GUEST 22 | The Art of Improv with Kim Duhaime


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Kim Duhaime

on The Art of Improv

This week we learn how painter Kim Duhaime uses improvisation to create beautifully intricate and richly textured works that evoke a sense of peace. Abstracting motifs from nature these works create a sense of calm amongst the chaos. The colors are luscious and the layered patterns complex, the overall compositions abundant with interesting stories that I want to know more about. Let’s find out more about Kim’s work and her experience, use and process of improvisation.

The Purest Unity   Kim Duhaime

The Purest Unity Kim Duhaime

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

To me, the “Art of Improv” has more to do with the experience of making art, than  it is about producing an object. Working improvisationally means approaching the canvas with an open mind, allowing the painting to evolve as a dialogue between my intentions and what’s happening with the materials. It means being fully present and focused, perceiving and sensing what’s happening, then responding spontaneously. I love to work this way: leaving room for serendipity, following the unexpected, being inventive, taking risks and exploring avenues that may or may not lead to something I like. Improvisation also means letting go of trying to control things by opening up to receiving inspiration from what can feel like a higher source than the conscious mind (or tapping into a deeper one). I guess that’s what people mean when they talk about “getting into the zone”.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

Pretty much yes. I was a graphic designer and art director for many years before becoming a painter, and I always felt most satisfied when I could infuse projects with the spirit of improvisation. When I became an artist, once I had established a basic technical foundation, I quickly moved from painting landscapes to exploring abstraction so that I could improvise with greater freedom.

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

It’s definitely an integral part of my process, and I do it intentionally. I begin every painting by making random marks on the canvas and covering it with washes of colour, and I let things evolve from there without really knowing exactly what is going to happen next. I know some people have a phobia about making those first marks, but for me it’s the best part because a blank canvas feels like the ultimate freedom and I’m excited to see how this new painting will evolve, and what I’ll learn from making it.

A Stain of Ocean   Kim Duhaime

A Stain of Ocean Kim Duhaime

How often do you work with improvisation?

Nearly always. It’s really part of my nature to work improvisationally – it’s the part of creativity that I find most exciting. If I knew exactly what my paintings were going to look like before starting, I probably wouldn’t make them. I’d find it boring to make work that follows a fixed pattern.

The exception is when a painting is nearly complete: at that point, I feel like I need to be very deliberate about bringing in marks or moves that I think (rather than feel) will bring the composition into balance and harmony. If I start improvising at this point, the piece is likely to fall into irredeemable chaos and end up in the burn pile.

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I work on several pieces at once, with the intention of creating a series that communicates a coherent theme or mood, so even though I’m working improvisationally, it’s not just random flinging of paint. I decide on a colour palette, and I’ll repeat marks and design elements so that there’s a cohesive look that holds the series together. With that as a starting point, I build up layers of textures and marks, responding intuitively to what’s going on with whatever the piece feels like it needs. If I feel like I need to break my own rules and bring in a new colour or element, I’ll do that.

I find it a lot easier to work with the focused spontaneity and openness of possibilities of improvisation than to work in a rational or deliberate way. While things are still “open” and I’m building up the textures and layers in the painting, it’s all play, but the closer it gets to being done, the more reluctant I am to keep working on it.

I have a few tricks to get myself unstuck. The first is to put the painting away and work on something else for a little while, and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. After a few days, I’ll make a latte and just sit in front of it for a while, to see what ideas come up around what parts feel unbalanced, or what kind of thing I could try to make it feel complete. It’s the hardest part because often, there might be a little part of the painting that I really love, but it has to go because it’s not working alongside the rest of it. Or the opposite happens and I find that I was stuck because the thing is actually finished, and doesn't need anything else. If it still feels unfinished and I can’t see what it needs, I’ll just put it away again.

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

I find inspiration in the natural world, and in the emotions it inspires in me. I don’t feel compelled to reproduce what I see, but rather to use the colours, textures, motifs and moods of nature as a language beyond words to communicate a deeply personal experience in a way that others can connect to and then make their own.

The Well of Color   Kim Duhaime

The Well of Color Kim Duhaime

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally. Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

I would say that the most important thing is to be both patient and devoted to your  process, and to approach art-making with curiosity. Accept that not everything you make has to become a finished piece destined for show or sale, and have the courage to explore.

Working improvisationally can take you into some very enriching territory and open up possibilities for your work that you would never have arrived at otherwise. The most interesting experiences and learning happen when you open up to interacting with the unexpected, when you take risks and follow unlikely paths.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

What if the sky weren't blue? How would that affect the colour of everything on earth?

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

Listening: The Savvy Painter podcast, with Antrese Wood

I love how Antrese goes deep into discussing process with the artists she interviews. It’s fascinating to see how there are so many common threads running through everyone’s experiences no matter what genre or medium they work in. And people share tons of tips and tricks about materials, techniques and ways of getting your work out into the world.

Reading: It’s All About Music, by Jean-Michel Pilc

Interesting reading about the expressive nature of improvisation and some great exercises to help you tap into your creativity.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of improvisational jazz, specifically Jean-Michel Pilc. And Prince’s recently released album, Piano and a Microphone.

Thank you Kim, for sharing your work and method of using improv with us all! I can relate to choosing a palette and letting loose with an open mind of not knowing how the piece will evolve, this is the magic of creating for me. And I, like you, have no fear of the clean slate of a blank canvas, in fact I relish in it. Your recommendation to put away work when it is not working, to get some time and space away does make the heart grow fonder, no? I am adding It’s All About Music to my reading list and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I look forward to the exercises especially!

To find out more about Kim, check out her website, her blog and see more of her process on Instagram.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.