Back when I was an art student I had a very wise and passionate art teacher. Among the most common instructions she would give me when I was creating my art, be that painting or drawing, was to get out there and create that art while actually in front of my subject.
Now to put this into context, I was a teenager. I loved art, but it was a bit embarrassing to go outside with all my art equipment and start doing paint studies out in the real world. I found it uncomfortable and was never really confident when people might come up and ask me what I was doing, or would want to look at my work. So, I used to take photographs, get them developed (yes, this was before digital cameras) and then paint from the photograph.
When my art teacher looked at my artwork, she would always challenge me as to whether I’d done the painting while looking directly at the subject. You see, she could tell that I hadn’t. She would regularly comment that when you really study a subject you begin to notice those things that make it what it is.
You begin to paint what is really there, and not what you think is there.
Now this took a while to sink in, but once I got this it was a revelation. We have an idea in our heads of what something should look like, but when we really interrogate the actual subject with an open mind there are often surprising elements that make up the defining features of that subject.
A great example of this is color. I had to paint a post box, and in the UK these are all red. We all know they are red, so you paint it red. But try this exercise yourself – go out and really study something and you’ll often notice there are many other colors in addition to the main color. It might be due to other objects reflecting onto the subject matter, or the kind of light that is hitting it at that time. I found that the post box I ‘knew’ was all red, was of course made up of many other subtle touches of different colors – and it was these colors that gave the post box its character and depth.
So, why on earth am I going on about post boxes and getting outside and painting in front of a subject? The parallel of this to research literally sprung into my mind yesterday. All too often, research is done while sitting at a desk. Surveys, questionnaires, secondary research, online searches, etc, etc. The internet has made it all too easy for us to research in the comfort of our own studios or homes. No one asks us what we’re doing, or wants to look at our work, or even asks annoying questions. It’s easy. It’s comfortable.
But, much like the painting, we’re only seeing a part of the picture. We’re probably getting most of the important information we need, but we’re not getting everything. There’s subtle details and quirks that we’re not picking up on, and this leads to our work not quite having the depth it could have. The thing is, we only get that depth and detail by getting out there into the real world, and doing our research in-person and in front of our subject.
You work in FMCG/CPG? Get out into the supermarket and watch how people shop a category. Stand in an aisle for 30 mins and just analyze people. Watch for their unexpected behaviors that you never would have seen sitting at a desk. Maybe talk to people, but mainly just watch and analyze those little things they’re doing, or not doing for that matter.
Now of course some industries are easier to get out there and see the audience in action, but if it is an option then what’s stopping you? Embarrassed about what people might say? Don’t be. Get outside and take a good, close look at your subject. Don’t base your research entirely on what the numbers and data show you, but add to this what people show you.
Doing in-person research can add color and depth to your research that you could never have predicted.
As for that art teacher, of course she was right. My artwork improved and got much more depth when I stopped trying to paint what I thought was there, and just got out there, looked closer and painted what was really there.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Paul Bailey, Strategy Director at Halo
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