Artists make things look so easy, don’t they? We imagine them happily in their studios, dashing off one artwork after the next with joyful abandon, blessed with natural creative talents that hit the mark, every time.
What we don’t see are the experiments and half-drafts that never made the cut; the testing of colours, textures and tools, and the repeated processes of the artist exploring what each iteration brings to her emerging work.
I experienced a snapshot of this in person with artist Michelle Stevens, who runs a small studio in Mudgee, a beautiful spot in regional NSW, Australia. Michelle runs creative workshops with children and adults as well as creating her own art. Over 2 hours, she had a wonderful way of walking us through the artistic process, carefully scaffolded so that we each emerged with something we could call ‘art’ and feel proud of.
The freedom and discipline of artistic iteration
Michelle’s process felt like a masterclass in light-touch teaching, offering enough guidance to get started, but encouraging us to make our own decisions about which techniques and materials to try out. I wanted to learn more about pen and ink drawing, and chose as my subject a protea flower from the table in front of us.
Here’s the process that followed, from the ‘warm-up’ and creative constraints to the exploration of new tools and techniques. You can see how the drawings evolved each time, and some of the questions posed by each iteration.
🔥 The warm-up
Before we chose our materials, Michelle guided us through a really important warm-up. Using plain paper and pen (not pencil – no erasing allowed!), we observed our chosen object and drew it without looking down at our paper, and without lifting the pen off the paper. I love this ‘outward-looking’ kick-off: start where the object of enquiry is, not with yourself!
For the second drawing we could look down at our paper but again, could not take the pen off the page. There was already a pleasing sense of ‘progress’ from the first drawing, and the constraint of keeping the pen on the paper added details I wouldn’t have intended otherwise.
🖋 What tools will you work with?
Next up, some quick lessons on working with nib pens and ink – a nostalgic and highly satisfying throwback to times gone by! After a quick tutorial, Michelle left me with some options (metal nib pen and bamboo pen) and lots of encouragement just to keep drawing and see where the new tools took me.
Already I found myself developing preferences; the chunky bamboo pen was intriguing, but didn’t give me the fine lines and control I wanted. It felt too clumsy and blotchy, and I couldn’t control the ink flow well.
📄 ✍️ Changing media, adding techniques, making choices
As the last half hour of the workshop ticked over, it was time to make choices. Cotton-rag khadi paper was brought into the mix, and Michelle taught me how to dip a paintbrush in inky water to experiment with ink wash effects. This was a very cool technique to learn, and I used it in my ‘final’ version (iteration 6).
Even after all that, my last version didn’t feel ‘final’, but rather the beginning of another journey to apply and expand on the learning. Since then I’ve raided an art shop and got my own ink and nib pen, and have been enjoying sweeping it around some mind map branches and ink washing little drawings.
And if you’re not an artist? Michelle provided a reminder of why iteration is so important to the innovation process, and how much we learn along the way. As a quote in IDEO’s Design Kit notes:
“We iterate because we know that we won’t get it right the first time. Or even the second. Iteration allows us the opportunity to explore, to get it wrong, to follow our hunches, but ultimately arrive at a solution that will be adopted and embraced.” (Gaby Brink, founder and chief designer of Tomorrow Partners)
Innovators, if you want to make something great, make it iterate.