How to make sure you never get stuck in your comfort zone

A favourite exercises for me is creating multiple pieces of artwork from one reference image. I do this to force myself to try new techniques and mediums. In this blog post I will describe how I created 3 different pieces of artwork using 3 approaches. Feeling like you have been stuck in an artistic rut? You might want to try this exercise to get out of your comfort zone.

Boat pose 3 ways: 3  portraits of Tessa Overall

Upper to lower, left to right:

‘Uplifted Yogi’: Charcoal and chalk pastels on large brown paper

‘Rise From the Shadows’: Chalk pastel pencils on black gesso on cream pastel paper A3 size

‘Stained Glass Boat Pose’: Watercolour and Tombow dual brush pens on A3 mixed media paper


I often find myself getting stuck in an artistic comfort zone. It usually happens when I have been practicing a new technique and finally feel like I am getting the hang of it. The only problem is then my artwork starts looking really similar piece after piece. I also become reluctant to try new and unfamiliar things.
When I get stuck in a rut like this, I have an exercise I like to use to get out of my comfort zone. I force myself to try something new by approaching one reference image in multiple ways. So for this post I decided to show some recent results of this exercise.
If you decide to give this exercise a try too I would love to see your results! Feel free to post in the comments, email or post to my facebook group.

Reference Image

The reference image is of Tessa Overall in boat pose. Tessa’s mum, Noeline Overall commissioned me to create a piece from this photo. Both Tessa and Noeline are accomplished yogis. Noeline is even a yoga instructor at Pure Unity Yoga.
I thought that this image would be perfect for my exercise to get myself out of my comfort zone. It is simple in its shape, but has strong highlights and interesting colours. There are a lot of elements ideal for experimentation using different mediums and techniques.

Reference photograph of Tessa Overall Photographer unknown

Approach 1:


I started working on the first piece using black gesso scraped onto cream pastel paper. This was done using a small credit card sized piece of plastic or cardboard. The technique creates a thin layer of paint which shows through some of the tooth of the paper. I like the texture that the uneven cover and edges give to the piece.


I worked on the figure using chalk pastel pencils. They go well over the black background and still show vibrant colours. Additionally, I prefer chalk pastel pencils to regular chalk pastels for small pieces. I feel like I have more control and can include more detail. I also wanted to leave a lot of the torso and legs without much pastel. This let the gesso show through for the shadows.


The highlights in the reference photograph are such an integral part of this piece. I wanted to make sure that I accentuated them. I blended red, yellow, orange and purple chalk pastel pencils with the bright white. This technique against the black gesso allowed for strong contrast.

‘Rise From the Shadows’: Chalk pastel pencils on black gesso on cream pastel paper A3 size

Progress photos of ‘Rise From the Shadows’

Approach 2:

I created the second piece at a Mixed Media group at the Henley and Grange Arts Society.

I used large brown paper for the second piece that I created from the photo of Tessa. The background was left blank except for the yoga mat beneath the figure. Thus, the mid-tone showed through.
I wanted to be more free-form and expressive in this piece, less worried about capturing the proportions exactly. That is why I chose to use the big brown paper on a large easel. Sometimes I find that using an easel allows for less restrained movement. My elbow is not leaning against the table while I paint or draw.
In keeping with my plan to be more expressive, I decided to use mainly charcoal for this version of Tessa’s portrait. I find that I make larger and darker marks using charcoal than I do with many other mediums.
I applied the charcoal in a manner that suggested contour lines. This was to give the figure more dimension, particularly along the legs. This left an interesting pattern that I did not try to blend in because I liked it as it was.
In contrast to the previous piece above, for this one I had to draw in the shadows using the charcoal. So there was a lot less blank space within the figure in this version compared to the last one.

The mid-tone paper meant that I could use white chalk pastels to create the bright highlights. This is a similar technique that I used on the previous piece, but with less contrast against the background.

‘Uplifted Yogi’: Charcoal and chalk pastels on large brown paper

Progress photos of ‘Uplifted Yogi’

Approach 3:

For the third version of Tessa’s portrait I wanted to try my hand at watercolours. This is far outside my comfort zone. I tend to over-work watercolours and not leave enough white spaces. Also, I have trouble waiting for the paint to dry so have plenty of unintentional runs. Just call me over-enthusiastic I guess 😉
Having little experience with watercolours, this piece was way outside my comfort zone. In the future I would like to get better. I love the way watercolours can look. So this is a good opportunity to conquer my watercolour fear.
I used a blotchy colourful wash for the background of this piece. This effect was created by tapping a paint loaded brush onto wet areas of paper in multiple layers.

I used deep blues and purples for the shadows in this piece. In the future I should be more subtle with the application of watercolour paints. I need to work the shadows up more gradually. Even though I was a bit heavy handed, I really enjoy the resulting effect of moody blue shadows on the muscles.


The highlights in this piece were created by leaving white space. As usual, I probably should have left more white areas, but I think I did better than I have in the past. I also tried to capture the orange and yellow colours on the edge of the highlights in the reference photo. This was done by letting the blue of the shadows bleed into them a little. I probably shouldn’t have let it bleed quite as much in the face and hair area. So I then worked back into the light areas with white chalk pastel.


I added more definition to this piece using Tombow dual brush pens. This created a stained glass effect, particularly on the arms. I also tried to get the line-work to pick out the shapes of the muscles. This was to enhance the variation in shadows around them.

‘Stained Glass Boat Pose’: Watercolour and Tombow dual brush pens on A3 mixed media paper

Progress photos of ‘Stained Glass Boat Pose’


I hope you enjoyed my walk through creating these pieces. If you decide to try a similar exercise to get yourself out of your comfort zone, I would love to see the results. You can show me your work using the comments section, email (, social media or by posting in The Art of Flying facebook group. Happy experimenting and I can’t wait to see what you create!

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