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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

How having a plan could be bad for your art

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

"If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail." It's a great phrase, isn't it, and one that says a lot about the need to be organised in order to achieve success.

But while it might be appropriate for business, sport or some areas of personal development, I find there is one pursuit where careful planning doesn't produce the right results.

A field where not only does having a meticulously worked out plan fail to guarantee a great outcome, it actively hinders it.

And that's not to say that I haven't tried the uber efficient approach in the past. I have. And generally what I ended up with wasn't always something to write home about – or hang on its walls. So, having done a one-eighty, I've arrived at a point where quite a lot of what I do is left to chance or, at least, a process in which I can't predict the final result.

You will probably have guessed by this point that I'm talking about art (it is, of course, what this website is about). And that now we've moved on to talking, specifically, about intuitive painting.

I'm not going to pretend that deciding not to use a route map has made everything that much easier, or that I'm always really happy with my unexpected destinations.

There have been many times when I've wondered why on earth I've come up with such a dog's dinner of a painting.

And, equally, you might say that history is festooned with vast numbers of great works of art that have been very deliberately planned – from preparatory oil sketches to cartoons etched onto walls by apprentices, ready for the master to apply the final touches. After all, you wouldn't start on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a "I'll just see where it takes me" type of approach.

But I believe if we're going to express ourselves creatively then we need to tap into that imaginative, intuitive side and then, once we've made contact, not censor it by overthinking.

I took a course this year called the Creative Visionary Program, run by the American artist Nicholas Wilton. He teaches a process that encourages inquisitive play via a series of small boards, in which students are urged not to worry about a final outcome but just to enjoy putting down paint and making marks.

As well as working in a rotating sequence so that the student never gets too attached to any one piece, they are asked to keep a "throwaway" board on the side.

This is the piece on which leftover paint is dumped or brushes wiped. No care is given to it because it's there as a messy afterthought. And yet, it is amazing how often this board becomes the most visually interesting of the series.

All because the conscious mind has not been allowed to intervene, to sabotage the best intentions of the subconscious.

So, as way of an example, I've included some images of mine from a recent series that became an abstract interpretation of wildflower meadows. They started out just as a collection of different marks and brushstrokes with no thought of what they would become.

Abstract landscape paintings red blue white
Treading the boards: looking over the series of small works before deciding the next direction

And, as new layers went on, the idea came to add brightly painted pieces of collage paper. Following from top left clockwise in the picture above, this, below, is how each turned out.

Photo finish: the final pieces with additional layers of collage. From above, Talk Me Through It, Picture This, Only Connect and Maybe Someday

These pieces could have gone in an infinite number of different directions at any moment in the process. I made no firm decision at the outset and, instead, each step was taken as a reaction to what was already on the board until finally the subject, if you like, revealed itself.

Even the idea of adding the collage papers was in its way an accident. Originally, I'd become drawn to the rich yellow colour, seen in one of the above pieces, that had been left over on my greaseproof paper palette. I cut it out to make a shape and left it on the table.

Then, quite by chance, that yellow paper blew onto an entirely different painting which I'd placed on the floor to view.

I liked the effect so much I stored the thought – and this is the result.

I know I would never have arrived at this end had I had a rigid plan. And, you know what, I'm quite pleased about that.

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