Shows a detail of a demo painting I did

Focus On Process Not Outcome

Before every workshop I teach, I have students read a blog I did some time ago called the 14 Ways To Get The Most Out Of A Workshop. I ask each participant to choose one of the points that they know will be a struggle for them. At my most recent workshop (in Gibsons, BC, Canada), the point that resonated with many students was #5: focus on process not outcome.

This concept of focusing on process not outcome is crucial not just in workshops but whenever we are art-making. Undeniably, it’s an effort to do this. We are judged by the external world on our results, not on our process. And we often judge ourselves that way too.

During a demonstration at the workshop, even when I knew better, there was a wee inner voice saying, “I hope this painting turns out well.” As a seasoned workshop instructor with many years of painting experience, with entry into juried shows, with awards, there’s still a deep-seated desire for the results of my painting time to be something worthy of the effort. 

photo of the scene
The Scene
Focus on process not outcome: Gail's demo of tree showing her process of working
My demo on UART 400 paper, 7 x 6 in.
Pastels used in the demo
Pastels used (assorted mix of Unison and Schmincke and Mount Vision). At the end of the demonstration, I did add a red and pink within the foliage to show colour contrast but I didn’t use those throughout the piece so they aren’t seen here.

Of course we want our efforts to turn out well, who wouldn’t? Yet we set ourselves up for disappointment by wishing every venture on the blank canvas to be a success. Chances are, not every painting is going to result in the perfect piece. That’s just normal! Yet we do this.

If we focus only on how the result will look, we may get so anxious about painting that we never even start it. Our fears and doubts can stall us and so we give up before we even begin. We want to avoid the pain of seeing a failed piece. We think: better not to do anything at all than end up with some junky result. And so, in the end, we lose: we give up on our creative impulse by letting our ego rule us. If we went about our lives like that, we wouldn’t accomplish anything!  So instead I want to encourage you to focus on process, not outcome.

Let’s put our full attention on the process of making art. Let’s be intentional about releasing our need to have a successful outcome. With the focus on process rather than outcome, we’re free to experiment, to make new marks, to try new colour combinations, to explore new materials. This is how we move forward and grow as artists. Try new things, learn new stuff, evolve as an artist!

Also, isn’t it in the process of art-making where we find our ultimate joy? Yet if we’re all tied up in knots about what the end result will look like, we can’t revel in that pleasure. 

So let go and focus on the process of painting. Make one mark, respond to it, then another and so on until a full-blown painting emerges. Step-by-step the result of our mark-making emerges, whatever that outcome may be. And no matter what it looks like, we’ve had the deep satisfaction of doing, of painting, of revealing our creative selves and our response to the world.

I’m so proud of my students for making the commitment to focus on process not outcome during the Gibson’s Bold and Fearless Colour workshop! Here are some of their results.

Focus on process not outcome: Some of Jean Sullivan's work
Some of Jean Sullivan’s work
Focus on process not outcome: Some of Nixe Gerbitz's work
Some of Nixe Gerbitz’s work
Focus on process not outcome: Some of Margot Hallman's work
Some of Margot Hallman’s work
Photo of the class with Gail
And here we all are at the end of the week!!

Sooo stop worrying about what the painting will look like in the end and just PAINT!

That’s it for this time. I’d love to know your thoughts and reactions to this idea. Wht do you think about trying to focus on process not outcome? Please do leave me a commen below.

Until next time!

~ Gail

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43 thoughts on “Focus On Process Not Outcome”

  1. There is a direct correlation with music here. Singers are encouraged to focus on not only the beauty of the music they are producing, but concurrently the basics of their training: breathing, posture, relaxation of unnecessary muscles, facial expression. “Do not let that right-brain obsession with success or failure enter your thoughts”, was my constant mantra while performing. I can see an exact correlation here. Now, if I could just do it with pastels!!!

    1. Andrea this is such a fascinating correlation! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with singing and how the same idea applies to music. I think knowing that this concept covers more than visual art is really helpful. And yeah, still you need to apply to pastels! 😀

      1. This exactly I think why I put off painting. I will make a conscious decision to paint a little each day. I will focus on the process in the moment. I am much happier when I am painting and I get a feeling of accomplishment.

        Thanks Gail, Hannah

        1. That’s so great to hear Hannah.
          It’s easy for any of us to get caught up in judging the outcome and if it’s not perfect, give ourselves a hard time. And then not paint! Which is terrible!!! So paint and paint and just be in the process. Yay you!!

  2. I would looove a workshop close to me here in the Dordogne, but we don’t have enough art group members in our own village to organise one ourselves. I also belong to a short story writing group and like Andrea’s music correlation there is the same in creative writing.

    1. I’m excited to do a workshop in France and I am looking into working with a local company to create a painting holiday workshop in the Dordogne. But perhaps that won’t work for you. Let’s figure something out!

      Ah yes, creative writing too. It’s all about the process!!!

  3. Gail, this is so true, I realise that is what I do all the time, I end up getting so scared that I will muck up I talk myself out of doing anything. I realise I have done that with lots of things over the years, and now I am taking up art I am doing it again.
    I will try very hard to just start something, anything, get the process going and put pastel on paper

    1. I know exactly what you mean Karen!! It’s amazing how we sabotage ourselves and stop ourselves from doing anything. Focus on the pleasure of mark-making and try to forget about what it will all look like in the end. Easy to say, not so easy to do. But try, try. Play, play 😀

  4. This was a great reminder of what my instructor used to tell us…..Like you, she would say “not every painting is a masterpiece. Enjoy the process!” When first starting out, I used to frame every painting that I did. After a while, it became clear that not every painting deserved a frame, even though I enjoyed creating whatever it was. Loved seeing the works of all your students. A very productive group under your wing!!

    1. Thanks for sharing that you’ve heard this before Ruth. I don’t know how we get it in our heads that each creative outing should end in a masterpiece but there it is. Once we realise we have this crazy mindset, we can at least start doing something about it!
      I know what you mean about framing every piece. I think that tendency continues through our entire art journey. And the work is good at that time (well some anyway) but we evolve, improve, grow and then, looking back, that work may not look quite so good anymore. But it was good in its own time, in that period of your development as an artist. So keep the good stuff and maybe recycle the rest. But remember to be generous with yourself!

  5. This is such a good blog Gail, and very timely for me. I have been trying lots of new-to-me work, and have lost my way a bit. Definitely going to focus more on process. It’s perfect advice for everything. Thanks.

    1. I’m so happy to hear that this blog came at just the right time for you Marsha!
      I sometimes wonder, when I put these posts out, if they will resonate with anyone. So I’m delighted to hear when they do.
      Look forward to hearing how this focus on process goes!

  6. Thank you for this reminder. I think it’s appropriate for any medium. I’m currently working on a slightly larger than life outdoor concrete figure. This is way beyond my knowledge and skills, but it’s coming along. It will take a long time. If I didn’t revel in the process I’d never complete the piece. And when summer ends and I go back indoors I’ll try to approach my pastels with more joy and less stress. Thank you!

    1. Thanks Kathryn!
      And WHOA!! Large concrete sculpture that’s way beyond your skills? Way to go!!! And a great example of the need to enjoy the PROCESS.

  7. This article resonates very strongly with me! I’m definitely process orientated, enjoying the doing and learning in a workshop. The outcome, whatever it is, takes me back to this, though inevitably better outcomes tend to survive sporadic tidyups longer.

    1. So glad this post resonates with you Marion! Focusing on process allows us to do rather than judge and postpone and think. Doing the work opens the soul!

  8. Spot on!! Haven’t been painting for a while….trying to move. Really miss it….need to noodle with the pastels….even if it’s just to get my fingers dirty. Miss the process. Have been playing more guitar (used to do that for a living) because I can take it off the wall….play a little….get a good feeling and hang it back up. No mess…..!! Living around packed boxes….and hoping it’s over soon….don’t have a lot of room to start something new….!! Boo….

    1. Thanks Curt! And I hear ya! Glad though that while you’re in the moving phase that you can still get creative and enjoy the process in music and your guitar. (Cool you used to do that for a living – tell us more!)
      One of these days I know you’ll be back in the pastel dust 😀

  9. Haha! I have mucked up so many paintings I think I may be almost passed it… almost! I get so caught up in trying to ´loosen up´ my painting, that I think that may be the reason I always end up putting too much detail in! If that makes any sense. It´s quite a conundrum.

    I would love to have a workshop here in Mexico, there must be a few pastelists hiding here somewhere!

    Cheers, Val

    1. Hi Val, interesting conundrum! Perhaps think about using a timer – to keep loose AND not get caught in the details? And then it’s all about the process….

      Let’s figure out a workshop in Mexico. I keep wondering about doing one in San Miguel de Allende (where I haven’t been yet). I know it’s a bit touristy but there’s a huge appeal to it. Thoughts?

  10. And what a fun workshop it was. Focusing on the process. I learned sooo much. You warned us about the post-workshop slump as well, and I’ve certainly had one. But I have finished one painting and tried very hard to stay in the process, not worrying about the finished product. The voice you talk about when you were doing the demo, it’s always a whisper. But maybe whispering ‘focus on the process, not the end result’ can drown it out. Especially when your voice joins mine in the whispering:)

    1. Jean, so lovely to hear from you. Happy always to hear you learned lots in the workshop. And yeah, that damn after-workshop slump but yay for you working away.
      And LOVE your idea to change the whispering 🙂 Let’s do it.

    1. I hear you Helen! Try to think of the background as part of one big whole. I like to use colours that I use in the main subject in the background as well so there’s a unity between the two.

  11. If you can possibly afford it, sign up for a class. That is what has helped me jump start my process in the past, as it provides some structure which I’ve needed, and also the feedback and constructive critiques which are so important in making progress. Forums such as this one also help.

  12. Makes a lot of sense to follow the process. As u said, even with years of experience one tends to get worried about how the painting will end up. I have been making art professionally for 17 years and still go through that. Thanks for this article!!

  13. One break through that I had that has helped me is if I do a painting or class exercises that I don’t like I just take a paint brush and wipe off the pastel later. I now have a great underpainting to start a new painting. It has helped me relax and not feel that I’m wasting paper. It definitely eases any pressure I put to make every single painting a success…freedom to play.

    1. Yes yes YES!! Thanks for sharing your “trick” with us Alison! You are so right – that not worrying about wasting paper can relax us and give us freedom!

  14. One of your best essays! The process sometimes frustrating, discouraging, is also where the fun, the joy of painting us. When it is over, it’s time to start again. The finished piece takes on it’s new life either stacked with the rest or framed to capture the eye of a viewer. The process is the thing!

  15. Thanks for this! I need it as a monthly reminder 😉 I know it and I try to live it but sometimes I don’t take enough risks because I don’t want to ruin a painting. Need to add in the thumbnails and even some studies I guess. 😉

    1. Christy I hear you! I know what you mean about not taking a risk because of fear of ruining something you already have. Listen to your intuition and hear what it says. You know when you need to do something. Take a breath and jump in and see where the jump takes you! Thumbnails and studies definitely help – they are small and cost little in effort, time, and materials. Magic can happen!!

  16. this is so true!
    its the movement to just start, what inner “trick” is necessary it have the movement happen?
    this is the bigger question for me .

    1. Eileen, the best thing is to pick up a pencil and paper and start drawing. Action flows from action. Worrying about it, thinking about painting, just won’t make it happen. Pastel in hand. Play music and go!

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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