“I don’t know what to paint.”
“I’m not sure how much to include in the painting.”
“I don’t know what color scheme to use.”
Do you ever find yourself stuck like this?
It can help to consider why you’re making this painting. Or why you make paintings, in general. But don’t make a big deal out of it.
There’s a lot of talk about “finding your why” as way to help guide your decisions. But usually, the focus is on a Big Why, as in, the underlying mission of an organization. Or your purpose in life. I don’t mean that kind of “why”. That’s too much weight to put on one little painting!
To get unstuck in the studio, you usually need just need to find a “little why”. The ordinary, everyday reason why you want to create this particular painting, and who you want to create it for (even if it’s just some future-you). Or the ordinary, everyday reasons you choose to paint.
The little why can be things like:
You might have many reasons. Your reasons might change for different paintings or painting sessions. Some reasons are pragmatic: earning money, jazzing up a space in your home. Others might be mostly about relationships: making a gift, participating in a show with your painting group. Sometimes, it’s just for the joy of exploring an idea visually, or the sensual pleasure of working with the materials. Often, several reasons apply to the same painting, in varying degrees.
Your studio notebook can be a good place to keep a list of all your reasons. When you’re stuck, sometimes it’s because there’s a conflict between why you thought you were making the painting, and the other reasons that are lurking under the surface. Reading through your list can help clarify your thinking.
Which of your reasons for painting (in general) are most important/central for you? Which would you prefer to limit or eliminate? Which do you sort of forget about, but wish you could remember more often?
Figuring out which ones are most important for this painting (or painting session) can help you figure out what to paint and how you want to paint it.
List all the reasons that are playing a role. Be as specific as possible. Saying “because it’s just so beautiful!” might be heartfelt, but it won’t help you make creative decisions. “I want to capture the joy and relief I felt when the sky started to clear after that big storm” can help you decide perhaps you don’t need any detail in those pink flowers in the foreground, or maybe very little foreground at all. “It’s a gift for my sister’s office; she has a stressful job and needs something soothing,” might lead to a different set of choices, even with the same subject or scene.
Knowing why you are creating this artwork helps you get beyond “I sort of like it this way . . . but then, I also like that . . . I can’t decide!”
Try it with a painting that didn’t satisfy you. What were your reasons for creating the painting? What, specifically, were you responding to in this scene or subject that made you choose it for your purposes at the time? What does that suggest about how you might change some creative decisions to create a more satisfying version?
Knowing your “little why” for an artwork helps you make creative choices, but sometimes your reasons for making an artwork are more general, like recording information for possible future paintings, or practicing a particular way of working.
This is especially common when you are sketching on location. You might only know that you want some mementos of a trip, or to use sketching to focus your attention and soak up the atmosphere of the place. Then how do you guide your creative choices?
When you first arrive at a painting spot, or start to consider a painting subject, it can help to do a quick exercise to “audition” various visual elements for different “roles” in the painting. What gets to be star of the show? What will be supporting cast, there to help tell the star’s story? Is this element interesting or valuable enough to become part of the “cast”? What elements are basically just sets and lighting, there to set the mood or indicate the location?
This kind of thinking gives you time to absorb the experience and notice what draws your interest most before you get caught up in how to make something “look right” just because it’s the most obvious subject.
I use a technique I call exploratory drawing. This is what some people are doing when they make thumbnail drawings, but thumbnails are usually
Instead of working directly in your studio notebook, you may want to do this activity on ordinary copier paper, so you feel free to scribble wildly. I usually fold it into quarters. It fits nicely in my hand and I can simply flip to a new section for the next drawing.
I usually take 30 seconds or less to make each exploratory drawing—and I use the term “drawing” very loosely here. Basically, the whole reason for having on the page is to wake up my artist-eyes and artist-brain. I’m mostly paying attention to my internal response to whatever I’m looking at.
I don’t finish any of these scribbles. I move on as soon as I have a sense of whether this subject would hold my interest long enough to do the work required to paint it, or whether it’s worth including to help support the story I want to tell.
I don’t draw any boxes beforehand. That’s for later. After I’ve auditioned a bunch of possibilities, I can choose a few to explore more fully.
The point is not to make a sketch—yet. It’s to see how it might feel to sketch or paint various elements of a scene.
This exercise always turns up more interesting and creative possibilities than my first impulse. A few minutes of exploratory drawing gives me a chance to go past the obvious ideas, and the visually-interesting-but-tedious ideas, and get to something more personal, creative, and enjoyable to paint.