This morning I sat at my kitchen window and drew trees (had it not been for the cold I would have been outside). With paper and a pencil, I gently followed the lines, curves and movement of my subject the tree, noticing the ways in which it bent, where the shadows were, where its branches were naturally darker, where they become more thin, and more gentle and so on. For two hours I sat and drew these things over and over again.
Getting to know the subject/s of a piece that I am creating is always a part of my process, because it is essential to allowing intrigue and magic into your final work.
It can be little frustrating at times because if I think about the end game, and what needs to become of this tree that I'm drawing - a painting for a new textile collection - I'd prefer to just push forward to my conclusion. But in these moments of frustration I am gently reminded that this is the subject of my painting. This is the subject, the star of the film, the protagonist of the book, and you don't want to rush getting to know it.
Through a study process, the subject will reveal to you lots of intriguing and beautiful things; lots of important information about itself that you didn't necessarily think about when the idea or concept originally came to you. And if you have more than one subject - like I do for this work - spend the time with each, and then spend the time exploring their interconnected relationship.
Ideally you want to look at your subject from different angles. I actually have two beautiful Dogwoods in my garden, but interestingly their shapes and colours are so different which is ideal for this type of work because I get to see new things. When my subject is not right there in front of me - such as a woman in a figurative piece - then usually I will be exploring the essence of the woman through life drawing classes, and sketching lots of different photos until I understand her better.
The medium you choose for this exploration should also be considered. For example I started drawing my subject (a Dogwood tree) in pencil, but the lines were far too masculine and intense for the feminine style I would like in the final work (it's also likely I'll paint this work in watercolour). So I shifted to a softer medium - first charcoal stick but this again was encouraging too much precisions and short, sharp storks; so finally a Barol Charcoal Pencil - these are longer with a large rounded end point which stops me from being short and sharp and allows my lines to become more delicate and more intentional.
You might ask, well if I'm finishing the artwork in watercolour why am I doing the study in charcoal. Absolutely you can start working with your final medium, but I tend to find that when I am exploring with my final medium in the early conceptual phase, I am not in fact exploring or conceptualising. Instead my brain automatically clicks into "this is the final medium" which doesn't give me room to learn or play. Using an alternate medium, which offers an essence of what I'm looking for (in my case gentle strokes), helps me to focus on the subject and not my work. I go into study mode, not creating mode.
As such, during this process I'm not bothered by "mistakes" or "whether it looks good". Most likely it will not "look how you want it to" until you begin working with your final medium. But that's the point. How do you know what feels and looks right unless you learn to engage in a two-way conversation with your subject. I often find that I have ideas about a subject, but on further exploration and study I realise that my ideas were limiting.
As I am more of a "detailed" painter than some, I also use this study period to get out the obvious. This means I allow my self to draw and explore the obvious, the details, the perfect so I can become more soft and loose as I go on. Once I get the obvious out of my system, I can see the light instead of the line; or I notice the colour instead of the shape; and finally I see the subject's energy over what's more tangible.
How long should this subject study part of your process take? Not too long and not too short. I personally like to give myself a few hours of study over 2-3 days, because each day I will notice something new. These building blocks become the foundation to my final work from which the magic comes through.
And finally what do I mean by magic? Well, as you become lost in observation, your study will be a meditative process. As such, pay attention to those useful thoughts which appear in your mind as you study. "I like that dark spot"; "look at the way the light flickers"; I love its softness"; how interesting is that bend." If you allow them, these thoughts can gently guide your work, so I strongly recommend listening and writing down all that feels soft, intriguing and good. Allow them to take you on a journey with your piece. The concept we have for a work is rarely fleshed out - leaving a lot of room for exploration. I like to consider all creative work a journey, it's like we need to solve the mysteries of the puzzle to arrive at the final outcome. So this time of study allows for that journey to begin.
I absolutely guarantee that although you might feel "tired" of painting the same thing over and over again (or more accurately impatient to arrive at a conclusion), through this process beautiful things will emerge. Which means when you arrive at that "final" rendition ...the magic will just naturally happen. This time I'm referring to the beautiful and intriguing "elements" of our final work which capture everything we've learned about our subject, and make the work distinctly you.