Craig Oates

The Practicalities of Material Selection


Art Practice

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Imagine you are going about your business and an idea starts to trickle to the forefront of your mind. It's an idea for a new artwork. You decide to not rush it just in case it swans off like a cat. Whilst you try to entice it, another part of you begins to explore where this little dance will end. You begin to envision the final outcome, the feeling of accomplishment and pride. A few minutes pass, though, and the moment of glory starts to subside. You move on to considering the practicalities. How do I make it? What will I make it out of? Can I actually make it? It's these types of questions that will be the foundation for this piece of writing. Building on top of that will be the main focus which is the material selection aspect of said-questions.

Having made a few pieces of art, I have noticed several things along the way. And, I would like to take this time to share some of them with you. The first one is sometimes choices are forced. The second one is restrictions can be a good thing. The third one is upbringing is relevant. And, the fourth one is too much choice leads to the paradox-of-choice.

Starting us off is observation number one: Choices are sometimes forced upon you. When you stumble across an idea and decide to act on it, you need to answer some questions. An important one being can I actually act on it? What's frustrating about it, though, is it's a relative answer more often than not. Answers such as "not right now" and "only if I do that first" are quite common. When these types of answers start to surface, compromises start entering the conversation. For example, you end up making the piece in a material that wasn't your first choice. If the compromise is too severe, though, you must be ready to accept defeat. Sometimes it's better to not make something if it will be a shadow of its potential. Although, I believe most things are salvageable and repurposed into something else. In general, I have found that it is best to roll with the situation instead of pushing back.

The second observation is restrictions can lead to positive, and sometimes unexpected, outcomes. When you have an idea but not the means to make it, you're forced down a different path. This detour is easy to grasp but can be difficult to accept. For example, when you are in the heat of the making-moment your heart can be set on a particular part being a certain way. It's non-negotiable. What's important to remember here, though, is you can express most ideas in more than one form. And, exploring the different ways you can express an idea can lead to a greater understanding of it. I came to understand this when I began adopting text into my work. This happened when I decided it wasn't practical to make sculpturesi. It was frustrating at first but a positive side-effect came with the fallout of this shift. My ability to differentiate between the idea and the medium used to express it improved. The reason why is because I was thinking about them in new ways. This made them malleable and I became open to expressing them in different mediums. The most notable being text. Because of this change in attitude, pieces like The Drum1 surfaced.

The next observation is the third one. Which is how you're brought up informs your skills and choices. Whilst growing up, I was able to teach myself several computer programs. They all had one thing in common which was they were all based on two-dimensional thinking. For instance, I learned how to use word processors and photo editing software. I didn't have access to any three-dimensional programs. This meant I didn't learn how to do things like build three-dimensional models. Due to my lack of skills in this area, I ended up making Amazing Animal Alphabet2 the way you see it today. I made it using Unity 3D which is a game engine. The folks at Unity designed it be a three-dimensional based engine to begin with, hence the "3D" in its name. Over time though, it has developed the capability to make two-dimensional games, as well. This meant I had an opportunity to make it anyway I wanted. Because of this, you may find it disappointing to see me sticking with two-dimensions. I did it because I felt comfortable in that domain and I am more productive in it. This meant I ended up using pen and paper for the design work and (2D) image editing apps to make the games visuals.

The last observation revolves around the freedom of choice. More often than not, when you have the freedom to take an idea in any direction you want, you usually end up stuck. The reason why is because too many options usually leads to a paradox-of-choice forming. It often leaves people feeling like they made the wrong decision. And, finding an answer to the problem is difficult as there is no clear path to follow. The only comfort I have found with this paradox is I now understand "a" and "the" a lot better. For instance, the difference between "a way to do something" and "the way to do something" is as big as night and day.

A paradox-of-choice occurs when the chooser becomes unable to make a choice. This is due to the sheer volume of options offered and the situation lacking a definitive answer. It causes anxiety for the chooser and why when a person has too many choices they might as well have none at all. They both leave you in the same situation.

One time I came face to face with this problem was when I was making several of my prints. They are Everything In-between3, Up this way4, Here Now There5 and Now Then6. The outcome of these prints look simple but getting there wasn't. For these prints I wanted to project a sense of direction and location. And, when making them, I had two recurring thoughts. They were "I am here and not there" and "I am to the left/right of (x)". The open-ended nature of this subject matter allowed me to express it in several ways. The two main directions where depiction and conceptual. The depiction route meant painting and illustrating a scene. This led to needing to answer a particular set of questions. If I went the conceptual route though, I wouldn't need to answer them. Unfortunately, all that meant was I traded one set of questions for another. It's important to note I could have taken the work in any direction but not every direction. So, when you look at these prints you are looking at an outcome of thought and not the outcome. It's because of this that I remain unsure about them. To be fair though, I could say that about most, if not all, my work.

All four observations have educated me about the making process in some way. The most notable change to my approach since my teenage years is the amount I have lightened up. I am now comfortable seeking the practical solution over the ideal one. This doesn't mean I've set this rule in stone, though. It's just a preference. I view practicalities as good things because sometimes having complete freedom can be debilitating. And, interesting outcomes can arise when you have limited choices. On top of that, I have found the practical answer, not the theoretical one, is what usually gets the job done. I often think about a quote when I'm thinking about materials and making. It is a photography quote and is often credited to Chase Jarvis7. The quote is "The best camera is the one that's with you". Whilst the subject matter isn't immediately relevant here, I believe the spirit of it is. Sometimes, it's best to make something with what you have to hand than with something you would like to have.

End Notes

i I decided it wasn't practical because I don’t have the storage space. It’s fine for working, though.


  1. The Drum
  2. Amazing Animal Alphabet
  3. Everything In-between
  4. Up this way
  5. Here Now There
  6. Now Then
  7. Chase Jarvis, 2009