Investigative and experimental sampling requires both an open-mind and a focussed approach to ensure the work created is coherent, exciting and new. I wrote this post following a tutorial with a student who had been struggling to explore a new process and wanted to revert to a tried-and-tested approach. Using familiar processes and materials is comforting: we know how they’ll respond and can be confident in our ability to manipulate them successfully. But success is a straightjacket – it’s validating and comforting but it’s also restrictive and can stifle creativity. To be honestly experimental and create work that surprises us requires being brave and taking risks, with a willingness to value disaster samples for what we’ve learned through the process. Below is a list of ideas for how to approach sampling.
Set the parameters
Try to be systematic and methodical when preparing for sampling: define your materials, methods and what you intend to create. It’s hard to be creative if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve. What does the project theme and/or course exercise require? What qualities do you want to see in the samples? Apply constraints to the project, like a specific colour scheme or palette of materials. By giving yourself constraints, the sampling has more focus; there’s less chance of developing work that isn’t relevant, or finding yourself floundering because there are too many options.
Ignore the outcome
Whilst it’s important to know what you’re trying to achieve, avoid focussing on exactly what you’ll create. The idea of a ‘final piece’ is likely to result in a very linear development journey, where exciting potential is overlooked in favour of methods which fit the pre-defined idea. Ideas of potential outcomes will naturally occur through the process. Make a note of them as they arise but don’t let them constrain your exploration, as a more interesting idea might emerge later on. I regularly refer my students to Bruce Mau’s ‘An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth’ to help them shake up a project. Manifesto point 3 is: “Process is more important than outcome: When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome, we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.”
Make make make! (but make small)
Start by making small samples, so you can test the success of a wide range of ideas before deciding which approach to develop. The emphasis of initial sampling is plurality, variety and experimentation, so make lots and work small!
Work in series
Working in series is a great way to drive the sampling forward. In this context, the samples in a series will be similar, using the same materials and/or process, but each one will use them in a different way to create a distinct outcome. Series of related samples naturally emerge when were really excited by a process, when we’re responding to it intuitively and impulsively. But what if you aren’t enjoying a particular method or have hit a creative block?
Having to create a set quantity forces you think creatively about how to utilise the same ingredients in different ways. If you’ve decided to create a series of 10 related samples, for example, but you’ve got stuck at six, you’re put in the position of having to ask yourself ‘how else can I do X?’ or ‘how else can I manipulate Y’ to be able to create the remaining four. Decide on what your ‘ingredients’ are (e.g. a specific process + material) and try to combine them in lots of different ways to create significantly different outcomes. You could, for example, set yourself a task to “Create 20 samples exploring ways to combine plaster with salt and blue ink” or “Create 20 samples using the same colour palette in different proportions”. You may have particular aesthetic considerations to guide how you combine the elements, or it may be a purely materials- or process-led approach. (This is a great way to explore a new material or process.)
A key benefit of creating series of samples is that we have to push past our initial ideas to create samples we wouldn’t or couldn’t have initially conceived of. Once initial ideas have been exhausted, it can be easy to feel stuck and move restlessly on to a different idea or process. But the most surprising, exciting and interesting work lies on the other side of that creative block, simply because it forces us to take an approach that wasn’t immediately obvious.
Generating a series of samples also means that there is less pressure on each sample being “right”, as each iteration will offer something new. The multiple strengths within the series can then be extracted and refined into one or more samples.
Challenge your materials and allow them to challenge you
Every material and process has an inherent aesthetic and material qualities, which can be harnessed or challenged. Enhancing or exaggerating the innate qualities of a material by applying sympathetic processes is likely to feel more natural and easier. But fighting against a material’s natural qualities can result in interesting outcomes and teach us more about its potential. It is easier to see card’s rigidity to be used but how could you make it fluid and fabric-like? Allow materials to challenge you to think creatively about how else they could be used.
In early stages of a project, the focus is on investigating potential. We want to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can, to generate a varied and exciting body of work to form a solid foundation for the project. How well-crafted the sample at this stage is therefore less important. It isn’t worth spending a long time exquisitely executing a technique which you might later decide isn’t relevant. Focus on quicker ways to explore and experiment: work small, test sections of more complex ideas, and use drawing to propose new samples, explore variations and test compositions. Rather than arduously stitching a design with tens of bullion knots, you could draw the idea using marks to mimic the knotted stitches to test composition ideas, before choosing one to test.
Whilst such early sampling maybe be rougher and less refined, it doesn’t mean it is any less valuable. Once you’ve decided which samples are most successful, they can then be developed with more time spent on executing the technique or with higher quality materials. These rough samples (termed ‘dirty’ models within 3D design) are quick iterations which give you an idea of the potential without wasting time on the execution.
Just as a weed is a plant in the wrong place, an error is just something that hasn’t worked in that particular context. It can be disheartening to have a sample not turn out as intended but the errors provide new knowledge about the material or process. Evaluate unsuccessful samples to consider what you’ve learned and whether the error could be harnessed in this project or in future.
Continually feed the project
Technical and contextual research usually kick-starts a project- it’s inspiring to see how other people have used materials and processes, or how they’ve explored a certain idea or concept. Continue to feed the project with inspiration as it develops by taking an active approach to researching your ideas and methods: How else could I use X? How do gallery-based artists use XX process? How can I achieve XX effect with X process?
Use your sketchbook whilst making
Physically investigating materials and processes is inspiring: the tactile sensations and changing visual qualities trigger loads of ideas. Draw these ideas and make notes in your sketchbook whilst you’re making. Evaluations of the sample and thoughts about the process will also arise, so note these down too. (If the process is messy, you may wish to make notes in a separate notebook.)
Stage the development
It can be valuable to clearly define each stage of the project, so you are consciously considering what you want to achieve within that phase of sampling. Running too far down one avenue early on can mean missing out on more exciting and less obvious potential, but this intuitive refinement has more value later on. Focus on breadth early on, followed by selective editing to reduce the scope of the investigation (often multiple times depending on the length of the project and level of refinement required).
Reflect and edit
We can’t help but constantly evaluate our work and ourselves whilst creating. Consider the stage of development when evaluating the value and role of a sample. A rough initial sample might be really exciting as part of early work, but if it was submitted as part of a final collection, its value would change.
Once you’ve completed a sample, briefly evaluate it against your original intentions. If a sample didn’t turn out how you intended or you don’t like it, does it have other merits or potential for future use? Consider why you like or dislike certain samples, both from a personal perspective and in relation to the project intentions (as the two may not always align). Evaluate your samples and series as soon as they’re made, so their potential helps you decide what to do next.
Once you’ve completed initial sampling, review the body of samples as a whole to select the most successful approaches. Whereas the ongoing evaluation was more raw, responding to how you felt at the time of making and just after, this evaluation is a more objective and formal consideration of the merit of the work. Based on this you can plan the next phase of the project by selecting the samples, materials and methods to take forward. (Textile tutor Faye Hall has written two great blogposts about how to reflect on and edit your work, which I highly recommend reading: Reflection and the edit: Part 1 and Part 2.)
Tactile exploration of materials and processes is inherent to textiles. Getting lost in an enthusiastic exploration of textures, colours, surfaces and structures is a vital part of the development process. A systematic development process, created by setting parameters and applying constraints, give us boundaries to push against, and methods like working in series create problems to spark a creative response, all of which provides fuel for our natural energetic creativity. Sampling that is truly investigative and experimental will be invigorating and exciting, push us out of our comfort zone, and drive us to learn more about materials, processes, our work and ourselves.