Multitasking: Refreshing or Distracting?

Since September, my working method has changed. Back in Belgium, I worked on one project at a time. No matter if I was working small or large, I enjoyed the process of working consistently from start to finish. Since arriving in Michigan, my working method has shifted and these days I am working on multiple things at once. The biggest change is the amount of time I am allocating to experimentation. This results in pieces I may not like or keep as well as new ideas that I incorporate into my work. Such lightbulb moments and times of frustration necessarily accompany my decision to try new mediums and subjects. All this has led me to wonder: are these other artistic activities refreshing and inspiring or simply distracting? In this blog post, I write about my experience in working differently than what was my norm and I share what’s working and what isn’t.

As I’ve written about here, this Fall I’ve been following two community art classes: one, on watercolour; the other, on portrait painting (medium of choice, mine is acrylics). The watercolour course takes me outside of my medium comfort zone and the portrait painting course takes me outside of my subject comfort zone. Between classes, I am keeping up with my more regular work of painting acrylic landscapes. But these additions to my artistic activities are not self contained and were not intended to be. My experience making acrylic landscapes and the newness of working with watercolour and on portraits mutually influence one another.  

A couple of things I’ve appreciated by expanding my artistic activities are:

  • Being able to make images that have a totally different result than what I’ve been used to producing. The same reference photo or idea will yield vastly different results if painted with acrylics or watercolour. I love that I can make layered, opaque paintings with acrylics and that I am learning how to suggest light and shadow through more transparent layers with watercolour. I am having to problem solve colour and value in new ways with a new medium and a new subject and this, in turn, is helping me to trouble shoot issues in my acrylic work. For example, in both courses we were talking about how brighter colours come to the forefront of a painting, while cooler, duller colours recede into the background. This insight/reminder was what I needed to hear to strengthen an acrylic landscape I was working on.
  • Expanding my subjects to include portraits means looking around me in new ways. Painting a face is both the same and different to painting a tree: on the one hand, I am looking at shapes and values for both subjects. On the other, my palette is quite different and what interests me in both subjects is different. When I am painting trees, my favourite part is adding the highlights in between the leaves to express the sunshine. In my brief experience with portraits, I love finding just the right stroke that creates the special expression that makes the image come to life. Knowing when a piece is finished is the same satisfied feeling across subjects, but the journey getting there is different.

A couple of things that have been challenging or that I’ve not enjoyed as much working on multiple projects:

  • Not feeling focussed. When I look around my studio space these days, I have watercolours out, exercises from class, abandoned studies, and some works I may want to go back to but maybe not. I have sketch books, which are now a compilation of landscapes and faces; my acrylics and canvases, pencils, and all kinds of different tools are laying around (maybe I just need to clean up?). While it’s great to have lots to work with, different mediums and different subjects can, some days, leave me feeling a little scattered. What should I be working on today? I have many projects on the go – some that will end as studies, some that will become part of my collection. I am still working out how to take the positives from this abundance without getting paralyzed from overwhelm and indecision.
  • A feeling of not producing enough. While I have lots of work around me, I have about four or five small, finished pieces after a couple months of daily work. Working on many different things at once, it can be difficult to tell if I am advancing with my main work of acrylic landscape painting.

Overall, the experience of working differently, that is, on multiple projects at once, has solidified that I want to prioritize my focus on acrylic landscapes while continuing to explore adjacent artistic activities when I can. In addition to being fun, learning new skills has meant incorporating different techniques and ideas into my process of acrylic landscapes. It has meant adding a useful step of making preliminary (watercolour) sketches for my main projects. These extra activities have encouraged me to be more clear about my priorities and readjust when I feel that my focus is off. Trying out new mediums and subjects has put me in touch with other artists and this is one of the biggest positives. There’s nothing like discussing your work with others, taking about technique, and getting that remove from your own process. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, but learning never is!

Check out the latest episode of the Art Juice podcast which addresses these questions of when to try new things and when to stick to what is working best for you!

Thanks for reading!

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