Turning point – The Value of Leaving Your Comfort Zone

I wanted to talk about  the ideas behind my art but to do that I felt my current  work needed  context. So I’m going to talk about a painting I did before the current “red works” which was a turning point for me.  I’ve just put a thumbnail here so if you want to see it bigger  go to

Abstract oil painting
“Flow” oil on canvas 900 x 1200mm

Anyone who knows my work, knows that I don’t usually work abstract, but some of my students at the Fremantle Arts Centre had been asking me about abstract work.  So I did a lesson in my mixed media drawing class based on making a series of postcard sized  explorations of colour line shape and tone.
After messing around with coloured ink and paper with the class and getting results I was quite pleased with, I thought I should do a really large abstract painting and extend myself.  Also while I was stepping out of my comfort zone I decided to use colours that I don’t usually use,  earthy browns.
Of course I started the project full of excitement, but working with oil paint on a canvas nearly a metre wide and 1.2m tall is a lot different to working with coloured ink on postcard sized paper.  Anyone who says “abstract – my 5-year-old can do that” has never tried to do an abstract painting. Its much harder than it looks.
Abstract painting has all the elements of a figurative painting: colour, tone, brushmark, shape, composition but it doesn’t have an external subject matter. In fact the formal elements I just mentioned become the subject.  Without an external subject there is nothing to guide you.  You have unlimited freedom……..and with unlimited freedom it is very easy to make a mess.
I struggled with it,  but I was determined to make it work. I worked on it over and over with countless layers of paint and the painting change dramatically several times.  I often tell my students of the benefits of persevering with a piece of art.  This is something I learnt at art school, if you can work through times where the painting isn’t working, it takes you to places you would have never discovered if you stayed inside your comfort zone.  I have a formula for this which anyone who has been in my painting class will know.

  • Stand back and look at the work
  • Decide which bit of your painting is working and which bit isn’t
  • Change the bit that isn’t working
  • Go back to step one

Continue this for as long as necessary. Of course the difficulty in this is working out how to make the changes for the better, and sometimes it takes time. The other confusing element in this process is that, as the painting evolves the good bits can turn into the bad bits and no matter how attracted you are to a tiny area, if it doesn’t fit with the whole, it has to go.  Being precious is a recipe for disaster.
Using this process the painting started to transform into something I felt happy with. I learnt a lot from this piece, especially about the action of applying paint – brushstrokes, markmaking, blending and layering. The resulting painting has movement and depth and I think it works.
The new works I am making now emerge directly from this understanding and I am enjoying having abstract elements in my more figurative works.  The spacial relationships created in this work can be translated into more figerative works like the paintings I’m currently working on for my 2012 exhibition at Kingfisher Gallery.
see more of my art at www.shanajames.com