What my current daily practice is teaching me.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.”  Toba Beta

Considering where I was in terms of ‘getting to the easel’ little more than a month ago, it might feel a little premature to be talking about how this daily practice of creating ‘a face a day’ has transformed the way I work. But the process has been so exciting to me that I do feel I have something to say about it – about how it helped and the discoveries I made.

I do have to say though, that I am pretty sure the peaks and troughs are all part of the journey for me – just like going to the Osteopath which isn’t a cure for my bad back – I expect it will just hopefully lessen the instances of being completely immobile and make recovery during those times quicker. Committing to a daily or regular practice will hopefully lessen the occurrences of those times where I wallow in self-inflicted instances of ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I am no good’. A shake up of my routine and a dedicated time of focus has always rescued me in the past as I am sure it will do in the future. As usual I need to do a thing to see it working for me. (Common sense I know but common sense can sometimes go out of the window of the creative mind I think).

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(Excuse me sharing these again but I wanted to keep my new portraits for the next post and a few of the points below reference these particular images)

So what does this practice tell me (much I already knew but need to reminded of … often)

1. I can make all the excuses I want but 99% of the time I have ( or more like make) an excuse to not get to my studio I end up doing something completely unrelated to art – 100% of the time I get to the easel, I start working. So I just need to get there! If I am procrastinating about painting or drawing then doing something at least related to art (anywhere near my easel) such as cutting paper, or sorting out my materials or sharpening pencils or mixing paint inevitably gets me working and before I know it I am stood at the easel with brush or pencil in hand.

2. Doing something every day (that is what is working for me but that could be different for everyone) takes the pressure off big-time!! I have said this many times before but one painting a month leads to enormous pressure for me for that painting to be good – one painting (or piece) a day means that even if only ten of those are good or great and twenty are so-so – I still have ten good paintings!  Out of the thirty paintings I made last month I would say around ten are good for me and about four of those make me think I made a huge leap forward. That is four more than I even painted in the last two or three months put together!

3. Daily practice enables me and encourages me to take risks and experiment – push a piece past the point of no return, or work a piece to that point where it is just ‘enough’ and no more. A few from last month ended up in the bin because they just became mud but I still learned a huge amount even from those pieces – those muddy ones caused me to think about and change the way I was laying down the paint, the brush-marks I was making, how much water I was using, how many layers I was putting down. Each one made me do ‘something different’. That is always good!

4. Creating every day helped me to shake up my colour palette – I have certain colours that I have used for a long time and that I am particularly drawn to. Certain ways of mixing colours that I do automatically without thinking. Painting every day meant that I was mixing enough paint to last me a few days at a time but every few days I would want to switch it up to something different. I tried different mixes, found different ways of mixing to get the same colours, added in colours that had been languishing at the bottom of my paint tray for ever and a day and ended up loving them. I tried different things – some worked, some did not but I made lots of discoveries along the way.

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5. For the month of June I wanted to keep some things the same every day – so every day I painted with acrylic, every day a new face, every day I painted on the same substrate – 5 x 8 inch watercolour paper. Limiting yourself in some way challenges you to explore new ways of doing things. So I found myself thinking much more about composition (how to frame the face within that rectangle) – so the angle of the shoulders became more important as the month went on – how the shape of the head, neck and shoulders created interesting negative spaces around the portrait. I also began to think more about expression – this is something I think about a lot anyway, but painting every day caused me to dig deeper to find more interesting and challenging expressions to paint. So I took lots of photographs of myself pulling expressions that I knew I had never painted before and that I knew would interest me over the course of the remaining month.

6. The more time I spent at the easel, the more time I wanted to spend at the easel. This I can compare to swimming – when I haven’t been for a while my brain very quickly seems to forget how much I love it. So it becomes easier to put it off over and over again. But when I am going regularly, I know how good it makes me feel, how much more energy I have. How it feels to stretch and work my body and get better each time. The very action of going makes me want to go even more. The very action of painting, makes me want to paint even more. It stays with me, that feeling of enjoyment and that feeling of ‘getting better’. As soon as I stop for a period of time those thoughts diminish until I have forgotten how good it feels.

7. I detach from the end result and the ‘process’ becomes much more important. Again this ties in with that ‘one painting a month’ theory of mine. But rather than becoming obsessed with ‘making a good portrait’ I focus much more on questions like – What would happen if I used this brush-stroke rather than that one? What about if I lay that colour against that one? I find myself getting lost in the moment – enjoying every moment (even the ones where it is all going wrong) rather than feeling like I am in a race to get to the end. For instance some of the portraits were ‘finished’ ten times over but I found myself thinking – but what would happen if I did this or that? Which many times led to a ‘finished’ portrait becoming mud and ending up in the bin. But again, I made new discoveries along the way.

8. It becomes much easier to ‘edit’ and also critique my own work. This is something that I feel is so important for me to do – to know when something needs more … or less. Why use ten brush-strokes when two will say just as much. Or how can I make one particular area the focus and leave the rest as is? This only becomes clear to me with practice – and can’t be listed in a recipe but can only be discovered over time. In the same way that it becomes clearer what it is working and what is not and that it is okay (and even necessary) to know when something is absolutely not working – not in a ‘woe is me, I am rubbish’ kind of a way’ but more in a ‘come-on lets do something different as this is leading us no-where’ realisation. To want to do better, learn more, expand your practice and be a better artist. To not be happy with doing things as I have always done but to want to shake things up a bit (a lot) and push past that place of comfort.

Whilst all of these are things I have known for a long time, going through this last month certainly helps me to put it all into words and understand it even more and will hopefully help me time and time again in the future.

I am not sure if it is of use to anyone else but I would love to know your thoughts or any additions you could make to this list. I am sure I will be able to add to it over time.

So I am working on another daily practice for this month to keep the momentum going – working just with hard pastels – Conté (sticks and pencils) to be precise and I am a few days in so will be blogging about that very soon.

(PS Around half of the above portraits are now in my online store .)

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Comments 3

  1. flynn gentry-taylor

    Watercolor was/is?my nemesis. Especially because I had a friend who was an accomplished watercolorist. On Jan. 1st 2013 I decided I would paint with watercolor at least once a day, every day! Could not do two a day and miss a day. Every day was the key. I am still doing it 2 and 1/2 years later. It has become a ritual, and so enjoyable. What was frustrating is now relaxing. Ahhh, now the secret is to do the same with my acrylics/oils! Yes daily practice means the difference, at least to me.

  2. Sharon Furner

    So happy for you. You work so hard at your art, always learning and experimenting. This post today, is very informative, and a huge “pick-me-up”! I am going to my studio, putting together a project that I can work on for a number of weeks. You spur me and others on to becoming better at what we do. You write very well Gillian, and this is an article that could be submitted to an art’s magazine. And look at all the “paintings” you would have to add to it.
    Very interested in your Conte work, love what I have seen. You are in the “flow” please keep it going. smiles: Sharon

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