Monday, 11 March 2013

Specialise or Generalise?

Last week Neil McChrystal (happy birthday, Neil!) posted this question on facebook in a private forum us 28 days later folks had set up -

"genuine question : As some of you might have noticed from my 28 Drawings Later escapades I do all sorts of stuff. It sometimes occurs to me that I should possibly pick something and concentrate on getting good at that, especially when I see how so many people here have focused in on a style and made it so good. What do people think? Generalise or specialise?"

It proved to be a very popular question, with a whole range of answers, but the most popular one being that Neil should just keep doing whatever he wishes.

Which is pretty much all we can say about some-one else's progress.

The question got me thinking about how I have become more general in my subject matter recently - cityscapes, roses, fields, portraits, skulls - but much more specialized in my technique. Indeed, working on different subject matter is what has enabled me to hone my methods as these are developed to allow me the most freedom. As each artist develops I feel they discover what is most important to them and their style develops out of this. Working in short bursts with a lot of thinking time is crucial to me, as is the space to really concentrate on the properties of the paint itself - bright/neutral, warm/cool, transparent/opaque, thin/thick etcetera - so I have developed a technique (seen in the early stages in my last post) that allows me to do this. Another advantage is that every stage is complete in itself - so I can add/subtract as desired. All of this is clearly a form of specialisation in oil painting - but done to allow me to generalise - the how becomes second nature, the why and what become the focus of my attention.

But I first picked up oil painting about four years ago. Before that I used charcoal and watercolour. Or pastels. Or acrylics/gouache/graphite/ink/pastels/whatever was lying around. I spent years of attending life drawing classes at least once, more often two or three times a week - in which I changed my style/medium/subject matter frequently - even within the same class. From obsessing over hands to drawing the whole room including the other artists and everything in between. I was specialising in the occasion which allowed me to play with everything else. Without that experimentation I wouldn't have learnt that I like to focus on the darks and lights - and most artists agree that a place for such freedom (such as the sketchbook or the life room) is crucial for producing ongoing work of quality.

Depth requires specialisation but generalisation guides you where to specialise.

One thing that came up in the answers to Neil's question was the need for those making a living as artists to produce identifiable work. Certainly the received wisdom that the more well known you are the easier it is to sell work and that the more your paintings are identifiable as by you the easier it is to become well known. I don't have an answer for that (yet) - maybe another post later? What do you guys think?


  1. I do not analyse, nor even think, but it seems that you have described my art life! so perhaps that is the way it goes for an artist whether you think, and analyse, and plan and study ..............or not!

  2. That is rather reassuring to hear, Sharon!