Doubting Your Creative Self

Growing up, my solace was my pencil and paper and locking myself in my room to create drawings that were an escape from my teenage world.  In that locked world of my room, there were no expectations put upon me by anyone or myself.  I doodled designs, I drew images from ‘Tiger Beat’ magazine, I drew my cats, I drew Betty and Veronica.  My sketchbook was a visual voice that I could not speak anywhere else.  It was just mine.

Because of this, my confidence grew.  Soon my outside persona melded with my inside.  Any time I needed to regroup, I retreated to my room and my sketchbook.  I always came back out stronger.

When I was in university, I actually felt quite confident in my creative skills because I had been pursuing them for years alone before entering post secondary education.  (Admittedly, I did have a lot of painting and creative guidance from my mother who was a Sunday painter).  

But, self doubt crept  in.  I admired the way others painted.  I was envious to their freedom of line and brush stroke.  I was comparing myself to them and I felt inferior.  

I was a serious art student and committed to regular hours of practice.  I would go home for dinner and  then religiously return by 7pm to work in the studio until 11pm or often much later.  There were a few regulars who joined in the studio those eves and we shared our concerns and our elations.  But I was still struggling.

Word got out of my struggles to one of my art history profs, Maia Bismanis.  

She approached me very nonchalant- like one day in the hallway while I was seated on the floor by the painting studio.  She crouched down beside me and chatted.  It was a brief conversation but a very poignant  one.  She basically said  that if we do not have self doubt , if we do not question ourselves, then we are arrogant.  We need that doubt to catapult us forward to learn and see clearly.  She commended me on questioning myself.  And then, just as casually, she got up and left.

Her kind and reassuring words have never left me. Thanks Maia, wherever you are.

Bevvy of Brushes

For those that are new to painting, the number of paint brushes available on the market right now can be mind-boggling.  For more seasoned painters, we take our time checking out the brushes, feeling the weight of the handle, the bounce of the bristles and pondering if we really do need another brush.  Brushes can range in shape, size, bristle and most definitely in price. And yes, there is a significant difference in the more expensive brushes and how they deliver the paint which can make a huge difference in the final result of your painting.  Although premium brushes are not necessary for the beginner, choose a mid-way price point brush and you will likely not be disappointedLooking after your brushes properly is paramount unless you are fortunate enough to have a bottomless wallet.

Brushes are personal for me.  I have my favourites depending on what I want to do in my painting. 

Sometimes I paint with tighter edges, and for this when I work in acrylics I use a flat synthetic bristle. They hold less water so, therefore, less drippy action.  The bristles tend to hold their shape more thus my edges can be clean.

For looser edges and swishy strokes, I like to use natural bristles.  Think of all those yummy big action strokes in large abstract expressionist paintings – most likely a large natural fiber brush was used. Even natural fiber house paint brushes can do the trick but the hairs tend to fall out with all the maneuvering of the brush to canvas.  Painting on canvas is very different than wall painting.

Although when I paint in both acrylics and oils I use both flat and rounds, flat brushes were originally created for acrylics, not oils.  Natural bristles were traditionally used for oils so that the mineral spirit and oil did not eat through them.  But I believe there are high-quality synthetics that are good for oils now too.  I still prefer my natural bristles when oil painting.  For acrylics, I use both.

There are three basic shapes for brushes: flats, rounds, and filberts.  And then there is a special fine long bristle of around called line brushes.  These are a handy option for creating lovely fluid lines, especially with fluid paints.  They are also perfect for signing your name to your masterpiece.  There are variations on flat brushes such as an angled brush and a fan brush which can help with soft blending ( fan) and sharp clean edges (angled).  I personally don’t use either of these right now but not to say that I won’t at some point.

Every brush has its use in my studio at one time or another.

Some brands such as Liquitex, make ‘paddle’ brushes, these are shaped like a battle, no handle and are synthetic but decent quality indeed. They are also fun to experiment with. Because of the lack of handle, you manipulate the brush differently simply because of the way you must hold it.

For varnishing my completed acrylic paintings, I use a flat, soft, nylon brush as is gentle, delivers the varnish evenly and no bubbles are created.  I use Golden UV varnish (matte, satin or gloss).

One of my favourite projects, when I was teaching groups, was one I called the ‘walkabout’.  I would have students move in one direction to the next artist’s station, changing to the next every 15 minutes until everyone had a go at each of the many canvases. Each student left their canvas and all their supplies at their original station.  As the students moved around the studio everyone was able to test the different quality of materials each other were using.  Immediately, notebooks came out and students would write the materials they liked that other student.  The next day would see an onslaught of my students at the art shops purchasing their new favourite materials.

XO – M

Michelle Miller layering

Creative Process: The Art of Layering Paint

The layering of paint in my own creative process operates on two levels.

Firstly, particularly in acrylics, it’s way of achieving depth and complexity of colour. Using both transparent and opaque layers, a lusciousness is reached that cannot be created unless the layers exist. Imagine, putting a pure cerulean blue on a plain white canvas; pretty, but trite. The purity of the colour itself is revealed but nothing else; no story, no depth, no provoked feelings or thoughts. Now imagine having a layer of magenta underneath that blue.  Watch how the various thicknesses of blue will be more violet and some areas bluer; blue now has an association. Blue is now holding a conversation with another colour.

I don’t stop there, I continue to add colour, perhaps mixing that blue with a bit of raw umber and pinch of buff. Leaving cracks and spaces of the previous colours from underneath, I add opaque and transparencies of this new smoky blue that I have mixed. No longer is the plain pretty cerulean blue that I understood immediately. Now there are layers and layers, conversations and conversations that beg the viewer to engage.  

Secondly, the various layers are a way of sorting out ideas, learning, and allowing myself to change not only in the art but also metaphorically in the soul. It’s about forgiveness and exploration of the self. It becomes an exercise of ‘letting go’. It teaches me to be more tolerant of myself and in turn, others.  It teaches me to keep searching, to keep sparking passions and seeking answers. 

Layering can be infinite. However, I know there are enough layers when in 3 days time, I look at the painting and all of my senses are engaged simultaneously.  I am alive.

To take a peek behind the scenes at my studio and get exclusive glimpses of my paintings as they come to life follow me on Instagram HERE.



Fodder Abstract Painting by Michelle Miller

Fodder and the Excess of Creative Thought

Staring a clean, white, new canvas, especially a particularly large one, is intimidating.  Where to begin?

One of my favorite ways to begin is to take an incomplete painting or old painting that never quite made the cut and rebuild it.  Sometimes I just make a canvas very busy with colours and shapes and leave it to be worked on later.  When working in acrylics, I would use a light colour and cover the entire busy surface.  Once it is sticky to touch, I then spray it with water, letting the droplets sit for a moment before buffing the surface with a rag.  If painting in oils, I usually cover the entire surface with Paynes Grey. I let the oils sit a bit longer before I buff with a rag that I have rolled into a barren.

With varying rubbing pressure, shapes and colours are revealed but the surface colour I have just used makes these revealed forms more cohesive.  It’s as though I can see all the shapes inside a gauzy bag that holds everything together as one.

The most important part of my process is writing.  This is how I attempt to clarify my thoughts so that I can get painting and REALLY sink my teeth into the work.  I generally would write about what I see in the canvas.  What does it remind me of?  How do the images and colours relate to my thought pattern?  And why am I using such monotone colours?  What is going on in here?

When creating ‘Fodder’ I began the work by painting over an unfinished oil painting.  As I built up the layers, my colours were neutral and the paint was thick.  Using gobs of Dorland wax mixed with the paint, I buttered on the paste with a palette knife and scratched other areas out with a skewer stick and serrated knife.  The wax substance gives a delicious sculptural and matte quality to the paint.

Shapes of buildings began to appear along with a pathway. Still unsure of my connection to the work, I stepped back and began to write. I had no real connection to the painting so why did these images begin to appear?As I wrote and discarded ideas, I gained some clarity.

The neutral coloured imagery in the painting reminded me of a train station. I remember sitting on a train in Germany unsure of being on the correct train. I looked down the tracks and I felt like I was on the game show ‘Let’s Make a Deal’.  Do I choose door#1?  Door #2 or door #3?  But I decided to just stay put and see where the train went.


Painting is very much about choices and trusting your gut.

As I continued on my painting I realized this work was exactly about those choices and the creative process itself.

The numbers that are stamped on the painting seeming to march down the pathway represent the many ideas I have during the creation of the work.  As I continue to paint and write, the clarity gained allows me to see more clearly where I am going in the picture.  Some ideas make it through the portal, some do not.
The ideas that do not make it become fodder.  They are the excess of the process, significant along the growth and focus of the work but no longer needed.  But in the end, the ideas that make it through the gate are the ideas that I trusted would get me to the successful end result.

Incidentally, I was indeed on the correct train in that station in Germany after all.

– M

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