Learning to paint is a journey. Starting painting for beginners is the start of a journey that might last a lifetime.
At times painting for beginners is frustrating and difficult, and at times joyful and exhilarating. It is a journey on which you experience a full spectrum of emotions and highs and lows.
Once it gets in your blood though its a journey we can’t help but take.
In this article I want to explore with you the keys that will help you improve your paintings as a beginner and enjoy the journey even more. And if you have a particular destination in mind for your journey then these keys will help you arrive there faster.
Before we dive into it though I want to address one important point:
In the moments when our painting is frustrating the life out of us and nothing is going right it is easy to make the assumption that you just don’t have any talent.
I remember the excitement I felt when I first purchased a range of paints, brushes, and canvases and took it all home to try my very first painting. With no knowledge or skill and fueled with pure optimism I set up in the back yard on the weekend and did my very first painting.
My optimism soon turned to despair as it did not measure up to the master work I had imagined myself doing. I realized that painting for beginners was a challenge 🙂
So I did what many beginners do at such a point … I concluded that I must not have been born with any talent. With that I packed everything in a box and the box went under the bed not to be looked at again for some years.
I’m not sure if you have had a similar experience or not?
What I have come to learn in the last ten years, as I worked to become a professional artist, is this … learning to paint and developing a high level of proficiency with paint has nothing to do with natural talent.
Don’t get me wrong! I do believe natural talent does exist. However it is so rare that it is not even worth considering or focusing on.
For the 99.9% of us not born naturally talented we have to take a different approach to becoming great artists.
What is the path for the majority of us then?
It’s a two part process.
First we have to learn the technical aspects of good painting.
Second we have to combine these technical aspects with the intangible quality of artistry.
It is possible to become a highly successful artist just by mastering the technical aspects of good painting. Many have done so before you and many more will in the future.
A good question then is what are these technical aspects of painting that we need to master?
The good news is there are only a few. We call them fundamentals. The basics.
The less good news is that mastering these fundamentals can take years, decades or a lifetime. As I said at the start of this article … it’s a journey.
Sidenote – Each of us endeavouring to become great artists are on a unique and personal journey. We all have different starting points, life circumstances, committment and dedication, focus, ability to comprehend information and destination points in mind. Your journey is unique to you and as such you should never compare yourself and your journey to anyone else.
So the technical aspects of painting, or fundamentals, include the following:
At the Learn To Paint Academy we have developed a range of courses that address each of these fundamental skill sets.
To become a really great artist you need to focus on each of these fundamental skills. It is a good idea to set aside time to study each of these fundamentals and complete various assignments or studies designed to develop your skills. In the same way a concert pianist will practice scales for hours a day, we need to spend more time studying the basics rather than always trying to paint a master piece.
Learning anything, especially painting for beginners, requires two things:
2/ Practical application of that knowledge
Learning to paint is no different.
You need to decide how much time you will set aside for painting each week. Then divide that time between firstly gaining knowledge through study of these fundamentals (or technical aspects), and secondly practicing what you have learned.
Both of these are critical if you are to advance.
You need knowledge and you need to practice that knowledge. We have designed the Learn To Paint Academy with this in mind … courses to give you the knowledge, and lots of painting projects for you to practice the knowledge you have acquired.
As we focus on gaining knowledge of the fundamentals, and putting this knowledge into practice, we need to keep in mind the following …
There are four stages of learning anything. When you are familiar with them it will help you get a clear understanding of where you are on your journey and how to keep moving forward.
These four stages apply to everything … learning to paint, playing golf, programming computers, driving a car, cooking great vegan meals and so on.
We all move through these four stages:
1/ Unconscious Incompetent – When we first try to learn something new we are unconsciously incompetent. What this means is we know nothing about what needs to happen to become a great painter, but even worse, we don’t know what we don’t know. A lot of the keys to becoming a good painter we have never even heard of when we are starting out. Ideas like Notan studies, compressed values, high key painting, lost edges mean nothing to us and likely we have never even heard of them let alone understand them. We all start here … knowing nothing and not even being aware of what we don’t know
2/ Consciously Incompetent – this stage usually is when we first start painting. We perhaps watch some YouTube vides, do an online course, read a book etc. So we buy some art supplies and have a go. And typically we start to realize how little we know and how lacking our skills are. We become conscious of the fact we are incompetent with the basic skills. This is the frustration period. This is when so many assume they don’t have talent for painting and quit. Don’t do that. Push on. In this stage we start to develop some conscious awareness of different fundamentals like colour mixing etc but we are still incompetent in our application of this knowledge.
3/ Consciously Competent – in this stage we have gained some knowledge through study, and we have some skills in applying that knowledge. We are consciously aware of the fundamentals and probably have a good degree of knowledge stored away about them, and we are starting to get good at applying it. At this stage we are producing reasonable quality paintings. Often we see artists start to sell a few pieces, enter the local art show and so on when they reach this stage.
Note – Interestingly I believe this third stage is the longest stage and its easy to get stuck here. We have a high level of skill and competency in applying the fundamentals … but we are often stuck in our thoughts.
4/ Unconscious Competence – This is the level of mastery. In this stage you no longer need to think when you paint. If you need to mix an earthy warm brown tone for rocks in sunlight you don’t need to consciously think through how to do this. It becomes automatic. Your skills in practical application have shifted to the unconscious mind. As a result you free yourself up and this opens a door way to a higher level of artistry to enter. When you stop thinking about what you are doing you step into a state of flow which enables you to tap into a level or creativity that is from a different source.
When you reach this fourth stage you are a true master of painting. People will comment how you make it look so easy.
And while it may be easy at this last stage the journey to get there certainly is not. It takes time and dedication to arrive at stage four if that is your goal.
It is my belief that practically anyone can reach this fourth stage given sufficient focus, dedication and committment and the passage of time. Reaching this level though becomes more about mindset than anything else.
At the very least we should all aim for stage three.
Understanding these four stages of learning will hopefully help you to stick with painting when nothing seems to be working, your turning out paintings your not happy with, and you become frustrated. Trust me we all go through this. As you move into stage three though the times of frustration are less however you also realize how much more there is to learn 🙂
Before you make a start on your painting journey as a beginner its a good idea to get clear on a few things up front.
Some of the questions you may want to consider are below. A good practice is to start a journal and write your answers in the journal. You can then reflect on your answers over time, and even up date your responses to these questions.
Your answers to these questions will serve as your true north, your guiding star on your journey.
As mentioned earlier, we are all on totally unique and individual journeys when it comes to developing our painting skills.
Side note – There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Only what is right for you.
Here are the questions to ask yourself:
These are important questions to consider if you are serious about developing your skills with painting.
You don’t need to find answers to these all at once. It’s a process and the further along your journey you get the more clarity you will find with the answers to these questions.
An important consideration early on is which medium will you learn to paint with.
We will talk about focus later but for now I want to point out that it is better to stick with one medium and really develop your skills with it rather than jumping around from one to the other.
Note – At the Learn To Paint Academy the painting process we teach is the Moore Method of Painting. The beauty of this method is it is transferable from acrylics to oil painting, to water mixable oil paints, and to gouache. Once you learn the method you can pretty much transfer to any of these mediums with little effort.
The more common mediums to learn in are:
Acrylic – Acrylic paints are the most popular with beginners and hobby artists. Primarily because they are water based and low toxicity. They are also easy to clean up. The thing to note about acrylics is that they dry faster than oils and tend to shift in tone when dried. This can lead to frustration when you are starting out, but can also be a big advantage when you gain more experience.
Oils – Oils tend to be the preferred medium for professional artists. They also attract higher prices for sold artwork than other mediums so they are clearly regarded as more desirable by collectors. Oils have many advantages and they stay wet longer giving you more time to work back into them. This allows for multiple painting sessions working wet into wet paint. A lot of people stay away from oils due to the more toxic nature of the solvents, and the odor associated with them. Today you can buy non toxic low odor solvents and mediums to overcome this issue. There is a perception that oils are more difficult to master.
Water Mixable Oils – A great option which is a relatively new development is Water Mixable Oils. These are very close in nature to traditional oils but have the advantage that they can be washed up in water and water can be used as a thinner for initial washes. Low toxicity and low odor but they paint like oils makes this an increasingly popular option for many.
Gouache – Gouache is a water based medium that is opaque in nature. Traditionally used by illustrators, it is a versatile and portable medium that doesn’t take a lot of practice to get the hang of. As its water based you can thin it down with water. It dries rapidly which lends itself to more of a layering approach rather than blending. Gouache is an ideal medium for sketchbook work and for travelling with. For these reasons we recommend every artist also learn to paint in gouache at some point.
Watercolour – Watercolour is a transparent water based medium. It is a terrific medium for soft delicate paintings built up in layers. As its water based it dries quickly so you don’t have to wait long to apply additional layers over your initial washes.
Note – The Moore Method of Painting is suitable for acrylic painting, oils, water mixable oils and gouache. Watercolour requires a different working process which is the opposite of the approach we use with the Moore Method of Painting.
The choice of which medium to learn in can be a difficult one. I recommend trying a few and seeing which one you like the most. Then stick with that one until you have developed a degree of proficiency with it.
As paint is the primary tool we work with to express ourselves with it is important you understand the differences in quality.
In simple terms there are two different qualities of paint.
The first is student quality, and the second is artist or professional quality. Within these two the quality of the paint can vary wildly as well.
Professional quality paint has a much higher pigment ratio, and contains less fillers, than student quality paint.
I strongly recommend you invest in artist, or professional, quality paints from the outset. Using a limited palette you only need a handfull of tubes of paint. Yes they will cost more per tube than the student grade will but it will save you years of frustation and fast track your results. Many beginners make the mistake of buying dozens of tubes of paints in a variety of colours. Because the cost adds up they gravitate to the cheaper student grade paints.
You are much better off with a handful of colours or a higher quality. It will cost you about the same dollars wise but will improve your painting from the start.
The colours we use in our simplified palette at the Learn to Paint Academy is:
From these colours we can mix pretty much all of the colours we need for landscape, seascape, portrait, still life painting etc.
And if you do the maths you will find buying a limited range of colours like these in a professional grade of paint will work out no more expensive than buying twenty or thirty tubes of paint in a cheaper range. The results you achieve though once you learn to mix colours will be significantly better.
If you spend five minutes on the internet you will see that there is an endless range of options for painting for beginners information and education.
Just on YouTube alone you can loose yourself watching endless hours of videos from some of the best artists in the world down to complete amatuer artists. Its easy to go from one video to the next to the next and invest hours of time doing so.
Places like Facebook have groups and forums full of thousands of members all busy posting their photos of latest works, and giving and reciving feedback and advice to each other. There is an unlimited number of people out there willing to give detailed explanations on what they think of your painting and how you could improve it (even if they can barely paint themselves)
There are books, DVD’s, webinars, magazines, local art groups and on and on.
The problem with this abundance of resources available at your finger tips is that the average beginner to intermediate artist will spend a lot of time jumping from one instructor to another. From one apporach or method for creating a painting to another. From one subject matter to another. From one choice of palette to another.
This will slow your progress down dramatically.
When you bounce around all over the place you will retard your progress in painting. If you watch a video on landscape painting from a Bob Ross artist one day and try paint that style, and the next day you are trying to paint portraits in the style of Rembrandt … well you likely not improve much as an artist. At a minimum you will slow your progress down.
Many hobby artists never improve primarily for this reason.
Its a lack of focus. The problem is you need to focus in order to make steady progress towards your end goal.
So what should you do instead?
It’s my belief you should learn from a professional artist. It takes a good decade or more of moving through the four stages of learning towards mastery, to become a professional artist. So you can be confident that they have invested the time and energy to both learn the fundamentals and practise them.
Look for an artist whose work you like and admire. Check out their painting style and subject matter. Do you want to paint along similar lines? Does the work resonate with you?
That is the first step. Find a professional artist whose work you love and want to learn from.
The next consideration though is this … can they teach?
Not all professional artists can actually teach what they know. Many have no idea how to break complex concepts down into simplified easy to learn bite size pieces. Bite size pieces that you can take on board to actually improve your painting.
Note – There are many people online today who have set themselves up as Art Educators or teachers who have never even taught a physical art class with real live breathing humans in it. YouTube and Facebook are full of them. These people can not possibly understand what you need as a beginner to assist you in learning to paint. I can tell you from experience that unless you have taught a hundred or more art classes then you really have no idea of the challenges and obstacles beginners face when learning to paint.
To recap … you want to find a professional artist whose work you like and respect who also has a proven track record in teaching others to great success.
Now here is the real key.
When you find such an art teacher you want to totally immerse yourself in their work and learning everything you can from them. Go deep into their teachings. Do all their art classes, online courses, painting projects etc that you possibly can.
This is about focus as opposed to bouncing around all over the place. When you focus in with one teacher your work will start to improve at a much greater rate.
Sidenote – This is the way all of the great master artists of yesteryear learnt to paint. They would enroll in an Atelier in Europe under the tutelage of a master artist. They would study with them for four years every day. When they reached a point that they were ready to leave and take on the art world they had to paint a final piece of artwork for the Master Artist … known as a masterpiece. Only when the Master Artist who ran the Atelier was satisfied with the masterpiece could you graduate.
Equally important is to develop a focus on a medium such as oils or acrylics, and your subject matter when you are painting for beginners.
For example … it can take years to really get good at doing portraits so that you capture a likeness of the sitter. The same with landscape painting. It can take years to learn to create atmosphere and emotional intensity in a landscape.
If you try and jump from one subject to the next to the next you will slow down your rate of improvement.
Once you find a teacher you really want to learn from the next best thing to do is to choose a medium and subject matter. Focus in on developing a high level of skills with this medium and subject matter.
Learn everything you can about the chosen medium and subject matter. Focus over time is the key here.
Over the last ten years I have found a handfull of artists I personally follow. I have endeavoured to learn everything I can from them and its started to pay dividends. I have also focused in one medium, being water mixable oils, and landscapes as my primary subject.
I have no doubt that this focus has enabled me to move forward faster than if I had lacked focus.
Here are some of the most important keys I have learned in that time:
These keys to learning to paint are for those who are reasonably serious about developing their skills as an artist.
These are just some of the keys to learning to paint that have been important to me in the last ten years. There are clearly a lot more keys I can share with you and will do so in a follow up article in the future.
For now though take on board these keys and I assure you that you will make progress faster and enjoy the journey more.
Let me know how you go.
In the comments share with us your reason why you want to paint and what you see as being your end goal with painting.
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