Channel your efforts—and strengthen your impact.
by Susan Abbott
Fresh out of art school, I was on the hunt for a gallery. I put together a portfolio showing everything I could do as a young painter: expressive charcoal figure drawings, loose plein air oil landscapes, detailed watercolor still lifes. I thought gallery owners would be impressed by my wide range of styles and subjects. After all, my mom was!
Instead of praise, however, I was met with puzzled looks. “What are you trying to say with your work?” the dealers asked. “What, exactly, is it that you do?” I retreated to my studio to think about my answers, and decades later, I’m still figuring this out. For an artist, there are no more difficult questions, and each of us must find our own response.
The minimalist master Agnes Martin (American, 1912– 2004) searched until she came upon a visual idea that felt like hers alone to explore. In describing her breakthrough moment, she said, “Then a grid came into my mind … and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, This is my vision.” Hundreds of beautiful grids later, we can see the prolific fruit born of that very specific idea.
Cultivation of Limits
The public often has the impression that making art is about freedom, but from an artist’s perspective, the work is more about narrowing possibilities than about having endless choices. Beginners experiment enthusiastically with many media and techniques, and they happily try out the wildly diverse styles of their teachers. Later, as they move on from instruction and begin the journey to becoming independent artists, they must figure out what they want to say and how to say it.
Defining the limits of our creative practice takes more time than making a few quick decisions. It’s an organic process that begins as we seed ideas, weed out the unworkable, and then winnow the endless possibilities that art presents to us. We achieve strong technique in a medium or two, develop a recognizable style and explore deeply personal subjects. As we do these things, we grow our limits, choice by choice, painting by painting.
When we reach our goal of building a professional life, our name becomes associated with our imagery. We are “Jane Doe, who makes colorful acrylic abstractions” or “John Smith, the photorealist watercolor landscape painter.” We continue down these chosen paths until it feels as if our creativity is stifled by the rules we’ve created for ourselves. Then it’s time to start experimenting again.
If limits can sometimes inhibit us as artists, why do they also help us? One reason is that when we have no limits on the way we work, expertise becomes difficult. Developing the skills we need to state our vision takes time and repetition. With 10,000 hours of practice under our belts, we can achieve proficiency in a few media—in pastel and oil, for example, or in printmaking and watercolor. But to achieve expertise in four or five media? That’s a daunting challenge.
Too many ways of seeing can also slow down our efforts to develop an individual vision. We live in a time when the internet and print media give us access to the entire history of art, as well as to an enormous quantity of contemporary artwork. It’s easy to be influenced by the thousands of images that flash by as we scroll Facebook and Instagram posts and browse YouTube videos. Amid all this noise, how does an artist find an separate, identifiable voice?
A good starting point is to set guidelines for your work, rather than looking for too much guidance from others. This might mean committing to exploring just one small corner of your own wide interests. Let’s say, for example, you want to paint still lifes. Narrow down that idea even further and try a series using the same medium, the same canvas size or the same few props. Experiment with different compositions within these limits and see how far and in what direction this one path can lead you.
It seems paradoxical that our powers as artists grow from the very limits we impose on ourselves, but consider this thought experiment: Imagine a painting by van Gogh. Chances are that you can immediately envision his colorful, textured, bold artwork in your mind’s eye. Now, imagine putting the work of another painter—say, Degas—beside that of van Gogh. You immediately sense how different Degas’ painting, with its subtle colors, smooth brushwork and urbane Parisian figures, is from van Gogh’s Provençal sunflowers. Both began with paint and canvas, so how did they end up in such different places?
The answer is that they each, over time, limited their subjects, colors, brushwork and composition. They experimented, but within boundaries they set for themselves. Narrowing their choices allowed these artists to create painting after painting that expresses a unique vision and authentic voice.
So, if you’re struggling with uncertainty in your work, try giving up the idea of infinite possibilities and instead dive deeper into a few of your most exciting ideas. To get started, try the challenges presented here. You may find new creative freedom when you discover the power of limits.
Limit Your Subject: Pick a subject that interests you and then narrow that choice further. Rather than thinking, I’ll paint plein air landscapes, think, For the next few months, I’ll paint plein air landscapes at the same place and the same time of day. For my series shown here, I did just that, returning every week to a nearby farm with 12×12 panels for an afternoon of oil painting. By the end of the year, I felt my ability to observe color in the landscape had greatly improved. By adding the further limitations of medium and canvas size, I had fewer decisions to make, and I created a visually unified series.
Limit Medium and Size: Create a series that limits the paper, panel or canvas you use to the same size and shape. Explore how this format (square, rectangle, diptych—or even circle) influences the way you design your painting. Investigate how other artists have used this format and what you can learn from their design choices. In this series of oils, for example, I explored the possibilities of creating narratives about landscapes with a polyptych (multi-panel) format. Each four-panel set addresses a different landscape element—adding another layer of limitation.
Limit Your Palette: Working with the same three pigments for a series of paintings is an effective way to develop a more individual color approach. Pick just three primary colors, for example, and do a series of paintings that explore the wide range of color compositions available from a triad. Here are two options you can try. The cool-triad colors are based on lemon yellow, alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. The warm-triad colors are based on cadmium yellow pale, cadmium red and Prussian blue.
Check out the full article with additional images in the March/April 2023 edition of Artists Magazine.
Susan B. Abbott earned an MFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and exhibits her paintings widely in galleries and museums. To see more of her work plus her class schedule, visit susanabbott.com. Follow her on Instagram @susanabbott_art. Also feel free to check out an additional tutorial from her here and Susan Abbott: Anatomy of a Painting.