Taking time to prepare for new work

To create art you have to accept that a certain amount of the time you spend will be wasted. You have to show up and do the work anyway, knowing that the first three hours you may spend going in circles. But you also know that those hours may be necessary to get you to the point where you make a series of decisions in ten minutes which can turn the whole painting.

By it’s very nature art can be elusive – if we knew in advance which things would work then it starts to turn into a bit of a predetermined factory line of production and takes away all the excitement of surprise.

So a certain amount of exploring time is essential. But how much?

“When I work I work very fast, but preparing to work can take any length of time.” When I posted this quote by Cy Twombly on Instagram it had a huge response from people who recognised this feeling of preparing to work – the act of being ready. It became clear there was big distinction between procrastination and preparing. Procrastination will see you do almost anything to avoid doing what you know you should be working on. Often from a sense of fear or doubt or self judgement, or – let’s face it – sheer laziness!

There are different forms of preparation too – practical time spent cutting paper, preparing grounds, cleaning materials. All valid, time consuming tasks, and a necessary part of preparing, but still not really the main task at hand.

Many times we prepare for creating new work by drawing pre-studies or reflecting on the painting that exists so far; sometimes this is necessary but too much advance thinking can stop you in your tracks. Instead I wonder if Twombly is talking about the preparing which happens actually on the canvas or within the drawing?

Is the sense of preparation Twombly is referring to, the time needed to sink into the work itself?

In life drawing I always take time to allow my arm to move across the paper without the charcoal or pencil actually touching the paper. No marks are made. Is this wasted? There is no evidence of the thought involved… but this is a helpful way to feel out the confines, to reach towards the edges, to anticipate the stretch and feel how you will fill the page. It’s a familiarisation which allows you to make stronger marks once you do begin to draw with more confidence.

Now we’re onto something that’s definitely not procrastination!

I’ve moved through all of these stages – first using my sketchbook to simply create marks. Using drawing materials alongside paint allows for an immediacy of choice. With painting there is always a degree of forethought as you must first select and mix the paint, but using other materials gives space for a more instinctive choice, especially of colour and I was interested to see combinations emerge which were certainly not planned.

Then I scaled up to some more fluid drawings with paint. Using black first means whatever marks you make will be bold from the start and that’s a strong starting point which encourages braver moves. There is no point in tinkering with details at this point…

I don’t know the answer to how much time needs to be spent preparing. Whether you call it planning or just thinking. I do know that whatever marks you make on a page have an inherent energy. You can see the speed in which they have been made and that brings a certain energy which I find essential to bringing the surface to life.

This is the preparing made visible. In a full painting many of these earlier marks may be covered as the painting progresses but they give you a sense of where to go and become an inherent part of the overall painting even if they get covered up.

This year I’m trying to keep track of work. I know that there is no predictable relationship between studio time and how many ‘finished’ paintings are actually produced, although it would be interesting to find out! So instead I am simply noting how many hours each week I spend within my studio.

Last week I told a friend that on one day, even though I had been in the studio for 4hrs I was only going to make a not of 2hrs because for some of the time I had been faffing… her response (she’s a writer) was that it ALL counts.

Faffing, procrastinating or preparing? The only answer is to be honest with ourselves – we know it in our hearts which is which. Don’t you?

2 replies
  1. Vaughan
    Vaughan says:

    This is all so true. Sometimes I just walk into my studio look around for something to jump out at me. Walk out and make a cuppa and with cup in hand walk back in again. Looking at previous work flicking through sketch books and just gazing out the window. Waiting for that little light to come on. Sometimes I just doodle on a piece of paper or throw some paint on a canvas not really thinking where I’m going. I have to go through all these phases before a starting point arrives. Also looking at other artists work and blogs like yours. So tomorrow I’ll make another cuppa and wander back in again. Thanks.

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