Monday Morning Art School: practice makes perfect

Beautiful brushwork rests on a foundation of good preparation.

Ravening Wolves, 24X30, is in my show, Fantastic Places and Magical Realms at the Camden Public Library, month of December.

I recently came across the sketch below, of two wolves. I was surprised and pleased, because it’s something I drew about a decade or so. It became the subject of a painting I finished Friday, called Ravening Wolves, above. (You can see the whole show in the video here.)

The sketch for Ravening Wolves was much older, and was based on a personal crisis.

Stop thinking of drawing as something you have to get through, and start doing your dreaming in a sketchbook. You never know when you’ll use the images thus created.

“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. The paint creates movement and expression. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.

This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.

Christmas Eve, 6X8, is a memory of driving home from my grandmother’s house in deep snow.

The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.

That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estes and Sandro Botticelli are both linear.

Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. Acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.

The Hunter and the Hare started life as a demo. It ended up being a portrait of our midnight race to leave Patagonia

How do we develop painterliness?

First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.

Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.

Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.

Many times, artists only realize their painterliness in old age. That is when Titian started painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. However, Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness, and he died at 37.

Great painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  • They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  • They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  • They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  • Fat over lean;
  • Dark to light;
  • Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  • Washes to detail;
  • Dark over light (not written in stone).

Practice until you get it perfect.

Are you a tortoise or a hare?

The person for whom drawing comes easily may not end up being the best draftsman.

Shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

One of my students is a retired violinist. We were musing on the question of technique last week. “Practice doesn’t make perfect,” she said. “Perfect practice makes perfect.” An aspiring violinist can spend hours dragging a bow across strings, but if someone hasn’t told him about rosin, the resulting caterwauling will be awful.

As a hater of school and generally bad student (I never could sit still) I was probably more self-taught than I was educated. But, to be honest, there’s still very little ‘self’ in my education. My father taught me to draw and paint when I was a child. I then revised my technique at the Art Students League in New York. Whenever I come up against a technical barrier I can’t get over, I find someone who has solved that problem and I study their technique, either by taking a workshop from them or reverse-engineering one of their paintings.

Baby monkey, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

This past week, I promised my Zoom students the most difficult class they’d ever work through. (You can read it on my blog here.) I also assured them that, if they were patient and mastered what I was teaching, they would immediately be much better artists. That’s because most painters trip up in the drawing phase. Angles and measurements are the root of all drawing.

When people say someone is ‘talented’, they usually mean that person can draw well. But that’s not an innate skill; it’s learned, even by those of us for whom it seems almost intuitive. There will be some of us who can push our skills to become NASCAR drivers, but the majority of us can learn to draw as fluently as we can drive.

Saran wrap and stuffed toy, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

I’m someone for whom drawing comes easily. It’s taken me a long time to realize that can actually be an impediment to real skill. Because people like me can see spatial relationships quickly, without having to think through them, we don’t always take the time to measure. That’s great, except when our intuition fails us—and it will. The human mind is stubbornly attached to regularity. Left to its own devices, my brain will shorten long distances, generalize the shapes of trees, and otherwise cut corners. Artists who rely on their intuitive drawing skills will never understand why all their rocks look the same and their trees have no character.

Meanwhile, our tortoises struggle to draw an ellipse, and find the business of measuring difficult. Still, they persevere and practice. They draw through their daily lunch break, taking fifteen minutes a day to measure and depict the most prosaic things—a box of tissues, their keys. Suddenly—aha!—the idea of angles as a tool of measurement makes sense. They suddenly understand that the same technique they used to measure their car keys can also be used to mark off the rivulets and turns of a river valley, or a mountain range. It takes them longer to get to the stage where they can draw anything, but—unlike our intuitive draftsman—they learn to draw those things accurately.

Happy New Year, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

Cornelia Fossonce told me that her painting teacher made her draw a matchbox one hundred times. Today, she is able to play with paint handling and composition precisely because her drawing is so perfect.

I have to admit that I didn’t like that lesson when Cornelia handed it out, but I’ve come to appreciate it. If you want to be a better artist, sublimate your inner hare. Be a bit more of a tortoise. Take the time to learn to draw accurately, and your painting will improve immeasurably.

Locking it in

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

 Watercoloring at Schoodic Point with Rebecca Bense.
Sometimes, the people who struggle in painting class are the ones you’d least expect to have trouble. They’re accomplished in their professional life, and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to master complex subjects quickly.
That proficiency can be their undoing. When they don’t immediately understand the process, they’re flummoxed. Understand ideas helps, but it’s not everything. They have to learn another way of learninggrasping an idea from the hands, not the head.
The critic may understand all the elements that make a good painting, but it’s unlikely that he or she can paint or draw anything. The working artist may understand none of those things, but is still able to make enchanting paintings. It’s all about where they’ve concentrated their effort.
It’s not all about what the teacher says; it’s mostly about what you do with that information.
You’ll do better in a workshop or class if you aim to enjoy the process, rather than focus on the end result. You can’t expect perfection in a week. The more time you spend working on art, the better you’ll be.
In my classes, I concentrate on one aspect of painting each session. I’m limiting the scope of the project. Painting involves so many complex skills and techniques that if they were all thrown at us at once, we’d be overwhelmed. If you’re teaching yourself, you need to find ways to limit scope on your own. Choose one or two things that you want to improve—such as your color handling or mark-making—and concentrate on just those until you’ve made them better. Then move on to the next thing.
Painting buddies on Penobscot Bay.
A painting buddy is a great asset, as a coach, a sounding board, and for moral support. I love the interactions in my classes, because they’re uniformly positive. In most cases, people really do wish their friends the best.
Gaye Adamshas some shrewd advice about practice: “It is important to lock in the learning. Recognize that workshops shorten the learning curve, which is awesome, but they are not a substitute for easel time.”
It’s difficult to paint for a short time every day, because of the set up and clean up. However, you can always carry a sketchbook and draw. Drawing is the single best thing you can do to improve your painting, and it’s fun. Save the painting for those periods when you have a few hours of uninterrupted time.
Painting aboard American Eagle last summer.
Sometimes we need more support than can be offered by practice alone. In that case, a teacher is very helpful. Check out their class size, the work being done by their students, and—above all—if they’re painting in a style that pleases you.
My own August workshop at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park is sold out. However, there are still a few openings in my sketch-watercolor workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle, June 9-13, 2019. This is a class to learn how to catch landscape quickly and expressively in watercolor, pen and pencil. Materials are provided. For more information, see here, or email me for more information.