Exercise, Exploration, Experiment or Artwork?

In planning an artwork, you often need to conduct related exercises, explorations and experiments. But it's usually a bad idea to let them slowly morph into unplanned attempts at the artwork.

Have you ever found yourself doing this? You start working on an exercise to learn a new skill, or an exploring color schemes for a painting, or experimenting with a new technique . . . and then somewhere along the way, you decide you have to “finish” it and turn it into “a painting”.

This often happens when you are trying not to waste time, energy or materials. Ironically, it actually sets you up to waste all three. And probably get pretty frustrated in the process.

In planning an artwork, you often need to conduct related exercises, explorations and experiments: the E’s. But it’s usually a bad idea to let them slowly morph into unplanned attempts at the artwork: the A (of course). Not only does this set you up with poor conditions for a successful painting, it also reduces—sometimes destroys—whatever value you would otherwise have gotten from deliberate, thoughtful practice or experimentation.

Instead of trying to make each piece of paper serve multiple (often vague) purposes at the same time, it usually works better to have a clear understanding of the purpose of your painting activity on this piece of paper at this moment. (Of course you can often re-use a piece of paper with paint on it for another activity later.)

As yourself, is this an “E” or an “A”?

If you are exploring a color scheme to see how it feels for a painting you’re planning, the only job of that piece of paper in that moment should be to answer the question “How do I feel about this color combination (in general, or for this painting)?” It’s an E (exploration).

If you catch yourself trying to “fix” or “finish” or “make a painting” when you meant to do an exercise, exploration, or experiment . . . stop and refocus (“It’s an E, not an A!”). Then take what you learned, and use it to actually plan a painting with a better chance of success. 

(NOTE FOR THE FREE SPIRITS: Of course, we could view an exercise, exploration or experiment as an artwork in and of itself. For the purposes of this article, I’m using “artwork” as shorthand for what most people are thinking of when they are trying to “make a painting”. Those of you happily making intuitive art are probably not looking for help “planning paintings”. 🙂 )

What’s the purpose of the E’s (and “the A”)?

  • Exercise: practice and improve a skill 
  • Exploration: brainstorm, discover possibilities, see how something feels on the page
  • Experiment: test ideas for solving a problem or creating an effect
  • Artwork: express something, have an effect on someone (for example: showcase something beautiful, evoke a memory, capture a fresh first impression, make a humorous observation, set the mood for a space)

What does “success” look like?

Let’s suppose you are doing some explorations to decide on a color scheme for your painting. Don’t let yourself get drawn into critique mode! If a color combo doesn’t work, that does not make the exploration a failure. You have successfully answered the question “Would these colors work for this painting?” The answer just happens to be “no”. That’s useful information! Most of us have to “see it on the page” to really know if we’re going to like it. Make some notes, decide what to try next, and continue gathering information.

With exercises, success is a better batting average. No matter how long you paint, you’ll still occasionally lay a streaky wash or botch softening an edge or make a clumsy brushmark. So for an exercise, success in the moment looks like staying in a state of relaxed alertness and doing the repetitions. Success over time looks like gradually improving the odds that you can pull of that wash, or soften that edge or make a graceful brushmark.

With experiments, success is getting the answer to two questions: Do I like the look of this technique for the purpose I have in mind? and Do I think I have a reasonable chance of pulling it off? (If you like it, but don’t think you can pull it off, then the experiment is done and it’s time for an exercise.)

How do you break the habit of “fixing and finishing” (things that are supposed to be E’s)?

Give yourself permission to use materials for learning and exploring (again)

Most of us have no qualms about using materials for E’s when we first start out. Then, after we’ve “made some actual paintings”, we get stingy. Working artists continue to use materials for E’s their entire careers. Most watercolorists use far more materials for these purposes than they ever use for “finished paintings”. Give yourself permission to use materials to keep learning and growing, just like the pros!

Re-use and re-cycle

This is actually easier when you are clear about your purpose. If you know this piece of paper doesn’t have to morph into a “finished painting”, there’s no need to always use a fresh, clean sheet of paper. For many purposes, you can work right on top of a previous exercise. (Pull something out of the the Big Pile of Nope!)

Take the long view

Besides, you can “waste” materials doing exercises, experiments and explorations that actually give you the skills and information you need to plan and create a painting, or you can waste them in multiple, unplanned, haphazard (and frustrating!) attempts at a painting. I know which one I find less stressful—and more effective in the long run. 🙂

Use that to silence your inner tightwad.

Write it down!

That little voice that says every piece of paper you touch has to be “a painting” took years to get established, and is reinforced in many ways by societal narratives about “real” artists and how they work. (And lots of other sources, too.) It whispers when you aren’t paying attention, and it has a million ways to draw you in (“but . . . I could probably fix this!” “I don’t want to waste paper!” “I can do three things in the same exercise and save time!”).

So add a conscious step in your process to counteract it. Probably the best one is to write down the purpose of the activity before you begin. (In your studio notebook or simply on the edge of the paper.)

Give your inner critic something constructive to do

Instead of wasting your energy arguing with your inner critic, or letting her beat you up because you’re “not producing anything”, give her a job to do. Mine just wants something to fuss over and manage, so it might as well be something that serves my purpose. I write down the purpose of my E’s, and enlist her to fuss at me about staying on task.

How do I know what E’s I need and how do I use them to plan?

That’s a topic for another article—or several! But you might find some clues here or here.

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