other people, the instructor, the unfamiliar environment, and above all the uninterrupted time just for you, are in the past. You try to recover that feeling of freedom, but before you know it, you are working as always, wondering how to get out of a rut.

So how does one integrate new insights and experiences into old work patterns and actually begin to let their work change and grow? Many of our habitual ways of working have grown with us and are an important part of making our unique kind of work. But sticking exclusively to one way of working doesn’t lead to the kind of risk taking that is needed for growth and renewal.

I’ll share a recent experience with some visuals which may help.

In my last post on artists needing play time, I spoke of Shaun McNiff’s suggestion to begin working, not out of a concept (the mind), but out of the body- using a movement or gesture and translating that into marks on the canvas. And then using the interaction with the materials to keep taking steps in developing the composition.

I’ve been working in oils commitedly for 4 years this month, completing around 15-20 paintings a year. Mostly I’ve been learning the medium, since in my career I worked mostly in watercolours, drawing and acrylics. I feel constrained by just realistic painting, and have been trying to free myself up to work more loosely, to let go of realistic portrayal and to use colour more intuitively.

The painting of beets opening this post is my most recent one, I liked where it was headed, but it was still too slavish to the photo I was working from. In the weekend, I did as McNiff suggested in his book and used all kinds of media and movement to do a series of free work. Here are the results below.

free expression drawings

free expression drawings

At the time I couldn’t see how to bring what I’d learned into my oil paintings. So I did a series of watercolour stick drawings, but first scribbled and sketched on the paper with white crayons. You can see the white lines showing up through the watercolour sticks since the white wax lines resist the water medium. I liked this effect, and the second one down, I loved for its subtlety and spontaneity.

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

What I wanted to do was bring in that same kind of spontaneous, airy spaciousness into my oil painting. The painting of the beets, by comparison to where I want to go, is very dense and concentrated.I like that but I want to be able to choose that look, not to do it because I can’t do anything else.

I started with a 50x70cm canvas board and began with movements and gestures while listening to music, only having a faint idea of where I might want to go with it (the subject is that Beets revisited). I didn’t do a drawing, just squiggled on some shapes with a brush.
I love the feel of it, I used oils thinned down and let them run. There will be beets and leaves and thicker paint, but it will be very different from the first one. I have no idea where it will end up. This is ‘trusting the process’.

Start of New Beets

Start of New Beets

One more thought to add. What inhibits most professional artists from doing this kind of risky experimentation (it is scary) is the need to stick to the things that sell. I’ll probably be producing substandard work for several months at least while I experiment with this new approach. Another inhibiting factor is your idea of yourself as a ‘good’ artist. Changing your approach is going to produce cr*p for a while. Accept it. It is the only way to move forward and go deeper.

later: I did a little more work on it and decided to just leave it as it is. The qualities it already has are enough for me right now, they remind me of where I’m headed and I didn’t want to overwork it and obscure them. 

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15 Responses to “Taking risks as a painter”


  1. Thank you for posting about this!


    • You are welcome.
      I visited your site and saw your ‘grass is greener’ series. Congrats for becoming a fan of the fan brush, I’ve never tried one.
      Seeing your palette, I wonder if it wouldn’t be fun for you to add a warm colour as well, to blend with your greens in places to have a change from the ‘green’ grass. Maybe burnt sienna or even a strong pink like permanent rose. You’d only need the tiniest amount to get a browner green. If you are looking for variation it might help. Ignore this if it doesn’t speak to you. I’m famous for giving unasked for advice. 🙂


  2. stimulating words and images !

  3. certainline Says:

    Many thanks for posting this. It’s very inspiring. One teacher I had made me draw with a meter-long stick dipped in cheap fountain pen ink. I have the result framed in my work-room as inspiration!


    • The drawing you describe sounds very inspiring, what a great way to break through normal working habits. Have you ever tried thinning say Schaeffer black fountain pen ink with a little water while working? This is an old calligraphy trick and the ink breaks down into some luscious tints of blues, greys and greens. I also combine fountain pen ink (black) with water and walnut ink (brown). I don’t mix them off the page, but add little bits to the brush or pen while working. thanks for your comment.


  4. Best wishes for your journey!


  5. Just enjoy listening to your thought processes and the experimentation – like the term ‘too slavish to the photo’ – I think that even applies where photography can be too slavish to the original. The new beets are indeed freed now


    • Yes I agree that photography can be too slavish to the original as well. And what evokes a sense of wonder in certain photographs is the way they have skirted that. My husband’s work seems to do that regularly. And I’ve visited your site and feel that awareness is visible in your work as well.


  6. Very helpful thoughts and advice. Result(s) is marvelous! Great painting.


    • Thanks Kevin, it seems that the least one can do when encountering a breakthrough point after muddling along for awhile is to share the insights, who knows some one else might be saved a year or two of the same. So glad you like the result/s.


  7. I love that beets painting it is so full of life.


  8. i am enjoying your peeking out from within, Sarah!


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