In a recent letter I wrote, “I’ve often toyed with the idea of working with an open-minded person who has never picked up a brush and turning her into a great painter in short order.” Several hundred answered this call. “If you ever take leave of your senses,” wrote Susie Cipolla of Whistler, B.C., Canada, “and would like to turn me into a great painter in short order, please sign me up.”
In an earlier version of that letter I mentioned that applicants must have had a recent lobotomy. Our editors rejected this condition as too harsh. “Further,” they said, “where are you going to find someone who has never picked up a brush?”
I’ve always noted a big difference between what students think they need to do and what they need to do. The production of art is a curious combination of childlike intuition and practical, often hard won, know-how. It’s this practical know-how where a person like myself might be useful. Without too much rigidity in getting started with these unsullied artists, here are a few basics — in the full knowledge that they might be dropped later:
For opaque media — oil or acrylic — start with a toned ground. Don’t fight white. A medium grey is good, but other, brighter colours are useful as well.
In planning your painting, rather than drawing outlines, use patches of colour whenever possible. No spidery lines crawling around the painting. Spidery lines feel good when you make them, but they run interference later.
When you’re into the actual painting, keep your strokes direct and fresh. Try to leave your strokes alone. Don’t sweep back and forth like a sleepy umpire dusting off the home plate.
When you’re getting to the end, stop early. Don’t be afraid to produce cursory, unfinished work. Let the viewer put in the last strokes. Overworking is a pitfall that many artists fall into and are never able to crawl out of. It’s dark down there.
Most important of all I would ask students to try to actually see what it is they are looking at. Like aliens on their first Earth encounter, these unsullied folks need to be visually astounded and curious about how things work. The older we become, the more difficult becomes this ability. “Be Martians,” I would say, “if only for this short landing.”
PS: “If we could but paint with the hand what we see with the eye.” (Honore de Balzac)
Esoterica: I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure why people do poor work. The road to quality has many potholes. Bad habits learned somewhere else, mental laziness, creative laxity, chronic poor taste or too much theoretical education can take their toll. Other common potholes include literary concerns applied to visual happenings, the early adoption of second hand style, and compulsive, masochistic foot-shooting. I still like the idea of a lobotomy — I try to give myself one every day. It smarts, but it’s worthwhile.
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I often find that beginners continue to make strokes when they don’t really know what to do next. I advise them to never make a stroke without a plan or deliberation. Just noodling on the canvas with no action in mind is not a good idea. I tell them to walk away for a bit and think about what they want to do before applying the paint.
There are 3 comments for Noodling by Linda Blondheim
Learning to see
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
When I used to teach painting, one thing I found myself repeating and repeating: “Paint what you see, not what you know.” When I asked a guy who had turned out to be just an amazing student what the biggest take-away he’d had from my classes, he said, “I learned how to see for the first time in my life.” He was 54.
I think the very hardest part of painting for me is the slowing down of my day so I can just really, really look, and see what is actually there. Not blue water, but silvers and dark greens and dashes of vermillion reflected from the grassy canal banks.
Knowing when to shut up
by Gail Caduff-Nash, Mountain home, NC, USA
“People” are creatures of habit, it’s often said, and being an artist is breaking free from all those habits to try and find your own response to things. But the habits creep back; the indoctrinations, the pop culture, the way your dad mocked modern art, modern art mocked your dad, and all the bazillion ways that the world intruded to tell you how to think. Paint landscapes! Paint florals! Paint pretty horsies!
Well, I taught my grandson, aged 12 at the time, to paint a pear. He did a fantastic job of it, worthy of a frame. It was a nice piece of impressionism for his very first painting. And I found that it wasn’t just showing him how to use things. It is also about knowing when to shut up and give him some time to try it out and ‘feel’ the art of pears for himself. I gave him my best stuff to work with. I showed him the difference between base color and reflected color. I discussed 3-dimensionality and shading. But the painting he did was good because he was really paying attention — to the pear.
There are 3 comments for Knowing when to shut up by Gail Caduff-Nash
A valuable tool
by Maxine Price, Wimberley, TX, USA
I find most beginners and intermediate artists are way too thrilled with what they do and have difficulty telling something they do that is pretty good from something they do that is really bad. I have found that same trait in some professional artists and every now and then I will look at an older work of my own and wonder “what was I thinking?” even though I know I am harsher in my critiques of my own work than anyone else. I think the hardest skill to learn is to be your own worst critic but it is a very valuable tool.
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Passion and practice
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada
All suggestions, great teachers, courses and workshops will serve little if one does not have the PASSION for art and does so daily. Coming back from painting three small watercolors downtown yesterday I returned by subway remembering that I had not done my usual daily black and white sketch while on site just for practice. So, sitting in the Metro car, tired and hungry at 9 pm I took out my sketch book and did a drawing of the passengers. Although I have been at art since the 1970’s I still felt I “needed the practice.” That is passion! Maybe I need to have my head examined, but that is what is missing in many students who want a quick way to become painters – passion and daily practice.
Changes in the brain
by Kathi Peters, Morrill, ME, USA
I have had a “recent lobotomy”! Well, not literally, but of sorts. I suffered an Ischemic stroke that left me with a triangular hole out of my left side of my brain and leaving me with language skills deficient’s and right sided weakness [I am right handed!] But through it all I could still paint. I find that from a past where I saw things mostly linear and black and white; I now see the world around me more in color, more childlike and I am not so into detail. Funny how the brain works…or doesn’t! And I now work mostly with colored tone grounds, where I didn’t before! I paint mostly in casein but have taken to painting on copper panels in oil paints and am loving it. I am approaching this new support and medium with childlike intuition and wonderment.
There are 4 comments for Changes in the brain by Kathi Peters
Imagine a bell curve
by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada
I think the ability to recognize when something isn’t working earlier rather than later is key. Imagine a bell curve: on the upswing is when everything is clicking in the studio. The muse is there, spirits are high, the pigments are marrying nicely; the painting is painting itself it seems. Nothing can go wrong! And then it starts to be a little more fragmented. You know what I’m talking about; we tighten up, the strokes are less spontaneous, we think, hesitate, doubt.
There’s stuff that starts happening we don’t like so we “fix” it; a lot. At this point we’re on the beginning of the downside of the curve, however, it isn’t until we’re about half way down that slide before we realize the muse has left, we’re working the painting to death and leave well enough alone. Put the painting away and address it sometime in the future. It’s at this time when we feed our minds and soul with fresh sights, we sketch more/less, we mull, we try different mediums, we’re curious, we explore, and we rest. At the bottom of the curve is when ideas are rejuvenated and we begin to know that those paintings from our past need addressing again or they’re fine just the way they are.
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Anyone can paint
by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA
I do believe that anyone can paint, provided they have the desire, tenacity and love of the process. For those starting out I would make these recommendations. Leave your self-doubts outside the studio door. Paint as if you are on a voyage of exploration, and pay attention to everything you find. Use a basic palette of yellow, red, blue and start off right away learning to mix your colors. Be sure to use this basic palette every time you paint. Load the brush, light touch, no rubbing the paint. Put out plenty of paint, wipe your brush frequently and get more paint on the brush, Make two or three strokes and dip your brush in the paint again. Dont worry the paint on the surface like it is poison ivy itch; you will just remove the paint with too much rubbing in the same spot. Use a good brush, one good brush is better than 10 cheap brushes.
The most important thing is to not constantly judge your work or abilities with thoughts or comments like, “I can’t do this.” or “This is no good.” Critique is not the same as self-doubt, and is also a process is that is learned and developed.
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by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Here is what I would suggest to fresh starters:
Find a way to get consumed in your work with no talking and asking questions. If any questions still linger by the end of the day, write them down and save for a “questions day.” If you are patient, you will answer your questions yourself.
Your work is beautiful as long as you are keeping yourself open to learning, fearlessly experimenting and practicing. The real meaning of this beauty is only known to you. Any comment from other people will fall short of what you feel, so it’s better not to ask.
Be creative in everything that you do, find a new way to look at the world. Force yourself to do things differently, just to find out how that feels.
Use many different materials and tools, especially those that are not obvious. Handle them, make marks, and modify them in many ways.
Make art in various moods and observe how happiness, sadness, anger… influence making of art.
Take ownership of your new art life and reserve a special space, time, money and energy for it.
Let your ego do its thing thinking about the future and comparing yourself with other artists. Do this for 15 minutes, then pack it up in a mental drawer and start drawing your foot (yet again).
There is 1 comment for More suggestions by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
After the storm
acrylic gouache on panel
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Scott Kahn of Old Lyme, CT, USA, who wrote, “Perhaps a glass of wine would be an effective and far less drastic remedy than a lobotomy.”
And also Pat Bidwell of BC, Canada, who wrote, “I think you would be interested in a new book I recently purchased, called Drawing Autism by Jill Mullin.”
Enjoy the past comments below for A fresh start…