During my undergraduate degree at RISD, one of the best painting teachers I have ever had told me that if there was anything that she hoped I would take away from her class, it would be how to get myself out of a painting rut. For the duration of the semester, every time I or one of my classmates hit a major roadblock, she would be there to throw curveballs at us, getting us out of our habits and out of our own heads. That was where innovation began, and when breakthroughs happened- at the cusp of desperation, fear, hopelessness, and the other emotions that accompany the challenges that come with being a painter. I like to compare being “stuck” in my painting practice to climbing a mountain. The challenges lie when you are headed towards a peak; all you can see in front of you is the uphill struggle, and all the work you have to do. You certainly can’t see the other side or the view from the top, where things becomes clear and everything is worthwhile. But determination and perseverance pushes you forward and keeps you going. And when you finally reach the top of the peak, when you reach resolution, the whole world shines brighter; you can sail on the downhill, knowing that when you reach the bottom, you’ll do it all over again, because the challenges are worth it.
I have systems to help me get “unstuck” in my paintings. They are exercises I have created for myself to get me to think and work differently; essentially creative problem solving. One of my systems right now has been to create a “color calendar”.
This is the beginning- This grid is a calendar; the month of September. Everyday I access how I’m feeling, and imagine that feeling as a color. It has to be incredibly specific. I mix the color with oil paint, and fill in the little space on the grid for that day of the week. Easy. I also established a rule for myself- whatever color I am feeling that day has to be used in another painting I am working on, whether that means continuing on a larger, long-term painting, or creating a small painting I can complete in a few hours.
These are two examples of small paintings that were completed in a single session based on this color system. Both are self portraits. I frequently return to self portraiture as a subject when I am having a difficult time and need to find some relief within my work.
Relying on this system has taken away a lot of the anxiety that sometimes comes with the uncertainty and decision making in painting. I have many other systems and rules I construct for myself in order to breakthrough difficult spots.
This week, The Bascom has had the privilege of welcoming The Southern Lights to teach a 3-day abstract painting workshop. Observing the workshop, I noticed many systems and exercises that would be useful for any painter to overcome painting challenges.
Students chose a limited color palette to work with for the remainder of the week. They then painted the same thing multiple times, changing their placement of colors in the composition to determine the most successful proportions within their paintings. In another exercise, they used alternative painting tools to create new and different marks instead of only those obtained from using a brush.
I was really drawn to the painting demonstration that The Southern Lights gave on the second day of the workshop. Each of the three women took turns painting on a large horizontal surface while the class dictated the actions of the painting, shouting out abstract instructions. “Use the color orange and paint the feeling of disgust”, “Use lime green and paint the how you feel when you sell a painting”, and “Paint the same shape three times in different sizes” were just some of the suggestions that were then applied to the painting. It slightly reminded me of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies”, which were random suggestions he gave to musicians in order to push them and get them to perform in new ways. I use and apply those Oblique Strategies to my paintings as well, and have many times surprised myself in solutions to creative problems.
-Kristina Rose Baker