Since today marks a milestone for my blog, I wanted to do something special.
This is my 100th post, so I'm going to try to make it as useful as possible. I'm going to include my top tips for growing as an artist, as well as some photos. The best of both worlds right?
So grab a cup of coffee, put on some relaxing music, and let's go!
Disclaimer: This advice is based on my own experience as an artist and what I've seen work for other artists over the years.
Drawing for the last 25 years (I'm 33 now).
4 years Art College for drawing and ceramics.
3 years Design school for interior design and construction.
6 Years professional photographer.
Last 3 Years as a full time self-employed, self-taught painter.
I've watched hundreds of instructional videos, plein air videos, listened to hundreds of interviews with renowned artists, and combined this with my own personal practice.
I am a SPONGE and I want to share what I learn.
My only goal for this post is to share as much insight as I can, share my lessons learned, and allow you to make your own conclusions.
Sit Down and Define Your Own Version of Success:
What does "success" mean to you? Does it mean you can paint or draw ANYTHING you can imagine, without struggling? Does it mean being famous? Does it mean you are teaching and inspiring others on a daily basis? Each of these will require certain steps to accomplish.
Defining this will help you know when you are straying from your path, or when your growth has become stagnant.
Learn the Fundamentals First (or if you've already started, revisit them):
Often times, new artists start drawing and painting without any desire to learn the fundamentals. They want to jump into the "fun stuff" immediately, and break the rules and do something wild and unique and wonderful. That's a fair goal. But without a deep understanding of the fundamentals, you will never know if you've broken the rules in an aesthetically pleasing way. Even Picasso was classically trained before he had his revelations in Cubism (as were most modern artists).
Form, line, color, space/perspective, texture, value, shape... call them what you will - but they will be critical to everything you do. Dedicate time to each one.
There are a vast amount of resources available for learning these. Heck, just start with Google if nothing else.
One of the easiest ways to do this (without taking classes) is to copy the masters. Find 10 paintings by the great masters that you love, and recreate them. This will teach you SO much, especially about form, light and color.
Don't worry about being Original. Be good. Be so good you can't be ignored:
(I offer this advice with as little ego as possible and most humbly - I know I have a LONG ways to go before I would feel comfortable saying I'm "good.")
I have a strange relationship with this concept, because I'm not a competitive person, nor am I good at accepting any form of praise. When someone compliments my work, I can think of a dozen reasons why they shouldn't. However, I feel strongly that having the attitude of "be so good they can't ignore you" is a helpful phrase to remember, because it reminds you how important your technical skills are.
This blog post isn't about specific technical skills, but this topic is still very relavent.
I have talked to many beginning artists that are concerned with one thing: being unique. They are so concerned with this, that they only draw/paint when they have a "big idea" or are "super inspired."
Well I have news for you! You are unique no matter what you do. Even if you copy another work of art, it will be unique. (but don't do that and call it your own!)
I don't want to get into semantics here, but I want to prove a point.
If you are constantly worrying about being original, being unique, being the only artist who has ever done *this,* you are wasting valuable time in progressing your skills.
A better strategy is to focus on being good. Grow your technical skills as much as possible. "Be so good you can't be ignored."
I guarantee, along the way (because it takes a long time), you are going to find plenty of ways in which you are unique, you will discover concepts and ideas that you are excited about, and you will have already done so much technical practice that when the BIG IDEA finally comes, you are more than ready to execute it.
Draw/paint From Life as Often as Possible:
This is probably the second most important piece of advice I could offer.
If you can't see it, you can't paint it.
You need to be VERY sensitive to subtle shifts in color. This is a learned skill.
I have absolutely nothing against using reference photos, in fact I use them on almost a daily basis in the studio.
However the thing about reference photos, is that you are already looking at a "flattened" version of the scene. This doesn't make your brain work as hard to understand color relationships than if you were looking at the real thing. It is the camera's version of life. Camera's have become pretty darn good at their jobs, however there is not a single camera in existence that can replicate the delicate balance of color & value that is found in life. (although large format film cameras come the closest).
The magical thing about painting/drawing from life, is that your brain is forced to look beyond subject matter, and deeply observe the light and colors that occur in different areas such as shadows and highlights.
I have never grown faster as an artist as when I started painting from life.
Not only has my enjoyment factor gone up, but my understanding of color and light, and my ability to translate that to the canvas has increased tenfold compared to before when I only worked from reference in the studio.
Never Stop Drawing:
This is probably the single most important bit of advice I could give.
Never. stop. drawing.
This is critical to your progress in understanding perspective, scale, and volume in space.
90 out of 100 artists who have "made it"who are decades into their practice will tell you that drawing is the most important tool in your kit.
So keep a sketchbook by the couch. Keep it in your desk drawer. Keep it on your nightstand and in your car. Sketch as much as possible. Keep that connection with your left brain going strong.
It might seem tedious, or unnecessary, but it will be your foundation.
Never Stop Looking:
You are only as good as what you know.
This has two parts.
- A personal visual inventory will help expand your mind and gain deeper understanding of the world around you and your artwork. Look at art. Find artists you admire. Compile an image database on your computer of what you like. Go to galleries. See what the public sees. Join online art communities like Deviantart or reddit. See what the internet sees. Scroll on Instagram. Look at art magazines. Check out art books. Look at architecture, fashion, landscape paintings, portraits, photography, listen to all types of music. Absorb as much data as you can. I did this before I ever started painting and I now realize it had a profound impact on my growth. I heard an interview with Eleinne Basa (who is an incredible landscape painter). She said she did this every morning for 2-3 hours. It might not seem like it is making a difference. But after a year or two, it will help you elevate your taste level and trickle down into your work.
- In order to know what is possible, you have to know what is impossible. The only way to know what is impossible is to keep searching.
Listen to Artists Talk About Their Experiences:
This is almost too obvious... but I have to say it otherwise this list would not be complete. Here are three very accessible resources - although there's a whole sea of insight available online these days.
Listen to the PleinAir podcast with Eric Rhoads - seriously, just do it. Dozens and dozens of incredible artists, masters, just pouring out their years of insight! Not just helpful for landscape painters, but anyone interested in growing as an artist!
Watch ColorInYourLife - dozens of incredible master artists sharing their process of painting from start to finish and discussing their thought process and inspiration. They have playlists broken down by medium.
Listen to Artists on Art - Master Artists & connoisseurs share their ideas and techniques.
Get Comfortable with being Uncomfortable:
Learning to be comfortable with your mistakes can be uncomfortable. But since mistakes are such a crucial part of learning art, you'll need to very quickly get comfortable with being comfortable.
Oh my, what a taboo thing to say. Yikes!
What I mean is, if you are having difficulty understanding and using color, or maybe you just feel like your growth in this area has become stagnant, one of the best things you can do is to forget everything you know about color. In fact, there are many art programs in highly rated colleges around the world who do not allow students to use color for an entire year (or two).
However, I don't think you have to be THAT strict. As an exercise, I ask you to forget the "rules" you have read about, forget what your teachers showed you. Literally just paint with whatever colors feel good in the moment. See what happens. Observe what comes out.
This is actually how I started my painting journey. I started out doing abstract compositions, reacting emotionally with color to each moment. I knew that in order to create a good composition there had to be a pleasing balance in both color and value. But I didn't see colors as colors, I saw each color as a "value" on the scale from black to white.
Later, as I started to incorporate recognizable subjects into my work, I was still acting very instinctively, thinking about each color's value on a scale from white to black. I wasn't thinking about painting rules because I didn't know any rules.
I never sat down and thought "I'm only going to use wild and crazy colors!" In fact, I often TRIED to use "realistic" colors but halfway through the painting, my gut was pulling me to add some pink or red or purple or green where I knew it didn't "belong." Why? I don't know, but I do know I loved it. It tickled my artistic funnybone if you will. It satisfied my craving for seeing and understanding the unique natural world around me from my own perspective. It's just how my brain worked.
So, I went with it.
Now, over three years later, thanks to my practice and research, I have a much deeper and more profound understanding of color (again, humbly),
I could have saved a LOT of frustration and time if I had started out with a basic understanding of mixing colors, color theory in landscapes and atmospheric perspective (it's a fascinating topic - Google it).
Color: Don't Slap Your Viewers in the Face With Color Without a Good Reason:
I say this because it's what I did for years, and I don't recommend it, because of the torment it caused me. Please ignore what you see in my portfolio for a second and try to understand this frustration from my (the artist's) perspective. I went nuts with color. I broke all the rules and tried just about every combination of colors you could use - all without a reason except that it felt good. As I mentioned, I wasn't focused on the actual color itself. I was focused on the value I saw in each color. It resulted in some wild results.
Are they bad? Not necessarily... but what was the point? I wasn't in control. I was reacting to a subconscious part of my mind.
My mind works differently now.
Nowadays, I have a healthier relationship with color and value, and I'm able to make informed decisions. I am not flailing in the dark. I am in control.
This means I can do more complicated scenes, paint with almost any medium, and take on more commissions.
The painting below is an example of a recent piece where I strategically and carefully placed color, to direct attention to my focal point and create a specific atmosphere. Yes it still has some interesting and garish color relationships happening. The main difference is that I did this on purpose.
My point here is to do things for a reason. It took me three years to finally understand color in a way where I can actually use it and talk about it with reason and logic - not just emotion.
I recommend that every artist seek to understand value and color in a more academic approach. I would have saved myself years of frustration (don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed my journey, but I truly wish I had spent more of it with a better understanding and not just a purely emotional use of color).
By approaching color in a scientific and logical way, you can then use it strategically and CHOOSE when you want to be garish or when you wanted to be muted, depending on what your subject or atmosphere requires.
Start with a Value Study:
If you are struggling to understand how to put a landscape together (or any subject), doing a value study will immediately remove the guess work. Once you get that value study to a place that looks good, you can then assign colors to your value range, even if you are using a stylized color palette like above. I used indigo as my "black"/darkest and yellow as my lightest - then worked within that spectrum of colors from light to dark.
Work with a Limited Palette:
On that same note, I think this is one of the most valuable things an artist can do to understand color. When your palette is limited you are literally forcing your mind to see value in each color. If you have three colors, there will clearly be a dark, a midtone, and a light color. Painting a whole scene will really help you understand shadows and light in a landscape. It will also automatically create color harmony in the painting.
Classically, most of the great masters have used limited color palettes with the universally accepted primaries such as Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue (some people use French Ultramarine) and Cadmium Yellow Light. With these three colors, and white, you can mix almost every single color.
(I say "almost" because in order to create vibrant lime green or turquoise, you will also need a phthalo of some kind - either phthalo blue, prussian blue, or phthalo green). You might also want black.
But using a limitted palette simplifies color mixing to it's basics.
It's too easy to buy every single color on the color wheel, but if you are just starting out, or have a weak understanding of value within colors, this makes it WAY more complicated. So do yourself a favor and simplify. Get those primaries and give it a try.
Try Other Mediums:
This is somewhat controversial, because not every artist wants to use multiple mediums. However, I learned from experimenting, that when I switch between different mediums, there are new connections happening in the brain, and it really forces you to understand water and brush control on a deeper level.
Honestly, even if you are only doing it to learn from a "failure," you WILL learn so much!
Start Every Art Session with 10 Minutes of Drawing:
This was something my college professors made us do every day. They knew we had been up all night in the studio, that we rolled out of bed, started our caffeine drip, and rushed to class. They knew we were thinking about our assignments, or the annoying roommate who ate all the ice cream, or the kickball tournament on Saturday.
They knew we needed a palette cleanser before they'd ever get us into the right mindset to do any decent work.
They would say "Ok, get out your sketchbook, walk around until you find something that interests you, and start drawing." See you in 10 minutes. (Some would say 20 minutes).
In that 10 minutes, I always felt the equivalent to "waking up" my artistic senses. It was a way to switch from the left brain to the right brain. Shut out the world and become immersed in your creative thinking.
I bet you're cringing. Who could possibly enjoy failure? Yea, it sucks to fail. But what I mean by "enjoy failure" is to embrace the mistakes. Some people, especially new artists, think that a mistake is a failure.
It's time to rewire your brain.
Every single mistake or "failure" is a lesson.
You need to fail millions of times to become a master artist. Accept it. Embrace it. Welcome it. Enjoy it!
Change your opinion of mistakes from failures to successes. Because every time you learn something, that is a success.
Exercises for Beginners
- Purchase 50-100 small canvases or panels (about 5x7 inches).
Select a limited color palette (perhaps using the classic Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue (or French Ultramarine) and Cadmium Yellow Light, Titanium White, and Black.
Go outside and paint (or use various still life setups in your home) all 100 canvases, limiting yourself to 30 minutes per painting.
Don't worry about creating amazing results, just focus on the process, color mixing, layering, brush stroke, etc.
After you complete all of them, you will have already learned SO much about color mixing, value, and form, that you can take forward into your work.
- Do the same thing with a small toned sketchbook (or grey) paper, with graphite and white pastel pencils.
- If you want a guaranteed strategy for improving, do daily sketches. If you need encouragement or "ideas" - try using the fun reddit group, Sketch Daily. (or find it on social media with #sketchdaily
Quick Lessons Learned:
- Oil: Start with your darks. It's much easier to add white into your colors slowly, but it's nearly impossible to remove white later. Your darkest colors/layers should be the thinnest. Your brightest color/layer should be the thickest.
- Watercolor: Work from light to dark. Since you can't paint your highlights later, they become the most important aspect of the painting.
When starting watercolor, buy several sheets of nice paper (I recommend Arches 140lb cold press) and do several tests.
- Large washes of color, wet on wet, dry brush, etc. These tests are critical for understanding water flow and absorption.
Don't use cheap watercolor paper. It is a waste of money and time and you WILL end up frustrated.
- Gouache: It is possible to work in layers, depending on how absorbent your paper is. With watercolor paper (especially cotton), it is beneficial to lay down one layer, slightly diluted with water. This allows the top opaque layers to have something to "grab onto."
When your painting is finished, spray with a workable fixative (such as what you might use for pastels). Do not ever get the painting wet! Regular gouache never "cures" like other paint, and it remains workable.
Feel free to share your progress with me, and don't hesitate to ask questions! I know this was a long post, and I didn't even cover everything. But I hope something you read was helpful.