How to become a great painter…
Are artists born?
Well, I certainly hope so!
Yes, we have all known or read about artists who seem so strange that we could easily imagine they were raised like green beans – maybe snapped off a big “Artist Plant” – on another planet, then mysteriously transported here to Earth.
Our first question is, “Is artistic talent genetic or environmental?” and the answer is YES. However, it is on a sliding scale as some artists seem to, like my son, Zak, just “have it” while others go to school and take many classes before they see their artistic genius express itself.
Zak was drawing, duplicating comics he loved, at the age of 5, matching colors to the cartoons accurately with his crayons. I also encouraged him a lot, eventually paying him .25 for each one that was well done. I have made sure he always had the art supplies he wanted. And I was genuine in my praise of his efforts. They deserved praise and still do. So, environmental influence played a substantial role in developing the large capability he was born with.
I am also an artist, but I took courses, went to museums, classes, had tutors…etc. I was born with a creative bent, but mostly as a writer. To develop my painting talents, I needed more environmental influence. To make it graphic, Zak’s painting talent was 75% genetic and 25% environmental influence. Mine was just the opposite, 25% inborn, and 75% “outborn.”
THE POINT IS…
Most all of us have inborn talent…so regardless of whether that is a lot or a little, our second question is: How can we encourage, environmentally, the talent we ARE born with in order to become an established, successful, and great painter?
Here are my simple suggestions to make the most of what you have.
Successful painters do see and think differently, and I don’t care how “talented” or “not talented” you are, here are some suggestions for making a quantum jump in thinking and perceiving like an artist. The last “tip” is most essential…don’t miss it!
- First, understand this: Contrary to popular belief, painters do not see the world differently. Not at all! The fact is they see the world the way it is significantly more than most people. The norm in our human culture is to NOT see the world accurately. We have been trained to see the world other than it is. We were all raised up to manipulate the world with titles (nouns), told what was meaningful and valuable, and conditioned to respond to only certain parts of our environment.
Example: Let us say a painter is asked to paint a landscape. The easel is set up in a valley to paint the flat plain leading up to the distant mountains. A painter does not see “a plain and distant mountain range.” They see the view as it is…a mixture of colors, lines, and shapes.
In order to perceive like an artist, resist a) naming things and b) identifying objects. Instead, see scenes as collections of lines, shadows, shapes, colors, contrasts, and contours. Artists see things you overlook, not a bunch of nouns, but more as colors, defining edges, merging shapes and shades.
You can develop this skill! Here are some simple exercises so you, too, can view the world uniquely, as a successful painter.
- Can you let go of adulthood for a minute and imagine how the world looks to a small child? Have you ever watched a baby, all bobble-headed, looking at the world over his mom’s shoulder in a grocery store, with great curiosity at its surroundings…its eyes widened, mouth open trying to take it all in, almost as if it is saying, “Wow! Look at that!” and “Wait! Wow! Look at THAT!!” “And that! And that! And that, too!”?
What is going on in that little wobbly head? Baby has yet to learn nouns or labels. Imagine having no labels for anything…just being wowed by everything popping into view. THAT is the state of mind you want to work to acquire. Shut up your mouth and open your mind to take it all in.
- Focus, again – not on labels – but on color variations. Open your eyes wide like that amazed baby and seek out similar shapes but see as many color variations as you can. Let your eyes zoom in and out like a telephoto lens so you can see the variations within the variations. It is not just lavender in the shade of the mountains but it is a dark lavender blending into a lighter lavender, blending into an even lighter lavender, blending into an almost white-lavender.
- Learn to unfocus – or squint – and let all the “objects” merge together…sort of going from defined outlines to a hazy blending into one another. Try it right now. Look at something in your view, maybe inside the room you are sitting in…perhaps, a table and two chairs. Raise your chin up and bring your eyelids together so you are just looking through a tiny unfocused slit. See how things kind of “blob together”? Imagine painting that just as you see it. How different would that scene be?
- Remember the old saying, “Do you see the glass half full or half empty?” I taught a section on the psychology of art in a class, and one of the exercises was having people write responses to things I would show them. Then we would share answers in the class. One of the objects I exhibited was a sheet of white paper with a 1” black dot in the middle of the paper. I asked them to write down what they saw. Every single person wrote down “a black dot.” I suggested to them to wonder why because there was a lot more “white field” than there was “black dot” area.
Meaning, artists do not perceive foreground “objects” as much as most do. They look for negative space. What is behind the traditional bowl of fruit? Shadows? What colors and shadings of shadows? How much space does the background take up compared to the foreground? Is there a cloth backdrop with folds in the fabric? How do the highlights of the folds appear? How many shades of color are those highlights? Are they white, silver-white, golden white, grayish-white? They are probably a combination of several shades of lighter colors. Can you see them all? If you just said, “There is a highlighting sheen” that does not help you paint it, does it? Sheen is one word. You can be assured that the highlighting has more than one color and shading.
- Back to your Plein air easel set up near a plain with distant mountains: View your plains and mountains as nothing but angles and lines. If you were going to represent everything with varying lengths of straight lines, how would you lay them out? Which lines would be thicker than others? What is the fewest number of sticks you could use to represent the scene?
- Here we are at No. 7, my last tip for you to becoming a successful artist. It is quite simple to say: Practice. Practice. Practice. Or in our artist lingo: Paint. Paint. Paint. Give up that quick fix mentality. Miracles happen but almost always after you prepare for them. Plants spring up out of nowhere, yes, but a whole field of the same plant is usually preceded by preparation…fertilization…and cultivation. That means the artist is painting and learning, and monitoring and adjusting, as he or she goes. Then, BOOM! Suddenly, the miracle!
“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” ― Vincent Willem van Gogh
We began with two questions. 1) Is talent as a painter genetic or environmental? The answer is both. 2) Can you improve upon the talent you are born with? The answer is yes. 7 tips were offered to help you develop your painting talent.
But there is a third question: Will you employ these tips? Stop. How many times have you read articles, or books, or listened to speakers, or watched YouTube videos, that had 10 Ideas, or 12 Tips, or 7 Secrets, or 9 Ways, to improve something or other? Plenty. How many have you put into practice? Very few. How do I know this? Because I am one of you! We all are looking for answers to our problems. Yet, when we get answers we don’t employ them. Why, why? It makes no sense!
Yes, yes, it does. Our minds are heavily invested in keeping things the same, even if they are not good for you! We call them “habits”, and do you know what one of the most prevalent habits is? (The answer will surprise you at first, but you will see it to be clearly true.) One of the most prevalent habits in our culture is “mediocrity”! We don’t call it that, of course. We call it “fitting in” or “normal” or “average” – and we also are skeptical of anything new because the amygdala in our brain is naturally on guard against threats.
Obviously, the usual and customary way of things is automatically seen as safe because we have been there and done that, right? Something new could be safe or maybe not, but we need more data to know for sure…and that takes research or experimentation or finding authorities who you can trust, and that takes time and effort…so it is much easier to just fall back and stick with what you have been doing.
Aren’t you worth the effort it takes to be your BEST? Of course! Isn’t it true that it will never be easier to begin that road to excellence than today? Again, Of course!
How? Just 5 simple steps to becoming a great painter:
1) Make a straightforward commitment to do something every day, no matter how small, towards your goal.
2) But first, make a written list of what those things that you could do each day towards that goal.
3) Tape the list on the wall near where you get out of your bed each morning.
4) As you stand up from the bed, every day, look at the list, select at least one, and say, (quietly if your partner is still asleep 😉 “Today, I will [select specific thing(s) that will move you forward in your artistic career].”
5) When you go to bed put a checkmark behind that/those item(s) that you completed.
To overcome [Let’s agree to call it what it is!] the habit of mediocrity – we need a structure to help us. Much like training wheels when we wanted to go from being a pedestrian to a bicyclist, it is smart to deliberately set up a framework to not only remind you that you decided to become excellent, but to also lay out a clear map of how to get there. See the List as your best friend – a veritable flashlight on the shadowy path to success.
You can do this!