In the Box

We hear a lot about “getting out of the box” when it comes to art or any other pursuit involving creativity, thinking, and decision-making. In other words, we’re often advised to “get out of the box” with just about anything we’re doing.

The idea of getting out of the box means, essentially, breaking free of restraints, trying new things, and daring to be different. And that’s all great, especially when it comes to a creative process such as art. At the same time, we can’t get out of the box unless we’re already inside of one… and what does that really mean?

For a lot of self-help gurus and motivational speakers, being in a box is a bad thing. It implies being stuck, being stagnant and stale, being trapped. But, in my opinion, there’s a bit more to being in the box, and it’s not all bad.

Being in the box can mean being comfortable, finding our niche, doing what brings us pleasure. The box can represent who we are, the art we love, our familiar, tried-and-true methods and processes, and our unique art. My box is different from yours, and that’s good. And if a box truly is a good fit for us, why should we climb out of it?

Of course, one of the most popular memes on social media is the “If I fits, I sits” look at the hilarious places cats put themselves. Cats love boxes, so again, are boxes really bad things? I don’t think so.

I’m at a point in my oil painting where I’m still looking for my box, narrowing it down — figuratively speaking — to the size and shape and color and style that best suits me. That does mean that I’m “trying on” a lot of boxes to see just what does “fit” before I “sit”. It’s a delightful process.

In my art studio there is an actual box. Well, there are several boxes. I have one very nice box that sits close at hand to hold my tubes of oil paint, both as I’m working and as storage. I’ve mentioned it before and included it in my quick 5-minute burn drawing. It latches securely, keeping my oils out of reach for our curious cat.

This is definitely a good sort of box to have, and if you have pets in the studio, I’d go so far as to say this sort of box is a must-have! 

I have another, bigger box, too. I quickly learned that our cat wanted to inspect, and own everything she found in the studio, meaning sniffing, pawing, rubbing, and walking on whatever she came across — including recently completed paintings, or paintings still in process. Although I have drying shelves, they weren’t going to keep my paintings safe from a cat who loves to jump and climb.

Again, if  you have pets in the studio, this is a great “safety” measure to take, as well as an excellent way to protect any projects you’re working on.

And what’s in the big box right now? It’s a work in progress, the larger “studio painting” version of the “Midwestern Roots — Missouri River Sunrise” I’m doing.

It’s different from the original “study”, yet it has similarities, as well. First, here’s another look at the small oil study I completed. This was done almost entirely with palette knives, and with the intention to use bright orange for the sky. I wanted to be bold and daring.

Now, here’s a “first look” at the larger painting. It’s a 16 x 20 inch, and here you can see it nestled safely in the box.

It’s a bit tricky to photograph the painting inside the box, but you can get an idea of how it’s coming along. Or, here it is sitting on the easel.

It didn’t take me long to learn that working with a palette knife on a larger painting was not going to be easy. I’ve played around with knives and brushes both. I’m using the small study as a guide, but only in the most general way. As I’ve worked on the larger version, I’ve often felt that I’m just groping around, fumbling with different tools, just, once again, throwing caution to the wind and trying all sorts of different things. I did add more colors to the sky. I’ll probably add more lights and shadows on the tree line, more colors in the river, too.

I might add more light to the foreground — I’m still undecided on that — and, of course, I’ll soon be adding in the trees. I’m planning to add the trees using one or more palette knives. The study was done alla prima in a single session. This time, I’ve allowed the background layer to dry before I add in those trees. I’m hoping that’s the right technique.

Getting back to the idea of being in or out of any boxes, I’m really doing a bit of both right now. I’m moving closer and closer to finding “my style” in landscape oil painting, but I’m not yet latched and locked in. I’m still free to try different things — which isn’t so much an attempt at changing my style as it is a way of expanding on it, enlarging it, getting a better understanding of who I am.

When it comes to boxes, maybe my thoughts are different from all those gurus and motivational speakers, because I do find boxes to be good things. I think the important consideration isn’t whether or not we’re in or out of a particular box, but to simply make sure we have a box that’s big enough to suit our needs.

25 Comments

  1. When i finished art school i took my portfolio to a gallery. They looked through my work and said…”we cant represent you when you have so many different styles. Come back when you have one style so ee can promote that”. Nothing wrong with being in a box when it comes to art.

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    1. This is my thinking, too. We might explore different themes and concepts, but underneath it all we have to define and develop “our style” — or “our voice” as it’s sometimes called. One question I’ve been told to ask myself is whether or not all my paintings look like they were painted by a single artist. I always try to keep that in mind, and I’m continually asking “Does this represent who I want to be as an artist?” Little by little, I’m finding my “box” and figuring out what makes my art uniquely my own. It’s a fun process, and yes, I do think having a comfortable “box” is necessary in our art.

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      1. I have been naking art many years now. I must say that looking back at my work I can see a definite style. That style can be found in my pencil and paintings. Just bubbled up over time.

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      2. I’m really starting to understand more about what “personal style” is, and for me, it has a lot to do with “comfort” and also with what I personally like and dislike. It’s been a fascinating process. I first started oil painting about 5 years ago without a clue as to what I was doing LOL. So, the process has involved trying a lot of things — right and wrong — and gradually becoming happier with what I was doing and how I was doing it.

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      1. Wow that’s great Judith. Keep sharing, and it looks good to see the intermediate steps as well. What you do to paintings, such good ones, exhibitions? I am asking as at times I also paint but just as a passion.

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      2. A few years ago I joined a local “fine arts club” — and then another, and another. It’s great to get to know other artists, and these clubs provide a lot of “display opportunities”. Our local club allows us to hang 2 paintings in the foyer of our library. People can see our paintings there (and purchase them if we want to sell) and also at other places throughout the community — doctor’s offices, local banks, and other places. Our club also holds a “members’ show” and a “regional show” each year where we can enter our work and compete for prizes. I was nervous when I entered my first art show, but it gave me a chance to see my work on display with others, and I realized I could be very proud of what I’ve done. I didn’t win any awards at the first show, but since then I’ve gone on to win several ribbons and even a first-place cash prize at one regional show. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t joined that art club, so I definitely recommend it. I was hesitant at first, not sure if I was really “good enough” to be part of an art club. But I’ve learned a lot, have had a lot of new opportunities, and now feel accepted as part of our art community. I hope you can find a local club near you… and if not, you might want to start your own club!

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      3. Actually Judith after high school, I never got time to paint. After finishing PhD now I paint when I get time on Sundays. But many people said my works are quite good. You tell me how you like them, if you have some time. Are there online arts clubs as well. Thank you so very much for exposing all this in details to me and taking out time for this. You can please copy paste what you explained to me in a blog as well, hobby painters like me search for such answers. You know I have put my paints on NFT, I knew no other way to know this. Take Care please, and I like your paintings a lot.

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      4. I like all the colorful art you’ve got in your blog. Colors always catch people’s attention. Definitely paint whenever you can! I’m not aware of any online art clubs, but there are a lot of groups on Facebook where artists can share their work, get critiques, and make friends. I’ve gotten to know a lot of artists that way.

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  2. As someone who often talks about being ‘outside the box’, I love this post, which serves as an antidote to some of my own thinking. You’re right, there are many boxes and all of them probably have some value.

    And having had many cats over the years, I have to admit that they all loved boxes – two rabbits and one rat did too.

    And then there was Pandora’s box, from which anything could emerge.

    I suppose someone as creative as Van Gogh lived in a box of his own. He at least once complained, in so many words, that no one was willing to join him there.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge! I do appreciate the value of “boxes” — there are lots of different boxes, and boxes can serve many purposes. I don’t think “being in a box” is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes there’s nothing we need more than a bit of comfort, and where will we find it except tucked securely inside our box? At the same time, I do understand and appreciate the need for stepping “out of the box” now and then. As with so many things in life, the key thing, perhaps, is that we don’t go to extremes in either direction.

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  3. I kind of see “out of the box” a bit differently. To me the box represents the status quo, what we think we know, what we do routinely. To get to a solution may require us to look at our question from a point of view entirely unfamiliar to us, which we may discover by accident or by research, i.e., something that is not in our routine box.

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    1. That’s another good way of looking at “boxes” — and yes, I agree that sometimes we do have to think differently in order to find a solution. My “art box” is still a bit undefined in a lot of ways, so I’m not even sure what’s in it LOL. It’s interesting to look “inside” and “outside” the box, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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  4. Love to see the intermediate steps you share at times as well. Judith you make such good paintings, what you do to them after that? I mean send in exhibitions or just store? I am asking as I my-selves paint at times when I get some spare time for my hobbies.

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    1. I’m glad you liked the “intermediate” steps for this painting. You’ll see the finished painting soon, and it was a disaster. I really had problems painting the trees, trying to use a palette knife, and … well, yep, it’s a disaster. LOL. That’s part of the art process. I do like to frame and display my “best” paintings. In another comment, I shared my thoughts about joining art clubs. That’s the best place to start!

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