Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Early spring in the boatyard, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Every successful artist I know has a process. That means we work up a painting in pretty much the same way every time. These processes are different in the details, but the same in the fundamentals. Over the past two weeks I’ve been tinkering with my process. I’m checking to see if there’s a more efficient way.

I borrowed a stick of charcoal from Ken Dewaard on Thursday to set up hash marks like he does. “I use a little charcoal,” he laughed, when my canvas looked as if I’d grilled a turkey on it.

The point isn’t whether Ken’s process is better than mine, or whether I can learn it—of course I can. It’s not whether I can hit hash marks on a canvas. It’s whether I would see spatial relationships differently with a different system of marking. The jury’s out on that one; I haven’t been doing it enough to tell.

Early spring in the boatyard (2), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Note that I’m tinkering, not doing major surgery. That’s because painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

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

In oils that protocol is:

  1. Fat over lean;
  2. Dark to light;
  3. Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

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

Acrylics, being a new medium, are still in flux, but if you’re using them as a solid medium, stick with the oil-painting protocol.

Mountain spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

When I was taking harpsichord lessons many years ago, I noticed that introducing a new technique would make me forget, momentarily, how to play. Asking my left hand to do something new would make my right hand suddenly go stupid. I don’t know why the human mind is programmed like this, but it happens in painting, too. Toss in one unfamiliar concept and things that are routinely easy suddenly feel terribly complicated.

That’s why practice is so important. Repeat that new technique until it’s integrated into your thinking. That usually happens just in time for your teacher to throw something new at you.

It’s also why good instruction is so infernally difficult. The student is constantly left feeling off-kilter. But somehow it works, and better musicians and painters are created in the chaos.

Spring cleaning, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Mary Byrom and I recently discussed why we hate canned videos and long demos. Neither of us use them much, because they demand no effort from our students. Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Having said that, I’m about to do a long demo in both my classes this week. But it will be interactive. My students will be making the decisions; I’ll just be the trained monkey putting them on canvas and paper.

On that note, there’s still an opening in my Monday night class starting tonight. Email meif you’re interested.