Monday Motivator: Give Yourself Time to Learn the Language of Painting

“…landscape painting is an art of interpretation. … all we observe–very color, shape, and detail–is filtered through an interpretative lens. The painting we produce may resemble a landscape, but is now a painting, a unique interpretation of the world in its own visual language.”

Mitchell Albala, “The Landscape Painter’s Workbook“, page 13

When we learn a spoken and written language, we start with the sounds the letters represent and individual words. We don’t pick up a novel and expect to be able to make sense of it without having spent time learning vocabulary. Yet with the language of painting it’s all too easy to expect ourselves to be able to pick up a brush and create a painting that’s at a level of our favourite artist. (Putting aside the expectation of those onlookers wanting us to paint so it looks “real”, “like a photo”.) After all, painting is something most of us did as a child, so why wouldn’t we be able to jump straight back in if we put our mind to it?

Well, you can, if you’re content with painting at the level you were when you were a single-digit age. But you won’t be, you’ll be comparing your results with paintings by artists with years of practice, forgetting that they too had paintings that didn’t work out, that they developed their painting language over time.

My favourite reminder is by comparing how Monet painted the sea in his twenties to paintings he was doing a decade later. Specifically a painting I once saw in the Met in New York, “Garden at Sainte-Adresse” with its static rows of tickmark brushstrokes in the sea behind the cardboard-cutout people in the garden. To me it’s a painting that is stiff and emotionless. Compared to one of Monet’s sea arch paintings (see photos below), it’s not simply that the sea is more turbulent in the second painting than the first, look also at the energy in his brushmarks of the stone arch, and how the clouds feels like they’re billowing. He’s using different brushstrokes and applying colour to the surface in a more broken way (less “coloured in shapes).

“Garden at Sainte-Adresse” by Claude Monet. 1867. Size: 38 5/8 x 51 1/8 in. (98.1 x 129.9 cm)
The Manneporte (Etretat) by Claude Monet, 1883. Size: 65 x 81 cm. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Monet didn’t know that this was where he would get to when he started painting, but he allowed himself to learn and change, to develop his visual language, helping develop what we now call Impressionism. We have the advantage that we can study our favourite artist’s paintings by easily accessing photos on websites and in books, if not see them in real life, and shorten our learning process by trying to emulate what it is we like about them, then transform this into part of our visual language.

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