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So what is Research?

When I wrote the blog post in October introducing myself as the new Course Leader for Textiles I outlined the elements that I feel make a good textile course. At the top of this list I put research.
“I believe good quality research is at the centre of every students studies. Wide reaching research enhances the students creative potential by exposing them to the richness of the creative world, inspiring creativity but also developing critical thinking skills and analysis.”
I was asked by a couple of students what this means and how they can go about doing good research. So this blog post is about unpacking those couple of sentences and explaining what research in the creative arts, specifically textiles, is all about.
The Oxford Dictionary definition of research is – a. The systematic investigation into and study of materials, sources, etc., in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. b. An endeavour to discover new or collate old facts etc. by a course of critical investigation.
Pulling out the key words from this definition we have – investigation, study, discover, collate, critical and conclusions. All these words suggest a level of thinking and searching that leads to understandings of value. In other words the exercise is useful and assists with the development of knowledge and creativity. The value will be defined by where you are in your studies or creative practice. The point you are at on your journey to becoming a practitioner will influence the types of research you will be most interested in.
When your journey starts, perhaps during your first Level 1 course, the main type of research activity you will be engaged with is looking at and collecting imagery. This will be of art works made by others and the purpose of this research is to develop an understanding of what creativity is in your field. From these beginnings the intensity and shape of research changes through academic study leading to a research degree or becoming an artist/practitioner.
“I never made a painting as a work of art, it’s all research.” Pablo Picasso.
Here I believe Picasso is saying that all his artistic endeavours are part of a learning process that leads to the next piece of work.


To help you understand the way research progresses I have broken it down into parts or steps.

  1. Looking and thinking. I am going to use the example of going to an exhibition to illustrate these points but exhibition could be replaced by a book, magazine, website, TV programme, etc. At the exhibition you start by examining the art works, thinking about what you like and responding to them instinctively, acknowledging what you like.
  2. Collecting and annotating. This is when at the exhibition you take some photos of the works that most interest you. Making notes that go with the image about things like the artists name, the date created, media used, something about the style and composition. In Austin Kleons book Steal Like an Artist he suggests setting up a ‘Swipe File’ on your computer to collect all the imagery that excites you. This is a way of storing material that you may wish to refer to again later. Other ways of collating the work is in a file, pin board or a Pinterest page and of course your OCA learning log/blog.
  3. Critical thinking and drawing. According to Gray and Malins in their book Visualizing Research critical thinking is “thinking effectively and applying sound intellectual standards to your thinking.” In the gallery space this is the consideration of a piece of artwork through an understanding of the art works effect on you. Pinning down what you think of the work and why. Asking yourself questions about materials, composition, placement, colour palette and how these work together to make the artwork. To assist in this process observational drawing and mark making helps to explore the work, taking your eye in to have a closer look. It also moves your observations from your eyes to your hands where after all most artwork is made. This process of drawing and getting down your thoughts, ideas and feelings helps to pull out what it is that makes the artwork of value to you.
  4. Sample making and analysis. This next step moves away from looking at the work of others and taking what you have learnt to produce work of your own, beginning with sample making. The samples will combine your knowledge of techniques with the research you have undertaken and your own sensibilities. By sorting and filtering the quality of your samples you will come to conclusions about which to take forward into final artworks or designs.
  5. Creating your own artworks and peer review. In this final step where you are making artworks or designs of your own your research material will be deeply embedded in the work you make, in the way that Oasis were influenced by The Beatles. It will make your work current and fit into the artist culture you are now part of. Opening it up to peer review at your own exhibition or scrutinised by potential employers.

These parts or steps are cyclical and continuous, propelling the artist forward, ever deeper into their creativity.
I hope this has answered some of the questions students have about research and how it fits into their studies. I am sure it will have also generated more questions and discussions.
In a nutshell research is
Look. Think. Write.
Look. Think. Draw.
Think about your thinking.
Gray, C and Malins, J. (2004) Visualizing Research. A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design. Farnham: Ashgate
Kleon, A. (2012) Steal like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative. New York: Workman Publishing Company
Oxford English Dictionary. 1995. 9th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Posted by author: Rebecca Fairley
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43 thoughts on “So what is Research?

  • This will be a very useful outline for anyone who is new to HE!
    I have, for interest only, taken a textiles course and a photography course, the latter contained easy to spot pointers which the student could use to develop their research along more academic lines. The textile course was nothing like that, instead of suggesting ‘how’ to begin to research a topic it talked about presentation of the ‘theme book’, decorating the outside etc etc. No mention of ‘taking it to the next level’.
    Fortunately this course has been rewritten but the same lack is evident in higher level courses, I will not be doing any more textile courses until this is remedied.

    • Thank you for your comments Mary.
      As you have alluded to in your comment the textiles courses required updating. This has been happening with some speed over the last year or so. You will be pleased to hear that at the validation event last week at University of the Creative Arts in Epsom we were highly praised for our course material.
      Good luck with your studies.

  • Hi Rebecca,
    thanks for posting this.
    I’m a level 3 Creative Art student – and have focused on painting and printmaking. The biggest leap for me as I moved through the levels was how I engaged in and leveraged my research.
    In the early modules I was concerned with learning about my subject of fine art, and spent my time reading about various genres of art. But by level 2 in became apparent that what I really needed to do (in order to create work that was authentically my own) was to dive deeply into subjects that interest me and use my research to explore many aspects of these subject so that I could distill my own ideas and frameworks from it.
    By the end of level 2 my research has become a key part of my work – and I feel that it will always form the first step in any future projects after I graduate because it has been through research and experimental making that I have found my artistic voice.
    I think it was Bill Viola who said that he always starts a new project by taking himself away for a few days to a place of solitude and immersing himself in books, images and information that touches on his theme – and this is what informs every aspect of his new work.
    Its maybe a bit extreme to hide away in solitude, but I believe that a deep dive into research is the foundation of new ideas and new creative work.

  • Hi Rebecca, thanks for this. I have found it very thought provoking and it certainly will be something I refer back to. I’m a Level 2 painting student and it’s only now when I’m immersed in level 2 that I’m really discovering what research is all about. Up to now and I guess sometimes even now, I have felt frustrated at the amount of research required and felt that it was keeping me from feeling the pencil in my hand. But I’m begining to see that research has another agenda in the development of me as an artist. It is taking me to a depth of understanding and personal knowledge that is so necessary if I’m to realise that creative voice. What you have expressed so clearly here is such a help in this process. Thank you so much. Patricia

    • Thank you for observations Patricia.
      I understand your feelings completely. The concept of research and how it fits into the creative persons life can feel very tenuous at first but once the lightbulb is lit its all much clearer : )

  • Hi Rebecca, thanks for the blog on research,; while I feel I’m doing ok with my research, it’s clarified a few points on terminology of criteria & what is expected at assessment & to keep in mind.
    thanks, Sharon

  • That is so interesting. I had thought that steps 1 and 2 were research. I undertake the other steps but hadn’t considered those research in the academic context. Empowering, thank you.

  • I think, as distance learning students, we are hungry, if not starved, of these crumbs of perceptive insight which help us push our work and study to a new level. I have found that even a single sentence of wisdom from a tutor can propel me forward in a quantum leap. Please, OCA tutors, can we have more!

    • Thank you for reading my post and adding your comments.
      I am pleased my post on research is having a positive reaction from students and I have been able to add to the fabric of your studies.
      I must add that all oca student do have a personal tutor who can advice you on any part of your course and that feedback forms are the students first port of call for improving your work.

  • This is great, thanks for it. If I can add something – perhaps to unpack a little more what is already implied – it would be that, when visiting exhibitions, both drawing and note-taking are important, not only as records of observations but as complementary modes of primary thought and discovery. I suspect that, as visual artists, we expect that making drawings of an existing artwork will teach us something new, but are less confident that writing down observations in front of the artwork is also a mode of primary discovery. Art is made and understood in something intriguing that happens in the interactions of hand, eye and mind.

  • Thank you Rebecca, is it okay to copy this into my blog as a reminder? I now understand that my research is quite shallow, I constantly Look, collect, and think but clearly it is the deeper stages that add value to creative development , I will endeavour to remember to apply this to my findings.
    I have not yet found an ideal system for electronic storage of various types of research I would be interested to hear what apps or other system people use as a “swipe file”
    ( especially Mac users)

    • Its my pleasure Linda and thank you for your comment. Of course you can copy this into your learning log. I suggest you also add your comments and thoughts as a way of reflection. I have a mac and my swipe file is a file on my desktop. I also have an old fashion pin board with images that are interesting me currently.

  • Rebecca: Thank you so much for this wonderfully clear account of how research works. I will keep it and refer to it, alongside the OCA handbooks on learning logs and sketchbooks. I was told as a child not to copy – and this is a real problem! The process you describe is so far from that. “Deeply embedded” I think, says it all. There’s a moment when my brain moves from an instant response to a questioning “why does it make me feel that way?”. The question is often answered in the drawing, I guess. It doesn’t mean that the feeling response is broken by the analysis (which rhymes with paralysis) – it can be informed by further enquiry. So the personal response remains the starting point for the process.
    It’s also helpful to look at my negative responses. So often, when I know more about the way the artist was thinking, I can relate to the artwork. A strong negative reaction, like anger even, is worth looking at as well.
    Thanks – Josie

  • Thank you Rebecca this is a very useful article. I would like to see this sort of valuable discussion included in an OCA study guide including
    a video with some real students work to illustrate the points.

    • Thank you for your comments Karen. I think it will be a good idea to have this information in the study guide, I will check whats there and amend it accordingly. At the next assessment event in a week I hope to pull out some student work to illustrate how this looks in practice and to make a video.

  • This small article is proving it’s worth by looking at the comments. If tutors were to have a bigger face on the forums some of these difficulties of definition/practice could be resolved sooner. Also it would be nice if Rebecca responds to the comments made.

    • Thank you for your comments Mary.
      Textile tutors are not obliged to write blog posts or have a profile on the forums apart Sandra Flower who is paid to. Her role is to encourage students to use the forums so that they can support each other by sharing worries, ideas and knowledge. All tutors are encouraged to write blog posts if they have a subject of interest.
      I like most tutors work part time with other commitments, in a similar way to most oca students. I therefore cannot always respond to comments with speed.

  • This is a very encouraging blog for me as a beginner in the study of textiles. I’m only just beginning to appreciate I don’t have to stand in front of an artwork and prepare an essay, that it’s ok to respond instinctively and examine my own relationship to what I see. I like your nutshell, thankyou Rebecca

  • Thanks for your concise and very informative blog post Rebecca. Although time consuming, it is apparent that sharing such valuable bits of info is greatly appreciated by the students. Haven’t seen anything written by Sandra Flower upto date.

    • Hi Sonia
      Thank you for your comment.
      Sandra Flower is a Textiles tutor and can be found in the Textiles Forum on the student website http://www.oca-student.com/forum/109. She is there every week fielding questions and starting discussions.
      Currently there are conversations about this blog post, sketchbook development, ‘acts of making’ touring project and the Knit and Stitch Show. All students are welcome to start conversations of there own to find information and share ideas.

  • As I said over on the forum I have found your blog very useful indeed. I think I have sorted the ‘swipe file’ problem out by using Mind Map so that will be handy. Thank you Rebecca.
    I will mention this here although I’m aware it’s not the correct forum. Do you think at some stage it would be possible for the tutors to tell us a little about their specialisms and maybe even show us a few of their sketchbook pages. I am about to embark on the mixed media course and your work (Rebecca) seem to be hanging on the edge of that. I cant’t get to grips with where the interface is between concrete and textiles. I know I’m not alone. Just an idea.

    • Hi Fiona
      He He ….. Yes I know what you mean about my work and textiles. I’ve had plenty of bemused looks from both textile and concrete folk. Heres a link to my website http://rebeccamfairley.wix.com/portfolio
      Seeing it is better than trying to explain here what my work is like ; )
      In response to your query about seeing work from other tutors we all do have profile pages on the student website with a link to websites or online portfolios. I’ll see if it’s possible to add images to these pages. There is a picture of the tutor so you know what we look like.
      I’m really excited you’ll be studying the Mixed Media course Fiona. I hope you find it stimulating and perhaps fun too.
      Thanks for you questions and comments

  • As a very new student reviewing the L1 Creative Arts Today Unit, and setting up my work schedule, I have felt a little frustrated and concerned that I am not going to be ‘getting creative’ straight away. I was concerned with the amount of academic research that was required when I am so eager to pick up a paint brush, pencil or sewing needle!
    However, after reading your post about ‘ What is research’ I now see that perhaps I have been living in a bubble! I have instinctively been ‘looking, thinking, collecting…. and then looking, thinking, collecting… etc…! I have not however been taking this to the next level.
    My preferred method of collecting images and ideas are both pin interest and photos held either on my phone or computer. It explains why I have remained frustrated with so many exciting images and yet not picked up a pencil, or created samples and proceeded to create individual work.
    Thank you Rebecca, for creating a clear and inspiring picture and opening my eyes to the key that will unlock my abundance of creativity that has been locked away.
    I am now eager to get started on my research rather than proceeding reluctantly.
    Your “in a nutshell research is:……” is on a post it note directly in front of my work place.

  • I found your article very useful so thank you. I am new to the Creative Arts course and feel a bit overwhelmed at times but by breaking the information down into manageable chunks and having clear guidance (like above), then the course doesn’t seem so daunting.

  • Hi I am Francis currently studying Textiles, A Textiles Vocabulary.
    Even though I know the process it is nice to have it so nicely broken down, since I can be a scatter brain sometimes. I have studied Fine art before but it was never broken down like this, instead they would just teach to think or work in this way. But I think it is better to clearly know for yourself step by step what is your doing and why. Taking responsibility of my own work process and becoming more and more organised.
    In the past I have always been afraid to start and finish works or projects.
    But seeing it as studies and processes might help me to get rid of the idea that it has to be perfect. Putting more of an emphasis on the journey and not so much on the end destination.

    • Hi Francis, I am really pleased this has made sense to you and will help you be both more organised and less fearful of creating the perfect item. At assessment we look for risk taking which must involve some failure so if something doesn’t work out don’t worry. Learn form it an move on : )

  • Hi Francis,
    I’m slowly working my way through the HE information (it’s many years since I last did anything like this) and for a while was starting to wonder if I’d made the right decision, until I came to ‘So, what is Research?’.
    Having read it through several times now, I can honestly say it’s making so much sense that the feeling of OMG I was experiencing has now dispersed. I feel a great deal calmer now and empowered to move on in a sensible and logical way.

  • This is very clear information, and easy to digest. Many things make such complete sense that I wonder how I was not aware of them before. To learn that Picasso saw his works as research is quite inspiring/

  • Very clear and concise information, I like the way you have laid out each point, so it’s easy to read.

  • Thank you Rebecca for this piece.
    As a ‘mature’ student, I thought I would have good practises in learning and research. I’ve spent a few years working in education, however, this article re-enforces my decision to do an HE course in order to further my learning experiences and knowledge. The well used saying ‘Your never too old to learn’ applies and I feel I definitely never stop learning.
    Again, thank you for your wisdom and guidance.

  • Massive ‘Thank you’ for this piece of writing. It is so clear and easy to understand. Hugely helpful. It will be saved and regularly read again…that I can guarantee.

  • Huge thank you to Rebecca.
    Although I thought that I had a good idea already about learning and research, these practices are clear, concise and have been broken down in a way that is easy to remember. I have saved this article in my useful (pre research brush up) bits folder to read, no doubt, over and over again.

  • As a person with a health science background, I am very interested in research and studying. I have never thought about the artistic process as a research process. This article has given me a new option of view in my creation of artwork, which makes it more interested and exciting. Thank you! 🙂

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