Some painters are genuinely gifted. They paint beyond expectation and amaze us all with their artistic genius. But for most of us, without being armed with sound artistic principles, few will experience the growth we desire in the field or the studio. It’s time to stop wishing we were geniuses, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
Learning to paint involves learning basic principles and practicing them intently. The exact balance of these two disciplines, learning and practicing, will vary depending on your gifts. Some have to practice a lot. I count myself in that camp. Others will have a natural gift for understanding values and colors that will give them an advantage. But because such painters understand intuitively, it might be difficult for such painters to articulate that understanding. It’s easy to assume everyone has similar gifts and make incorrect assumptions. One thing is certain, if you don’t understand correct painting principles, either intuitively or consciously, their virtues will not show up in your painting.
We all have different motivations for why we paint. But there is one we all share, the need to grow. A life of growth and learning is a happy life. As a culture, we reserve our highest accolades for those who achieve the most. Ask any reasonably introspective person who has succeeded in any field, and they will tell you it is growth that matters most—not the trappings of success. Disregarding real growth is why learning programs that focus on formulas and tricks enjoy a momentary vogue but are not cherished and handed down from generation to generation. The paintings that result from such fashions are equally disregarded. I’m no different from anyone else. I fear that deep inside I might prefer instant success, an easy route to achievement. But my better self knows that real satisfaction comes from setting a challenging goal and accomplishing it.
Learning a handful of cheap painting tricks is actually a dead-end. Such artifice will not give the satisfaction most painters desire. The evolution of art education is moving forward, and there are many new developments not routinely practiced in art schools. Being armed with meaningful information is the best way to accelerate your artistic progress. Real understanding is the best and perhaps the only way forward.
Focusing on basic understanding does not mean there are no ways to speed the learning process. I have a few shortcuts I will share in this book. But they are methods to minimize the most redundant and tedious aspects of the painting process. For example, I see little use in sketching a beautiful motif and then drawing it multiple times. If I can draw it once beautifully, that’s enough. It is better to reserve energy for the important aspects of painting, expressing your vision, and simplify the mechanical elements which you will eventually perform by habit. Learning to type is a step in learning to write, but few typists are necessarily good writers. You learn to type, and that skill sits quietly in the background as you move forward and learn to write creatively. So too does the painter sublimate the mechanical aspects of painting.
A few of the mechanical aspects of painting are transferring a sketch to canvas and analyzing values. My nine value grayscale (chapter 21) is a great way to teach yourself the subtle value nuances of nature. The minute you use the value finder you will be on your way to understanding the tricky business of value. But eventually, you will understand it so well you will no longer need the grayscale. That’s the real satisfaction. With practice, theory will transform into understanding, and understanding into effortless expression. As your mechanical abilities grow your desire to express your newly formed talents will improve as well, and your paintings will contain more personal expression.
In most cases, the methods I outline will be basic principles that are easy to grasp. But remember you need to practice the principles to implement and understand them fully. Painting is like sailing, you can learn the basics in an afternoon, but it takes a lifetime to become proficient. If you practice these methods, I guarantee you will improve. But be forewarned; we rarely improve as fast as we desire. To combat greed for improvement beyond the efforts expended I include several chapters about the philosophy of improvement. After a decade of teaching myself to paint I ultimately discovered that once I mastered basic principles, painting was far more enjoyable than I ever imagined.