23 thoughts on painting process

Well, this post is either going to be Quite Interesting or Unutterably Dull. Obviously to me it’s the former, as it’s about my process. I’m always quite fascinated by other artists’ processes too, so hopefully for you not too much of the latter. 😉

Process is something artists are often asked about, and it can be very hard to express or explain as it’s often subtle and made up of fleeting moments that are barely noticed at the time.

That said, I have been noticing some very subtle nuances recently in terms of my process, and wanted to share them here – along with some of the less subtle ones – partly as a way of making sense of them for myself, and also because perhaps they will make sense to you too, or reassure you, or prompt you to consider and learn more about your own process. Knowing about your own process gives you power, so I do recommend doing some noticing with yours. God is in the details, as they say.

The photos are from a recent painting session that prompted all this noticing and introspection. 🙂

rough layout with charcoal

rough layout with charcoal {I gessoed over an old painting for this one}

aqua-handMy paintings usually begin with, and are carried forward by, a specific feeling, especially if I’m not using a reference image. Not necessarily a feeling that I could put words to. It’s not like I think, oh I know, I’m going to paint joy today! It’s like a magnet that pulls both me and the painting forward together, and can act as a touchstone if I lose my way.

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Often before starting, and also during pauses in painting, I’ll visit my Pinterest boards {specifically the painting inspiration board and any others that pertain to what I’m painting}, not to copy anything, but to feel into new marks, composition ideas, colours, approaches. It gets things flowing again.

aqua-handI often lose my way {I do this when writing and talking too!} – a kind of visual version of rambling, and sometimes find I’ve gone so off the path I actually can’t quite remember that initial feeling that I wanted to express. This can be very frustrating. When it happens I step back, talk to myself internally about it, turn the canvas around, and will often look to some of my favourite artists for sparks to get me going again. Sometimes all it takes is an idea for a certain mark, an adjustment of the composition, or to put a certain colour somewhere.

just playing at this point

just playing at this point

aqua-handI often forget that I don’t have to finish a painting in the same session I start it, although that would be my preference because somehow something is often lost in the pause, and colours don’t always blend together in the same way the next time. That can be a good thing sometimes, as it brings new energy to the painting.

aqua-handI paint till I feel done. If that happens before I’ve used up the paint on the palette, I use it to make marks on new canvases {or old ones gessoed over and ready to go}, to carry the colour palettes across and not waste the paint.

aqua-handIf I reach a stopping point but want to continue painting, I start a new one and work back and forth between the two. So I always like to have several canvases of different sizes ready.

starting to consider composition and where it's going

starting to consider composition and where it’s going

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Sometimes it flows through me, and I just make marks and switch colours without thinking. Sometimes I have to consciously remind myself what kind of marks I always enjoy or that tend to work, and run through a list of options in my head until something feels like the next right step.

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There is almost always a point during a painting where I ‘suddenly realise’ I don’t know how to paint, and become utterly convinced I have no idea what I’m doing and am no good at it. I just keep painting.

aqua-hand There are usually phases of painting over something I wasn’t sure about and instantly regretting it. I often have to push myself to keep going over bits and not be precious about what’s already there. In the end I never regret it, but at the time it can be very nervous making.

starting to work into it with charcoal

starting to work into it with charcoal and sgraffito {scratches that reveal the colour below}

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Paintings with less layers tend to feel less complete – less full and whole – for me, although there are of course exceptions; some just flow out and are done with very few.

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What feels true one minute suddenly doesn’t when new marks arrive, so there’s a constant push pull, which is partly why I love painting, and partly why I don’t.

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I like to listen to music when I’m painting, and dance and sing and get my whole body involved. It helps keep things loose and makes it more fun. It also helps keep the inner critic quiet.

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Sometimes there is a lot of swearing and shaking of fists and wails of ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?! I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU NEEEEEED!’ If I’m going to have drama in my life, in the studio is best. 😉

bringing in lighter tones

bringing in lighter tones

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Part of me knows that if I painted every day {or at least more frequently} I would significantly develop my mark making and understanding of how a painting works and be able to make richer, more nuanced paintings. I’d also not have to remind myself of how to paint {or how I paint} every damn time! I want to want to do that, but it just doesn’t work out that way. And forcing it is a no no for me.

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A painting I’m 100% happy with one day can feel not quite right another day. This can seem disappointing, but really it just means that I am constantly shifting into new patterns {like sand blown by the wind – different but neither better nor worse}. Often once I’ve said something with a painting I’m complete with that, and having moved on it then doesn’t feel so meaningful for me. That’s also why I tend not to do series. {This does seem to be changing right now.}

aqua-handSometimes if I’m stuck I’ll introduce a new colour. I love doing that, especially with acrylic inks, because of the dripping.

Naples Yellow!

Naples Yellow! The best yellow ever.

aqua-hand My favourite materials to use are gesso, acrylics, charcoal and oil pastel/oil stick. I’ve been playing around with plaster, modelling paste and textured collage base layers too.

aqua-hand My ‘signature’ marks seem to be haphazard vertical lines, like old falling down fencing. I have no idea why I love doing them so much, but they make perfect sense to me, internally.

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I don’t want to just make pretty paintings {although I want them to work aesthetically}. It’s imperative to me that they have layers of meaning, even if no one else ever knows what they are.

aqua-handPaintings with meaning require a much more intense connection between me and the canvas.

almost there

almost there

aqua-hand My favourite part of painting is probably the beginning, when it’s all wild and crazy and you can do whatever you like on the canvas. It’s the later decision making, and the endeavour to not get tighter and tighter the more there is on the canvas, that I find challenging. Sometimes in a good way; I do love the problem solving nature of painting.

aqua-handSometimes I make mark after mark over a certain area, hoping blindly that at some point one of them will look and feel right. I don’t love that part, but it’s good for me to feel out of control sometimes.

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I like to bring paintings down to a certain corner of my living room when they feel finished, or if I’m not sure what they need, so I can see them from my sofa and just muse on them a bit each day.

Towards Home // Tara Leaver

Towards Home // Tara Leaver

Does any of this sound like your process? Do you notice anything about yours that you’d like to share here? I find this whole area quite fascinating, so please leave your thoughts in the comments!