Exploration is a Good Thing

May 23, 2022

Several years ago, I felt I needed more help with color in my paintings. They seemed dull, lifeless, and sometimes muddy. I wanted glorious, bright, and bold color but had no idea had to get it.  I started studying color theory but all I got was a lot of definitions. That didn’t help me paint better.

I took classes and started learning different bits and pieces, using different paints and eventually I learned enough to get “out of the mud” with bolder, brighter color. My paintings began to get better.

When I began teaching, I dove even deeper in my study of color. I felt I knew how to make bold color, but I didn’t really understand WHY it worked and knew I needed those answers for my students.  I have more answers now, and guess what, my paintings have continued to improve.

An article in NORTHWESTERN’S Winter 2022 Magazine, “The Science of Art. The Secret to Creating a Masterpiece”, presented an interesting theory. Northwestern researchers studied data from 800,000 pieces of art, 7,000 films and 20,000 scientists.

The article concluded that

“Hot streaks are a direct result from years of exploration (studying diverse style or topics) immediately followed by years of focusing on a narrower area to develop a deep expertise.”

Pretty cool!  So, for us artists, spending years exploring different areas of art, mediums, supplies, genres, etc. (all those years artists are worried about not producing a consistent product or creating their style) is essential to the eventual focus and expertise (and success, aka “hot streak”) in one area. 

Van Gogh’s “hot streak” was 1888 - 1890, where he painted his most famous and colorful works.  “If you look at his production before 1888, it was all over the place,” says Wang, of Northwestern's Center for Science of Science and Innovation.

I’ve felt a similar phenomenon in the last couple years.  The more I wrote, created, and dug deeply in all areas of art to teach my students, the more I got great ideas for my own artwork. I continue to have a growing list of awesome ideas for paintings, color combinations, new techniques, books to write, etc., to dig into. It is for this reason I will never be only a teacher or painter. The two are too good together. They produce better results for me and my students even if it is a challenge to balance both.

I’m so thankful to all of you who have come to trust me with your painting instruction. Without you I would be less of an artist.