How to improve your artwork

How to improve your artwork

By stepping away from the painting.

This week I wanted to talk about the need to remove oneself in order to see things in a different light.

When I lived in the USA, I had a horrible but brilliant oil painting teacher.  She never liked me and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed with her, but I endured her sometimes brutal attacks on me because I quickly recognised that she was a really good teacher.

At every lesson we would have to go through the ritual of being made to ‘step away from the painting’ and then walk around the room and look at what everyone else was doing.  We were then firmly encouraged to critique each other’s work before being allowed to continue with our own work again. The last 30 minutes of every class was a critique session and she was vicious with all of us.  Many students never returned the following term.

It always felt as if you had just found your flow and she made us stop – a nightmare – but it worked.  The problem about being “in the flow” is that you don’t take stock of what is working and what isn’t.

By being made to take that step back we were reassessing our work with fresh eyes; and with the comments of the other artists around us to hopefully improve the outcome of our work.IMG_20191106_163551

I still do this all these years later.  Sometimes I will set an alarm to remind me when to stop, but often I will play music and at the end of each song I physically move away.  Standing up to produce art makes this much easier, but if you work sitting down, having strategies to make yourself get up are really worth the investment.  I had a bad back injury a couple of years ago when I couldn’t stand for lengthy periods. Sitting down was my only option so I know that it is very easy to forget to move.


The USA class was a strange setup and only four of us turned up to take her classes consistently – something I did for four years, – I was a glutton for punishment, but it taught me not only how to deal with the artwork I produce but also how I approach my entire art business.


I am super busy; I write newsletters and blogs; I produce artwork; I teach; I post daily to Facebook and Instagram, not just for myself but for an art group, too.  I am a very active member of a couple of art groups; I run an artists’ in-person support group and an on-line support group; I am trying to put together an art fair next year and I may or may not (I managed it this year, I’m not sure about next) be the area co-ordinator for my county’s annual Open Studio event, and oh, I also take a weekly watercolour class, as I have much still to learn.

On top of all that I have a house to run, a husband and two children to deal with and a bunch of long-suffering friends who complain that they do not see much of me because I am buried in all of the above.  I half-run a book group; I have elderly in-laws who periodically take up our time, and now we are in the middle of ‘staging’ the house to sell next year and so much more.

It is just as important that in all of these areas of my life I stop and step away from each one in order that I can come back with fresh eyes, but what is the best way to make this happen?

Well, my strategy is fairly simple.  Timetabling.  I make sure that I divide up my day so that I only tackle small elements of each activity at a time and I timetable them.

For instance, on a Monday I will write the first draft of my blog.  I send it to my husband to proof-read, he sends it back later the same day, but I don’t look at it again that day.  I have stepped away from it and started on the next thing on my timetable.  I won’t look at it until Tuesday so that I can review what I have written with fresh eyes.  By the time I re-read it I have tackled so many other things that I have almost forgotten what I wrote on Monday.

I do the same with other elements, too.  I allow an hour for posting to social media for both myself and the art group, I put aside an hour for research and writing up reports for the group, have time allocated to do my business admin and another tranche of time put to one side for making art.

By breaking up the things I need to do into small bite-sized chunks it means that I have in effect done some work, stepped away, come back with fresh eyes but still managed to be effective and get everything done as well.

But I am not perfect.  Recently I have been unwell, so everything has slipped.  When this happens, everything goes wrong all together at once.  I can see the system slipping away and chaos ensuing.  It has happened to me this week.

I had to get my Christmas card made and off to the printers but not feeling well, I have been behind on other stuff so that was put on the back burner whilst I fire-fought all the other stuff that didn’t get done.  Some things had to be done first and in a hurry.

Prearranged meetings had to be prepared for.  Promises to provide vital information to people had to be kept, but the work needed to be put in first in order to be able to deliver.

And what always happens when you are in that panic mode?  Everything else stops working properly.

My e-mails refused to appear on my laptop but were coming through to my phone.  Attachments on my phone however, refused to open.  My internet service decided to play up and every time I tried to copy and paste text into my Mail Chimp setup, the entire internet browser would shut down closing all the tabs I keep open.

Thankfully this time there was no printing involved as when I have a meltdown like this, it is often the printer which causes the most angst.


I pushed through it all, didn’t kill anyone and did eventually manage to get all the right documents off to the right people.  I did, however, forget to turn up for an on-line meeting. Apologies ladies, it simply went out of my head, but I am now back on track.

I realise that some people worry that if they stop, particularly with art, they will never get started again.  I will cover this next week as I recognise this is a real concern for many.

But the moral of my story and I hope an inspiration to you dealing with potential overwhelm, is, get some structure in place such that you deal with items in a way that you can ‘step away’ to give you the ability to see things differently when you return to them.

I promise that it will really help.

A footnote about the teacher in the USA.  Every week she would tell the other students how well they were doing but she didn’t ever say anything positive to me.  I took it that I needed to work harder and improve and didn’t say anything to anyone else – I just tried harder.

I also didn’t tell her or the other students that I was moving back to the UK as I figured they wouldn’t bother with me, but literally three weeks before the end of my last series of classes with her she looked at the piece I had been labouring over and said: “Mmm. Good. I would hang that on my wall.”

The other students cheered and clapped; I was stunned, as was the teacher.  “What’s all the fuss about?”, she asked.  One very brave lady, who was very obviously the teacher’s favourite said, “That is the first time you have ever said anything positive to Alison.”  They had all noticed but didn’t want to say anything to me for fear of upsetting me more or getting in the teacher’s bad books.

The teacher had the good grace to apologise. I don’t think she was sorry, but whatever.  I won’t ever forget her, she taught me so much and maybe if she had been nice to me, I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons.

As for that painting, it is this one below and I will never sell it.

Drop of life


One Response

  1. Wow, you are very busy! I totally know what you are saying about walking away, not easy sometimes, but it usually proves to help, not only painting but other areas in life! Glad you stuck with the teacher, she obviously taught you well!

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