Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From the Mailbag: How to Practice Painting

A reader writes: What would you recommend as a clear way of practicing painting? There seem to be many avenues to go down all at once - choosing a subject, drawing, value, color, composition, brush strokes, etc. Thousands of decisions to be made. So far I read, read, read, take workshops, classes, paint often and still I feel daunted and commit "errors of enthusiasm" most every time. 

Indeed, learning to become a better painter can be daunting!  Where does one start?  I like to attack the learning process the same way I do a lunch buffet - in an organized manner.  I get my plate first, then my utensils, and I move on to the salad, appetizers and the main course, followed by dessert. Sometimes, I'll try juggling my dinner plate, salad bowl, bread plate and dessert plate all at once, and that always ends up being a mistake.  It's better if I make several trips.

So what would my steps be, if I were just starting off?

Well, my reader has laid out the process quite nicely in his question.  Start with learning how to draw, followed by learning how to compose, followed by a study of color usage and finally, brush work or mark-making.  Break up the steps over time, and spend a significant part of your education working on each step.  Make sure you feel your skills have gotten good enough at each step before moving on.  (Most art instruction books have all the basics, and you can use them as a program of study.)

But where does one go from there?  I think this is what my reader is really asking.

The problem is juggling all those plates.  When trying to create a finished painting, most students juggle too much.  They try to do everything at once, such as thinking of brush work at the same time they're puzzling out how to mix color and also redrawing a tree limb.  This is a method doomed to frustration.  You're much better off by painting in the same orderly manner in which you learned to paint:

  • Get your plates and utensils (make small sketches to work out values and composition)
  • Get your salad (get the drawing right)
  • Get your entree (get the color right)
  • And lastly, get your dessert (add those deft, finishing brush strokes)

You also must be satisfied with your work at the end of each step.  If you're not happy with your drawing, don't move on to color.  Get the drawing right first.  If you're not happy with your color, don't move on to finishing strokes.  Get the color right first.

Finally, I must say this:  Painting is a craft.  A craft, no matter whether it is painting, woodworking or even juggling, requires practice.  The more you do, the more you learn, and the better you get.

I can help you with this process, by the way.  At both my winter Paint Sedona workshops and summer Paint Campobello workshops, I break everything down into these easy steps.  I still have a few spots left in the Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops and am now taking deposits on the Paint Campobello plein air painting workshops.


L. Harrison-Parsons said...

Beautifully stated, learn to drawn first, take

everything one step at a time after that.

Unknown said...

I love when you say get the drawing right before moving onto color! I will keep that in my mind for my nest painting ;) http://ashleybridgerdesigns.com

Anonymous said...

Based on my own experience believe in her method of approach. If an inspiring artist can be tutored from a artist they like, it really helps. Workshops are another good approach if they are not over crowded with other students and the instructor takes a sincere effort to assist each artist individually.
Some workshops are worth the money and time but some aren't. Do your homework first about the workshop, ask yourself what you would like to learn and take those questions with you. Usually the instructor will have a recommended list of paints and supplies, I feel its best to have those items and be ready to learn and have fun too. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Helen Opie said...

I interpreted the question differently, and would say that yes, you need to learn all of these things to be well nourished (well trained in art skills) and also, just as you may have a greater hunger for the salad course one day, and desire a lot of fish or meat another, you will find that either you need to focus on one or another aspect more intensely or that your attention (appetite) shifts and you see that you need to balance your diet with some other choices.

A teacher might make you aware of what it is you need to focus on right then, or you may get an "aha!", perhaps when someone else's work is getting a crit, or perhaps when you look at some fine painting closely and notice that this artist has paid more attention to some aspect than you had thought of doing yourself.

In the end, we are each responsible for all of our own growth, and the fact that you asked for help says you are feeling hunger. Hunger is necessary for learning; it is why people train their dogs before a meal, or reward them with a treat. Treats don't work if the dog isn't hungry. No number of workshops will work if you aren't desirous of forging ahead - and perhaps you even have to know what it is you hunger for, which part of the buffet, not the whole thing in one mixed pot.

Michael sorts his buffet well, and you may only pick up a part of the selection offered, and then pick up another part another time. We have different ways of learning, just as we have different ways of making paintings.

Linda Eichorst said...

Hi Michael,

Very well stated. I can very well remember getting confused and making silly mistakes if I wasn't methodical. Those who just attack everything at once, even though skilled and seasoned, produce paintings that are inconsistent in their quality. If one cannot produce consistently good paintings, you cannot produce consistent income.

Thank you again, Michael. I learn so very much from great artists like you.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thank you, everyone! These are all good thoughts.