Procrastination vs. Incubation

“Market Flowers” – watercolor on paper – About 8″ x 6″ – Fabriano Artistico 140# cold press

I’m working on a big painting project right now – a full sheet watercolor that incorporates most of the different techniques I regularly know and use and a few new ones. It’s an ambitious project and I’m dedicated to seeing it through, even if I have to paint it multiple times. Right now, I’ve done the design and color studies, I’ve tested the colors I’m going to use on a separate sheet of paper and labeled them all to know what’s mixing with what. I’ve even abandoned one paper surface in favor of another. Ordinarily I would call this hesitation to jump right in “procrastination” – but the more I wait the more I’m working out other design issues, coming up with new solutions and so on. I think it is more like a period of gestation as the ideas take shape. All the while I read voraciously; I review my notes from class and from demonstrations I’ve seen. I test different ways of moving paint; I practice watching the sheen leave the paper for the exact right time to scrape away a highlight or to drop in a dollop of thick pigment. . I am like an actor rehearsing my timing, watchful that I don’t make awkward entrance too soon or an exit too late. Or like a juggler trying to keep all the plates spinning. My brush is a tentative dancer, exercising at the barre, trying to develop muscle memory so the moves become both spontaneous and automatic. I wait. I think. I test.

So while my project is percolating in the back of my mind, I did this brief and loose wc sketch of a flower vendor’s booth at Sunday’s farmer’s market. As you can tell, I’m thoroughly enjoying painting negative shapes (such as around the buckets and umbrella ) … and alternating warm and cool colors in one continuous passage – and even throwing in a few calligraphic brushstrokes for umbrella poles and bucket details. Any minute now I’m going to return to that big piece of 22 x 30″ paper – perhaps charged with a few new ideas about lights and darks and linking of shapes and colors.


  1. wendy
    May 28, 2007

    I not only enjoy seeing your paintings but the explanations of how watercolour can be used. I didn’t know lots of the things that can be done.
    Yesterday I peeped in at an art exhibition in Geelong and every painting was made up of smeared squares of thick paint and it looked like the guy was using a credit card edge, but then from a distance, me as a viewer, imagined very Australian landscapes. But they were all made the same way it seemed using just one technique so the whole collection now seemed to be a bit boring.

  2. Felicity
    May 28, 2007

    Karen, that is a great description. I read recently (might have been Robert Genn) that living with an artist, partners often assume they are doing nothing but in fact thinking, musing, daydreaming, and all the things you describe are an integral part of the process. I wouldn’t call what you are doing procrastination at all, it sounds extremely productive and useful! I spend a lot of time thinking and I feel maybe it’s like a tennis player bouncing the ball a couple of times before serving, or the athlete shuffling his feet in the blocks, it’s that moment that is so necessary, it’s all focus.

    Lovely sketch! I’m in awe that you can make this so real and yet haven’t used pen or pencil lines!

  3. Robyn
    May 29, 2007

    I really relate to every step in your journey, Karen and I love the way you described it. A week ago I plunged into a half sheet watercolour of a peony without enough thought and I’ve spent more than a week trying to save it and I know in my heart it belongs in the bin. This is a beautiful, lively study of the farmers’ market flowers.

  4. Wendee
    May 29, 2007

    The flowers are lovely. Looking forward to seeing your larger piece, too – finished or otherwise, any and all versions, as they come along!

  5. Anna
    May 29, 2007

    Interesting read about procrastination and incubation. Personally, I feel quite a bit of trepidation when I use a large sheet of paper or any material that is not relatively economical and in abundant supply in my studio! Good luck! Can’t wait to see the finished piece.

  6. Linda
    May 29, 2007

    :-) Oh fun! Now I know what it’s called — incubation. Can’t wait to see how your ambitious project turns out!

  7. Katherine
    May 30, 2007

    Karen – what an excellent description of the creative process coupled with practising ones technical skills. It just sounds like good old-fashioned preparation to me!

    I do so agree that people who aren’t artists don’t quite ‘get it’ in terms of how the creative process works. Which I guess might explain why people can sometimes think so little effort might be required before they actually get good at something. For me the best artists are always those who keep on pushing boundaries and learning more and more about how they can create – often becoming better and better and more interesting as they do.

  8. Jennafer
    May 31, 2007

    Karen – I continue to be so impressed by your dedication to your art and to the creative process. And as always I am impressed by your
    willingness and ability to share your process with us all. Thank you. Kudos — your painting skill continues to grow exponentially! I’ve been
    “watching” you paint for a few years now and WOW!

  9. Sherie
    June 5, 2007

    Such a beautiful scene and your commentary is riveting, too. I wish I could say the same for myself, but the longer I think about doing something, the less likely it is to get done. I am constantly thinking about drawing, but also constantly letting life distract me; the kids, the house, schoolwork, the husband…. procrastination.

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