4 Ways to Challenge Yourself When Your Painting Feels Stale

It’s a form of creative block, feeling you’re repeating yourself, feeling unchallenged or unstimulated by what you’re painting. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your ability nor that you’re never going to produce a fabulous painting ever again. It means you’re ready to grow artistically, to move your artistic goalposts. Here are four suggestions of ways to do this.

1. Study a New Artist
We all have artists whose work we like, paintings we wish we’d created. Move from admiring mode to emulating: make a close study to unpick what exactly it is you like about it. It might be composition, colour usage, mark making, tone, a repeated element. Make notes in a sketchbook, do thumbnails, analyse, write down thoughts, don’t self-censor. Don’t settle for “I’m not sure” or “Everything” or “I know but can’t put it into words”. Work as if you were going to tell someone else, finding answers and explanations of what you like in that artist’s painting.

Use this info to paint a favourite subject, apply the new approach to what you’ve been doing. Or make a copy of one of their paintings as a personal (private not public) learning exercise. Don’t try a new subject and new style simultaneously because you risk confusing problems that are with the subject and problems with technique.

On my current list for a closer, slow investigation is Turner for his painting of atmosphere, beyond mere clouds, and at some point I still want to investigate Cézanne more, for his approach to composition and viewpoint.


2. Study a Long-Time Favourite Artist Again
Make a list of your favourite artists, arranged chronologically as you discovered them (as best you can remember). Pick one to study again; you’ve developed artistically and will look at their paintings differently, appreciating and learning new things. Vincent van Gogh has long been a favourite of mine, but which paintings I like changes and I still encounter ones I don’t recall seeing, such as Still Life with Vegetables (it helps he was so prolific!).


When is a painting finished

This life study was done using black pen and black ink applied with a brush. The strong negative space carves out the form of the face and shoulder. I’d seen it in other people’s paintings, but this was the first time I got it working for myself.

3. Change Mediums or a Habit
It’s easy to get into habits with a familiar medium, to do things a certain way through muscle memory and because that’s what we have learnt works. Change something, do something differently. Make a list of how you approach a painting, what the steps are in its creation, then select something to change.

For instance, if you always start on a white background, try different coloured grounds. Paint on paper rather than canvas. If you paint from light to dark, start with a dark ground and paint towards light. If you’re a watercolourist, add white gouache to your palette to enable you to add light onto dark. Never used a sword or fan brush, for instance; try one to see what you can do with it.

I typically do a loose sketch, then block in areas of colour, then work towards detail in layers. A change would be to work wet-on-wet, to complete the whole painting in one go rather than letting it dry before adding another layer. The challenge will be to get the level of detail I want with wet-on-wet paint (it’s possible, especially if I remember to wipe my brush regularly to help keep colours purer). Alternatively, I could do a completely monochromatic tonal underpainting in greys, leave it to dry, then glaze in colour.

At worst trying a new technique or material reminds you what you like about what you normally use or do. At best, it introduces new possibilities, ideas and inspiration.


4. Care Less About the Outcome
Creating a painting is certainly an investment in materials and time. But the more we worry about the end result, the more likely it’s going to be a dud because we second-guess what we’re doing and hesitate. If you’re worrying about wasting paint, use a series 1 colours, which are the cheapest, and investigate student brands for using in initial layers (such as to create a coloured ground).

If a painting isn’t going well, do something drastic, don’t tweak it. Spend a little time asking yourself “What if I…?”, and don’t try to protect the “good bits” (or if you really can’t help yourself, put masking tape over them, then paint over this). Add a lot of strong dark; glaze over with a semi-opaque colour; turn it upside down or sideways and continue painting the subject; exaggerate the brightest and darkest tones; loose areas into shadow; soften edges; suggest rather than tell. It isn’t easy to do, but suppress the doubt, ignore the butterflies, and do it anyway. You could make it worse, but it’s already not working so it doesn’t matter if you do.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like:

7 Ways to Avoid Routine & Monotony in Your Art
More to an Artistic Journey Than the Final Destination

Monday Motivator: Originality

Art motivational quote“There is no such thing as absolute originality in painting. Some relation to what has been done before always exists, though to say that an artist is ‘influenced’ by someone else need in no way detract from appreciation of [their] work. On the contrary, the influences …may bring out all the more strikingly the respects in which a painter individually excels and in themselves contribute a new element of beauty and interest…

“The delicate threads of communication with others form a new pattern. The personality of the artist loses nothing of its integrity.”

– Art historian William Gaunt, A Companion to Painting, The World of Art Library, Thames & Hudson 1967, pages 105-6.

Think of influence as an echo, something that happens in the right conditions (which we don’t control) but that doesn’t happen without our input (which we do control). Cultivate the difference between copying with the aim of reproducing the original, and copying with the aim of incorporating it into your artistic toolbox, developing it as part of your own approach, putting your personality onto it. The list of X was influenced by Y is as long as art history, but where too many go awry is that influence needs to be a springboard for development, not the endpoint.

As an example of copying and developing, look at Vincent van Gogh’s “Penitentiary” (1890) which was based on an engraving by Gustave Doré. You’ll find reference to it in Van Gogh’s letter of 12 February 1890 — click on the artworks tab on the page, then scroll down a bit to see photos. Van Gogh copies the composition, but paints the figures in his own style. He could have copied it in pen and ink, or pencil, which would’ve replicated the etched lines, but chose paint. Ask yourself why.

I Won Best Product in the Launch Gallery at Scottish Trade Fair Spring 2015!

I had a fabulous start to the Scottish Trade Fair Spring 2015, which opened today, with the announcement that my wirework Highland cow had won Best Product in the Launch Gallery!
2015 winner best product in Launch Gallery at Scottish Trade Fair Spring 2015

Here are a couple of snapshots of my stand. The Launch Gallery is a central section of the fair, for new exhibitors, with stands that are a slightly different design to the standard ones (such as the black uprights).

My Stand at Scottish Trade Fair Spring 2015

My Stand at Scottish Trade Fair Spring 2015

Flowing #1 (Any Suggestions for a Title?)

My “More Sunshine?” painting may still be a work in progress, but here’s another I’ve been working on that I have decided is finished. Which isn’t to say there aren’t things I could do, and am tempted to do, but those ideas will be used in another painting.

This is inspired by one of the many streams that run into the sea around Skye. It doesn’t have a title yet (suggestions welcome in the comments section below!) but will be part of my solo exhibition at Skyeworks over Easter (the working title for the exhibition is “Flowing”; suggestions welcome too!). Scroll down for a detail photo, then a few taken of its progress.

Ebb & Flow Exhibition paintings river

Size: 50x100cm (20×40″)


Ebb and Flow Paintings Exhibition

Ebb & Flow Exhibition: River #1 Step by step

1. The underpainting had some vibrant colours; specks of this are still visible in the finished painting. It adds a liveliness. 2. Refining the shapes of the hills and foreground rocks, trying to think big shapes and not get stuck into detail. 3. Muting the colours. 4. Starting to add white rapids to the river. 5. Glazing to put the right-hand bank into shadow. 6. Adding light onto the hills and a little purple-pink heather too me to brushes-down stage.


Looking at Paintings: Egon Schiele Exhibition at the Courtauld

Egon Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London

Strategically placed words on the banner for at the Courtauld Gallery in London

What: Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude
Where: Courtauld Gallery in London
When: 23 Oct 2014 to 18 Jan 2015
Why: A rare opportunity to see Schiele’s work

Egon Schiele is an artist who comes with a warning label for those unfamiliar with his paintings, especially his life painting. Forget academic, chocolate-box treatment of the figure but think expressive and confrontational, raw and unidealised, then throw in an immorality scandal too. He created works that “focused on themes of sexuality and death, ugliness, masking, sickness and transformation”*, which  isn’t what many want from art today, nevermind 100 years ago.

What we don’t know is where Schiele would have gone as a mature artist; he died in 1918 flu epidemic aged 28. What we do know is he was a master of expressive line, which you can study in his landscapes if you don’t do figures (and in which case stop reading now).

Courtauld Schiele Nude with Crossed Arms

Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “Erwin Dominik Osen, Nude with Crossed Arms”, 1910. Black chalk, watercolour and gouache. 44.7 x 31.5 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

I find his art compelling, his use of line mesmerizing, and his colours brooding. The harsh, unsympathetic looking, the angularity of limbs, the striking composition. But until the Courtauld Gallery‘s exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude I’d only seen reproductions.

The Courtauld’s exhibition features 38 Schiele’s  drawings and watercolours of male and female nudes. I feel visually enriched for having seen it.

“It brings together an outstanding selection of works that highlight Schiele’s technical virtuosity, highly original vision and uncompromising depiction of the naked figure …   he pushed artistic conventions through his direct expression of human experience, fears and desires. The works are bound up with themes of self-expression, procreation, sexuality and eroticism. These were fertile concerns in the socially and psychologically charged atmosphere of pre-war Vienna.”**

The painting and drawings were mostly about A3 in size, on paper that’s a dark cream-brown. Whether it was this colour originally or has darkened with age I don’t know (note to self: remember to ask on an Ask a Curator day).

Courtauld Egon Schiele Male Lower Torso painting

Egon Schiele: “Male Lower Torso”, 1910. Black chalk and gouache. 44.8 x 28.1 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

The most significant thing for me about seeing the paintings in real life was that I could see how he’d worked the layers. Think: initial drawing, watercolour and/or gouache over the drawing, then drawing again with charcoal or pencil to enhance or emphasise lines. Where a line was over paint, and where paint was over a line. How rich yet subtle the colours are and his complex wet-into-wet mixes. How sculptural and directional his brushwork could be in the white gouache, with mere flecks of other colours to guide the eye.  Energetic pencil/charcoal/black crayon lines over the top finding the form and edges. The initial light pencil sketching finding the position of the figure in a composition.

A real surprise was the precise pencil drawing underpinning the subsequent expressive mark making. The expressive result belies Schiele’s careful observation and drawing. The level of detail in the pencil layer of the eyes, for instance. The careful positioning of individual hairs.  In a”Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand” I noticed pencil lines underneath the gouache depicting the sartorius muscle, which I recognized thanks to Alan McGowan’s anatomy for artists workshops.

Courtauld SchieleNude Self-Portrait in Grey

Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “Nude Self-Portrait in Gray with Open Mouth”, 1910. Black chalk and gouache, 44.8 x 32.1 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

A few other things I learnt:

  • “Reclining Male Nude”, created in 1910, has Schiele’s initials in two places, which the gallery label said was “as if to suggest it could be viewed horizontally or vertically”.
  • Schiele’s drawings “were originally produced as independent works in their own right”, not as drawings to support paintings.
  • He rarely titled things, and when he did he “framed it within a rectangular cartouche … a carefully considered graphic component in its own right“.**

Quotes:  *page 51 **page 129 of exhibition catalogue: Egon Schiele The Radical Nude
**Courtauld press release

Here’s a video from the Courtauld in which Dr Barnaby Wright discusses the exhibition. It’s an exhibition I’m delighted I got to see. And yes, I did buy the catalogue and some postcards. No, I didn’t post any but am using them as bookmarks.

Monday Motivator: Cultivate a Eye

Art motivational quote“Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.”

— Contemporary Impressionist Jerry Fresia, Why Are Questions About Color Use Problematic?, 7 October 2014

Look at the silvery track of where a snail wandered, not the destruction of the plant it chomped. Look at the way water in a puddle bounces as raindrops fall, rather than worrying about getting your shoes wet. Feel the movement of invisible air against your skin and watch how it ripples and runs through leaves, instead of complaining that it’s windy again.

Watch a rosebud develop and grow, bloom and fade, then leave it to become a rosehip instead of pruning. There’s a sequence of paintings in this waiting to be explored, if you pause to cultivate the eye to see it.