The trope of the starving artist might seem to some to be about money, which most artists have little of. I think of it more as the common condition of artists lost in creative endeavor and forgetting to eat. Sometimes a creative jag interrupts sleep, and more than once time got away from me while painting, and I missed an appointment. When in creative, or right, brain we have no sense of time, cannot talk or hear. We forget every day problems and are focused on the creative problem that saps our attention. If balanced between frustration and boredom in that perfect trajectory upwards, sometimes called flow, we feel both excited and peaceful: fully alive and yet less ourselves. We feel connected to some force that is driving us forward like a train ride in a fascinating new country, or even a rocket ship to a new planet. Our bodily needs take back seat, until they eventually scream out for attention and we reluctantly move away from the brush or the guitar or the keyboard. People use drugs and alcohol to ease pain or enhance the senses, as well as a hideaway from difficult problems. But the creative state works just as well with no addiction or hangover side effects. I think in early times or less complicated societies, the creative state was far more accepted and universal, but today’s world generally does not support it. From the time we were two, and dissuaded from stopping to collect beautiful rocks, sticks and perhaps even cigarette butts, while our caretaker urged us on to the park to play, we understood we had to try to stick with the program: paying attention to cultural norms like time and appearance. For our own good, we were told, so one could grow up and be independent, and take care of ourselves with a good job. Teachers might have punished us for daydreaming. A few kids learned to compartmentalize the happy experience and find times when it was allowed: walking home from school, long drives in the car, the hours in our bedroom waiting to fall asleep. Some just gave up and took the label of “lazy” “unfocused”. Certain biographies point out that many of our famous geniuses like Einstein or Steve Jobs gave into their attraction for the creative state of mind but were criticized early in life. We can re-inhabit our right brains with a positive environment and permission from our “civilized” brain, which does not come easy. So many messages about wasting time, not being productive, worry about failure and fear keep people from taking up regular residence in creative play, which is really a kind of work. Some of the most successful businesses today have found a secret: encouraging creative time actually earns them more money. Instead of monitoring their employees, keeping them doing tasks to stay busy, they find that giving workers time to think and dream and experiment is good for business. They even set up rooms with band equipment, exercise balls, and even massage rooms to encourage them. If you want to open up your creative side you simply have to push away left brain (sensible, “normal”, productive) thoughts. If you plan the right vacation, without too many activities, it might get things started. But you don’t have to go anywhere. You don’t even need equipment. Just allow space and time to do nothing. Before long you will have an irresistible urge to begin a new project, or learn a skill to help you create. Then, if you keep the left, judgment brain away long enough the passion will grab you and you too will forget to eat dinner.
Not all painting classes are equal. There are on-line step-by-step cookie cutter approach’s that will result in paintings that look like something, but will teach you little about the basics. This is much like if you took a cooking class which suggested you buy pre-made sauces and entrees but did not teach you the difference between sautéing and braising. There are fine arts colleges that require you to already know a lot about painting, and show a portfolio, just to gain entry. In between these two extremes, you find adult education classes, university extension classes, and working with individual artists in their studios. Reading the description before you sign up might be helpful, but not if you don’t know what to look for. Visiting the class or talking to the teacher would be a way of feeling out the situation, but you still need to know what you are paying for. Here are some guidelines to help you choose a class: 1. Are you looking for a relaxing social situation or do you really want to buckle down and learn the complex skills of a painter? Ask to observe a class so you can determine the approach of the teacher. 2. What level are you? When the class is listed as intermediate or advanced, check out what this means. If you are not sure, visit the class and talk to the students in the class. You do not want to be either bored or in over your head. 3. Have realistic goals. Learning to paint well can take about 500 hours. Taking a three-hour class for ten weeks should teach the basics, but much more practice is needed to be competent 4. Understand that you will probably never make a living as an artist. From outward appearances, such as the price of paintings, it might seem like a possibility. But in reality most artists have other jobs and never make much money from their art. 5. Find out what materials are required and make sure you do not make substitutions and waste money. The type of materials can determine the quality of your paintings. 6. Try to determine if the teacher is an artist who teaches just to make ends meet, or is a devoted teacher who does make art, but loves teaching. 7. Be open and honest with the teacher and talk to him or her before you sign up. Do not try to pretend you know what you do not; it is better to have the teacher know exactly what you need to learn. Painting can be a hobby to keep busy and make friends, or it can be an engrossing activity that deeply changes your perspective on life, and adds enormous enjoyment to other aspects of living. If you learn to think and see the world as a true artist, you will see the world in a new way.
After teaching California students for a year and a half, I have decided that my first impression was right. California people are more accepting and respectful of the arts than other places. This results in students that take art seriously and believe they can learn with instruction and practice. Some less confident students i have seen in the past, who come from less supportive backgrounds, give up more easily or have too high standards, which discourage them. I see this support and acceptance of the arts in many places in the Bay Area: support of beginning painters, arts in the schools and museums and patronage of theater and music, as well as a variety of galleries and museums. California leads the country in many ways and I hope this is a sign the rest of the country will eventually value the arts as much as the sciences, business and other pursuits.
After a year and a half, I have found a new creative home in San Francisco. Creativity in life can be a spill over from creative work with visual arts. Persistence when things look tough, pacing, practicing skills, and testing out ideas can be done on the relatively low impact platform of watercolor. These all help from getting stuck in a repetitive way of painting or of living. I have seen students become active artists and then making changes for the better in their lives. This is because it takes the same attitude to make better paintings as is does to make a more livable life. I believe the transformation is unconscious. There is no direct and obvious connection between making a break through with color understanding, and cleaning out clutter in a home, making room for new activities. Maybe it started with clearing space for an art table, but the process snowballs and soon the painter is changing where they hang out, whom they hang out with, and seeking out new adventures. It works for me anyway. Letting go security for a whole new life helped me become a better painter, I think, too. At least I am painting more in quantity and out of that, eventually comes quality.
By definition, artists are more sensitive to the environment. Of course anyone can develop their artistic side, given the right training and opportunity, and once unleashed, this part of human nature opens one up to a kind of pain. Unless managed, too much awareness of the senses can lead to being overwhelmed and incapacitated. For example, if we were fully aware of every sound coming into our ears, including the rushing of our blood through veins, we could not drive cars or prepare a simple meal. Those who venture into psychedelic drugs know how too much awareness of color or taste blocks out rationality and ability to function, but this hyper awareness can happen without chemicals. The training that develops the artistic nature we all have is really removing blocks we have built up from other training that has helped us perform tasks and navigate the everyday world. If you start early enough with children, such training is unnecessary, and the natural artist grows along side more practical learning. Most of us don’t get this advantage, and have to re-open the sensitive artistic temperament through exercises and time spent in artistic pursuits. The pain comes when we realize how disconnected “normal” life is from a fully human existence. When our heart is open to the world it is in danger of being crushed by someone’s harsh words, or inconsiderate actions. We need a balance between enjoying sensory input, and the duties we all need to perform to stay alive. Managing the appropriate times to be open to the world, and when to put on armor to protect ourselves might have to be relearned later in life if art is a new thing for us. A professional artist knows when to shut off the rest of the world so creativity can happen in peace. Some artists take long retreats to get work done, then come back and take care of business, but if you can’t do this, you have to find a way to jump in and out of the artistic temperament as smoothly and quickly as possible, without risking pain. Like dressing properly for weather conditions, then coming home to a warm comfortable place, you can keep your sensitive and tough sides in harmony.
I spend a lot of time trying to get people to paint. But sometimes it is time to STOP PAINTING. Not just when you are late for work or starving to death. There are times in the painting process where you will become your own enemy if you continue to paint. The most common time that one should stop painting is when you are on a deadline trying to finish a painting. There may be rare occasions where someone is waiting impatiently with a thousand dollars in their hand for you to finish a commission, but most of the time there should not be any kind of deadline involved with painting. Thoughts of “let me just finish this one section so I feel I accomplished something today” can be danger signs that you are willing to do that section slightly less than optimally in order to get that quantity satisfaction. Another time to stop painting is near a finishing point on a painting. If you are not sure if you are finished or not, stop! Revisit the painting much later and see if you were actually finished, and had you kept going when you were not sure, probably would have ruined it with too much guesswork. Should you stop painting when you are tired? Of course don’t go too long without taking care of yourself, but fatigue itself can be ignored if you are on a roll and magic is happening. Push harder at that point, and your confidence will overcome any hesitation that interrupts a clear vision you are having about where to go next. Stop painting, too, in these situations: 1. You got a bad start and know you will be soon loosing interest in the painting. Instead, stop and do something else for a while like look at art or nature, Then begin again later. 2. You keep feeling distracted by something else you are supposed to be doing, so you cannot concentrate enough to continue. Instead do the chore and then come back later. 3. When you are angry at your painting. Things are not going your way, the way you had anticipated the painting going. Stop and come back another day and you will then hear the painting “talking “ to you about a new direction it wants to take. Follow that. 4. Stop painting altogether when you are consistently bored with your projects. You can stop for months or more, and don’t go back to painting until you feel inspired. How to become inspired? Look at other art and beautiful things and mentally take notes ( or on your iPhone or notebook) of any fragments of thoughts or ideas that may develop into inspiration: the lighting on a late afternoon, an interesting color combination. You will eventually go back to some art form that will be filled with excitement.
One way to increase your concentration and speed up your understanding of watercolor is to paint, in one sitting, from a fully saturated sheet of paper that, as it dries, produces increasingly harder edges. Step one is to look carefully at your subject and think about the categories of edges, from most soft to most sharp. The more levels of soft to hard, the more interest and contrast will evolve, giving your painting more dimension than if you have only two or three levels of soft to hard edges. This kind of exercise, thinking about edges apart from subject matter and even color, will sharpen your artistic eye. It can be a struggle to see things in new ways, but once you do it a few times it will become a natural process. Along with your good observation skills of line, color and values, you will become more of a multi task painter, stopping less often to switch your thinking from one aspect to the other. In addition, if you attempt this way of painting, you will have to plan more, something so many new watercolorists have trouble with. They hope to work things out as they go, and this usually ends up with a lot of errors. Once you are proficient, and quick in your decision-making, you will be able to make more decisions later, as you are working. But in the beginning, extensive analyzing of the subject, with those four ideas in mind (color, edges, values and line) will result it fresher, more spontaneous work than if you are stuck with a lot of repair work. Also, painting in a very concentrated manner will help release your deeper levels of perception of what is going on with your materials. You are focusing on the drying paper, working with it to add and subtract water and paint, but in a more dynamic relationship than if you approach your painting in a wet a section, wait for it to dry, take a coffee break, then do another section. Taking your concentration away from the painting causes less awareness of the process. It can be exciting working with “active” paper. Along with the water in the air, the water on the paper is alive and responding the actions of the painter. It feels more cooperative, and you begin to understand the nature of the paper in a new way. To do this, soak a piece of 140 to 300 pound paper (remember, the thicker the paper, the more action) and place on a non-porous surface like Plexiglas. Have all your paints ready to be active as well, no hard lumps of paint allowed in this scenario! Fresh, or freshly active paint the consistency of toothpaste, and in large enough quantities (about a tablespoon each) to avoid breaks to fix the paint, will make the process go smoothly. You want to have nothing to worry about except the translation of your analyzing and the use of the materials. The more pre thinking you do to decide what you are about to do, the quicker the process goes: you can literally paint a great painting in one hour, with a fresher look than one you might slave over week after week.
1. Learn how to make brown 2. Learn how to paint water (or faces or trees or anything) 3. Complete a painting in a set amount of time 4. Paint like Monet (or whoever) 5. Paint loosely and with emotion 6. Impress my friends with my talent 7. Make money by selling paintings 8. Win contests or become famous
This is the wrong checklist for becoming a good painter. These ideas all keep you from progressing and becoming adept at the medium. It is what most people come in with as a checklist, even if not completely consciously, because of the misconceptions in the general public about what art is and what it is for. There is a lack of understanding about art because of so little education people receive, at least in most of the US culture, and because the current culture keeps reinforcing the wrong concepts. While it is true that there are basic things to learn, this is not the way to phrase them. The real job of becoming at artist is improving our ability to observe the world in greater detail and with greater understanding. Otherwise why to we keep accepting an endless series of paintings of the same things over and over: portraits, landscapes, and still lives of fruit? Hasn’t it all been done before? NO. It has not been done by this particular individual before, and the key is the fact that no one on earth before or since will ever see a sunset (which also changes) or sunflower the same way ever again. We have to capture that as a painter, and help the world to see things in a new way, a way they have never seen it before. SO the process is about breaking down the external world into painter’s terms and learning to discern these things around us: the exact color of a leaf and how it changes from one color to another across its surface, or the intensity of contrast between a cloud and a nearby mountain range. Then, after learning the mechanics of the materials, the endless journey of capturing these visuals begins. Here is a better checklist for a new painter:
Notice how many different colors of brown occur in one room: or even one surface like a table.
Try to find as many different colors and shapes in a body of water that you can, then notice in masterpieces how other artists depict it.
Figure out all the things that need to happen to make a painting and make a realistic assessment of the time involved, allowing as much time as possible for each stage since the goal is not efficiency but complexity and beauty.
Study not only Monet’s methods, but the lives of artists to see what they concentrate on.
Impress fellow artist with your hard work and achievement. Your non-painting friends will be impressed with your most elementary efforts since they can’t do it at all. And they might not even like you for it.
Learn to paint accurately and with exquisite detail: the looseness comes with practice.
Make money doing something else to pay for the time to paint. 90 percent of accomplished artists do not make enough money to live on even barely.
Fame and glory is not what it seems. Those who get it often lose the joy of painting, being in the public eye and plagued by expectations. Seek the glory of making art only.
A former student remembered that I say to use all six basic colors in each and every section of a painting: that is, every section bound by a hard edge. She successfully did this but was dissatisfied with the overly colorful look, verging on psychedelic. So she is ready for the next step: the fine-tuning of how MUCH of each color to use and how much to blend. Just using the same amount of each color in each section makes for a colorful patchwork, and over mixing of the colors makes mud. So the key is the ultimate skill needed by watercolorists: being able to determine how much water is in three areas: the brush, in the paint, and on the paper, and how much pigment is on the brush. Of course experience makes this happen, but first you must mentally pay attention to each part of this. Do you know how wet the paper is? That will determine how far the paint spreads. Are you conscious of how much water is on your brush? Best to keep a semi damp brush but not bring extra water to spread the color before you want to. And sometimes you think you are grabbing a glob of “dry” or paint with no water added, but instead a little water gets in there and you have closer to a wash. This student was already great at seeing all the colors I asked her to include: she saw variations in an orange petal that added up to hundreds of colors so is past the idea of painting the petal a general orange, resulting in flat, boring paintings. But she was not making a judgment as to how much and exactly where the orange was duller, lighter, darker, or actually redder than orange, or more yellow than orange. She could even see green and purple in a generally orange section. Now she will try to use smaller amounts of all the colors, so as to not put too much. You can always add more. And she will be more careful as to where she places the alternate colors. This is the hard work of seeing the world as it really is, not what it looked like at first glance. Don’t forget, too, the three uses of the brush: delivery of water and pigment, then mixing with a clean brush, and later removing with a clean dryish brush (lifting), if needed. This next step to excellence is hard like all steps to improvement because you might feel you have come so far already, that you don’t want to hear about yet more ways to get better. So if you feel that way, rest on your laurels until you become dissatisfied with your work and want to improve. After the above lesson, there are many many more ways to get better. You can stop at any time and just paint the way you can, enjoying it but not needed to improve. That might become boring and then you can go back to more advanced lessons.
Once you can handle watercolor materials, you will probably want to make some paintings. This might seem obvious from the beginning, but it is something I discourage in new painters until they are proficient in the media. There are so many other elements of making a painting besides being able to handle the materials. Like putting on a big dinner party, knowing how to cook is only one of the elements needed: you need to have timing, judgment about menu, decorations, good guest choices, knowledge of wines, and possibly a maid for cleanup. For a painting, you might think subject is a key concern. But really, a good painter can paint any subject and turn it into a good painting: dead animals, parking lots, the back of someone’s head, a puddle, or a rock: all subjects painted by experts resulting in world-class art. Most people settle on the standards to begin with, but only because it makes them feel more comfortable to do something that has been done before, such as a sunset or pretty child. There is a faint hope in the painter that this will make the finished product more acceptable to others, and it will. Later the painters will think less about the “average” viewer, and more about the treatment of the subject Loving the thing you are painting can be a detriment to doing a good job on the painting. You might think too much about how much you love a certain kind of flower, or a grandchild, to concentrate on the more objective thoughts you should be having while you paint. Composition is probably the most important consideration in making a painting. Like it or not, most paintings have four straight sides, and the relationship of the data inside to those lines is far more important than first realized. Witness the difference between the average snapshot a person takes with no regard for this idea, and a professionally framed subject showing thought for how material fits into the rectangle. Understanding good composition relies on knowing about values and line. You have to see the subject as an abstract set of intersecting lines, along with graduating values within the colors, and be able to make adjustments to cause the lines and energy of the painting flow. To do this you have to ignore what it is you are painting: an eye, an apple, a tree. They must become line, value, and color composites that you arrange to suit the overall composition. This can be done by considering many possible arrangements of the materials you are painting, or many possible framings and lighting situations. There are “rules” like the one-third rule, odd numbers of items, and variety of volume in shapes, but its best to rely on your intuition. The most common mistake is not considering composition at all, or enough, and hoping color and appeal of subject matter is enough. It is not. Scale is another important consideration. For impact, you might