Finding a Box that Fits

Recently I shared two of the actual, physical boxes I have in my studio — one in which I keep my oil paints, and one which is large enough to hold all but the largest size canvas panels. It’s a safe place to put a painting in progress or to keep it while it’s drying. Those boxes are largely safety measures, methods I’ve devised to protect both the art itself and our precious kitty.

In the post, I mentioned, too, the popular ideas of (a) getting stuck in boxes, and (b) finding ways to get out of our boxes. The post sparked a bit of discussion, both in the comments section and in personal chats. I’m one, you see, who likes boxes — real ones, and the figurative ones, as well.

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate “boxes” as representative of who we are, what we enjoy in art, and what we do best. Why would we ever want to move away from a box like this? Of course, that’s only my opinion, and many of you disagree. “Boxes”, you say, make our work stale and stagnant. We need to get outside of our “comfort zones”, stretch our creative muscles a bit, and try new things!

Two different points of view, and it should come as no surprise, really, that both perspectives are valid. It all depends on who we are, where we are, and what we’re trying to accomplish at any given moment. But these two diametrically-opposed viewpoints also create a lot of confusion.

Let me digress a moment, please. You know I love watching Project Runway. Having once wished for a career in fashion design, I enjoy every episode, yet time after time, the judges’ critiques have left me bewildered. So often we hear the judges say, “I don’t see you in this… “, meaning that the designer’s personal style isn’t reflected. Yet in the very same episode, a judge will criticize another designer because “you keep doing the same thing over and over, and we need to see something different from you.” They’re simultaneously imploring designers to express their personal aesthetic while also breaking away from it!

So, Nina… which is it? Stay in the box or get out? Where exactly do we draw the line between “being who we are” and “doing something new”?

As with many questions regarding art, there’s no single answer, no “one size fits all” thinking that covers all instances. It’s about comfort, yet it’s also about pushing ourselves. It’s about finding our niche, but also stretching and growing. The difficult thing here — for me, at least — lies in figuring out how to do both at the same time. Is it possible?

I can only go by my personal experiences here, and no doubt my experience is different from anyone else’s. For me, as a “new artist” starting out a few years ago, there were no boxes to be had! I didn’t have a clue where I “fit in”, what media I might enjoy most, what genres I wanted to work with. Everything was new, and in order for me to figure out where I was going, I had to try everything! I mean that quite literally. Graphite, charcoal, acrylics, watercolor, conte, oil pastels, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, ink, oil paints… I’ve tried them all, in several variations. I liked some. Others just weren’t for me.

It was the same with subject matter. I tried landscapes, botanicals, portraits, figure drawing, still life. I drew and painted animals, buildings, bridges, boats, oceans, mountains, clouds, and rivers. Again, I liked doing some of these things. Others just weren’t what I wanted to do.

Throughout it all, I had “no box” so I was neither “in” nor “out”.  Each and every art project I attempted was an example of “pushing myself” because every experience was intended to help me learn and grow. It all helped me gradually find “my box” — which is really a set of three boxes.

I have my “drawing box” — mostly graphite but now and then a bit of charcoal or conte. There’s my “oil painting box” — almost all landscapes with an occasional attempt at a still life. And there’s my “watercolor box” — it’s a colorful box designed for playful mornings and fun little projects.

It’s interesting to me, that I do have real boxes in my studio that represent each of these areas, and I’ll say quite honestly that I’m comfortable with these boxes.

There are, of course, a lot of other boxes around the studio. There’s my “acrylics” box. There’s an “alcohol ink” box. There’s a whole box of pastels. Lots of boxes. Sometimes it’s fun to play around in those boxes, but I’m never quite as comfortable with them.

While I’m content to label my boxes by “medium”, our art “box” can represent far more. Our personal box might be a particular style, a particular technique or method by which we approach a drawing or painting. Our art box might hold specific colors or even philosophical beliefs.

Again, I think it’s good for us to have one or more “boxes” — because it’s important for us to know who we are. An “art box” should represent what we most love to do, the colors of our palette, the process and procedure that allows our creativity to flourish. So, what’s wrong with staying “in the box?”

Psychologists tell us that it is possible to “get stuck” in a box, which means becoming too complacent, being unwilling to take risks, being content with where we are and missing out on opportunities to grow. Yes, that’s possible, and yes, there are times when we all “play it safe” or “take the easy way out,” instead of challenging ourselves.

So, again, it’s good to have our comfortable boxes. We need them. But it’s good to get out of those boxes too, right? I’m wondering if maybe it’s a matter of “out-growing” where we are, like we once outgrew our shoes and sweaters when we were children. Things starting feeling tight. We were uncomfortable. Our movements were restricted.

Could it be that the same thing happens if our “boxes” become too small? I think so. We should always be aware of our emotions about art, and key signs that our box might not fit are feelings of frustration, a loss of excitement or enthusiasm, a general feeling of dissatisfaction in what we’re doing.

If and when this happens, there are a few steps we can take to break out of the box, which, to my mind, is simply a way of saying that we need to find a bigger box.

Be Deliberate

If you’ve outgrown your box, you need to think about your needs. Is there a particular skill you want to develop? Do you want to work with a different medium? Try a different genre? Basically, if you’re not happy being the artist you are, you have to decide what sort of artist you want to be. Make definite choices. Take classes to learn new skills. Attend workshops to try different techniques.

Watch What Emerges

This, to me, is one of the fascinating and fun aspects of art. It’s largely based on the fact that accidents happen, and sometimes we learn the most from things we didn’t intend to do. As we try different techniques, we often see something happening in a drawing or painting, something we didn’t try to do, something that’s totally unexpected. But we like it! Little surprises like this help us “stretch” our artistic muscles; they can give a fresh look to our art.

Be Yourself

Here we come to the fundamental truth (if there is such a thing) in art. Whether we’re “in a box” or “out of a box”, we still have to be who we are. A box represents us at a single time and place. A new box represents us in a new time and place. You’ve heard the old expression, I’m sure, that “Wherever you go, there you are.” That’s true in art, and if we find ourselves getting uncomfortable it’s probably because we’re trying to be somebody we’re not!

Now, having looked at being in the box, being out of the box, getting bigger boxes, and outgrowing ones that are too small, I think I have a slightly better understanding of what it all means. For me, it means having a big box — one that has lots of room for different things — yet it also means being willing to enlarge that box when the situation warrants. If I start to feel thwarted, of course it’s good to try something new. As I see more possibilities for myself as an artist, yes, I want to keep moving into bigger and bigger boxes.

But no matter how big that box becomes, it still has to be MY OWN BOX! It has to represent me and the things I enjoy drawing and painting. It’s got to hold the media I’m happy working with. It’s got to reflect the colors I love on my palette.

This is how I’m choosing to resolve the dilemma of “being myself” while “doing new things.” To me, it’s not a question, really, of being in or out of any box. It’s just a matter of having a box that fits!

4 Comments

  1. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that he would tell his students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. I have found this advice very helpful; the first thing I do when outlining a story is ask myself,”What does he or she want?”

    Liked by 1 person

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