One question I'm frequently asked is, "How does a student of art know what to do next?" My opinion on the matter is just that: my opinion. But I've met enough artists who share my opinion to know I'm in good company.
When I'm deciding what to do next as a student, I try to sense where I feel frustration about my art, where I'm hitting my head against the proverbial wall. I define what's bugging me. Once I've found the weak links, I can attack them one at a time. If I'm struggling with drawing then I put special attention and time into that. If I see weak value patterns, dull colors, or anything else that bothers me in my paintings, I focus my time on those problem areas.
When I've found the problems, I move on to doing small paintings with defined expectations. I try to push myself in one specific area. Because the painting is small and I've conceptualized it as a learning experiment, I am more inclined to take risks, which encourages growth.
This approach to painting and drawing comes from a blend of advice I've gleaned from several artists who have worked with us at Creative Catalyst. Craig Nelson demonstrated this approach in his Quick Studies in Oil DVD. He picked one aspect on which to focus each of his studies. Polly Hammett said in her workshop, Design with the Figure, that she treats her process as if she's planning a trip; she determines where she's going first, second, and so on. She makes sure she hits certain targets before moving to the next destination. And Virginia Cobb recommends in Acrylic Abstract Painting that no matter how painful it is to finish a painting, artists should push through and complete them. Virginia may not finish the piece the same day she runs into a problem, but she's determined to resolve the issues each painting presents.
Each time Virginia solves a difficult problem, she learns something. We can all learn a valuable lesson from her: don't let a painting defeat you. If you stick with a problematic piece, the next time you're faced with those same issues, you will have more experience and proven solutions.
One more suggestion: look at other artists' work and see how they have solved the problems you're dealing with. You don't need to like their work, but you do need to permit yourself to be open to what their work can tell you. The three artists I mentioned above have different styles and work in different mediums, but if you know what you're looking for, the answers can come from almost anywhere.
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