104 How to learn to paint

I RECEIVED a few emails lately accusing me of teaching people to paint by numbers (presumably a critique of measuring grays and the zone system). Nothing could be further from my intent. Real art must be solidly grounded in the emotional experience of the painter. However, measuring grays using a grayscale is one way to teach yourself to measure grays intuitively. Most of the negative emails suggested that to make the artistic process rational is to sully what is essentially an emotional process.

The painting process IS emotional, but teaching painting cannot be emotional. To teach what I understand I have to drag my process into the rational world, identify my method, and articulate that process clearly and simply. There is no other way to transfer information. This is an aspect of the scientific method. I understand why it offends some artists. But once you realize it is the only reliable way to transfer knowlege aversion to it diminshes. I know few artists who are willing to slow their learning process simply because they have a philosophical beef with Western rationality.

Imagine the alternative; a teacher would suggest which paints to buy without providing reasons. The teacher would suggest which canvas to use and which brushes leaving students to deduce why. The teacher would tell the sudents to start painting with the suggestion to relax, get into the flow, and have fun. The only way such suggestions could result in students painting satisfying paintings would be if the students already had an intuitive notion of how to paint and didn’t need instruction anyway.

This is actually how many classes are “taught”. Ten percent of the students will have a natural ability and are held up to the class as proof that the teacher’s methods are working just fine. The rest of the students will blunder on trying to reach a greater state of relaxation, trying to go even more gently with the flow, and trying to have even more fun. I can tell you from personal experience that in the absence of real knowledge few will be having fun at the end of the painting session.

Probably some artists misunderstand my teaching methods because they see me using a numbered grayscale in my videos and presume I recommend using this tool forever. But it is akin to musicians practicing scales or counting as they practice triplets. Some musicians might see a music teacher making a video demonstrating such techniques and complain, “That isn’t music!” I agree wholeheartedly. It isn’t music. But it is one way to reach the musical goals many musicians desire to accomplish.

I make woodcuts intuitively. I am entirely self taught. The reason I could teach myself woodcut successfully is because there is something about how my brain works that allowed me to learn woodcut almost without effort. I had spent three years drawing from the model and three years learning the difficult but essential method of drawing from memory. That certainly was preparatory to my success. But the first time I did a wood engraving it was as if I had come home to a medium I had practiced for years. My first illustrations went into the portfolio that eventually landed my first job (which was with the New York Times). I had a gift for woodcuts and wood engravings that I exploited for many years as a professional illustrator.

It may be difficult for budding artists to grasp but there are few things as damaging as an easily aquired skill. It gives the impression that everything can be achieved without effort. There are few things as difficult as learning to paint. It will take years if not decades to acquire the skills necessary. Ten percent of you will appear to prove me wrong. But you are just the ones who have a natural gift and need no instruction.

I have experienced both the joy of having a natural gift that I seemingly acquired effortlessly and the joy of acquiring a gift through hard work. They are  equally gratifying in their own way. But if I opted to become a good painter by waiting for the feeling to sweep me along, I would still be waiting.

Brad Teare December 2012

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Updated: 17th January 2022
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