Paint with a Beginner’s Mind

Self-portrait with black ink
Draw and paint with a Beginner’s Mind

Whenever you find yourself thinking “I can’t do it” or “I don’t know how” add a three-letter word to your mental dialogue. Add the word “yet”. Say “I can’t do it, yet” and “I don’t know how, yet“.

Give yourself permission to spend time learning, as well as to stumble and fail while you strive. Abandon the expectation that it ought to come easily (whatever that “it” is) and use the fear of failure as motivation to continue rather than quitting or not trying at all. Learn to “Fail better”1, be open to “what if I…” curiosity.

In the same interview that yesterday’s motivator quote was taken from, artist Alan McGowan mentions the Zen philosophy of a “beginners mind”, saying it is

not easy to do and it’s quite scary because there’s always the chance that it will not work at all, that it will turn into a big mess… There can be an expectation from others that one should always be successful, that a picture should in some way be an expression of expertise, especially as I teach as well. But that’s a bit of a trap. The risk of failure is for me an important part of the whole process of painting (and drawing) and so you want to keep that possibility open; that it could all collapse.”

Stop caring so much about it looking to others as if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re busy learning and discovering as you go along, so you do indeed not always know whether what you’re doing will be successful. But the end product (a “good painting”) isn’t the sole objective, and often not relevant at all. Having an intriguing and interesting journey is also an objective. A drawing/painting that’s about observation, about the process and techniques, not about ending up with a pretty picture.

A beginner’s mind means:
1. Focusing on the moment. What might be the next step in a painting’s creation. Not obsessing about what the finished painting will be.

2. Endurance. Sticking with it, layer after layer. Don’t be preciously protective about any “good bits” in every single drawing and painting. (Ideally none, but that’s near impossible.)

3. Embracing uncertainty
and working through it. Don’t habitually erase and restart; go forwards not backwards.

4. Enjoying the journey. Enjoy the art materials you’re using and try different paints, papers, brushes, colours etc. to find new favourites and fall in love anew.

5. Being patient and impatient. Grant yourself time to learn while being constantly eager to learn more.

Further Reading: How to Live Life to the Max with Beginner’s Mind by Zen master Mary Jaksch.

1. Writer Samuel Beckett, in Worstward Ho (1983): “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

5 Replies to “Paint with a Beginner’s Mind”

  1. I have just started to paint. I’m a 71 year old REAL beginner. I used to love your teaching on (? ). I have started with big jugs of cheap acrylic paint, since I really like to slather paint in big strokes. i also bought a bunch of cheap canvases so I can play to my heart’s content. such fun mixing colors!!

    since I can’t draw (yet), I’m thinking I need some formal training. any suggestions?

    thanks, Karol

    1. It’s never too late to discover the joys in painting! Playing about and seeing what happens is the way to go!! Following the “what if I….?” impulse.

      In terms of learning to draw, you want a tutor who teaches technique not the “it comes intuitively” approach. Once you’ve got the techniques you can apply intuition and imagination. Look around and see if you’ve any artists or colleges nearby offering a class.

      A friend of mine who’s a wildlife artist, Katie Lee has a workbook “Fundamental Graphite Techniques” (and does online tuition or face to face) that if you work through it will give you the skills for drawing realistically. It’s not a quick-fix book, but serious techniques study.

  2. Thank you so much for this highly motivating article. I am one of those who gets caught up in the finished project and “how it looks to everyone” I forget to enjoy the journey. I miss your more frequent articles; you have taught me so much (and are) as I am self taught. You are always spot on.

    1. Thanks Elaine! I’m trying to write more often than in the past few months since quitting, and if you subscribe to my blog (see box in the left-hand column) you’ll get an automated email every time I publish something, rather than waiting for a newsletter with a roundup of things. As before, if you’ve any questions, feel free to email me (use the contact form here).

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