Monday Morning Art School: please learn to draw

The illustrations in this post were from Monday Morning Art School: Drawing a Globe, and done by Sandy Quang and me on a stormy night before Christmas. The original post is here.

Ten years ago I wrote about teaching Amy Vail to draw. She’d made the cardinal error of telling me she “lacked the gene to draw.” Since I know there’s no such gene, I challenged her to let me teach her, and she made great strides in just one week. Drawing is not a magic trick; it’s not a talent. It’s a technical skill no different from reading, writing or arithmetic.

Drawing is first and foremost a technical skill.

I know people who paint by tracing photos or photo-montages, but that prevents the non-linear part of the mind from getting involved. Art has always been about deeper things: reflection, aesthetics, ideas, feelings, spirituality and other forms of higher-order thinking. It makes no sense to shut out the part of your mind that processes these.

I’m writing syllabuses for my January-February classes (and I’m sorry, but they’re both sold out). This is the first time I’ve taught drawing outside the context of painting. What is important and how do I teach it?

Most complex shapes are riffs on simpler shapes.

Observation Skills

The ability to closely observe and analyze a subject develops hand-in-hand with the physical act of drawing. One can photograph a scene without paying too much attention. Drawing and painting from life is how skilled realist painters sort out what matters. The best way to really see something is to draw or paint it.

Details are almost the least-important part, although it’s amazing how much one glosses over them until one actually sits down to draw. What really matters is proportion and the relationship between elements. That comes down to distance and angles. That is why painters can get away with leaving out detail if they get the proportions and relationships right. Anyone interested in abstracting the landscape had better have top-notch drawing skills.

Even a line drawing conveys volume, but shading is that much more expressive.

Basic Shapes and Forms

Almost every complex shape is a combination of basic shapes like cones, boxes, spheres and columns. For example, the spinet piano next to me is fundamentally a tall box with another boxlike structure (the keyboard) attached to the front and supported by two columnar legs. Get the size relationships of those big shapes right, and the fluting and scrolls are almost extraneous.

In their 2D form that means circles, squares, triangles, and ellipses. That doesn’t mean, however, that you get to ignore dimensionality, which leads us to…


Everyone should learn how 1-, 2-, and 3-point perspectives work, and then never use them again. They’re a theoretical construct that shows you how to avoid errors, but they’re not ‘true’. The vanishing points in the real world are infinitely distant, and that’s hard to achieve on paper. However, understanding perspective will save you from lots of mistakes.

The more you draw, the more fluid your painting will be.

Volume and shading

Yes, one can imply volume with line drawing alone, but shifts in value tell a broader story. They will also form the basis of painting composition.

Expressive mark-making

This is where drawing suddenly gets fun. Expressive mark-making takes time to develop, but experimenting with different line weights and styles is the first step in that exploration.

Work up from simple objects and nothing will be too difficult for you. (Drawing by me.)

So how do you start?

Drawing is the cheapest and most liberating of all media. All you need is a sketchbook (this is the one I use, and I go through them like candy), a mechanical pencil, and some kind of straight-edge.

Then start drawing every day. It’s that simple. This is the text I recommend to those who like learning from books, but you can also find a lot of free instruction on this blog.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: why you should draw

I draw every week in church, riffing off the sermon. Today’s was about persistence and hard work.

Nobody can master painting until they master drawing. That’s true for both abstractionists and realists, because drawing is how you express depth and dynamism. Painting is really nothing more than drawing with a brush. To build facility in paint, you first must draw.

Tens of thousands of years before there was written language, there was art on cave walls and cliffs. When words started being written down (around 3000 BC) they were first written in the form of pictographs. That tells us something about the importance of drawing to humankind.

I can draw things out of my head because I know how to draw from life.

Drawing is liberating

Drawing allows us to express ideas, emotions, and narratives non-verbally. For painters seeking to escape being literal, that’s critical. I can’t think of a single great painter who couldn’t draw. Vincent van Gogh famously taught himself, and his early drawings are bad enough that they should give us all hope that we too can do better. “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit,” he wrote.

It’s not just about putting pretty things down on paper. Drawing tightens up our observational skill. We develop a keen eye for details, shapes, proportions, and visual relationships. That helps us analyze and map both the world around us and our inner world.

All I need is a sketchbook and a #2 mechanical pencil. Anything else is just a refinement.

Much of drawing is about translating a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface. That teaches us about structure and spatial relationships. If you don’t see the value in representing depth and space in a painting, take a deep dive into the work of Edgar Degas.

A lot of us stopped working on hand-eye coordination when we mastered cursive writing. Then we let it go when we started relying on computers, which is why so many of us have terrible handwriting. We need that hand-eye coordination for painting, and we develop it through drawing.

This is partly from my imagination, but the window is high up in our church building.

A study showed that drawing helps memory in young and old alike. Researchers speculated that it was because drawing draws on varied brain paths simultaneously. I think it’s because in drawing we must attend much more intensely. That reaps benefits not just in art but in life overall.

There is a gap between what we draw or paint and what is ‘really’ there. We like to think of that gap as a shortcoming, and to some degree it is. But it’s in that gap that we develop style, and where we do a lot of non-verbal creative thinking. Tracing from photographs will never allow for the soul to creep in like drawing does.

This was drawn when I had to sit in the foyer because there were no seats. I amused myself by imagining what was going on inside.

So why don’t we do it? The sad answer for many of us is that we’ve never been taught, so we’re frustrated and afraid to try again. We don’t grant ourselves the grace and patience to persist.

I’ve butted my head against this since I started teaching. Drawing and painting are closely related but I can only teach one at a time. That’s why I’m breaking a promise to myself to not work six days a week and offering a Saturday class on Fundamentals of Drawing, starting January 6. By Ash Wednesday, you’ll be well on your way to good draftsmanship. That in turn will lead to better painting.

My 2024 workshops:

This series would not be happening without you

From Step 1: the Perfect Palette

Last year, Laura and I sketched out a seven-part series called Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters. Laura had a vision based on the industrial training videos that were part of her prior career. I’ve never watched a training video in my life; the last time I worked for someone else, my instructions were scribbled on foolscap.

I didn’t want to make a tedious video where I did a long, uninterrupted demo. They always make me fall asleep. Laura wanted a series of shorts that explained a specific concept. Each would be followed by exercises and a quiz.

I had no idea how to record video, and no clue how to edit it when it was done. However, I did have a good SLR and audio recorder. My son introduced me to DaVinci Resolve. We bought a subscription to Canva and extra storage on Google. Once we had all those things in place, we realized we had no idea what we were doing.

From Step 2: the Value Drawing

There is nothing more disheartening than spending an afternoon painting, only to find that you hadn’t focused the camera, or the light was wrong, or you forgot to start the audio recorder. If there was a mistake to be made, I’ve made it.

Our goal was to finish all seven classes by the end of the year, but as the summer season heated up, I lost my momentum. We will probably finish the fifth one by Christmas, and the other two by the end of winter. Once that’s done, you’ll no longer need me; you can learn to paint by doing the exercises.

From Step 3: The Correct Composition

This series would not be happening without you. That starts with the people who have asked me over the year to write a book; I got it outlined and then stalled. The outline for that book became the outline for this series.

Then there are the people who beta tested the first class. You gave me incisive and pertinent feedback, which improved later classes. A few loyal testers have been with me through every episode, and I’m especially grateful for you.

I’m grateful for the early adopters of the series. At times I wondered whether Laura and I had lost our minds in devoting a year to such a risky venture. But many of you have taken them, and you seem to have found them valuable. “I took Carol’s online class modules prior to the [Rockport Immersive] workshop and found them to be great preparation,” Beth D. wrote. “I don’t think I could have absorbed all that complicated and practical information while painting plein air on location. The modules were very brief and concise yet enlightening.” Thank you, Beth.

From Step 4: the Essential Grisaille

In appreciation of you all, here’s a code for 30% off one of the Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters. Choose from:





Just type THANKYOU30 in the coupon code. And thank you so much!

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: it’s all in the preparation

The Pine Tree State, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed includes shipping in continental US.

When I’m teaching workshops and classes, I frequently ask students, “What’s your takeaway lesson here?” Last week my workshop students got a deep dive into two artists’ working method: Andrew Wyeth‘s, through a guided tour of the Farnsworth Art Museum, and Colin Page‘s, from the maestro himself.

“Painting is easy,” Colin said. “It’s the preparation that’s hard.” I smiled, because that’s something I frequently say as well. Wyeth didn’t whisper it from beyond the grave, but his methodology is spelled out in the museum. For his studio paintings, he was a consummate draftsman who made many sketches and paid meticulous attention to detail.

Bracken Fern, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Students frequently ask me how to achieve loose brushwork. My first question is why they want that, as it’s not a universal value. Rather it’s a question of style. Linear painting is based on line and boundary; the artist sees in clear shapes and outline. Painterly painting focuses on the interactions of masses, shadows, and merged shapes. An example of a contemporary linear landscape painter is Linden Frederick. An example of a contemporary painterly landscape painter is Kevin Macpherson. Neither style is ‘better,’ they’re just different. And there are many painters (including me) who work in the middle somewhere.

When Arthur Rubinstein was asked if he believed people when they told him he was the greatest pianist of the 20th century, he replied, “Not only I don’t believe them, I get very angry when I hear that, because it is absolute, sheer, horrible nonsense. There isn’t such a thing as the greatest pianist of any time. Nothing in art can be the best. It is only… different.”

What is a universal value in art is assurance, and that rests on the back of solid preparation. Rubinstein joked that he was lazy and didn’t like to practice, but he still spent 6-9 hours a day at the piano. “And a strange thing happened. I began to discover new meanings, new qualities, new possibilities in music that I have been regularly playing for more than 30 years.”

Larky Morning at Rockport Harbor, 11X14, on archival canvasboard, $869 unframed includes shipping in continental US.

The same thing is true of painting, as is its obverse-the less preparation you do, the more you’ll fumble in performance. And the more you must redraw, reposition, reset values, or restate, the less immediate and assured your brushwork will be. That’s as true in oils, acrylics and pastels as it is in watercolor.

What does that mean for the emerging artist? At a minimum, you should do a carefully-realized sketch, considered in terms of compositional patterns of darks and lights. This sketch should be moved to the canvas or paper accurately; if that requires gridding, then you should grid. Colors should be tested first for value, and then to how they relate to the overall key of the painting.

Sea Fog, Castine, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

Yes, I know artists who don’t do these things. They can be sorted into two groups. The first are those who are very experienced. They’ve learned what corners they can cut (which are not the same for everyone). The second are impatient beginning and intermediate painters. They almost always fail in the preparation, and then they wonder why they’re flailing around in the painting stage.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: How do I get started in painting?

Bonnie and Laurie had never painted before. By the end of the trip, they had a system in place to keep working and improving.

I just got off schooner American Eagle, where I was teaching watercolor. (Next year’s workshop will be September 15-19, but the details aren’t solid.) I always have a few beginning painters mixed in this group. They start not believing they can do it, and end by feeling they’re on the road to mastery. Painting is hard, but anyone can learn it.


This is an area where beginning painters can go spectacularly wrong, buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of stuff they don’t need and won’t use.

Often, beginning painters will buy cheap materials because they’re worried they might not like painting. That’s akin to buying a kazoo and deciding that you can’t make music. Bad art supplies will just frustrate you.

The inverse of that is buying lots of stuff you don’t need, because you’re not sure what is necessary. I freely distribute my supply lists for watercolorsoilspastels and acrylics. If you stick with them, you can paint for the lowest cost possible.

My online class, The Perfect Palette, is meant for oil painters, but beginning painters in any media will benefit from learning how pigments work.

The seine boat is a surprisingly comfortable place to paint.


Drawing is the human’s basic tool of communication, and it’s never more important than when planning a painting. The good news is, anyone can learn to draw. If there’s not a class near you, start with this book.

Classes and workshops

Classes and workshops are enormously helpful, which is why I teach so many of them. But a class is only as good as its teacher, so ask around. If you’re not interested in a classical style, an atelier might not be the right place for you to study. Likewise, a loosey-goosey class will drive a serious student mad. There are plenty of good, conscientious teachers out there who steer a middle course. Wherever you go, make sure the teacher follows an accepted protocol of painting and knows how to teach it.

Don’t rule out an online class. I’ve been teaching online since the pandemic, and I believe students learn more from it than from live weekly classes, because the interaction is, paradoxically, closer.

A grisaille is a way to simplify color decisions and work out your composition before you commit to a painting.


Most new painters start working from photographs. However, painting from life is much more instructive. Photos distort size relationships and colors, and they do all the thinking for you. Even experienced artists can find themselves slavishly following the photo instead of using it as a starting point.

You can paint any subject for practice: the house across the street, your tree, or an old barn you love. Seek out a plein air painting group in your area to give you the courage and camaraderie to paint in public. If the weather is bad, set up a still life in a corner of your studio and paint that. Anything can be a still life, including your sleeping dog, the jacket you threw over a chair, or your kids’ toys.

Peas in a pod: painters in the seine boat, soaking up the sun.

Developing your own unique style

In short, don’t worry about style. It comes from assured brushwork and color management, and those come from practice. Seeking a style in the early days of painting just puts you in a box that’s hard to escape. Instead, let it develop naturally, over time.

My 2024 workshops:

Painting Massachusetts’ wilderness

Cassie Sano’s painting of Undermountain Farm’s Victorian barns.

My father was from the west side of Buffalo and my mother was born in the first ward of Lackawanna, NY. Although they were both thoroughly urban, they bought a farm in Niagara County, NY in 1965. We had cattle, horses, ducks, and a hundred feeder chickens every spring. It was a well-ordered farm when it was established in 1861, and it’s maintained its good bones right up until the present.

Although I couldn’t wait to get away, I realize now that the countryside was a great place to grow up. Most of my practical skills came from growing up on a farm.

Yes, that’s a sheep keeping my painters company.

On Monday, I taught at Undermountain Farm in Lenox, MA. It’s got 23 horses, two sheep and two goats. The sights, the smells, and even the clatter of my shoes on the wooden barn floors were a powerful nostalgic kick.

Undermountain Farm’s horse barn has restrooms, a real step up from my childhood, where we had an external well with a pump that froze every winter. There are two horses at Undermountain Farm who are free to wander. As horses will, they really just want to scarf food the easy way. They found a broken bale directly under the hay chute, which happened to be directly in front of the restroom doors.

What? You want us to move?

Their need was not greater than my need, but they outweighed me. I pushed their noses; they pushed back. Docile they might be, but they were blocking my way. Finally, I thought, ‘just move the hay.’ Problem solved.

One of the students in this workshop is the wonderful painter Cassie Sano, who hails from Augusta, ME. That’s not nearly as sophisticated as you might think; really, she lives in the woods. She’s camping here in western Massachusetts and on the first day, she was dragging.

“I was up all night worrying about bears,” she told me.

“But you live in bear country!” I remonstrated.

“But at home I’m sleeping in my house!”

I told her all the comforting bear facts I could think of. When I got back to my daughter’s house in nearby Rensselaer County, NY, my son-in-law was cleaning up trash from a bear visit. We know they’re there; earlier this year we saw a sow and three cubs on the trail cam just behind the house.

Beth Carr’s lovely painting of Waconah Falls.

My daughter inadvertently acquired a rooster this year. Besides chasing pullets around the yard, he starts crowing just before first light. That’s another sound with a powerful nostalgic kick, as is the outraged ‘no thanks!’ from a disinterested hen.

If you’ve been to Boston and New York, you know something about the northeast. Yes, it’s urban and industrialized. However, get out of the major cities and our region is rural. In many places, it’s wilderness. If you really want to know New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, you have to get out of town.


If you got an email from me yesterday, you know I’m doing an immersive workshop in Rockport in October. I wasn’t prepared for it to be so popular; as of this moment, more than half the seats are gone. I’m looking forward to sharing my beautiful town with you.

Michael Anne Lynn perfectly demonstrated the successful phases of a good watercolor: value sketch, grisaille, color tests, and a finished painting. Now that you’ve seen this, you don’t need me.

Artists, housing and one of my students.

Creative types sometimes struggle with affordable housing just like many others. A student of mine in Austin (Mark Gale) along with a colleague of his in St. Louis, are involved in finding and supporting solutions.

They are developing a panel discussion for the 2024 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) that showcases three success. (SXSW gets national attention.) To bring this discussion to the public, though, they need votes via a simple thumbs up on the SXSW panel picker.

Here’s a bit more info.

Or follow a direct link to vote.

The Austin program where Mark volunteers and one of those highlighted on the panel is Art from the Streets

Voting closes 8/20, so please do it now.

My 2024 workshops:

Paralyzing performance anxiety

Sunset Sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594, Carol L. Douglas

“My friend is paralyzed at the thought of painting something that does not turn out good,” a reader wrote. “I keep telling her that experimenting is liberating and the goal is not to end up with a masterpiece every time.”

Everyone experiences performance anxiety occasionally. It may be prompted by demoing, by being in a competitive event, or even just when we encounter a tricky passage in a painting. “I’ve experienced it a few times when I am far into the painting and it looks good but it’s not finished yet,” my correspondent added. “This leads to a ‘don’t mess it up now’ attitude that affects the result.

“How can I help my friend get past this?”

Skylarking II, 18X24, oil on linen, $2318.00, Carol L. Douglas

Process, not results

Focusing on the results instead of the process is a great way to rob yourself of the joy of creativity. Many years ago, I had a student who announced at the beginning of each class who she planned to give her painting to. She was setting herself up for failure, week after week. Her painting would get all bound up in her fear of disappointing someone she loved. It’s no surprise that she didn’t stick with it.

We call concentrating on process being ‘in the zone.’ It’s a transcendent feeling, and worth striving for.

Drying Sails, oil on archival canvasboard, 9×12, $869, Carol L. Douglas


The more you do something, the less anxious you’ll be. I used to be terrified of public speaking, so much so that I needed beta blockers to do any kind of presentation. Years of teaching have burned that out of me. Today I can comfortably speak to large groups. Through repeated, escalating exposure, I desensitized myself to my trigger.

Desensitization is a powerful tool in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, so we know it works. How can we apply it to painting? By starting with the small steps – drawing, color mixing, and thumbnail paintings – we can slowly build our confidence for more expansive works. That’s yet another good reason to draw every day.

Of course, it helps to ask what is the root of your fear. Is it lack of knowledge? That’s fixable. Perfectionism? It helps to realize that there’s nothing perfect in art; in fact, that’s its charm.

Are you telling yourself that you can’t rise to the occasion? I do this when I clean my house. “It’s too much; I’ll never finish this!” I say, and then I’m mad. If I can shut off those negative thoughts and just concentrate on the work itself, I have a fine time scrubbing.

One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to be prepared. Whether that means learning to draw or mastering the steps of painting, the more confident you feel, the less anxious you’ll be.

Ever-changing Camden Harbor, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3,188.00, Carol L. Douglas

Is it anxiety or excitement?

Both make your heart race and give you butterflies in your stomach. A little nervousness can be helpful; it can elevate your performance. The difference is that when you’re anxious, you worry about everything that can go wrong, instead of seeing the potential for success. Instead of trying to calm yourself down (which never works anyways) try to channel that energy into excitement.

How do you rate your overall well-being?

I’m a proponent of physical exercise. We all know it releases endorphins (whatever they are), but it also calms us down. People frequently comment about my dog’s perfect deportment; he is well-behaved because he does many trail miles with me every morning. As a bonus, I’ve survived two cancers and have no blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol problems at the grand old age of 64.

Seek Support

If you are still unsure and troubled, take a class or workshop. The best of them are supportive communities that will help you master technique and feel great about doing art.

My 2024 workshops:

Stuck? 12 ways to reignite your painting progress

Possum, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

“I’m not making any progress,” a reader lamented to me about her painting class. “It’s like I’m watching people zoom past me in their muscle cars while I’m potting along in my Kia Rio.”

Feeling stuck happens to all of us at some point. Here are 12 practical suggestions to reignite your learning.

Tin Foil Hat, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Different people bring different intelligences to painting. That’s what makes artwork so fascinating. Moreover, we all have periods when we excel, and periods when we flounder. Think of the Homecoming Queens who fade into obscurity or the billionaires who started as high-school dropouts.

Expand your learning opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking more classes. Reading, videos, and painting groups are great ways to absorb more ideas painlessly. A student told me recently that Alla Prima by Richard Schmid is now available for free online. Since it’s roughly $300 at Amazon, that’s an opportunity to read a classic no starving artist can afford to buy.

Practice regularly. Consistency is key when it comes to improving any skill, including painting. Set aside dedicated time to work, and make painting a habit. You’ll fall into the groove more easily if it’s more familiar.

Start with the basics. Sometimes, going back to fundamentals will help you overcome a plateau. Focus on drawing, value, color, and composition.

Study other artists. I love ambling around galleries and museums, but looking at work online is the next best thing. Modern imaging is so sophisticated that you may learn more about the artists’ brushwork and technique online than from the ‘safe’ distance in the physical place. Applying critical analysis to masterworks will help you better understand the painting.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Break out of your rut. I know I’ve said that working will net you more than shopping, but some experimentation with new techniques and materials can reignite your creativity. You also might find new approaches that resonate with you.

Take a workshop. The great advantage of a workshop is that it’s immersive. You stop worrying about everyday life. You make new friends who are as passionate about painting as you are. There’s time for a deep dive into new ideas, techniques, and you may come away with a whole new perspective on painting.

Apply critical analysis to your own work. I teach this skill a few times a year, because self-critique is the greatest skill an artist can possess. It separates you from your emotional response to you can see, objectively, what needs to be strengthened.

Dish of Butter, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Break down complex subjects. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you’re tackling complex ideas or compositions, break them down into smaller, manageable parts. That stops you from being overwhelmed. I’ll be teaching this process in my next online class, High, Wide and Handsome, which starts on June 12.

Seek constructive feedback. Share your work with trusted peers or insightful non-painters. Different perspectives can provide fresh insights and help you identify areas for growth.

Embrace your errors. The most successful artists I know aren’t fazed by failures. They analyze them, set them aside, and move on. Painting is just one long series of goofs and meandering byways. By focusing on the process, rather than the results, you make room for brilliant discovery.

Be patient. If it’s worth doing, it will take time and effort. Stay motivated, set realistic goals, and celebrate small victories along the way.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: the number one problem with your painting

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

On Monday, I posted Let’s Paint Some Duds! After about the hundredth person told me they have no trouble whatsoever painting duds, I realized my hook was lousy. It tapped into fear of failure instead of challenging people to be more questing and adventuresome.

I’ve had many emerging artists tell me that half or more of their paintings are duds. That’s shocking; it’s way too high a failure rate, especially when it comes in the learning phase. For that matter, there are other painters who fail just as often but don’t even realize it. (And far be it from me to wreck their happy illusions.)

Duds are a particular problem in plein air painting, so much so that my pal Brad Marshall coined a term for the process of making them: flailing around.

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Why so many?

I also get frequent emails and texts that read, “I’m stuck! What’s going wrong here?” That’s why I periodically teach an online critique class; you’ll advance more quickly when you can answer that question for yourself.

But the answer almost always comes down to bad composition. Either the darks are not organized, or the focal points are not clear, or there’s not a clear and compelling armature. Figuring that out in advance, with a value drawing or notan, saves tons of time and effort.

Composition organizes the design elements of a painting. It provides structure and balance, guides the viewer’s eye, and determines where a painting falls on the all-important scale of harmony-to-tension. Composition controls the visual appeal of a painting, but it also controls its emotional power.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

A weak composition is still a composition.

The same student who kvetches about flailing and failing often resists the idea of studying formal composition. “I want to be spontaneous and natural,” he will say. Well, composition, like puberty, is going to happen whether you take a hand in guiding it or not.

Weak compositions impede the very message that the supposedly-spontaneous artist wants to convey. Conversely, strong compositions guide viewers through the content. By strategically placing focal points, controlling movement, and using visual cues, you influence not just what your viewers see, but what they think and feel. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Then there’s the question of balance and emphasis. Just as the cannonades in Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture are carefully placed to emphasize the point of Russia’s victory over the French, your focal points must fall in sweet spots. They must be reinforced with contrast and line. When it works flawlessly, we see a painting that is beautiful individual, and stylish-without overburdening our minds too much about how it happened.

Ketch and Schooner, 8X10 in a solid silver leaf frame, includes shipping in the continental US

How do I learn to be a better composer?

I’ve written extensively on this blog on the subject of composition, which of course you can access for free. Above all, there’s my cardinal rule of painting: don’t be boring. I can’t restate that often enough.

If you really want to give up flailing and failing, I invite you to also take my online course, The Correct Composition, which I just released on Friday. Give yourself a lot of time to do the exercises and take the quizzes; you’ll get far more out of it than you will by just skimming the videos.

My 2024 workshops:

More art supplies won’t make you a better painter

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, $5,579 framed includes shipping in the continental US.

I had an entertaining text exchange with an emerging painter yesterday. “We spend too much money on better paper, fancy brushes, and teaching videos,” he mused. “We think we can buy our way into good results. But it all comes down to spending time painting. One must actually apply paint to paper to understand the lessons, to get them into one’s head.”

A few moments passed and he added, “Of course, that’s very dangerous if you’re painting with other people with all the same bad habits as you.”

Therein lies the conundrum. Yes, you need to paint — lots, fast and furious — to improve. But you also need to understand the fundamentals, and it helps to have good materials. It’s like playing the piano. Both practice and instruction are critical, but you’ll enjoy it a lot more if your piano holds a tune.

Bunker Hill overlook, watercolor on Yupo, approx. 24X36, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I have two sets of watercolor brushes. The first are high-end, large brushes that I use for ‘important’ work. The others are mid-range Princeton Neptunes. These days, most of my watercolor painting is pootling around in my sketchbook, so of course I grab the Neptunes. It figures that I’ve gotten better with them than with my fancier brushes.

I once told my Zoom class that one could paint in oils with a stick, and that my ratty, half-hardened brushes proved it. Instead of taking that lesson to heart, they bought me new brushes (which moves me every time I think of it). While it’s quite possible to paint in oils with a stick, or even a palette knife, it is lovelier to paint with my treasured new brushes.

Palomino Blackwing pencils are going around my students like COVID right now. “Are you made of money?” I ask them, tongue in cheek. I’d order them too if my business partner didn’t have a death grip on our checkbook. Sometimes it’s just fun to have lovely things.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed includes shipping in continental US.

More fun, I’m afraid, than buckling down and doing the hard slog. But, of course, the hard slog pays off in ways that shopping never can.

Last month I introduced The Value Drawing, an interactive class that discusses how to make an effective value drawing. Today I’m introducing The Correct Composition, an even weightier tome. The Perfect Palette came out earlier this year.

Laura and I have been releasing them as we finish them, with the idea that we’d market them as a set when the whole Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters is finished. Today I realized that was unfair to my followers. If you buy the whole series at one time, you’re going to rush through it, whereas if you have it episode by episode, you’ll take the time to do the exercises and quizzes, and above all, “actually apply paint to paper to understand the lessons, to get them into one’s head,” as my correspondent wrote.

Sunset Sail, oil on linen, 14X18, $1594 includes shipping in continental US.

The Value Drawing is closely related to The Correct Composition, so if you haven’t done that one, you might want to do them both now. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work on the next step, which is The Essential Grisaille.

To put it in perspective, one of these classes is the discount price of a 9/12 Arches Watercolor block. The three I have done so far total the same amount as an 18/24 Arches Watercolor block. I’d never dis the value of a fancy new watercolor block; I adore them. However, I know that knowledge will improve your painting far faster than better paper, or brushes, or even those luscious pencils.

My 2024 workshops: