When I took the job of teaching adult art, I thought that I would go to my classes, impart my words of wisdom, help where I could and in general get paid for doing something I enjoy. What I didn’t expect was that my students would be so full of doubts and expect me to have answers to questions only they can answer, such as: “I hear watercolor is hard, should I be working in acrylics or oil?” or “ Would pastels be easier? They are so messy what about acrylics or watercolor?” along with other variations on the same theme but voicing the same frustrations.
Teaching has been a learning experience for me. Often, when I don’t know the answers, I try to find the them and bring them back to class but I can’t make the decision for my students as to which media would be “easier”. Regardless of what media an artist chooses (acrylic, oils, watercolor, ceramics, glass, etc) or the style they choose (realistic, impressionistic, abstract, wheel throwing, free form, glass blowing, slumped glass etc.) they all have their good points and their challenges. For me, to choose one of the media I work in over another is like asking me which of my three pets do I love more? I can’t answer that question because each one is individual with its good points and challenges. (Learn to think in terms of challenge rather than problem. A challenge is a puzzle to be solved a problem can blow up and seem almost insurmountable.)
These questions about choosing a media stem not so much from the media its self, but more from what the expected outcome was suppose to be verses what it ends up as in reality.
In my last Tips segment, I talked about the importance of drawing so I won’t go into that in detail again (check the archives if you haven’t read it), but I will reiterate the importance of drawing because it is so basic to most forms of art. Having an understanding of the basic principles of drawing, form and composition can only improve your art no matter what media you choose, be it 2D or 3D.
Most of my students come to class wanting to paint pictures that look like the subject they are painting from be it a photo or real life. When they struggle through the whole painting and it still doesn’t come out as planned, they blame the media when in reality it is their skill level verses their expectations, which are at odds. From my vantage point, I see them improving almost every semester, yet it is hard for them to see it in themselves. Most of my students think that painting is a lot more complicated than it is, when they watch me do a demo they think that my brush is really a magic wand because I can (through years of practice and experiment) do in a few strokes what they may have struggled with for weeks and still didn’t get the desired results! They won’t believe me when I tell them not to over think a problem and they need to trust themselves, their subject and the media, however, as humans I think that it is hard to just let go and let things happen. Remember: It is art not photography!
Back to the importance of basic drawing concepts: As an artist – beginning or pro – you must keep in mind that all things have form and shape including highlights and shadows, these, along with the other elements of color and composition, are the basic elements of our paintings. However, in our minds we have the whole picture completed and framed even before we begin a painting. Getting that picture down, as it is in our minds, is the hard part as we stare at a blank canvas or paper. In order to create that picture in our mind, we have to start with these basic elements and build to the finish painting. This whole picture vs bits and pieces is the left brain vs the right brain that Betty Edwards talks about in her book and as an artist, you must learn to see those basic elements because that is what you need to access to become a successful painter. That part of your brain will let you see the pieces and parts of the painting, it will actually enjoy the process of finding those basic elements so you can get them down on the canvas or paper. A chair is not a chair until it is a finished piece, prior to that is it lines and curves that need to be found, drawn, painted or carved depending on your media. Only when all those lines and curves are assembled – and only then – do you have a chair!
I tell my painting students that creating a painting is like building a house: You have to have a good foundation (drawing, composition and underpainting) to have a good finished piece. I also tell them that when they are having trouble, all the answers are right in the reference picture or world around them. Look – really look – at what you want to paint and your reference subject. Do sketches or drawings to become familiar with your subject. These sketches and drawings are like maps to your painting. Check your lines, curves and negative spaces against your subject. If you still have trouble, try turning your painting upside down, what visually jumps out at you? (Turning things upside down takes the left side of the brain out of the process almost immediately.) DO NOT RUSH! Be patient with the whole process, speed comes with skill, skill comes with practice and most of all cut yourself some slack! If you want it to look exactly like your reference subject, get a camera, though after working as a photographer’s assistant for several years, I know that taking a good picture is more than pushing a button – there again are the good points and challenges. However, if you want to be an artist, learn to accept the not so perfect aspects of your painting because those are the things that make your picture, art. They are your signature, as it were, and you should enjoy these “happy accidents”, expect them and incorporate them into your work.
So to answer the question: What media should I work in? My answer is: What media do you most enjoy? Which one makes you wish you could do the same thing? Whatever media you choose, whatever style you choose, you need to understand that all of it will take work and dedication from you as a budding artist. You can’t go to a class or work at home for an hour or two a week or once a month and expect to become Van Gough over night just because you are an adult. You must set aside time, everyday if possible, to practice and polish your skills. Don’t always think of a whole painting either, think of its parts, for example: If you want to do landscapes, practice on a scrap canvas or paper your skies or mountains or trees. Learn to experiment or try different techniques, brushes or brush strokes. I suggest to my students that they get blank watercolor greeting cards to practice on because not only do they get an opportunity to practice painting, say, trees, but they end up with a card they can send to their far away friends. Their friends are happy to receive this special “gift of art” and my students don’t have to see it again! The greeting cards work with acrylics, graphite, and pastels as well as watercolor. Practice is essential if you want to improve your skills as an artist just as it is in anything else.
I can tell which of my students find the time to paint between weekly classes because of the progress they make. I have seen students come in as rank beginners and end up as competent artists in a semester or two leaving behind in their wake students who have been going to classes for years but who only paint when they are at class. I know from a personal point of view, when I started making time almost everyday to do some kind of art be it drawing, or painting, my art showed the fruits of my time and effort so that finally, things are actually looking like the pictures I get in my head and I am happy with my results now. Is it perfect? No but it is very satisfying.
Creating art, in what ever form it takes, is a journey. It can open you, as an artist and a person, to a world of wonder you never expected. As I tell my students: Really look at the world around you. See the “whys” (why do I see distance when I look down the street?), the “whats” (what makes that flower stand out from the others?), and the “hows” (how do I make that tree have three dimensions or my skies look more real?), you will never look at the world the same way again. When you get back to your art, no matter what media you choose to work in, take what you have observed and learned from the real world, use that knowledge to create your art and it will be much more satisfying.
Again, remember: It is ART not a photograph! Thanks Mom.
To find out about the classes Lerri teaches through the Torrance Parks and Rec. Department, go to: http://www.tprd/torrent.com/9087.htm
Lerri is now also teaching classes at the Palos Verdes Art Center.