There are many drawing and painting techniques anyone can learn in a relatively short time, but it takes dedication and effort to move beyond mediocrity. Years of working at it, not mere weeks and certainly not days. It’s a mistake to believe what an artist appears to do effortlessly was easy for them to achieve and ought to be for you too. Skill through practice makes things look deceptively simple.
Think of art techniques as being to an artist what sentences are to a writer: a single, sensible sentence is relatively easy to achieve but putting sentences together to create a story worth reading takes a lot more dedication and practice. And before you have sentences, you have to learn the alphabet, vocabulary and grammar. So be patient with yourself, grant yourself time to learn, time to develop, time to make mistakes. If you start out with the belief that it should all come easily you’re setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. Celebrate breakthrough moments when they happen, and keep striving determinedly between them.
Compare how Monet painted the sea in his “Regatta at Sainte?Adresse” in 1867 (stiff, flat, static) and in “The Manneporte near ?tretat in 1886 (broken colour with movement). If your aim is to paint sea as in the latter, you’ve the advantage of being able to study what Monet did, but don’t expect to get there in an afternoon. Monet had nearly 20 years’ practice between the two paintings.
Never let the belief that you can’t draw stop you from learning to paint. A painting is not a drawing waiting to be coloured in and, conversely, a drawing isn’t an artwork waiting for paint to be added to it.
While traditionally an artist studied drawing for several years before starting with paint, if you want to get straight into paint, then do. You can always acquire drawing skills at a later stage; in the meantime you won’t have wasted time sitting around wishing you were painting (see: Never Moving Beyond Liking the Idea of Being Creative).
I strongly believe that if you don’t like or are afraid of drawing, for whatever reason, then forget about drawing and jump straight into painting. Ultimately, it’s that you’re doing it that’s important, not the road you take to get there.
Painting involves its own set of skills, which complement but are different to those for drawing. Learning to use tone, perspective,the illusion of depth, etc. can be done while learning to paint. The advantage of doing so while learning to draw is that you don’t have the distraction of colour and pencil is easier to ‘undo’ to fix errors. But if you don’t like graphite or charcoal, don’t let this stop you. Get stuck straight into the wet, colourful stuff! Even if you were an expert at drawing, you’d need to learn how to manipulate paint.
Drawing is a different way of creating art. Having drawing skills will definitely help with your painting, but if you hate pencils and charcoal, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn to paint. Drawing is not merely an initial step in making a painting. You don’t need to do a detailed drawing before you start to paint; while many artists do, many others don’t. I typically do a minimalist drawing of my intended composition before starting to paint (take a look at this step-by-step video demo to see an example).
There is no rule that says you must draw before you paint if you don’t want to and no approval committee checking your process. Never let a belief that you can’t draw a stick figure or even a straight line stop you from discovering the enjoyment that painting can bring. Besides, straight lines are easy…use a ruler!
“Painting embraces all the 10 functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
If you’re to keep yourself interested in and stimulated by your painting, how do you combat routine and monotony? How do you get from blank canvas to “the interesting and challenging bit” without being bored?
1. Work Faster
Get through the initial blocking in of colour in as little time as possible. Use a bigger brush, paint faster. Focus on what you’re doing but also think about what you’ll be doing next.
2. Vary Your Approach
Don’t always paint the same size, on the same surface, or with the same medium. Add texture, use a brush that leaves strong marks.
3. Paint in Series
Investigate a subject in depth, don’t only do the one impression of a scene, but look to vary the lighting, the viewpoint, the style and the focus.
4. Add a Colour
If you fear monotony, then introduce a small segment of unusual colour to the painting. This will give the art work a bit of omph, and may well highlight where, in the rest of the painting, you are loosing interest.
5. Change Your Hand
Hold your brush in your other hand (the “wrong” hand). It will get you thinking more about the physical process of painting (because it doesn’t come so automatically), and free up that part of the mind which is worrying about aesthetics. Step back after a while and consider the painting from a distance, some of it will feel new and fresh for the simple reason that you mind has been concentrating on other things.
6. Swap Subjects
Whatever your ‘usual’ subject is — still life, landscape, wildlife — there’s no reason you have to paint only this. It is feasible to be successful painting more than one subject, whether you’re swapping between them or evolving from one to another. (As an example, take a look at the paintings of South African artist Peter Pharoah, who paints wildlife, abstracts, and figures.) If what you’re doing is feeling stale to you, the artist, what do you think the audience is going to feel?
7. Consider the Alternatives
Remember, you could have become a [insert: whatever you regard as the most dull of careers]. Now, doesn’t painting seem so much more exciting and fulfilling?
“It is the only point of getting up in the morning: to paint… to make something even better than before, not to give up…”
“If I knew exactly what I was going to paint in the next minute why would I want to do that?”
— Lucian Freud, quoted in Breakfast with Freud by Geordie Greig, page 10 & page 213
Not knowing exactly what you’re going to do next isn’t the same as not having a good idea of what you’re going to do next. It leaves room for possibilities and change, for letting the painting and subject suggest things to you and responding rather than sticking rigidly to a path determined before you picked up the brush.
If you do have a specific thought about what you’re going to do but then the painting suggests something else, follow it to see where to leads. You can always go back to what you’re originally thought to do (writing a note in a sketchbook helps remembering what it was!).
“My goodness this hit a really raw nerve! I so so soo want to paint. …But I never ever start. Why? I can’t draw/paint. Of course I’ve always desperately longed to. Can’t afford classes. And if I just ‘go for it’? Well, just what was said… I will be so upset if it’s a heap of rubbish.” — Jax
We need to permit ourselves the time to learn (and onlookers need to give us time too). Remember how many years it took you to learn to read and write fluently? Art is not instinctive like breathing, or inherited species memory like running from fire. It’s a learnt skill. It takes time to acquire. Time that’s hard to give ourselves.
Set aside the time as if you were going to a class and never skip a week. With a pencil and sketchbook work your way systematically and thoroughly through a good how-to book. Every week, as if you were paying to spend this time.
I recommend wildlife and botanical artist’s Katie Lee‘s book Fundamental Graphite Techniques — it’s practical, thorough, lacks arty-farty gobbledygook, and full of exercises to do. Katie’s a friend, and it’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m being too heavy-handed with a pencil (“layers of tone, Marion, not pressure”).
Don’t tear pages out of the sketchbook, keep every attempt, the good, bad and ugly. Week after week. Permit yourself the time. It’s the only way.
Failing to reach your painting aims? Perhaps it’s not that the destination is wrong. Try changing the starting point.
There’s that story about the tourist who stops for directions in the Scottish Highlands and asks for a famous beauty spot. He is told: “If you wanted to get to there, you shouldn’t have started off from here.”
Budding artists saying they are unable to achieve their desired results in a painting invariably assume the fault is somewhere in their ability to finish. But you should consider that perhaps you have started off from the wrong place, and this is why you’re unable to reach your destination.
So let us look at beginnings, starting points for paintings. A blank canvas is the starkest of all beginnings for a painting. It is a void which is often spoken of as having ‘great potential’, but often it causes consternation and procrastination. If there is no clear start, how do you take the first step. There are several, classic, methods for moving the starting point.
1. Preparing the Ground
Psychologists tell us colours are related to emotions. These relationships need not be the same for everyone, but by simply covering the canvas with a monochrome colour you have taken the first step on the path, created the first signpost, set the emotional quality of your art work in progress.
2. Creating an Ink Blot
Most people know about ink blot tests, those images used by psychologists to spur the imagination and access the deeper parts of your psyche. Well you can do the same with your painting. Smear one or more colours across the blank canvas. Not only does it remove that frightening field of whiteness, but you will start to see things in the abstracted patters of colour and tone. You will be starting your painting with a greater degree of creativity, the colours will act as a muse, getting those ideas sparking. Its easier to get to a destination when you start up high; you’re now rolling down hill and picking up momentum as the destination approaches.
3. Getting the Packing Right
The two ideas above take you forward in the journey, but what about stepping back slightly? If the problem in your final artwork is the composition, then you should take the time to work on thumbnails. Vary the shape and size of the thumbnail; it could be your initial choice of shape for the canvas is wrong, that it should have been an extreme landscape rather than a squat portrait for instance. Or the positioning of major elements in the painting didn’t quite come together, and the thumbnail gives you the opportunity to move things around. A thumbnail gives you the chance to ‘pour over the atlas’ a bit before stepping out on the journey.
4. Taking your Studies Seriously
The first step with any holiday destination is to look at the guide books and holiday brochures, right? So what about a painting? The first step for inspiration is to get out there and paint a few studies. This is not the same as making thumbnails, you are not looking to find the best composition, but at what inspires you to do the painting in the first place.? Studies are about form and colour and tone, capturing what you see and/or what you imagine. They should be done with a free hand, allowing the creative side of the brain to take over, and allow you to discover those little aspects of a painting which will enthral and mesmerise the eventual audience. And remember, once you have your masterpiece, there is also a market for smaller, modestly priced pieces of original work.
Next time you finish a painting and are dissatisfied with the result, think about where you started the process, rather than thinking your artistic skills are at fault.
Why is it some people are in love with the idea of painting and drawing, of being creative, but only ever talk (with great enthusiasm, and often at great length) about doing so, never taking the first step towards doing so? It’s too easily more comfortable never to try than face the possibility of failure (and success).
Fear your expectations won’t be met, that your paintings or drawings won’t be “good enough” (“What is it?“). Fear others will laugh at the results, or be patronizing (“That’s delightful dearest”). Fear of being perceived as wasting time and money. Fear you’re not as creative you think you could be. Fear you create something wonderful by accident and can’t repeat it.
There will always be a gap between what you’d hoped to create and what you do, something else you could’ve done to a piece. That’s not the same as never achieving paintings you’re really pleased about. It’s an idea/goal for next time.
There will always be people who don’t get it (neither the desire to do it nor the results) as well as the “my cousin thrice removed also paints pretty little pictures without any effort at all” brigade. Smile (in the British stiff-upper-lip tradition, not a manic grin) and move on. Their judgement of what you’re doing is inconsequential. It’s your time and money, you can decide how to use it. Someone criticising is wasting their own time.
Creativity, like most things, needs regular exercise and stimulation. Skills and techniques take time to learn, they’re not going to fall on your head like rain and soak into your brain without effort. Professional artists don’t display unresolved and failed paintings, that’s why it seems everything they produce is of a certain standard. The elephant in the studio is that these fears never go away completely, and new ones come along, you just squash them under a growing pile of artwork.
“I battle to create a really acceptable picture, I study as much as I can, and never seem to improve. Is it possible there may be a person that can just never learn?”– Jillian P
There are things each of us finds harder to learn, certainly, and things we’ll never master to our satisfaction (not least because the goalposts have a habit of moving as we progress). Sticking at it without getting caught up in frustration can be tough.
Make a list to break down what you mean by “improve”, taking it further and further until you’ve got bite-sized bits to chew on. Pinpoint exactly what you feel your drawings/painting lack, then tackle it systematically and from multiple directions.
For instance, if the top level of your wishlist is “paint more realistically”, take a subject, say landscape. Then take a single element of this, say a tree. What kind of tree? An oak, or jacaranda, or boabab… whatever species you have growing nearby that you can see with your own eyes. What makes a tree: the trunk, branches, leaves, texture of the bark, overall shape. Look at these individually, the components not the whole.
Sit with a sketchbook and pencil, draw a line following the direction of one side of the trunk from ground level up. Look at the tree as much as the page.? Then the other side. Wander the pencil line amongst the branches. Look at the negative space. Contemplate what mark making will convey the sense of the bark (this may take you off on a tangent for a while studying mark-making). Keep colour and light/dark for another day. Do not aim to make good drawings, these are drawings about observation, not about “it looks like an oak tree”.
Make notes about what you see and feel. These help build visual memories and develop observation. Some pages of my sketchbook have more words than sketchlines.
Move from line into drawings with a sense of 3D by adding light/dark. Tree trunks and branches are cylinders, so draw the tree like a series of tubes, and apply tone accordingly. Next day, combine character lines and tubes to convey more realistic branches. Break down the journey to a painted tree in similar small steps: colours seen, mixing these, tones, brushmarks.
Sometimes it might be a shift in materials that helps. For instance I battle not to go in heavy-handed and dark too early on in a drawing. Starting with a 2H helps as it can’t produce very dark lines, as does using a propelling 2B or 4B pencil as this only produces lines of a certain thickness. Only late in the drawing do I swap to a “normal” pencil.
Be systematic, and aim small to build the bigger picture. Identifying what you’re aiming to achieve is a step along the path of getting there. You may ultimately never get where you want to be, but if you give up now you’ll definitely never getting there.