Simultaneous explorations


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “How do I progress from the work I am currently doing? I feel like I’ve been working on the same few problems for years and want to “level up” in ideas, if for no other reason than to hone a more distinct style. I’m stumped at how to do this. How does one advance, for lack of a better word, a ‘practice’?”

Mutated Absence 04, 2016-2017 Mixed media 34.25 x 25.75 x 1.5 inches by Fei Disbrow

Mutated Absence 04, 2016-2017
Mixed media
34.25 x 25.75 x 1.5 inches
by Fei Disbrow (b. 1971)

While work technically begets work, if genuine evolution is to occur, one needs to be open to the possibility of error, dead ends and pushing your materials and subjects beyond their original purpose. As your work reveals characteristics that catch your attention, grab onto themes, techniques, mannerisms, subject matter, calligraphic marks and colourways. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,” wrote Georgia O’Keeffe, of her beloved Cerro Padernal. She painted it more than 20 times, inflicting her style upon it with increasing conviction until mountain and painter became bonded to one another as part of each’s very meaning.

No Feeling is Final, n.d. Mixed media wall drawing 50 x 53 x 5 feet by Fei Disbrow

No Feeling is Final, 2020
Mixed media wall drawing
50 x 53 x 5 feet
by Fei Disbrow

Here’s an idea: Identify a leitmotif in your current work and choose a simultaneous exploration for it: new scale, new media, new vibe. Change the weather. Make it a poem. Grab hold of its spirit. Emily Carr, at first a student of European painting traditions, then inspired to work in the “marvelous modern manner,” broke through the conventions of her era and sought to embody the essence she so strongly felt of the deep coastal forests of Western Canada. Her paper, her solvent, her Phthalo Green; her reaching, wind-bent trunks evolved over the course of years of trying her themes, every which way. J.M.W. Turner painted London and then London’s inclement skies, until his work became the sky, and the sky, his work. As we begin to own our own themes, we simultaneously offer them to the world, in their new expression. By its very nature, art is designed to make a form of life’s experiences in this way. As the maker, you make it happen amidst garden variety toil.



PS: “Your style shines light on your exploration.” (Robert Genn)

Masculin Féminin 06 Mixed media by Fei Disbrow (b. 1971)

Masculin Féminin 06, 2018
Mixed media
by Fei Disbrow

Esoterica: While visiting the studio of Vancouver artist Fei Disbrow recently, evidence of simultaneous exploration hit a juggernaut. Textile collage, lightboxes, image collage, printmaking, soft sculpture, low relief forms, installation and drawing are all interwoven into a practice that explores composition and materiality. Fei recontextualizes shirting, wool, felt, mylar, paper, photographs, string, construction material, and a sheeny, translucent waterproof fabric used for hazmat suits called Tyvek, among other humble materials. Within all this complexity emerges elegantly restrained compositions that defy media or genre. Why are her explorations so intriguing to me? It is, perhaps simply that her unadulterated play is on full display. She is unstumped by stagnancy. She embraces her themes, her repetition, the enjoyment of her process, yet shifts forms so stealthily I slip into them, too. Without a jolt or fanfare, without a chronology of completion, I’m seduced into the intimacy of the next uncategorizable object’s micro-pleasures, stitched and stuffed there.

The exhibition Sara Genn: Looking for Colour is on view at Gallery Jones, 1-258 East 1st Avenue, Vancouver, BC, Canada until November 13, 2021. 

“Nothing can be done except little by little.” (Charles Baudelaire)



  1. James Gurney just put up You-Tube video demonstrating a complete change of mood in plein aire painting. He turns a gloomy gray day into a bright late afternoon with raking light and implied camera lens flares, and done with a limited palette as well!

  2. Love this blog. Brill. Struggling with this myself. Now on to the studio to finally try something I’ve been wanting to paint for a couple years, but thought would be too difficult. Thank you.

  3. Pretty sound advice all round. If none of that doesn’t work for you, try using your best resource. Your imagination…

  4. Charlie Spratt on

    That is sooo good. It goes beyond paint, technique, medium and gets to the core of painting – a personal statement.
    Thanks Sara

  5. Great encouragement to find that new ways are possible with explorations where making mistakes and dead ends are part of the process.W
    We may feel at a dead end but that is the starting point for “leveling up” and a good way to begin is to ask another artist…which you did and now it has helped all of us.
    Sometimes playing with materials we never have used before and not limiting ourselves may add to our work. Not that we may use these new explorations in our usual process but the sidetrack from it may open up new creative pathways and even offer a needed break.
    Thank you for this letter and the intriguing work by Fie Disbrow…it makes me want to go “play.”

  6. It’s pretty well impossible to not have moments of wondering if our work appears as boring as we are with it at times. Never bored with the idea of going to paint, but often am when trying to reach the finish line. I find looking in a mirror works the best during those final stints at finishing a piece. Not looking at me in the mirror, that is, looking at the painting. If the painting looks better in the mirror I have no reason to think I need to change anything. We all evolve into styles for many different reasons over the decades of doing this stuff called making art. I am enjoying this age so much, those foolish dreams of being ala Carr/Genn/Thomson have quietly retreated to bystanders, maybe watching me paint, saying do it your way, Mary Ann, just do it. :)

  7. My comment may be more practical than some are looking for: I developed a style of painting that is about 9 years old now. It evolved as I thought of new moves. Over covid, I decided to try something new. I abandoned my previous work. Over 5 or 6 months, I struggled along with the new work, feeling alternately optimistic and incompetent about it.

    I remembered an artist talk I had heard a few years ago. He suggested that while we are doing our regular work, we can also work on a side project. Then if/when the regular work feels tired, we will already be a good way down the road in the development of the new work. Or maybe we will have arrived.

    The cold turkey approach didn’t work for me. It was too hard to just stop working in a successful way and start at the beginning with the new work where good results would be unattainable for some time. Now I spend a little time each week on the Side Project and keep going with my regular work. It feels so much more comfortable in these uncomfortable times.

  8. Thank you for this as I was thinking, my hands won’t do what they used to..shake when I least expect them mess up what I’m doing a lot. Thinking maybe not trying to paint realistically anymore..but give in to creating textures, color compositions. I do need a definite turning point, as I’m 86 but still want to create and do the art scene. Patricia

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