How to Get Unstuck from a Painting Rut - Creative Catalyst Productions

How to Get Unstuck from a Painting Rut

March 14, 2019 3 min read 3 Comments

It can happen to any painter. At any time. The painting rut. Where every painting seems like a fight. Or worse, you're staring at your studio door wondering what's even the point.


But don't give up! When you're in an artistic rut, take a deep breath, turn off the part of your brain that is questioning your very artistic existence and take a page from Polly Hammett's playbook: solve some puzzles.


Yes, puzzles. Art puzzles. 



Artist Polly Hammet loves puzzles. It's why, in fact, she loves design. 


“Design is like solving a problem or working a puzzle,” she says in her Creative Catalyst video workshop, Design with the Figure.

So while Polly uses these puzzles as part of her artistic process, they are also a great way to do some creative problem solving that has low stakes. Which is exactly what your brain needs to work through a rut.



One of the ways Polly works with puzzles is by playing with value. You might be surprised how one combination of objects has an almost unlimited set of possibilities when it comes to just value. 


Polly loves this. In fact, she focuses so closely on value that even when she gets into her painting, it remains about value. 

“I forget totally about the color I’m using,” says Polly. “I look for just a light color, a dark color on my palette. So sometimes I end up with some strange combinations. And sometimes they are the best."


So let's take a look at how Polly creates and solves these value puzzles. She uses this same approach in her figure work but for simplicity's sake, here she starts with four thumbnails of the same scene: a pear, an orange, a painting, a window, and a table with a box.


With a black sharpie, Polly works through each creating a different combination of lights and darks.


And again, it's all about play. Don't be worried about realism. It's about the puzzle.


You can also combine values to create larger shapes. For example, in the first rectangle, Polly makes everything but the pear and the table black, which creates two total shapes, one light and two dark. 


While in the second rectangle, she creates two light shapes and three darks. It's amazing how the same image reads totally different based on a different value plan.


In the third rectangle, she creates two lights and two darks.

And in the final rectangle, she decides to create one light and four totally separated darks.

Each of these represents a totally different painting.


“It changes the atmosphere. It will change the look," says Polly. "And depending on the colors you use [for example muted color or intense colors], it just changes even more.”

Polly loves this sort of play because it gives her unlimited possibilities for her paintings.

“If I leave it open-ended," she says, "I’ve got a million ways that I can make shapes with this."


So the next time you’re feeling stuck, try designing a bunch of these two value thumbnails. Let yourself get into the puzzle-like nature of design. And then without thinking about color, translate that value scheme into a painting. It’ll help you get out of your rut.

Because as Polly says, “It doesn’t always work but it’s certainly not as boring to do.”

Learn more about Polly Hammett's excellent video workshop,  Design with the Figure.

3 Responses

Cecie Borschow
Cecie Borschow

March 16, 2019

Polly is one of my favorite teachers. I learned so much about design in her workshops. Right now I am struggling with a commission and when I opened her way of solving problems, a flashlight went off in my brain. Thank you for givng me ideas on how to solve mine and get finished. I now now I can. I do have yours and Virginia’s DVD’s.
We have not kept touch for several years but you have been in my heart and always will be, with love , Cecie.


March 16, 2019

I think this is useful, I’ll try it!

Nancy Bilbro
Nancy Bilbro

March 16, 2019

Artist Polly Hammett and her artist Sister created an extraordinary art educational DVD named “DesignSense”. For years I have tried unsuccessfully to find and purchase a copy of it. I would very much like to get or stream a copy of that DVD. Creative Catalyst, can you please get a copy of it so I may purchase it?
Thank you so much for your help! Nancy Bilbro

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