It's easy for artists to get into ruts as they learn and in their professional work. Our brain craves familiar territory, and will default to the 'comfort zone'. When was the last time you did a painting experiment? I'm not talking about picking a new subject-matter, or designing a new character. I'm talking about strange, unexpected, daring, experimentation.
The video to the right is an example of me using experimental techniques. The results are unpredictable, but that's how discoveries are made!
Every artist has a different definition, but I think of it as any piece of art that could never be included in your portfolio. A piece of art that isn't about beauty or polish, but instead strives to test your boundaries. I went to college with an artist named Carl Beu that painted with Photoshop differently than anyone else at SCAD – specifically, he used the smudge tool in a very striking way. The image below is an example of his technique – you can see that smudging 100% strength leads to a bizarre and unpredictable sort of blending. This was the result of experimentation with Photoshop, and over time he made it part of his standard painting technique.
Ever since college I've been fascinated by Paul “DJ spooky” Miller, who writes about sampled music in terms of 'collage'. As a visual artist, writer, and DJ, he examines the cultural importance of re-mixing and mashups. For him, the samples he chooses to use in his music add not only rhythmic and vocal layers – but cultural and historical ones as well. He overlays disparate parts into a rich, textural, unified composition. If the raw materials that DJs use to create their music are 'found sounds', what might the equivalent for digital art be?
Paul Miller might be a musician, but it's the experimentation that I want to focus on. Much of his work tests his personal boundaries; perpetually broadening his definition of 'music'. As he challenges himself in this way, he makes artistic discoveries which would have never happened by working in a conventional manner.
As samples layer together to create electronic music, so too can images layer together to create a painting. In this Feng Zhu video, he starts his painting by layering a number of photographs on the blank canvas. What's interesting is that the photos have nothing to do with his drawing. As he explains, the collage of photos is a quick way to achieve the 'feel' that the final painting is going for, and to give a set of background values. As the painting continues, he covers up these photos with paint – only allowing hints of the original collage to remain in the final image.
Is this first step 'painting'? It is 'collage'? One thing's for sure: it's experimental. Even if there's not a clear name for it, Feng is able to save time and energy by using this technique for his work. And though I'm not sure where he learned to work this way, it probably resulted from personal experimenting.
For most artists, working like this doesn't feel natural. Regardless, I encourage you to make small experimental 'doodles' and studies every week. The stakes are low, because these will never be 'finished' portfolio pieces. Instead, you're just testing the limits of Photoshop. You never know when you're going to stumble into an effective new technique!
Are you already experimenting? We'd love to hear about it in the comments!