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Feed The Addiction

November 20, 2010

I have been a participant on the art website WetCanvas for about four years.  I have gained a lot from it, in terms of painting, and becoming a painter.  My fellow painters in the Landscape Forum (where I log in as Old Tex) still point out things in my work that I didn’t see.  Those extra eyes keep us humble.  It’s an ongoing process.  But as my own work has progressed, there has been a subtle shift from being mentored to more often offering my own advice to beginning painters.  I rarely offer technical advice.  There are others who are quite willing to share their vast knowledge.  I simply don’t have the ego to think I know that much.  I do, however, try to offer encouragement, and my view of what it takes to progress.

Recently a person posted a painting and said that even though he is addicted to painting, he finds it so frustrating that he’s sometimes inclined to quit.  For what it’s worth, here is an edited version of my comments to him:

I just spent several hours working on the first painting I’ve done in a couple of weeks.  It stinks.  I’ve assigned it to the trash bin.

In my own personal experience, there are at least three major moments of panic and indecision – and they still happen today with every painting.  The first comes while staring at that blank surface, knowing full well what I want to do, but wondering if I can do it.  The second comes when a painting reaches that “ugly” stage.  Anyone who’s been painting a while knows that moment.  God forbid that anyone sees it at that stage.  Occasionally, that’s the “what was I thinking?” moment.  And the third moment, for me, comes when a painting has really taken shape, and is starting to look pretty good.  That’s my “now don’t screw this up” moment.

One of the things I believe many people in the early stages of painting fail to do is study other painters.  I look at everyone from the old masters, to the Hudson River School, from the French Impressionists to current top tier painters.  Those who paint very realistically and those who paint so loosely it almost looks abstract.  I study how this one captures the light… the brushwork of others… and how still others use color.  Please don’t be one of those people who “doesn’t want to be influenced”.  One of my early online mentors stressed that the wider the range of influences, the more different painters one studies, the more likely one is to develop his or her own unique style.

But long before one even thinks about style, one should simply be painting – and studying.  Often.  Experienced painters say it time and again:  it’s hard.  It takes long hours with a brush in your hand and dedication to simply painting.  It takes acceptance of the fact that we will never, ever, be as good as we want to be.  Therein lies the challenge.

Don’t know where to look? Start here.  This is one of the most comprehensive pulling together of landscape painters I’ve ever seen in one place.  Find those whose work you like, then go to their websites and look at other examples.

I think many people make the mistake of starting too large.  Work small. 5×7… 8×10… practice applying the paint, brushwork, edges, all at a small size.  There’s plenty of time to graduate up to larger work. I started at 5×7 for months, and when I finally moved up to 8×10 it seemed huge. 11×14 was intimidating at first, but I took what I had already learned and kept going.  When I moved up to 16×20, I thought I’d lost my mind, but it worked, because I had spent the time to learn the basics at a smaller size.

Accept that every painting isn’t going to be good.  It’s been said before that every painting is practice for the next one.  The painting I’ve just tossed wasn’t wasted effort, even though it was poorly composed and not well thought out.  I learned a few more things in the process, about painting… and about myself.

Feed that addiction.  Study.  And paint.  It doesn’t happen overnight.

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