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How do I investigate my work?

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Consider experimenting with the following investigation strategies, to see which work best for you:

  • Goal-less exploration: When there’s no obvious urge to steer in any direction, experiment with goal-less exploration: like a musician zoning into practicing their scales, gradually morphing into playing a tune that’s based on the practicing scale. Like someone learning to typewrite, yet subconsciously forming and typing their own words, sentences and paragraphs. Like someone experimenting with sound while editing their video, discovering a new way to visualize their work. Goal-less exploration can start with your movement on the street, clay or plasticine, paper and pencil, paper to fold, or a smartphone’s video camera: any tool that doesn’t require an actual financial commitment can offer this: where large works easily demand attention and respect to both beginners and professionals (already just for the money required for the physical materials and tools), starting out can be eased by using tools, media and processes that don’t cost a lot, or might even be free.

    Goal-less exploration starts with free, low-commitment tools: sheets of paper from the family (or office) printer, as well as a pencil that’s lying around. This lets you explore without fear of failure, because the material doesn’t demand respect. If this doodling (with clay, on paper, on camera) leads to an idea, itch or urge: pursue it. Repeat the idea and flesh it out, making it more specific, more according to the vision that gradually forms in your mind. 

  • Repeat previous successes: You might have specific compositions, specific ways to operate your tools, specific materials or paths to use that led to creations you’re happy with: if in doubt, see whether you can repeat them. This will show you whether this path holds the potential for a deeper inquiry (resulting in a work series, or simply a better knowledge of the craft required to pursue your work). Understanding and repeating previous work might give you the courage for further explorations.

  • Create work series: Creating a series of works lets you increase your understanding and sensitivities, simply because you get to dig deeper into the process, tools, contents and aesthetics required for its creation. Once a topic or aesthetic, a sentiment feels relevant to you, why not invest the time to deepen your understanding of it: your work’s quality will usually benefit from it. In addition, this will help you establish a body of work, which often increases your artistic credibility (since you’re seen as someone willing to pursue and balance specific ideas). It also results in higher availability of works, which can be advantageous in case of collector interest in a sold piece (since having a series will let them see further works of the same kind).

  • Investigate your topics: Investigate the potential topics​ of the works you gravitate towards: if for example you enjoy a specific figurative drawing you made, try to find out what you specifically like about it – whether it’s the figure’s posture, the facial portraiture, whether it’s about color, composition – or the emotional bond you felt when creating the work. By increasing your understanding of the potential topic you’re navigating, you gradually create a multidimensional, evergrowing reference system to expand and dive into: your artistic home. This helps you to explore that home in a somewhat structured way:  which artists have created similar works, over the centuries? Who ever used similar styles or tools or materials? Investigating your work is a core practice of being an artist: if you aren’t curious about your work, who ever will be?

  • Verbalize your ideas: Take time to write down ideas – in prose, keywords, bullet lists etc. Create tree hierarchies or mind maps to connect your ideas to generalized topics, and see what insights you can retrieve. This is an exciting way to learn about your work, already because it’s a low-commitment way of translating your ideas: not yet into physical manifestations, but into words that usually can easily keep the vision – whereas actual works always also represent the sum of our inabilities. Verbalizing your work in this fragmented way can also help you to communicate about it elsewhere (in studio visits, to collectors or curators, etc). It can become a stepping stone to writing an actual text about your work, which is usually more demanding.