Some musings on painting studies

Have you ever taken one of those online tests to determine whether you’re an introvert or an extravert? When I was younger, I was definitely on the introvert side of the spectrum. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved more to the center of the spectrum (sometimes called an ambivert), but I’m definitely still on the introvert side of the scale. I find that big social events — even the fun ones, like family trips or multi-day art festivals — leave me feeling drained for a few days after.

Made Fest was no different; the day after it was over, I barely managed to unload all the art and furniture out of my car, haha. Most of the day was spent reading books and playing games on my phone. Gradually over the next week or two I got things put away and started spending time in my studio, but all my big projects are still on hold. It’s not necessarily taken me this long to recover from Made Fest — there’s definitely some other stuff going on — but with the prospect of a big, involved piece being completely unappealing to me at the moment, I switched to a process I don’t usually spend much time on: the watercolor study.

A watercolor “study” as I’m using the term here means that I’m taking time to practice, or study, different ways to do a painting — different colors, tools, brush techniques, variations in the composition, and so on. They’re not necessarily meant to be “good” enough to be sold (though I may do something with them eventually if I like them well enough). I’m painting mine on smaller sheets of paper; the forest studies are on a 7″ x 10″ watercolor paper block that I got from Blick, and the city lights are on 5″ x 7″ pieces. The smaller size makes them feel more manageable, especially given that I might not want to keep the end result.

This practice might seem like an obvious way to get better at painting, but I honestly rarely do it — I sometimes experiment a little with the composition when I’m first drawing a piece, but when it comes to painting, I usually just dive right in and hope for the best. Maybe that’s evident in some of my work; I definitely look at some of it now and see ways I could have done better. But I will say that this approach is just part of my particular style: I like to leave room for the paint to do what it does rather than trying to plan and control every brush stroke.

So the first thing I’ve been practicing is painting forests using reference photos I took in Busey Woods. I’ve been trying to get better at establishing the depth of the view and making the trees look realistic without trying to paint every single individual leaf. Here are a couple of the pieces in progress:

Study #1. Trying to capture the depth of the forest and make the leaves look realistic.
Study #2 (in progress) — trying to open the center a bit to make it look like there’s a path moving through.

The other idea I’ve been working on is the blurred lights effect. I wanted it to stay a little abstract but still give that idea, and also to be vibrant and interesting. These are four of the “best” ones I came up with, using different combinations of watercolor and gouache and changing the order that I painted the background and the lights. I think I came up with method that I like; eventually I’ll try it out in a larger composition.

Trying different techniques (layering, lifting paint) with watercolor and gouache to get the flared lens effect — I wanted these to stay a little abstract, but to evoke the feeling of the blurred city lights.

A colleague of mine shared an article recently that talked about how the pandemic and related isolation has depleted a lot of people’s social stamina — many of us get more easily overwhelmed by social activities after not being able to go out and spend time with people for so long. (Apparently it’s a documented phenomenon among people who spend a lot of time in isolation, for example at the research station in Antarctica.) The good news according to the article is that, as with most activities, you can build that stamina back up. I think something similar is happening with my art: after everything else I’ve had going on over the last year or so, I don’t have the stamina (or attention span) I used to for bigger painting projects. But with smaller, no-pressure studies like these, which I’m doing purely for my own interest, I think I’ll work my way back up to the “big” stuff.

Do you find yourself having less social stamina (or will power, or whatever you want to call it) for activities that you used to enjoy? How are you coping?

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