Back to the basics


Dear Artist,

If your intention is to make unique, somewhat abstracted works with a distinctive style and a unique personality, you may not be able to go directly there. Indeed, some accomplished artists insist that you can’t reach a significant level of distinction without a solid grounding in the basics. By basics we mean that a person is comfortable and somewhat proficient with academic drawing, composition, colour control and other technical skills. This means the development of processes and techniques where design achievement works hand in hand with applied knowledge of perspective, aerial perspective and other devices, as well as familiarity with concepts of form, colour selection and the confident understanding and application of light and shade.

To go directly to the works of our dreams can be like trying to shove a piece of string up a pipe. Weak abilities and floppy understandings constantly contrive to set one up for disappointment. The cry, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” is generally the sign of academic shortchanging. And when a work or an area of a work conceived under this admission turns out well, it’s largely a fluke. But flukes of a more unpleasant kind tend to outnumber the pleasant flukes, and the artist becomes mired in an interminable and unredeemable gumbo of painterly problems.

The widespread distaste for going back to basics has always been of interest to me. It seems that many young artists have a fear of producing something too standard or ordinary. They fail to understand that by producing a few academic exercises they might put themselves on a swifter path to their creative dreams. It may be that some are intrinsically lazy or just buying the promise of automatic inspiration that’s so common nowadays. They may also be suffering some form of poisonous pedagogy or the presumed expectations of the avant garde.

And in some ways you can’t blame them for trying the direct path. Academic mastery is hard won. Many fail at it. I continue to feel that it’s more difficult to produce work with strong academic qualities than it is to produce your average abstracted or “modern” piece. On the other hand, when I look at what I consider to be masterful abstraction, I also see an underlying understanding of conventional academics — in other words, a hard-won grasp of the basics.

Best regards,


PS: “Genius is the capacity for receiving and improving by discipline.”(George Eliot)

Esoterica: How to go about grabbing these basics in as short a time as possible? The answer lies in any number of excellent beginner’s guides. While it may be beneath a student’s dignity and lofty formal education to attain and employ one of these guides, the use of one of them for even a short period of time, may, in the long run, be fortuitous. Below, we’ve posted five of these guides together with my very short reviews. They are not the only books available — they may not even be the best ones. They just happen to be the ones I’ve found useful.


Basic guides

charles-reid_painting what you see

Painting What You (Want to) See by Charles Reid –Excellent for oil and watercolour, particularly figurative.


Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid — Beautiful book, expensive, worth every penny.


Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson — Unpretentious, timeless wealth of advice and experience.









Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne — Somewhat difficult to read, idealistic, useful classic.


Classical Painting Atelier by Juliette Aristides — Valuable apprenticeship to some of the better historical artists.


Design and Composition Secrets of Professional Artists, International Artist — Range of approaches by 16 painters, including me.









Newly graduated artist’s syndrome?
by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland


“landscape #2”
print, 12 x 9 inches
by Brian Crawford Young

I am one of those people who attempts to paint from internal process rather than external stimulation. After 4 years of doing this at college I feel direction-less and blocked post-graduation. My technique has not been worked on enough to enable me to sit down and just do what I feel like doing. “Somewhat abstracted works” was my starting point 4 years ago, but I now have conceptual tendencies (not necessarily a comfortable place for a painter to be). My brushes got bigger and bigger, and my inhibitions got smaller and smaller, but somewhere along the road I forgot how to paint in a painterly way. Trying to get back to where I was at a few years ago seems retrograde and defeatist, and yet I feel I have to rekindle my interest in the beauty of the world around and in front of me, instead of the ideas and conceptions that occupy my mind. Is there a “newly graduated artist’s syndrome”? Am I going through what all graduates go through?


The eternal student
by Dwight Miller, Boone, NC, USA

For a painter, sculptor, wood turner, or anyone striving for greater skill in the arts, failures are painful. For a pilot, they’re often lethal. A friend, who has logged over 50,000 hours as pilot-in-command had this to say: “Anyone who considers himself anything other than a student pilot, ever, is simply asking to die.” To watch Harry in an airplane is to watch poetry. But if you know what to look for, you notice that he never strays far from the basics, ever, even when doing aerobatics. More accurately, especially when doing aerobatics. This is why I think your urgings that we return to basics is so very sound. I think it can help those of us who strive for skill in the arts to avoid a creative death, which would be a hard thing to live with, indeed.


Working at the professor’s pace
by Gwyneth Sleuth

Recently, I decided to go to Art School at a good local university and “live my dream” very late in life. I feel I’ve missed the boat on the learning curve for art, which is very steep, but I don’t want to give up. Foolishly, I thought that school would immerse me in the drawing world but I’m in my 4th drawing course and I am about to surrender! Your words have comforted me and I’ll keep practicing even though these classes are more “You probably already know this…” and the professor does a few quick “demos” and you have to do the rest on your own!

The material projects are numerous and not given much time for completion, and I’m slower than these jet-propelled young people and they DO know a lot. But I really thought I would get more intense knowledge and practice from the professors, although I don’t push the blame on them completely. Well, back to the Drawing Board!

There are 2 comments for Working at the professor’s pace by Gwyneth Sleuth

From: Kathy Weber — Sep 30, 2008

As someone who has been to art school and who has taught art, my suggestion would be to grill your professors before and after class and during breaks. If your questions are intelligent and you sincerely want more information, they’ll probably be happy to tell you EVERYTHING they know!

From: Patricia Peterson — Sep 30, 2008

No one escapes the need to practice; it may not seem that way but what else was Hildegard of Bingen, Durer, Rembrandt, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Cecilia Beaux, Anders Zorn, Lucian Freud, Marlene Dumas and Julio Larraz up to for decades working daily — some until their last breath — in the studio working with their technique evolving as they discovered more to say. Degas could barely see; Renoir strapped the brush to his arthritic hand. Ask, discuss, search everywhere for visual inspiration that moves you to passion so your frustrations and defeats transform to victories and a million subtleties of nuanced feelings won on a piece of paper even when surrounded by yet to be coalesced language. It’s the sure path to communicating with the world on your own terms.


Avoid being a one-trick artist
by Sandy Bonney, Brookings, OR, USA


“Waterbaby II”
pastel painting
by Sandy Bonney

For many years I was involved in International and Olympic Dressage. (For those who know nothing about the equestrian world, it’s what was performed during the Olympics, when horse and rider seem to ‘dance’ together.) During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles we would watch the world’s best horses and riders practicing the same movements that are used to teach beginning riders learning Dressage. Without this firm foundation, the horse would be doing ‘tricks’ and the performance would eventually fall apart. It is the same with art. Without the ‘basics’ to build a firm foundation as an anchor to grow, art will become static. The artist will be stuck, repeating the same ‘trick’ over and over and over.


Skill precedes mastery
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina


original painting
by Cristina Monier

The majority of the most brilliant painters of the 20th century, Picasso, Klimt, Mondrian, to name but a few, started as absolutely realistic painters, with the academic skills that went with it. They went on to create the most fantastic revolutions in art that one could imagine. It is my firm conviction that you should learn to crawl and walk before attempting to run and that skipping the basics will never result in satisfying work.


Rounding out the artist
by Mary Anne Tateishi

Although I now paint distinctive abstract work, I originally set out to become a better technician, and went back to do a BFA as a mature student. I initially found art school to be more focused on concept than technique. By carefully choosing the right instructors I was slowly able to improve my drawing and painting skills. I was never interested in doing abstract work, but one innovative instructor declared firmly that nobody should be allowed to graduate from art school without being able to do a decent still life painting and a good abstract painting. I began to experiment in that area, and found that by producing a series of representational paintings one atop the other, I was able to produce an interesting abstract painting. What is important to me is that I have the choice to paint realistically or abstractly, and am not forced to do abstract work because I can’t draw properly.


Success without formal training
by Jon Taner, Fair Lawn, NJ, USA

I find that as an artist aiming to bring together certain aspects of what is real in a somewhat abstract form, and to convey a sense of place, an emotion, a mystery, etc., I must be in touch with “the basics.” This doesn’t apply in the work of the most revered “outsider artists.” I am not speaking of the so-called outsiders who have latched on to the style and are cashing in on a movement. More specifically I am referring to the likes of Joseph Garlock. The former store keeper took up painting late in life and with very little training produced a tremendous body of work that demonstrates an innate sense of composition, color, and emotion. It is fascinating to see a signature style that is so enviable come from someone who was not so grounded in what is commonly called the formal elements of good art. I find that when first approaching the blank canvas (it is almost formulaic), I must clear away the basics, forget the formal, and let the expression come forward. It is only later that those things come back into play.


Be apprenticed to your craft
by Nick Stone


original painting
by Cristina Monier

I am entering what I would like to be the last in a long line of careers. Two years ago I completed a Fine Art degree to learn something about art today. One of my tutors felt that “there is no place for drawing, painting and sculpture in contemporary art.” Needless to say, I have had to unlearn most of what I needed to gain a degree. On the Net however I have found a fantastic community of artists who all recognize the loneliness of this long distance struggle to paint. Without exception, they see the need to learn the basics. Whether it is Baroque drawings, copying old masters or simply picking up pencil and paper, the daily slog of working, working, working to gain a skill which can then be applied to making art is understood. I wanted to do this when I was 16 but lacked both the motivation and the vision. After learning a variety of different skills, glassblowing, carpentry and welding, and earning a living from them, I understand perfectly that you have to be apprenticed to your craft, perhaps for years, until you have the means to express yourself. If someone asks me how long it took to do that painting, I already answer: “Sixty years, but I expect to get better soon.”

There is 1 comment for Be apprenticed to your craft by Nick Stone

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 30, 2008

After all the techniques, methods and theories are learned, you are left alone. Now it begins.


A catalyst for originality
by Susan Collacott, Port Credit, ON, Canada


“Ghost – Listen to fishes”
original painting
by Susan Collacott

Many artists flounder when it comes to understanding or arriving at a concept for painting because they lack an in-depth knowledge of art history. Art history enables one to understand where those traditional design elements came from: how they came to be, why they were/are rejected by modern masters, what the universal subjects are. How can you know that you are doing something original if you don’t know what has gone before? The paradox is that art history can be an amazing catalyst for originality.

A good way to understand the traditional language of visual art is with the great teacher of the Bauhaus, Johannes Itten. He has provided exercises and examples that make learning challenging and fun. His books include, The Elements of Color, The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color and Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later.


Invest the time and energy needed
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA


“Against a current”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Dustin Curtis

This is the kind of information that is not popular in the current “Art Scene,” but it is right on. In fact, one master artist (Richard Schmid), who wrote one of the books you suggested, says that poor drawing is almost always the problem for artists struggling with painting. He points out that most artists blame their problems on not having correct color, or values, etc., but it is usually a lack of drawing skills. It is the same as a great singer having to go back to the basics and training their voice. If we artists would look around and see, we would notice that any person who is very good at anything practices the basics and is very good at them. Tiger Woods practices the basics of golf. The same goes with Warren Buffet and investing. I could go on with endless examples. To get very good at anything a person has to be good at the basics. Richard does point out that he is referring to artists who paint in a realistic/impressionistic style. However, it sounds like you’re saying even abstract artists need to have good skills in the basics. If we don’t want to learn the basics and invest the time and energy needed to get good at them, we have no right to complain if our art is not taken seriously.


Other art fields must master the basics
by John Gargano, Lakewood, CO, USA


“Trail Series 17A, Glacier, Swiss Alps”
by John Gargano

Abstraction was born of the desire to go beyond that which was mimetic. But it was first successfully done only by those who had previously reached a level of uncommon mastery in depicting reality. Many artists who had ushered in the era of abstraction, like Willem de Kooning (eight years at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques) and others of his ilk, were indeed formally trained and had very strong basic technical skills. It was only after they mastered the basics in rendering tangible objects and scenes with the utmost of expertise that they ventured into rendering feelings, emotions and other intangible or abstract concepts. To make an effort at rendering that which is abstract without first having studied the basics in rendering, would be the equivalent of studying creative writing before obtaining the basics in spelling or grammar.

In any other field of creative endeavor, such as dance, music, theatre, film or architecture, it would be considered beyond absurd that one would achieve an advanced level of attainment without first having mastered the basics. Consider athletics, science, business, or philosophy. Savants and prodigies certainly exist, but they are limited to one or two every three or four centuries. What we have in much of visual art today, are conceptual works being executed by those who have observed abstract paintings and wanted to make works ? “just like that.” The world of art now abounds with abstract works done by students that are basically copying what they have seen and heard praised — is this not the quintessential practice of mimesis? We commonly call it abstraction, when now it is really nothing more than extrapolation. And yet it goes on.


The depths of abstraction
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“Yellow Cosmos”
encaustic on board, 16 x 16 inches
by Alan Soffer

As an abstract painter it’s quite infuriating to see such high volumes of really bad abstract work. The feeling is that you can slap a mish-mash of primary colors, spin a wheel, and voila, a Pollock will occur. The logical use of color and composition are at the heart of all art. The ability to make ‘marks’ that come from practicing one’s draftsmanship plays a large role as well. And boy, it is very hard won because when there isn’t a face, body, landscape, object to fall back on, these basics better be right on. Unfortunately, there are very few good teachers of abstraction out there; so people struggle to find their way. For those that practice representational expression in their art, I would suggest that they will progress more solidly by studying abstraction than by staying entirely in whatever they are drawing and painting. Abstraction forces you to reach the highest level of the basics.


The visually naive
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA


“Meandering cows”
oil painting
by Dianne Mize

My teaching career spanned 43 years, crossed over from the laissez-faire college art classroom into today’s world of self-expressionists. Both, in my mind, means “leave me alone and let the purity of my creative spirit guide.” I have met young and not so young artists who honestly believe that training will contaminate their styles, that they will be formed in the “style” of their teachers. Not knowing what they don’t know, they cannot see the flimsiness of their efforts because they lack the basics for looking with a critical eye. They remain visually naive.

I don’t know why visual artists get a pass on training. A violinist certainly doesn’t get that kind of pass, neither does an ice skater. When I hear Itzhak Perlman play, I know it is he. When I see Kristi Yamaguchi skate, I recognize her style and expression without seeing her face. Both spent many hours learning and practicing the basics of their craft. If there’s one message I’d like to communicate to the art world it is this: “Learning skills, techniques and design enables your unique expression, and gives you the freedom to be creative.”


Uneducated and uninfluenced
by Steve Reinhart, New York, NY, USA


“Fog that haunts me”
mixed media, 72 x 120 inches
by Steve Reinhart

As an uneducated abstract painter, I have asked myself many times, “What am I doing?” I agree an artist needs to know the basic fundamentals of their trade but do not think it is a deal breaker if they are not educated. Abstraction has been examined and worked in so many ways by educated professional artists for over 100 years — what else is there to accomplish — in terms of being educated? Our art educational systems do not teach us how to feel, dream, explore, ignore what works for others or how to see the inner self discoveries that exist in all of us.

True commitment and passion for what you do does not require an education. My work has developed into something I am proud to call my own and I achieved this goal by ignoring the past (artist accomplishments) and not allowing outside influences to dictate the direction my paintings wish to take me — pure freedom. In short, I believe there is a higher level of “education” artists can achieve through the self-discoveries each painting provides us with, now that’s an education!


Driven to achieve perfection
by Justine Osborne, London, UK


oil painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Justine Osborne

In 1954 Lucian Freud said, “A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope the picture might spring to life. Were it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency that drives him on. The process of creation becomes necessary to the painter perhaps more than it is in the picture. The process is in fact habit-forming.”

There is 1 comment for Driven to achieve perfection by Justine Osborne

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 30, 2008

I’ve always believed it is the journey, not the destination that mattered. Perfection is something to aspire to but never achieve.


Continuous practice makes the artist
by Patricia Ryan, Beavercreek, OR, USA


“Hurricane Ridge, Olympic Peninsula, Washington”
acrylic painting
by Patricia Ryan

When I first started painting abstracts, I got a couple of really nice flukes. Then I flailed around making a lot of lame or unpleasant works for quite a while before I had to admit that there was something going on in the good ones that I really didn’t understand. Of the basics you mention, I vote for design as the most important. I don’t want to make a realistic landscape with a weak design any more than I want to make a flabby, pointless abstract. It’s like the difference between playing a beautiful melody, and puttering around on the keys because I just like the sound of a piano.

There’s a saying something like, “Everybody wants to be an artist, but nobody wants to become an artist.” First off, if you don’t enjoy painting enough to enjoy doing the work to become skilled, then if I may ask, what exactly is it that you are trying to accomplish? Your desire by itself is not what makes a great painting of any style, it is the total sum of abilities you bring to the work consciously or unconsciously, to use that part of your brain that connects your eye to your hand and your hand to your heart. It’s during those long hours of work on the thousand works of apprenticeship one may execute that that magical connection is forged within the body. When I started painting seriously, I thought when I had done a hundred paintings I would be “good.” I was on roughly my hundredth painting when the light went on for me and I knew how important it is for me to acquire every bit of knowledge I can about color, light, texture, form, dynamics, and the tantalizing language of design — and do it by painting. In a way, making paintings stopped being the goal for me then, and became a means to acquire understanding of both myself and the universe. Only nine hundred paintings to go!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Back to the basics



From: Heidi Hehn — Sep 25, 2008

Right on – nothing more to say!

From: Cheryl Webster — Sep 26, 2008

I have a relative who wants to paint but when she sees me doing my exercises she rather snootily tells me that she doesn’t have time for that. She just wants to ‘splash’ her paint on and ‘create’. I restarted my art about 1 year ago (after many years) and while I have done ‘my own thing’ I find the time spent learning or re-learning, as the case may be, invaluable.

From: Sandi — Sep 26, 2008

Reading this came as a relief somehow! At 52 years of age I enrolled in a Faculty of Fine Art because of a long-held belief that there are certain basics that need mastering – such as drawing and design. (Add to that the fact that I love a school environment….) In any event, I see many about me who view that fundamental drawing, a required course, is a pain to be endured. Some graduates go as far as to brag that they have a degree and cannot draw. So I fundamentally take the position of each to his own but reading Robert’s letter today made me feel that I am no longer standing alone in a crowd.

From: Lyn Cherry — Sep 26, 2008

Wanting to improve the quality of my work, I am pursuing drawing to improve my poor drawing skills. I ordered two of the books you recommended; I have the Reid, I ordered the one you contributed to and the Classic Atelier one.

Please keep the letters coming!

From: BC — Sep 26, 2008

I am a rank beginner, learning to draw. My brother was an artist. He passed away suddenly and sadly last summer. I remember a moment with him when he encouraged me to ‘SEE’ rather than assume. Learning to draw makes me feel close to him. I subscribed to your letter for encouragement.

Interestingly, I have applied your thoughts to so many other areas of life – including overcoming the frustrations, and refining the skills necessary to be more successful as a business person. I appreciate your wisdom – it contains universal truth about the struggle to do “whatever” well.

Many thanks for generously sharing.

From: Marianne Mathiasen — Sep 26, 2008

“Generally art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas. Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art. Art is also able to illustrate abstract thought and its expressions can elicit previously hidden emotions in its audience.”

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you look at the meaning of the word art I don’t think it’s possible to say what art actually is.

When people ask me if I am an artist, I say; No I am a skilled painter. Then they say; but painters are artists, so you must be an artist? So I reply; I don’t know what an artist actually is or do, I have learned to paint, so I am a skilled painter.

I don’t believe in painting with out learning the basic skill, just like I wouldn’t like to listen to music played by people who didn’t know how to play their instrument.

If I decide to paint with out learning the skills I wouldn’t even call my self an amateur painter, I would call my self a crafter or experimentalist. It’s not that I think less of people who do crafts or experiments, its just not being a skilled painter, but they might be artists? I don’t know?

From: Rosemarie Manson — Sep 26, 2008

Boy, did this letter hit me square in my creative soul!!!! The muse needs a reality check. Now I know what I will concentrate on during my next set of art classes.

From: Jason Tako — Sep 26, 2008

I have had some success with my painting but whenever I foul up it almost always goes back to the basics, or lack of them. To continue learning the basics I’m doing master copies between the paintings that I have to do for shows and galleries. I totally agree with this letter, the basics are everything. Anything else is just sprinkles on the cake. It does make me feel good that I have 5 out of the 6 books listed.

From: Bridget Busutil — Sep 26, 2008

Absolutely! There is no way out of there. And it is very frightening to discover that new Art students are not taught the basics….

I teach them and am not afraid of it. It is all about the way you present them. In my case they learn while doing. So it sticks to their memory. One way or the other, this where we have to start and come back from time to time for refreshment….

From: Mike Young — Sep 26, 2008

Whatever we do has been done before, and better than we can do “it”. So Academic exercises, basic techniques and principles, become a matter of striving to emulate and master much that has gone before. There are those who face the challenge and try, try, try (and some who succeed) and those who are unwilling to face the “competition” of history and try to shortcut into whatever. Robert, as you say, there are really no shortcuts to excellence. Good Art is the result of striving and persistence.

From: Luke Couillard — Sep 26, 2008

Yes yes I agree, we cannot do much good unless we are disciplined and practice and practice. To play the piano, you gotta practice the scales…..

From: Steven — Sep 26, 2008

Not sure I agree – even though I DID spend a great deal of time developing the basics. One of the 20th century’s greatest abstract painters (Picasso) said that he needed to unlearn “the basics” in order to paint abstractly. Also, how are Rothko, Pollock, and others explained? There are many successful abstract artists with poor representational drawing skills. IMO there is a semantical disconnect between representational and abstract art – or, more succinctly, between sight-rendering and creative design.

Perhaps an artist who begins with what you call the “basics” and moves into abstract work is strongly influenced by what was previously learned and practiced – but, is it necessary? I would suggest that an abstract painter might benefit more from a course in something like interior design rather than a drawing class.

Given the choices, human-camera or creative expressionist, I choose the latter.

From: Judith Baker — Sep 26, 2008

Thank you for finding such a clear way to state this problem. I see so many pieces that would be so much better if the artist had a solid foundation in drawing. I don’t think many people realize that “abstract” means that you are pulling elements from an image that you are portraying, not just throwing paint at a canvas

From: Craig Daniels — Sep 26, 2008
From: Maxine Price — Sep 26, 2008

I disagree with Steven that Rothko and Pollock did not have the basics. There is a rhythm and calligraphy to Pollock’s “drip” paintings that are a way of drawing though perhaps not what one thinks of as traditional drawing. Picasso could draw and that is evident in all of his work. There are other basics as well like color, control of the technical aspects of the chosen medium, balance and composition that will show through in most of successful abstract work.

From: LuAnn Sims — Sep 26, 2008

Thanks Craig for the tip on finding “Alla Prima” for so much less, you just made it possible for me to get this book. I was loaned one of Richard Schmid’s videos by an artist I really respect. I loved the video, but I prefer books. Thanks Robert for the list! I’m adding a couple of these to my wish list. One thing I love about painting is that there’s always something new to learn- even if it is reviewing the basics.

From: Bakar — Sep 26, 2008

52 is but a milestone on the road of life; at 79 I am still struggling to find out not only ‘ how to do it ‘ but, ‘ what to do next both in terms of technique and subject !

I figure I’ll still have something to learn even as I approach the ‘point of no return ‘1 !

From: Bakar — Sep 26, 2008

( see, I have yet to master this ***** computer stuff ! )

From: Rene Lynch — Sep 26, 2008
From: — Sep 26, 2008

I am shocked! This is indeed the first time I can say I disagree with the analysis more than 50%. Going back to the basics is only a minor part of the picture here in terms of achieving genuine genius artistically. Yes, It is absolutely fundamental for an artist to become proficient in drawing, colour control, composition or whatever, BUT, that artist will never see the light, become their most capable, or produce their greatest work if they don’t seek the other end of the spectrum as well. Concentration on the basics is what makes so many artist so completely average, generic and down right BORING.

Seek the farthest borders, forget the basics more often than not to understand, realize, discover and capture your truest, most valuable qualities within.

Get nutty!

Use odd sized canvasses, buy random colours that would normally never be explored, forget subject and see what happens, work faster than as fast as possible, throw paint, scream, do something standing up, go overboard. Only then will the basics be valuable and necessary to land back on ones feet and start again into the new found talents that have come to the forefront.

From: Sonja Taber — Sep 26, 2008

All articles are excellent, and thought provoking. Thank you

From: Laurie — Sep 26, 2008
From: Gina Weston — Sep 26, 2008

You have to learn how to walk before you can learn to fly…everyone needs basics, even if they are self taught by reading and practicing. I draw all the time, I fill up sketch book after sketchbook…the first thing I do BEFORE I paint is do thumbnail sketches…I have two teenagers and it’s all “Gimme, I want, I need…” Every teen parent I speak to has the same comments about their teen…they want to jump right to the CEO level before they learned the mailroom…that’s the bottom line these days with people, they don’t want to take the time to actually learn how to do something, Jack of all Trades, master at none…If you spend years drawing and painting….perspective, color, value and composition, etc are intuitive…you did it every day so you don’t have to make a conscious decision, it comes innately. Why? Because of constant practice. My son is an talented soccer player, you can see his confidence when he crosses that white line….he is 17, he has colleges scouting him….he’s good because he has talent, but he’s been playing soccer since he was 5, he’s had a LOT of practice! Gotta learn the basics first…even if your rusty, you should go back to the basics and work your way back up….A lot of artists complain to me about their drawing skills and remark how great my drawing is…yeah I have talent but constant practice is what makes it look easy and that sketchbook??? It’s better than any photo album or diary…I can relive my experiences just by flipping through my sketchbook…I can see my growth, just by comparing older work to newer work….bottom line…..learn the basics, and practice practice practice!

From: Phyllis Bleau — Sep 26, 2008

I have just recently returned to painting after a lapse of thirty years. I have been “cramming” like a tardy student the day before exams, in an effort to cultivate all the painting principles that have been lying fallow for so long in my memory. In reading the great teachers, Edgar Whitney being among them, I recall a statement that really rings true with me: “A good design poorly executed is much to be preferred over a poor design well executed.” I am finding that to be true. Time spent planning, reviewing and practicing good design is never wasted. It can only produce an infrastructure that is sturdy enough to support all the frills and furbelows we might wish to bestow upon it. I love painting and, almost as much, I love reading the great watercolor teachers. I will be an art student all my life, whether or not I ever “become” an artist.

From: Helena Tiainen — Sep 27, 2008

There are times that I have started painting something new and had to stop because I did not have all the information that I needed to complete the painting in question. I just could not fathom what would come next. This used to happen more when I was a less experienced painter. But it still happens at times. Probably always will. When I find myself in this situation I take a break from the painting that represents this dilemma and work on other paintings. Eventually I will arrive to where the painting with the dilemma is no longer a puzzle and I will be able to continue and complete the work. I like to make art constantly challenging myself to go a little further, to step a little more into the previously unknown. But I also believe that all the work I have produced in my life has been necessary for me to be where I am now. The good and the bad all had to happen. For me there is almost a sort of a painted manuscript that reveals itself one brushstroke at a time. And I have noticed that I cannot jump from step one to three without somehow going thru step two.

From: Carol Morrison — Sep 27, 2008

I was interested in your comments about a good training in basics because NSCAD, the university I graduated from in 2005, went through a period in the 1960’s when so-called “conceptual art” was in vogue, and a training in the basics was not thought to be necessary. In succeeding years the policy at NSCAD changed drastically, and all students now have to go through a foundation program which, for painters, includes training in basic drawing.

Jerry Ferguson, who is profiled in a “Abstract Painting in Canada”, came on staff at that time. In a recent talk he pointed out that, of course, we are all conceptual artists in the sense that we usually have a concept of what we are trying to do! He prides himself on being able to teach basics as well, and was my studio adviser although I am a representational painter.

From: Serge Kappler — Sep 27, 2008

I have received your weekly letters for about a month now and have enjoyed them immensely. The dominant theme seems to be that serious painting is hard. Only an experienced painter can know how hard it is, not just technically, but emotionally. Reading your letters confirms my own daily experience with, and intuitions about painting. It helps to know that one is not alone in thinking that there is a disheartening incongruity between the popular image of Monet or Van Gogh shaking a great painting out of their sleeve in an afternoon and the huge amount of work and skill required to paint anything visually plausible at all, let alone something actually good.

Your letter is right on. When they work, abstract paintings done without an understanding of the basics tend to be nice decorative objects. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion out there about the difference between a good painting and a canvas that is only a nice decorative object. The latter may enhance the look of a living room wall, but is unlikely to repay the viewer attention that it invites.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Sep 27, 2008

Is it possible to find a balance in the education of artists? I have known young artists to become frustrated with the basics and turn to art history or away from art altogether convinced they have no talent when their creative spirit is crushed by endless courses required to progress to an art degree. Others rely too much on these basic skills and loose their early spark of creativity resulting in ordinary paintings. Yes, drawing, design, color theory and perspective are important and their use instantly seen in abstract and non-objective art. Any artist wanting to create anything worthwhile must learn these. But there is no way to teach someone how to dig deep and explore possibilities of his or her own creative frontier.

From: Paul de Marrais — Sep 27, 2008

It is easy enough to back your assertions with stellar examples of artists who were well trained in academic skills before departing on their own stylistic journey. Picasso is probably the most famous example. He was a master of drawing by age 15. Some of us mourn his exodus from representational painting as represented in his ‘ blue’ and ‘rose’ periods. Edward Munch is another artist whose early academic portraits showed masterful skill and hinted at the moody work he later produced. Cezanne produced many figure drawings in the academic mode. Already he was deviating from ‘reality’ to a exploration of planes in the figure. Monet was a skilled caricaturist as a young man. Matisse was a skilled draftsman. The list goes on. I think ‘high definition’ photography and television have stunted our cultures understanding of the foundation behind the details. We are detail freaks. I see this alot in my beginning students. Most have difficulty seeing the structure ‘under’ the composition, the foundation that the detail must sit upon. A few seem almost incapable of seeing the underlying foundation, as if they have a perception deficit. I have had several chemist students who fit this category . THis interested me as chemists are intimately concerned with details in their work. I like to make an analogy to film making. The painter is the director of his canvas and needs to make decisions that will interest and challenge the viewer. Alfred Hitchcock made detailed drawings of each frame of his movies to maximize the drama and impact of the camera angle. He lacked all the special effects available to movie makers today but his skilled use of camera angles and other devices produced the emotional impact he sought very effectively. His movies are absolutely controlled by his vision. In the end, an artist must take some element of control in their paintings and the knowledge must be there to frame his/her decisions. Randomness may produce the occasional ‘happy accident’ and the artist must be willing to experiment to avoid becoming formulaic. In the end knowledge is power.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Sep 27, 2008

Ensuring that artists / painters have a strong grounding in the basics is as important as ensuring that a house has a foundation: without this, there is nothing on which to build one’s vision. Also important is the need to LOOK. A lot of painting is based on what the artist assumes is there, rather than dissecting what (s)he sees. When one can accurately represent an image, through honest vision and a grounding in technique, then – and only then – can the artist paint his/her vision.

From: Linda Blondheim — Sep 27, 2008

Regarding back to basics, as a teacher I find few students who are willing to study painting seriously. The fundamentals seem dull to them. As a 30+ year veteran of painting, I study fundamentals each week and often do year long studies on various aspects of painting. I am a student of painting and always will be. Many painters don’t understand that a good knowledge of the principles of design are entirely necessary for success as a realist or abstract painter. I always like to think that all painting is abstract in its foundation. The realism comes with more refinement of the abstraction.

From: Gregg Caudell — Sep 27, 2008

As a ‘figurative’ artist’ I have my abstract moments and appreciate well done contributions to art that are abstract. I think to measure artistic effort one should judge by a criteria that rises above entrenched paradigms and is universal despite definitions. Among the tools and rules that comprise artistic effort ‘creativity’ is the measure that all disciplines share, is the common ground with the divine and democratic enough to include any vision.

From: John Stevenson — Sep 27, 2008

Any time a student asks me ”how do I get the real in my work” I always bring them back to the basics , that to me is (as for all artists) drawing the scene first , either with a quill or your brush / Knife brings the painting to the world and makes it Great . If the basics are there the painting will be great; no matter the style.

From: Sujata Tibrewala — Sep 27, 2008

I was an engineer by profession until a few months ago, when I decided to call it off for my art!! I have now started painting full time and have done a few paintings. I am just painting whatever I like and am wondering whether I am really good at it, and whether I will be able to make it as painter anytime or I should just go back to engineering and be satisfied with whatever time I will have to paint.

Essentially I am afraid of not being to sell anything :(, or worse nobody appreciating my work. I guess we all paint to be understood, to touch somebody’s heart. Well this is a lofty and a humble goal at the same time. If each of my paintings can do that even for one person I will be happy in the end.

Your letter comes at a time when I am facing the dilemma of what to paint as to learn. I want to be able to paint like masters. I want to be in complete control of the brush. Should be able to convey whatever is there in my imagination directly to canvas. Now I struggle to do so. My goal is to do it with the ease characteristic of masters!!! I hope I achieve it some day…

I have not set myself any academic goals. Most of my paintings are realistic but juxtaposed and modified from real settings to convey my idea. So for each of these ideas I need to learn an aspect of academic painting.

From: Barbara Pence — Sep 27, 2008

I am a 63-year-old “self taught” artist who began painting at the age of 40. I left my job – after much financial planning and savings – ten years ago to become a full-time painter. I have had a degree of success with my work, sold some through galleries, won a few local awards, etc. However, I’ve always felt a lack of academic training. I have felt I was just “too old” and too far along to take a step back and go to school. However, I am now going to do it! A local Academy (the Jeff Hein Academy, Salt Lake City) has agreed to take me on as a student. Jeff Hein thinks my work is far enough advanced that I can probably complete his curriculum in about two years, instead of the usual four. I am so excited. I know that my drawing will improve, that I will learn some basics that I just never picked up on my own (or through the occasional workshops or books), and maybe more importantly that I will have someone who will really push me to keep going when I might otherwise have been satisfied with a more mediocre result. I expect to be a much better artist, at least on the technical skills side, at the end of these two years.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 27, 2008

I remember, when studying with a master painter, the day when the concept of mixing color finally became clear to me. I jumped up in class and yelled ” I got it!” to everyone’s utter amazement. After suffering the embarrassment of disrupting the class, I realized that this knowledge, now learned, would be my foundation for ever more.

From: Brenda Wright — Sep 27, 2008

A “Beginner Class” will set an artist on the path that leads to success or failure, in my opinion. Now, it may take several ‘Beginner classes’ to really become launched into a deeper and more mature artistic expression, but it will be worth it. I conduct Beginner Courses here in my home studio and can’t stress enough how important it is to get a good handle on the basics. Let me add that in taking a number of ‘Beginner courses’ not every instructor actually starts at the beginning. Often they assume we know more than what we actually do and therefore sometimes overlook many of the crucial basic first steps.

From: Holly Quan — Sep 27, 2008

Jazz is the musical equivalent of abstract art — and you can’t riff until you know the scales and chords. A solid grounding in music theory is the key to success in jazz, just like a solid understanding of colour, perspective and other fundamentals of design is the key to successful abstraction. Although he wasn’t a jazz musician, the pianist Victor Borge was a genius at taking the classics and turning them upside-down — he couldn’t do that without a tremendous and thorough knowledge of the musical form he was playing with. Practice, practice! But make it fun, not work.

From: Ellen McCord — Sep 27, 2008

In landscapes it’s much easier to manipulate the scene into an abstracted image, but usually takes a couple (or three) paintings of the subject matter in different configurations to get something that’s pleasing. For figurative work, I constantly practice drawing from live models. I use high energy gestural drawings in the studio as a jumping off point, then consider composition, design and color to bring out the possibilities the drawing suggests. In studying great artists from the past, Matisse stands out as one who worked a representational image with paper and pen until his knowledgeable, conscious process of abstraction morphed into the form and design that he wanted. He did the same with his sculptures. Since it worked for Matisse, it’s a good practice for me.

From: Jan Ross — Sep 27, 2008

I, too, have often wondered whether many of today’s ‘abstract’ artists have studied the academic processes traditionally required to achieve artistic success. Having spoken to some, they freely admit, “I was just having fun, not really thinking about the end result”. Others say, “I was thinking about the composition, color etc. as I created this piece”. So, there’s a mixed bag out there. Perhaps some people ‘instinctively’ comprehend the traditional concepts or, maybe they just get lucky.

For myself, although I’ve been painting for quite awhile, I still often refer to my reference books detailing composition, anatomy drawing and studying traditional painting techniques that I may apply to my work, etc. Regardless of the medium one works, I do believe understanding the fundementals and refreshing one’s memory of them, only benefits the artist. Assuming a novice artist is going to create more than a single work, he or she will ask, “How and why did I DO that?”. I believe it is better to have an understanding of the academics to create representational works and then ‘distort’ them to create abstracts. Otherwise, the artist is comparable to the elephant with a paintbrush tied to his tail. Sure, the painting may be an abstract, but meaningless….although the elephant is able to demand high prices (and get them) his work can hardly be considered ‘art’, but a curiosity.

From: Celeste Gober — Sep 27, 2008

Thanks so much for your clarity, good advice and for listing your “Basics” book recommendations.

I have three of them, and found your reviews to be right on target.

I have just ordered the other three, and two others I found along the way.

All of these books are giving me the solid foundation I crave and will make it possible for me to keep growing, confidently, as an artist. They provide a path towards attaining the changing visions I hold for my work.

From: Anonymous — Sep 27, 2008

Some are so concerned about learning the tricks of the trade they never learn the trade -art history my friend -know it or re-invent the wheel – little applause is gained by that. The only way to break the rules intelligently is to KNOW THEM. All the greats acknowledge those they have looked to for inspiration and answers. We may become great by standing on the shoulders of giants- if we work hard. There is a reason it is called a WORK of art.

From: Carl Purcell — Sep 27, 2008

I couldn’t agree with you more on this one. Drawing and the study of composition concepts are as vital to art as the learning of chords and scales and arpeggios are to a serious study of the piano. The freedom so many wish to achieve on that short path is the freedom that only comes with discipline. However, perseverance turns even drawing into FUN!

From: Jim Cowan — Sep 27, 2008

It’s very true. You can’t race a bike without first learning to ride it well. I remember attending an illustrated lecture by Jack Shadbolt. I was amazed at the huge body of work that preceded his later more abstract style. In truth I enjoyed his earlier work more than the later but then I’m forever struggling with “the basics”.

From: John Ferrie — Sep 27, 2008

Any artist worth his weight in salt and has attended art school will tell you that they have been back to basics and never plan to return. I remember planning an instructors painful dismembering when he assigned us to recreate our desk tops in the afternoon. That was after we had stared at the desk top for three hours that morning. Basics are a good foundation, but really not the thing you want to return to when you are an artist. To be truly creative is to work beyond what we already know and are comfortable with.

Artists need to paint what they feel, developed their passion and continue with a strong need to communicate. These artists who paint what they think something should look like is where most come up short. It is like an actress creating a roll of a famous person. If they get 70% of the character, they pretty much have it. This can be done by picking up a characteristic walk or gesture. All the make up and hair style or CGI manipulation wont cover up a bad performance. Just paint like you don’t need the money and do it like nobody is ever going to see it, is when you are going to create a GEM!

From: Lorelle A. Miller — Sep 27, 2008

I certainly remember being a young artist wanting to buck the rules, be original, expressive, a stand out, unique. In college I forged my way bringing 3 dimensions to illustration. I worked hour upon hour finding new ways to explore almost sneering at the rules. My odd approach was rewarded with praise and good grades.

As time moved on I became more curious about basic rules and principals. I began to gain respect for all that came before me. When I was younger, it was all about my take on everything. After reproducing a large number of masterworks as street paintings, my respect for the history of art making really hit a high. I saw with every brushstroke the contemplated course of a piece.

Now at a good strong mature age I see even better, that the principals are there for me and that as a painter, I may take them further through my own work. That they are a map of sorts to new approaches and significance. They are not shackles to restrain my personal freedoms, but a language to facilitate my visions. It is up to me how I use them.

I have read again and again how art is a reflection of life. Youth is delightful exploration, a pounding, stomping declaration that we are here. Maturity is acknowledgement and appreciation of what came before us. With art the future is an open book linked to the past with its universal concepts and principals. Each artist in his own time will come to the shore of understanding and look beyond the known horizon. He is part of a lineage that stands strong because of what came before.

From: Lillian E.Walsh — Sep 27, 2008

It is with delight that I read your comment today regarding basics. Of course, you must align yourself with the basics FIRST! After you have them all nicely tucked in your brain, and only then, is when you can gainfully BREAK the rules and race to the outer limits of the art you make available to your self and your community in life.

I have taught people to do Floral Design, and those that only want to learn one part of the course, fail miserably because they have not the basic information available at a moment’s notice to create the beauty they so desire. If those same people had followed the course, they could have taken the flowers in any size and containers in any color or size and made beautiful creations to collect the awaited “AW…” that never came because the basics were missing.

Keep up the great comments, they really hit so many nerves, it makes those of us who toil at our choice of mediums work harder to hit our personal mark of excellence.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Sep 28, 2008
From: Bob Posliff — Sep 28, 2008

Bravo, Robert and bravo, Marianne Mathiason, the ‘ skilled painter ‘.

From: Sandy Lee — Sep 29, 2008

The 4 year old Marla Olmstead painting fabulous abstracts – give me a break. Who sets up the huge canvas and mixes the paint in those big containers and keeps the pristine cleanliness of the painting space? Those phony clips gave me creeps. Poor child.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Sep 29, 2008

So she has a helper. It looked like the brush was in her hand…

From: Elizabeth Love — Sep 29, 2008

Robert, I would be interested to look at a few paintings you consider to be “masterful abstraction(s)”. Kindest regards, Elizabeth.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 30, 2008

What makes art so ambiguous and hard to nail down is our subjective understanding of what makes a work “artful”. This idea of basics is at the core of all work being created that is labeled “Art.” With little or no understanding or training in art or art history in general, there is created a void of knowledge and understanding of what it takes to create a “true” work of art. Anyone who puts a mark to paper or canvas is perceived as one who is creating art. The nature of art is exactly this mark making. This can be achieved by anyone trained in art or not. An extreme case is the 4-year-old girl named Marla mentioned in a previous email.

The blurring of what is real art and what is bogus trash is a subjective idea based on how we consider the source and their ability to interpret their idea with a given methodology. When all is said and done, there will be those who will have been trained in the history and theories of art and those who just do it with little or no training. In the end whether either is art will be an issue of discussion for the intellegencia and makers of art to determine.

For us to understand art, we have classify it by using labels. These labels help us categorize it for us to understand it as art or not. For instance we know more or less what Impressionism or Abstractism is supposed to be this helps us to know if the artist is “good” or “bad” because we have learned what is required to achieve these results using that form.

The problem for most is when a work isn’t so easily categorized into a form we are familiar with or like personally. Also if we find the person creating the work has little or no training, we tend to dismiss it as unworthy of being called art. If those in the art world can’t give a classification to a work, most think it can’t be art.

It’s great that there are schools teaching the basics but what is missing is what happens after that. We are taught what art is, but what is art to become? What if what someone creates doesn’t fit the standard school curriculum?

“Successful” art, whether thought good or bad, will find a market whether everyone and anyone can agree if it’s truly art.

There will be those who subscribe to the Classical approach and those who believe that the Jackson Pollack approach is the true light.

After all is said and done it is your personal beliefs and depth of knowledge that will determine you likes and dislikes.

From: Dorian — Sep 30, 2008

“How to go about grabbing these basics in as short a time as possible? The answer lies in any number of excellent beginner’s guides.”

Excuse me?! “Get a good teacher – the best you can find.” would make infinitely more sense to me!

How many people learned how to swim by reading a book?

From: Dorian — Sep 30, 2008

(Not to say that books aren’t important, they definitely are and can help a great deal!)

From: James Percy — Sep 30, 2008

Too many teachers out there don’t know what they’re doing. Failed and improperly prepared artists often resort to teaching for cash flow. Be careful.

From: Claudio Tomassini — Oct 01, 2008
From: Joyce Goden — Oct 01, 2008

Some thoughts after reading the above…

-Make sure you see your teacher’s work before signing up for a class

-Just think how good little 4 year old Marla would be if she had some lessons in design, color, and art principles…(I do wish I had her help and marketing team)

-After painting selling, and teaching for over 20 years, I’m starting my 4th year of morphing into abstract…

-Fred Leach AWS/DF -my best teacher – called abstract art the artist’s art

From: Ben — Oct 01, 2008

Well, if we define art as generously as making marks while someone else prepares everything around that, then Robert Genn’s family dog Stanley is one of the masters. And he sells too! I wish that little Marla gets a normal happy childhood.

From: Mark Larson — Oct 04, 2008

I took two terms of abstract painting in college because it taught me a lot about shape and color relationships. But. it was very difficult, because it doesn’t come naturally to me, being that I’m naturally a realist. The thing that saved me was a solid grasp of the fundamentals. There are two tracks that artists go down: the technical and the conceptual. Many artists are good at one or the other; a Master is an expert in both.

From: Connie Miller — Oct 04, 2008

I study with a teacher who will often take on students who want to do abstract work without any previous art study. Those who are willing to learn, receive an enormous amount of basic instruction in color, line and composition and their paintings become so much stronger. Those who just want to splash color to express themselves have a place in his studio, too. He calls these works “Doodle Paintings” and brings an enthusiasm for this type of work as well. I tried one and it was fun; kind of like a snack instead of a gourmet meal. He does let the Doodle painters know that truly great Abstract work requires the bones of traditional art to give it strength and that he’s willing to teach it. Some will listen and some will continue on their own path.






A Fair Affair

watercolour painting, 11 x 15 inches
by Vivian Kuhn, Kelowna, BC, Canada


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 Hans Mertens of Holland who wrote, “We live in a world where everybody thinks they can paint.”

And also Terrie Christian of Plymouth, MN, USA who wrote, “It took me years to morph from realistic to abstract.”

And also Roberta Faulhaber of Paris, France who wrote, “I can recommend The Natural Way to Draw by Nicolaides. It is certainly true that his “method” requires a lot of work, but hey, what a lot of fun too…”

And also Jennie Rosenbaum of Springvale, Australia who wrote, “You have to know the rules in order to break the rules.”




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