Thursday, 7 April 2016

Pitfalls for the artist

What I've learned so far...

The quick and easy alongside the classically styled.

I was going to write one of those “12 common mistakes beginning artists make" type blog posts. People love these on the internet, but then I thought no; who am I to judge what is right and wrong when painting? The pleasure of actually making art and the appreciation of a finished piece is highly personal and subjective. And besides, I’m not particularly critical of art in terms of the aesthetics; technical aspects more so, but does that really matter?

So, I will compose a list, but they are written to just provoke thought and hopefully help those starting out on this very long journey. If this helps people to make greater progress and avoid frustrations then all the better. Bear in mind that these are my personal impressions and I won’t be quoting or citing others, but I do refer to others to support.

Be aware of the following then:
  • You are in this for the long term. A very long term if you have other work and life commitments. Don’t expect to be brilliant or even good at first, it takes years of practice and I don’t mean just repeating the same type of paintings constantly; the practice needs to be quality and quantity.
  • Draw, draw, draw. It may seem a bit dull (I don't find that personally) when you want to splash colour around, but if you want to be confident that you can tackle a range of subjects you need to learn how to draw. That means taking a systematic, programmed approach that breaks it down into components and mastering each aspect until it becomes almost second nature. Learn to really look at the subject like a tiger stalking its prey. Do a bit of painting as you go to satisfy that urge, but never, ever stop drawing and copying from the best.
  • Don’t just rely on - or wait for - inspiration,  or an idea each time you get out the pencils or brushes. The time may never be right and the wait could be long and not worth it in the end or you’ll find excuses for not starting, because you’re tired, not ready, distracted, sore, etc, etc, etc. Just do it or work on an exercise to improve your skills.
  • Be patient. This links to the previous two. Many students just draw too quickly -as though fast execution will wow people with their amazing talent. Yes, you will get quicker in some respects, but preparation and planning and just looking is vital beforehand and then when you are ready to execute it may happen quite quickly. You need to build up on previous experience and develop from a range of subjects and from using different mediums. There is the dilemma of whether you should keep doing different things or settle on a distinct style; certainly if you want to become commercially successful you do need to do that at some point. I do wonder though if there are other reasons for this because I suspect that some do this earlier for a number of reasons.
    • Impatience with the learning process.
    • Poor development in the early learning stages so that they become stuck in a kind of artistic adolescence where passion exceeds ability.
    • Lack of time, or a sense of time running out, so that key skills elements are skipped altogether or not fully absorbed. There are those artists who struggle with drawing. Many become very famous and successful - which shows that it isn’t critically important. I know myself that my works that are technically complex and well executed don’t always work as an engaging piece of art. This still frustrates a bit. But, I will still maintain that if drawing is your weakness, keep practicing, because if you are comfortable with it, you will be much more confident about everything you want to achieve. You will develop a “can do” attitude to painting. Remember, it takes years to get there.
    • Friends and family egging them on to "run before they can walk" leading to painting for the audience and getting stuck in habitual or mannered works.
  • Don’t be discouraged. Drawing is easy: drawing well is difficult. Anyway, who said it would be easy? We all produce work for the bin or work we are embarrassed by. Don’t be. Share some of it to sympathetic people and show them that it is about hard work. Above all, be self-critical and take something away from all works to inform the next one.
  • Art shop fetishising. So many aspiring painters amass vast collections of artist's materials. So much so, that they will be unlikely to ever use it all in their lifetime - unless they turn professional. Do try different mediums, but just get a bit of each thing and do get the best you can afford. In fact, get a bit of the best, rather than a lot of the 2nd best. When I started out, I bought the student grade paints because they were cheap - even though at the time I could afford the best (less so now!). They were fine - certainly good enough - but I’m still working through most of them years later, particularly tubes of watercolour paint. I wish now, I’d started with artists quality, because paints will last you a very long time - unless you work big often and most of us don’t - let’s face it. The artists quality pigments last even longer too, so that some colours work out similar in cost in the long term.
  • Too many colours, too much choice. I can't remember who said this, and some will disagree but I'll put up a good fight to defend this truism: there are 3 key components to painting. The most important is good composition (hardest to teach and learn), the second is good drawing and the last is colouring. We naturally love a bit of colour, but a painting that is about colour can end up being just about pretty colours if it doesn't do anything, and especially if contrast and tone and light is executed poorly (the surest way to spot a beginner is the lack of contrast in a painting.) Learn to master a limited palette of colours and know how to mix to get the colours you want so that it's second nature and work at tone and contrast. Then, and only then, slowly expand your colour range so that you can create more colours that would otherwise be hard to make with a limited palette.
  • Read about art and visit galleries in person. It will inspire and reinvigorate interest and teach. Websites are great, but there’s something slightly dispiriting about art on the internet, yet when you seen in person it somehow inspires. Treat it as your CPD (continuous professional development), and what could be a nicer way of improving your skills?
  • Actually do art. Don’t just amass a collection of books, materials and magazines (I NEVER buy magazines as I believe they are full of the pitfalls I’m describing). You have to take things out of the wrappers and do it.
  • Copying is good. If you don’t know what to actually paint or draw then copy others. I never have times when I don’t know what to paint, ever; I worry that I’m running out of time to paint all the things I’d like and am able to paint. Copying the best is never wasted; it is an essential part of developing.
  • The trap of feeling you need to be original. Forget it. It ain’t going to happen. It’s all been done before, so just accept that. You are doing it because you love it - I hope - and you have something to say, or a vision that is yours, and if you are lucky it will satisfy that need and someone else might connect with it too. I feel almost sorry for those that get sucked into a sort of juvenile enthusiasm for shocking or “experimenting” to get that originality. Sometimes it’s the fault of having preconceptions beforehand - which is deadly for the artist. They may enjoy it and there’s an audience for it out there for sure, but really? Grow up. Ultimately art is all about form in space. It’s about an honest, humble and sincere portrayal of the world, but one that reveals - without intention or deliberation - something about the artist and his or her relationship with this world. When that is achieved we get it and it’s a wonderful thing. It takes a long time to get to that point - unless you're lucky. Playfulness with materials and colours is all well and good, but - and here’s my personal opinion - after the initial superficial appeal, it becomes a bit boring for the artist and - ultimately - the viewer.
  • Watercolours! I left this to last because I am a bit in two minds on this and it’s a case of “do as I say, not as I do” (did). I bet most beginners start with watercolours. It’s easy to see why: they are good value, portable, with no messy and dangerous chemicals to contend with. The results can be sublime. But they are also - without a doubt - the hardest wet medium to master. I imagine they are the reason many beginners give up or don’t develop as they want. You have to paint counter-intuitively in many respects that I won’t go into here. Brushes are more expensive for quality ones. You really need to prepare by stretching paper - unless you buy very expensive heavier papers. You need to be brave because that little mistake could be impossible to rectify. You have to learn to control water and load brushes carefully (that applies to the others too, but it’s easier with oils and acrylics). You need to learn when to stop because there’s nothing worse than an over-worked watercolour; it cannot tolerate it like the other mediums. If, however, you are resilient and not one to give up and have a real desire to develop then they are the best medium in many ways and once you become competent with them, using the other wet mediums will be a breeze. My advice would be to start with acrylics; they can do everything oils and watercolours can do. Best of all you can correct most mistakes at any stage if you need to. The only down side is that they dry very fast, but if you want to get something half decent done and you don’t have a lot of time in your life, then they are perfect, besides there are ways around the fast drying, or just use it to your advantage.
  • Try not to paint for the approval of others. It’s nice when others do like your paintings, but if you want to be true to yourself, do what you like because that will come across in your painting. Even if you are copying a painting or just a detail to improve technique it’s usually better to copy something you really like because that still reveals something about you and people will see that it matters to you.
  • It takes hard work, not talent. Remember that above all else.


  1. I agree with so much of what you have said here, David. It takes years and years of practice to become even somewhat competent, and we must strive to keep learning and trying harder if we wish to continue to grow. Very helpful and informative post. I hope those who are new to this field of endeavor will carefully consider your words.