Break Out of Your Creative Rut

Watercolor master Stan Miller offers his best advice for shaking up stale routines, and reinvigorating your love and excitement for your art.

“Profile of Charles” (watercolor, 19 x 26 in.)

1. Print out an image of something you want to paint, do the painting with the image and your painting upside down. Painting upside down helps you paint what you actually see, not what you think is there. It allows you to see drawing, proportion and value errors much more easily too.

2.  Do a painting about 11 x 14 inches, completing the painting only using 100 strokes.  Another one, using only 50 strokes. Another one, using only 10 strokes.  This teaches us to edit and simplify. In writing, a similar assignment might be: Tell me about your life, in 100 words, in 50 words, in 10 words… this is how a writing instructor might teach a student to move away from descriptive writing into more poetic territory, and it works for painting just as well.

“Weather Windows” (watercolor, 14 x 19 in.)

3. Do a painting by gridding a reference image into 16 squares.  Grid your canvas into 16 corresponding squares and, observing carefully, paint one square at a time. This can also be done by gridding your image into 100 squares, or 50, 24 or even just four squares.  Much like painting upside down, this exercise gets around the mental noise and teaches us to more accurately paint what we are observing.

4.  Limit or expand the time spent on a painting. Do a small, perhaps 4 x 6 inch painting, with a small brush and spend a minimum time of 3 hours on the painting – or 10 hours on a 4 x 6, if the image is complex enough. Alternately, spend just one hour on a painting that is large, perhaps 18 x 24 or 24 x 36 inches.  This teaches us different styles of brush and paint handling and different styles of painting altogether. Use a timer when you do these.

“Venice Shadow Light” (watercolor, 12 x 14 in.)

5.  Work from a black-and-white image but paint the image in color. The beauty of this one is that the color can’t be incorrect, because it is imaginary. Just make sure the drawing and the values are correct. Use a minimum of at least five colors.

6.  Do an entire painting using only three colors, red, yellow and blue … learn to mix these colors to get as many other colors as you need – or can imagine.

Join Stan Miller and other top watercolor artists from around the world at the next Watercolor Live!


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