Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New Work and a Spot of Blue...

Rural Scenes
16" x 20" acrylic and painted paper on 1" profile board

Paper sketches 1-7

The above finished piece and sketches were completed over the last week. While working on these ideas, I found that I drew on some advice that I read awhile back. I thought I would pass it along. Maybe it will help!

One of the best favors that you can do for yourself is to ask this simple question when you are making your art (or really, when you are engaged in any creative task): "Why did I do that?" Or better yet, "Why am I about to do that?"

This last week, (and over the last year), I have found myself asking these questions. The advice comes from an art professor whose name I can't recall anymore. He is somewhere back east though and on his blog, he wrote that he frequently asks his students to explain their work. He finds just as often as not that many students can't explain their design choices or describe their work in a meaningful way. Saying that you did something just because you like it doesn't really offer up a lot of information to the person who has asked the question. (It isn't that the answer is wrong but that it isn't terribly informative for the listener.) Moreover, it probably isn't enough for yourself as a creative person to not know why you make the choices that you do.

The takeaway from this, for me anyway, is that it pays to ask the question (of why you are doing something) prior to making a move on the canvas or paper. Not to get stifled so as to not be able to move but to go at things in a more thoughtful way. I think it can provide real insight into your own thought processes and possibly reveal where you are strong and where there are some opportunities, particularly if your answers sound "weak" to your own ears. 

Here is an example of what I am suggesting. For many of the shapes and placement decisions that I made in the first piece, I specifically asked myself why I was making the choices that I was making. Why put that green piece there? Why am I placing that brown triangle in that way? Why am I covering up the edge of that particular piece? These types  of questions slowed me down but also prevented me from working in a mindless way. I am not saying I didn't make "mistakes" or have some happy accidents along the way but I felt much more connected to the outcome of this piece because of a little initial deliberation. And if I couldn't really answer the question then I knew I was either too tired to continue working or I didn't have the knowledge yet to answer the question and I had better get it...quick! 

My opinion is that greater insight can be achieved by probing for a more concrete answer. This way of working is easy to do really and can lead to greater insight into the "why" of why you do something and not something else. It can even reveal gaps in your knowledge base. And goodness, please don't write in to tell me that you love the color blue and what is wrong with that anyway? It's OK to love the color blue but you might stop for a second to probe a bit. I love the color blue too because it reminds me of water which I find both peaceful and terrifying. The color blue often describes a state of either optimism or mystery, of fullness or emptiness, of calmness or of a great disturbance. Blue, to me anyway, can represent insight and it can represent cold weather. There are lots of reasons I love the color and use it in my work. What about you? Why did you put that spot of blue there anyway?

Hope everyone has had a good week so far. Thanks for reading and commenting.



  1. Asking Why...a very good suggestion.
    Simple and easy do do - why, oh why do I forget?
    I enjoyed seeing the Rural Scenes and the sketches. The abstract shapes say so much, and all of them are beautifully composed

  2. Libby this is one of the best tips I have received. Sometimes I just paint for the sake of painting not really taking time to slow down and give thought to why. In looking at Rural Scenes I sense water, green fields, perhaps some hills and of course your circle that I call Hope. All your sketches are so well designed. Hope you have a lovely weekend.

  3. You are spot on in your assertions about "active thinking" such as asking yourself why you chose one color over another or why did you locate that blue circle in that position, etc. The most productive learning comes when students, artists, musicians and so on are what we call "engaged" in the effort. Nor, as learners can we assume that everyone who is busy is engaged. In reading instruction for young children, for example, teachers are frequently asking the students to "predict." "What do you think Alex will do with the money he found?" This is just one of the questioning techniques to keep student engaged. There are many. As adults we make our decisions internally with little guidance from someone else. That's why asking questions of ourselves during decision-making is important. It cannot be assumed that because the hands are busy, the mind is actively thinking about what they're doing. How many times have I been so relaxed during my art-making and am thinking of what I'll prepare for dinner or that new movie that's coming out this weekend. This is NOT to make a chore of questioning, but periodically to review mid-progress the work that had been done and the reasons why I did it THAT way.

    1. Carol,

      I just love having access to a teacher's thoughts! Thank you for such a great response.

      It really takes some practice and mindfulness to be engaged doesn't it? I have had conversations with other artists who have sort of a "been there, done that" kind of an attitude. It always makes me wonder at what point we stop purposefully engaging as we age or as we become very familiar with our chosen hobby or profession. At what point are we no longer actively and consciously curious? And I suspect that children have the benefit here. They can be like little sponges if guided and helped along. And why can't adults continue on in that same vein of openness and wonder and purposeful questioning? Why do we stop? The entire subject of learning, how we learn and why we continue to want to learn, is quite interesting to me. I can't ever see gaining such proficiency in something as to stop engaging altogether. I could however see thinking about dinner...:)

      Hope you are well. Thank you as always for the visit.

      Libby Fife

  4. I asked myself the question of why I love your abstract pieces so much and it definitely has more to do than with just design or color. These designs remind me of the quilts I've always been attracted to. For me (and I suspect others) your abstract designs are very connected to mother and earth, nurture and love, family and heritage. The thoughtfulness you put into these pieces is evident in the connection you make for the viewer. I may not know how you do it, but I feel that connection while viewing.

    I ask myself process questions while working on my comics. I agree it's important- but for me- it's also very frustrating. I'm still questioning the purpose of what I'm doing. In the long run, it will be meaningful. Right now- it just feels like procrastination.

    Anyway- great blog as always. Thank you Libby!

  5. Excellent advice... not just for art-making, but for everything we do, every day! Love the new piece, and reading about its process!

  6. Some art is done for its meditative quality!

    1. That may be true. It probably is true. But even that is an explanation for why you make choices. I have talked with other artists who occasionally spin their wheels or who work without too much thought. I am only suggesting that art doesn't need to be mindless in order for it to be "artistic". The more you talk about your art out loud, the more you write about it, the better you can understand what you are doing and why you do it and subsequently you will make great strides in your progress. It really pays off.


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