Iterative Painting- Learning Through Experimentation and Critical Analysis

I recently watched this YouTube video by Sycra. The tutorial is rather rambling, at almost an hour long, but I found the watch worth it.  Sycra is a digital artist, and the video is about Iterative Drawing, but as a learning tool and way of thinking, it applies just as easily to watercolors and many other things.  The video puts into words an approach I've long held to- that the best, most rapid learning happens when we are simultaneously thinking critically and experimenting freely.  But the devil is in the preparatory details.  How do we set things up to allow ourselves to experiment freely?  How do we help ourselves better assess our own work?

The broad idea is that those of us who learn through thinking are sometimes hampered by our own minds, instead of using it to it's full affect.  We focus on reading, thinking, tutorials or how-to's, and when we get down to the infrequent process of painting we aim for perfection, spending many hours trying to weasel some success from a single painting.  For a student, this can be a recipe for building a long, slow string of failures.  :(  Instead, Sycra's approach is to learn through a quicker, repeated sequence of actions-  first comes failure (presumably something we're already doing!), then critical thinking which leads to a specifically altered approach, which then leads to new, more focused experimentation. 

Of course, you've got to be ok with failing a lot.  But part of the technique is setting things up in such a way that you can allow yourself to experiment without fear of failure.  The paintings are small and quick, the focus is on experimentation instead of completed paintings, and I work a lot on technique outside of composition.  All of these things help build a space outside of failure, because I'm not necessarily aiming for something specific.  Instead, I'm hoping to learn through experimentation, play, and discovery.

Setting Up The Lab-

Painting Small and Quick

I iterate all the time when I'm knocking around a composition, but I also go through phases where I iterate way more, particularly when I'm trying to get some control of a new technique, like in the set of paintings above.  I did those back in July-September of 2014, when I was working on wet-into-wet techniques.  Here's the post.   Timing is incredibly important when you're doing wet work, so lots of small (7.5" x 11") and quick (45 minutes- 1 hr each?) paintings helped me get the experimentation and mileage in that I needed.  After the first two failed attempts, I recognized I needed practice.  That's when I shifted to smaller, quicker paintings.  I bring it up because these smaller paintings aren't really "paintings" to me- they're sketches and explorations.  I went into each one without any expectation of creating a finished product.  Each painting is actually relatively similar to the one before it, but you can still see me shift through incremental changes in composition, to changes in color scheme, to shifts in sequencing and wet-into-wet technique, to changes in format.  Only towards the very end are the last few paintings almost exactly the same- at which point I'm just growing the same image to a 1/2 sheet and really aiming for a "painting."


Teaching Yourself-

Learning From Thoughtful Experiments

These two sets of smaller paintings were done in late 2014 and in late 2015.  Each series took a month or so to do, piecemeal, now and then, mixed in amongst other paintings I was doing at the time.

I did a post on the first series back in late 2014 (clearly a time of great experimentation!).  This link is for the first set.  The second set is new stuff that I was playing with last fall, but never created a finished piece from.  Once again, there are some clear changes in color and format over both series, but it's the opportunity to test and explore lots of wet into wet ideas that pays off the most in the end.  Again, each iteration is slightly different from the one before.  And it's not random.  I'm choosing what I'm going to try out- different amounts of water on my brush, different lengths of time to wait, different paints, etc.  Occasionally, the varied experiments work out but mostly they don't.  More importantly, however, sometimes I discover things simply by trying something new each and every time.  This is where some of those magical "learning leaps" happen, because painting this way is almost like watching someone else paint- you're doing things you wouldn't normally do, and you learn through observation and reflection.  It's a good way to teach yourself, and get outside of a "box."

I've read and listened to others sometimes complain about how boring repeatedly painting something is, and they wonder what I get out of the process.  My suspicion is that folks who aren't getting much out of iterating are trying to repaint things in the same way.  Boring indeed!  And that's practically the definition of madness- doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting something different to happen.  :D Sycra's video focuses instead on how to learn by consciously assessing ones work, deciding what was successful, and pondering how one might specifically change what has failed each and every time.  It's the part in between each painting that is the most important element of this approach- the critical engagement of the mind, as if I were critiquing the work of someone else.  That's what the video is really dealing with- combining the necessary mileage with the proper critical and open approach, so you're not spending your time repeating the same mistakes ad nauseum, but instead exploring new results.  Deciding to change only a few things at a time makes evaluating and learning from that iteration much easier.


Separate Technique From Composition-

This is something I had written up on my own, only to discover that Sycra actually has a video about this as well.  The gist is that one sometimes needs to practice a technique independent of trying to make a painting.  Sycra focuses on learning how to use a digital brush, but one can extrapolate-

Below, you can see a series of experiments I did with Raw Umber last year.  For these, I instituted the pure "I'm not even making a painting" rule, and just played and experimented to see what I could get the paints to do.  Sometimes I played with color, sometimes pure wet-into-wet technique, etc.  Sometimes I was aiming for mountainscapes, sometimes beach scenes, sometimes a mass of vegetation, etc. I had some mini-successes, but all in all it's full of a lot of failing and flailing.  Hahaha- aka, playing.  But the truth is I didn't make any successful paintings out of these experiments.  Still, these sorts of things come back around, as a tool I experimented with at an earlier phase can unexpectedly come into play at a later time.  I did 2 blog posts on these experiments back in early 2015 that focused on my iterative process- this one and this one.

It's also worth saying, before I wrap up this post, that there are times when I start by unsuccessfully working on a composition, only to realize part way through that I really should be working on a technique.  This has happened more than once.  In the series above, it happened, where you can see the first few attempts with the mountain road, and then the opening up of the "laboratory" to better learn and explore the technique.  The same thing happened in this series below, where I started with some larger wet-into-wet paintings, only to figure out part way through that I didn't really know what I wanted, or how to get there.  From that point, I shifted directly into small sketches (7.5" x 5"- really tiny stuff), just to explore composition, sequencing, and color combos.  In the end, its some of the elements of these itty bitty sketches, where I wasn't so focused on "making a painting", that I was most satisfied with as paintings.

So, to reiterate, I tend to have a 3-pronged approach to this process-

1) Work Small-  As you can tell from the sets of paintings earlier in the post, when I'm working this way I paint small (11" x 7.5" or smaller).  I also sometimes paint more than one small painting at a time.  It's worth noting that the goal is not necessarily to paint a "painting", but to try new things out after you assess the previous attempt.  I'm not painting the Mona Lisa- I'm experimenting and getting some mileage, so knocking out a few at once will let me view more iterations.  They also go quickly when they're this small- perhaps 30-45 minutes a painting max.  They're about as close as a watercolorist can get to sketches.

2) Decide on One Change at a Time- Just as Sycra suggests, I also focus on only one big change at a time- if I'm altering the composition, then that's the big change; if I'm exploring a technique, then that's the change; if I'm trying different color combos, then that's the change, etc.  I try to corral the variety of changes.  The goal is to narrow the parameters of my experiment so I can do a better job of critically assessing the alteration's affects.

3) Separate Technique From Compositions- I sometimes just paint and experiment with techniques without any composition in mind.  This only goes so far, because context matters, but when you are simply trying to get a handle on, say, softening an edge with a thirsty brush, you may not want to try to work on a painting for 1.5-2 hours to get to that special point.  You may just need to paint a bunch of wet into wet blobs and learn how to repeatedly soften their edges without the fear of ruining your art piece.  Sometimes separating the technique from the "art creating" can let you experiment more freely, because you're not so attached to success. 

So, to surmise, when you using this approach- 1) paint smaller and quicker, 2) focus your changes for each iteration so you can better use a critical eye, and 3) help free yourself from the fear of failure, by separating your technical experiments from your actual "painting" process.  I don't use this approach all the time- sometimes I feel like I've got control of my technique, and I just want to focus on creating the image.  But sometimes I'm really kind of lost, and need to just... explore and learn, independent from success.  When I'm there, I reopen the lab and set about iterating.