Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Break Out of Their Comfort Zone?

Chipboard Sculptures

“When a comfort level is reached in terms of style, how can you break out of it? I’ve tried experimenting with somewhat different styles, looking at a variety of art, but always go back to how I usually draw.”

It’s perfectly natural to develop tendencies in terms of the way that you work.  We all have habits that we form over time through experience. The most important thing you can do if you’re looking for change is to create a sense of self-awareness about your methods of working, and to take initiative to fight against those tendencies. Don’t let yourself mindlessly go on automatic pilot when you’re working.  Instead, have a strategy and vision of where you want to go and what you want to achieve.

For example, when I do figure drawing, I always have a tendency to draw the legs too short. If I don’t consciously think about this habit, I always immediately resort to drawing the legs too short.  I have to be very aware and make a concerted effort to compensate by drawing the legs too long. The length of the legs ends up just right if I draw what I think is “too long.”

You can also assign limitations to yourself based on what skills you’d like to isolate and work on. Write a list of what your tendencies are, and then think of a way that you could work to change each one. I know that I tend to be too reliant on the use of passages of dark in my work.   As a reaction to this habit, I’ll force myself to make a drawing that uses no black at all, getting myself to really harness and use the range of greys that is available. If I think I’m too fussy with details, I’ll work from reference photographs that are intentionally very blurry and very low in resolution.  This makes it impossible for me to pick at the specifics, and gets me to look at the overall, large shapes first. You want to create circumstances for yourself that exercise different “muscles” in your skill set. Resist the temptation to keep polishing your strengths, and work to target your weaknesses.

Digital Experiments Self-Portrait No. 7, version 2

Another concrete action you can take to break out of your comfort zone is to simply switch art media, especially one that is highly contrasting and that you don’t have much experience with. Often times I like to tackle the same subject with at least two or three different media.  Seeing the same subject through the lens of a different material often times dramatically changes my approach and mindset.

I recently worked on a series of 50 portrait drawings and 50 portrait sculptures. Both the sculptures and drawings originated from the same set of reference photographs, and yet the stylistically, the two bodies of work are quite different. The drawings are more violent, harsh, and aggressive while the sculptures tend to feel more subtle, intimate, and quiet.

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Ask the Art Prof Live is a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.

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“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”.


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