Saturday, July 1, 2017

How to Become a Better Painter

Field of Lupines
9x12 oil
Michael Chesley Johnson
$200 unframed - available


How to become a better painter?  Practice—with a series of exclamation points following—is the obvious answer.  But you can't just flail away at the canvas with a loaded brush and expect to improve.  Here are some tips for when you're at the easel.


1.  Have a goal.  Pick some aspect of painting that you need work on.  Maybe you have trouble evoking the illusion of strong sunlight.  This tells me you may not understand color temperature, and I would recommend working on a series that will force you to explore the relationships of light and shadow.  If you have trouble identifying what you need to work on, seek out a mentor.  These days, some mentors can help via the Internet.  (This is something I do.)

2.  Learn your materials.  I'm all for playing with the latest novelty that comes along.  Maybe this week it's painting on Saran wrap with watercolor.  But it's better if you find a set of materials that works for you and that you master it.  Once you've done this, you can get back to improving your painting.  Painting is more than just knowing the craft side of things; it's also about the art.  But art only comes after craft.

3. Work mindfully.  Ask yourself questions about what you're doing.  If you can't find an answer, stop.  Think if you're going down the right path.  Was phthalo blue the right choice? Maybe you should have gone with the cobalt blue. Speak out loud as you paint (even if it's just a whispery moving of the lips.)  Sometimes, of course, the painting will "paint itself," as they say.  It's wonderful when this happens, but in the early days of learning your craft, it will happen rarely.  Until it does, keep up the dialogue.

4.  Try new things.  Did I recommend against playing in my second tip?  No, I said you should concentrate on finding a set of materials that works for you.  Play is, of course, an important part of learning.  But I don't mean unstructured, romping-around-the-jungle-gym play.  I mean mindful play.  ("Mindful" is key in both work and play.)  If you've never painted with watercolor on Saran wrap, maybe it could lead to something.  But you'd have to think about it.  Can you paint anything representational on this surface?  Or do you just end up with abstract dots of color?  Maybe, when the paint is still wet, you could press watercolor paper down on top of it and get some kind of monotype.  Hey, that might be interesting!  And it could lead you to a new and satisfying path to becoming a better painter.

"Smile, breathe and go slowly." – Thích Nhất Hạnh

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