Expanding your skills by exploring an unfamiliar subject
In taking steps toward a goal, you will find that new steps reveal themselves to you, as you go. Sometimes they are simply next steps on the same path, other times they are a surprising new direction, a different perspective on your work, or an unexpected creative challenge. I share how to step out of your creative comfort zone, why it’s important to fill your toolbox with new skills, the importance of embracing mistakes, and how to incorporate your new skills into your unique creative style and voice.
My most recent challenge to my creative comfort zone began in late fall/early winter when I found myself noticing big scarves, hats, and draped layers of fabric. The textures, colour, and personality of these simpler shapes made people fascinating to me. (Me, who is hardly ever drawn to people as a subject!)
A while after I began noticing these enticing colours and shapes, I also began to feel more aware of my limitations around painting and drawing people. I have long been captivated by architecture, landscape, weather, and sense of place, and these tend to be my preferred subjects. Over the years, I have taken a number of life drawing classes and used to regularly attend drop-in life drawing sessions. However, people never captured my attention – and I’ve often struggled with capturing them well.
Listening to your intuition
Have you ever heard that quiet voice telling you that you need to do (or stop doing) something? Over the years, I’ve become quite familiar with it and, annoying as it can be, I’ve learned it does little good to try to ignore it.
So, I found myself with a sudden awareness of an unwanted limitation in my work. I also knew that I wanted to be able to include people as a way of enhancing a scene… but the idea of doing that sounded terrifying! So, I let it sit in the back of my mind for a while and then tackled it as I have learned to do most things: with very, very small steps.
Taking small steps toward your goal
I have found that small steps work by far the best. They help you gain confidence without giving up when you encounter the challenges and failures that inevitably come with doing something new. Building something up through smaller steps tends to create habits and skills that stick. In fact, I have found that some of my biggest setbacks have occurred from taking too big a step, too soon. There’s a good little book about this called: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.
I have been ever so slowly sneaking up on painting people as subjects. I’ve continued my daily painting practice, but every so often, I have added in a person. I’ve painted them in a quick manner and as small elements in a larger scene. Eventually, I moved to painting them as primary subjects in a scene but they were backlit and there were relatively few details visible.
These incremental steps have allowed me to begin feeling out the subject. They have enabled me to get somewhat more comfortable with painting people and begin to uncover what I want to say about them and what role they may play in my work as I go forward. Learn more about taking small steps to build up your creative practice.
It’s important to look at what draws you in and what you are most motivated to capture in your work. Honouring this is what will make your work yours and give it your ‘voice’ or ‘style’. When you’re able to truly hear yourself and act on your behalf, wonderful things become possible!
Approaching the subject in your own way
In general, I try not to spend too much time looking at the works of others. Of course, I follow a number of artists and have a several favourites whose work I refer to for guidance. You can learn so much by studying the works of artists whose sensibilities, style, or skill moves you. When you see the subject captured in someone else’s work in a way that appeals to you, it can be helpful to consider the specifics of why. There is also benefit to taking a course or reading an instructional book. A more experienced teacher can open your eyes to new ways of seeing, techniques, or common mistakes that can save you time and effort.
However, I think it’s also important to keep the works and teachings of others in perspective. It’s key to leave plenty of space to hear and explore your own voice. Ultimately, your work and your voice will come from inside you. You must learn to honour your own creative process and your own internal motivations. Tuning in to those over the noise of external voices, expectations, and demands is important and requires becoming aware of your creative well and learning how to keep it filled.
Remember that stepping outside your comfort zone takes a lot of your energy. This is to be expected and is a part of doing something that is new or difficult for you. Many a time have I forgotten this and caused my creative work to come to a full stop while I recovered.
Honouring what drives your creative work without limiting yourself
When I was young, I wanted nothing more than to have straight hair. It took me a long time to accept my curly hair but, eventually, I came to see it as a part of my own identity, of what makes me me, and now I love it and wouldn’t dream of changing it.
It is in this way that I take care to notice the things that speak to me most insistently in my creative work. It’s important to look at what draws you in and what you are most motivated to capture in your work. Honouring this is what will make your work yours and give it your ‘voice’ or ‘style’. When you’re able to truly hear yourself and act on your behalf, wonderful things become possible!
Even though I am pushing myself to explore people as a subject, it is still places that have my heart. Everywhere I go, I am always noticing and commenting on the light and landscape around me. I am always noticing the scenes, settings, and backgrounds in movies, books, and in life… and I’ve come to accept this as what drives my creative work. And yet, even as I honour the subjects and approaches that speak to me most, I am careful. I don’t want to become too limited, or find myself leaning on a certain technique or painting a certain subject as a crutch because my toolbox is incomplete.
Allowing for the increased energy required to step out of your comfort zone
Stepping outside your comfort zone takes a lot of your energy. This is to be expected and is a part of doing something that is new or difficult. When pushing yourself in an area, it is often necessary to go a little easier in other areas.
Many a time have I forgotten this and tried to do as much as I’d been doing before beginning this new project – or even more – and burned out as a result. Hearing your limits takes practice, but it can help you to not overdo it. Burning out or spooking yourself can wind up setting you back several steps and cause your creative work to come to a full stop as you recover. This tends to be more costly in the long run than a slower and steadier pace.
Comparing yourself to yourself is the only real measure of progress and growth. Each of us is individual with our own layers of experience and learning processes. Listen to your own way of learning and respect the pace and approach by which you learn best. It will be a less painful and more joyful process – and is likely to produce the best results!
Accepting and embracing your mistakes
Stepping outside your creative comfort zone can also trigger your inner critics or your perfectionism. It takes time to learn to do something well, and you will make many mistakes in the process. Anyone learning something new does. It’s to be expected!
I have often thought of learning to paint as similar to learning a new language. The more you are able to expand your vocabulary and the nuances of your communication skills, the more eloquently and effectively you will be able to express yourself. I notice this often as I compare my relative ease when writing – a skill I’ve been practicing much longer than painting – with image making. This both encourages me to continually expand my toolbox of painting knowledge and skills as I go, and also serves as a comfort when I feel frustrated by a limitation when painting.
I also try, as much as I can, to approach a new skill from a perspective of openness and curiosity. I also use small tricks – such as setting my paintings aside to review a few weeks or a month later, or finding fun little exercises to do – to keep judgement from becoming overwhelming or discouraging.
Celebrating how far you’ve come
I encourage you to take a little time to learn from your failed pieces and from your mistakes. As uncomfortable as they can be to look at, they often show you clearly where you can focus next.
I recommend keeping a few of these first pieces – I’m not going to say keep them all, I know how a failed painting can haunt you from its drawer – but keeping some can become a wonderful reminder of how far you’ve come. Many a time, I’ve sorted through a pile or portfolio case of old work and found myself pleasantly surprised and encouraged by how much stronger my work has become!
Finally, comparing yourself to yourself is the only real measure of progress, learning, and growth. Each of us is individual with our own layers of experience and learning processes. Try, as much as possible, to listen to your own way of learning and respect the pace and approach by which you learn best. It will be a less painful and more joyful process – and is likely to produce the best results!
If you are trying something new and finding it hard to keep yourself motivated to your goal, I have a post all about Spiralling Upward: Finding the Motivation and Courage to Keep Going