A radical but most important tip-take a break every 15 minutes

I’ve always been told to take breaks regularly when painting or drawing. And I’ve always found it hard to do. One thing that has motivated me to accept this advice lately is learning from a number of sources that when you keep looking at something, you stop seeing what’s wrong with it. I spent a whole day working on a portrait of my mother recently–which I was very happy with–till I saw it with “fresh eyes” the next day. Argh! I’d shrunken her features without altering the size of her head so she looked like a reflection in a distorting mirror. Well-painted but totally out of whack. The fact is your eyes get tired, (they are not particularly reliable at the best of times!) and your brain starts to accomodate weirdness so it can get on with everything else on it’s busy schedule. Taking a break every 15 minutes (for say 10 minutes) means that you can correct errors long before they become an integral part of the picture. It also gives you a chance to “come up for air” regularly so that you don’t work yourself into a state of obsessive exhaustion. By the way you don’t have to take a break from doing art–just from whatever you’re doing at the time. If you can set up seperate areas for different mediums (eg drawing, watercolour, oils) in your studio, you can rotate between them.

Yes, art is intoxicating but just like a nice drop of wine, it can make you lose sight of what you’re doing and give you a nasty hangover if you have too much (or in art terms, if you focus on one project for too long). Morning after remorse is depressing! The idea that you have to work in a state of frenzy is more Hollywood than reality. Van Gogh did not work well–or even at all as far as I understand–when he was delirious. He worked like a demon when he was well, however. You can work hard AND take very frequent breaks.

The sources for this advice about frequent breaks are 1) Darren Rousar’s brilliant website on the Sight Size technique-see link–and 2) a now out of print book called See it Paint it. I’ll post the author’s name as soon as I get a chance to look it up.

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