Some people like to have everything all planned out before beginning a project, others prefer to wing it. Writers have a wonderful way of describing these two personal styles. They speak of “plotters” and “pantsers” (as in, “by the seat of your pants”).
It’s probably more of a continuum, but it’s still worth thinking about whether you are more of a “plotter” or more of a “pantser”.
Both styles can be successful, but it can be helpful to be able to shift your working style a bit based on the project, your energy level and your tolerance for adventure right now. There are also cultural nudges toward both being a plotter (thought of as more organized, thoughtful and responsible) and toward being a pantser (thought of as more expressive and creative).
There are also potential pitfalls with both. For example, plotters may use more and more planning as a way to procrastinate when they feel anxious about beginning; pantsers may let impatience or overconfidence lead them to jump in too soon.
Knowing your own tendencies, and being able to use a bit of both strategies can help you maximize the benefits of each style, while guarding against the worst of the downsides.
Are you more of a “plotter” or more of a “pantser”? Is your default way of working mostly due to personality, or more to do with training and background?
Regardless of the way you normally work, which way tends to actually result in more successful paintings? How about more enjoyable painting sessions?
What are the pros and cons for you of each way of working?
How do you decide when it’s time to stop planning (for now, anyway) and start working? Do you ever procrastinate with “more planning” or worrying about how you will do something, even when you know you need to get started before you’ll be able to figure it out? Do you ever catch yourself rushing to get started or move forward, and then wishing you’d taken a bit more time to plan?
Do you ever deliberately choose one way of working over the other? What factors play a role in deciding when to use each mode? Do you feel like you need to push yourself more one direction or the other? Or be more deliberate about choosing the particular way of working, based on the project, your emotional state, time pressure, the rest of your life, etc.?
In this activity, we’re going to practice switching back and forth between “plotting” and “pantsing”. This exercise is a bit artificial, because the switch happens according to a timer, instead of what’s happening on the page. But for those of us with a strong preference for one style of working, it’s easy to just keep saying “it’s not time yet” to avoid practicing the other style. The time helps keep you honest about really trying to learn to switch back and forth.
Start by making an inkblot. Find a spot in your notebook where you have two blank facing pages. Drip, spatter, brush or otherwise apply very wet paint or ink on one or both sides. Then close your notebook and press to make an inkblot-style pattern. (You can also use a folded piece of watercolor paper, if you prefer.)
Now open the book and study the facing pages. Prop the piece up and stand back at arm’s length or farther. If it’s too wet to prop up, you can place it on the floor and sit or stand over it. Give yourself a few moments to simply look. What do you notice? What you like or dislike? Do you see any images emerging? Any interesting possibilities for developing the image further?
Now set a timer for 1 minute. Take that time to make a small plan for how you would like to develop your inkblot into an artwork. You can plan to develop both sides together as one image, or you can develop the two pages separately. Don’t try to plan every detail. Two or three bullet steps is fine.
When the timer goes off, reset it for 5 minutes and begin working, even if you don’t feel like you’ve planned enough. When you finish the actions you planned, keep working intuitively.
When the timer goes off again, pause and step back again. Prop the piece up and stand back, or place it on the floor, if it’s too wet to prop up. Set the timer for 1 minute and use that time to look, notice, and plan your next move.
You can continue alternating work and planning as long as you wish, or until you feel the piece is done. You can also adjust the timing, if you like, but keep your times fairly short. The point of this exercise is to experience shifting back and forth between working according to a plan and following your intuition.
If you get stuck, start over with a new blot. You can start on a completely new piece of paper, or you can create a new blot right on top of what you’ve already done. See what new ideas emerge.
Use a hair dryer, as needed, especially along the fold, so you don’t wind up with your whole sketchbook soaked.
Eventually, you may want to build in a cycle alternating planning with periods of spontaneous work for other paintings. You can use a timer or other cues to remind you to come up for air occasionally. This can be especially helpful for preventing fiddling and overworking towards the end of a piece.