Intimidating project? Make a prototype!

I often come out of an art museum inspired to make something myself. Lately, I’ve been wanting a large painting, and decided to paint one myself. The problem is, I’m feeling intimidated now that the preparation process is over and I need to make the first marks on a pretty large canvas. But just like when I approach a large design project, a prototype (or two!) can help.

The easy part

For me, the planning and shopping before any art project is the easiest part. I happily trot to an art supply store, pick out a canvas and study any other supplies I might need. I’m usually pretty good about understanding what I’ve got and grabbing just the missing pieces. I know what size canvas I can work with, the proportion, and (for large pieces) what amount of color or gesso I’d need. But the store is tempting and I often convince myself while shopping that I absolutely must start yet another unrelated art experiment, and get supplies for that as well.

For this particular painting, I even collected birch branches for reference. They look cool as-is, which is nice for my apartment interior decor, but also dangerous because they’re at risk of becoming a permanent fixture instead of a work-in-progress.

Even the planning stage of a painting can be super easy. I’m pretty good at making thumbnail sketches with notes, and at testing color combinations, or mixed media, in preparation for the bigger piece. These steps still feel easy and feel quick and smooth. It’s the next part that’s intimidating.

The hard part

Once I’ve exhausted all the possible “practice” steps, it’s time to make the Real Thing. That’s when things get tough. I come up with all sorts of excuses and put off starting and finishing the real piece. Sometimes I tell myself I’m almost there - after all, the colors and general composition are already worked out in sketches. But I still wait to get started. Somehow the large size (this painting will be 24x36”) and the feeling of it being the final piece really stop me from working on it.

This feeling is not unique to paintings or even artworks. Anytime I consider starting a large design project, there’s room for hesitation. Big projects with many unknowns can be intimidating, especially if I try to consider all the details at once, and get lost in them.

Prototypes can help you to get through the hard parts

In design, prototypes are a common way to get from an unknown to knowing the next step by making an approximation of something at low cost. They can be very rough and quick to make, like thumbnail sketches - or a close approximation of how a finished product might look and feel, but on a reduced scale.

To get closer to my painting, I decided to make a prototype on a smaller scale that felt more approachable.

My first one was a big one-color sketch that helped me figure out how I can repeat the tree shapes but still keep the pattern interesting. All of them are drawn from different angles of the same couple of birch branches.

The second prototype was a color sketch. The shapes were mostly figured out already, so I focused on how the white, gray and black looked on my cream background.

To “graduate” to the bigger painting, I might need yet another prototype - a bit bigger one that uses the acrylic paints I plan to use in the final piece. But with these bigger and bigger prototypes, I feel much more confident, and know I’ll eventually get to my big painting, instead of putting it off.

Maria Matveevasixth-9