If you’re one of my students reading this right now I know you’ll chuckle to see me writing any kind of “how to” piece on making art. That’s because over all my years of teaching I have discouraged my students from reading or even looking at “how to paint” pieces. My reason for this is that I believe the way to make art is to find our own artist within and create whatever he/she is drawn to making. This can’t be done when following a step-by-step into someone else’s process. So I offer this post to you as my “how to” guide on finding your artist within.
As a teacher I believe the most powerful thing I can do for you is to help you develop your own sight, to set you free. The most important way I can do this is to emphatically stress to you that there is no RIGHT way to make art. So the good news is, there’s no wrong way, either. And, here’s a news flash: There’s not even just one way, as many artists and art teachers try to imply. In fact there are as many processes as there are individuals. This is incredibly freeing to most people who have been wounded at one time or other by an art teacher who told them otherwise. I want you to discover YOUR way!
Another common misconception I’d like to clear up is that, if you can’t draw “a stick figure”, as many people put it, you are not an artist. Think about this: We all understand that if we want to play an instrument, we usually take lessons and we always have to spend time practicing. We accept this as true of sports, math, cooking, anything, really. But most people genuinely believe that, if you were an artist, you would be able to draw or paint right out of the shoot. More good news: It’s not true! We all must work and practice, that includes you.
Then there is the stigma that you must produce something “good” immediately. I suspect this is true of you because it’s been the case with every single student I have ever worked with. We hobble ourselves further by comparing our beginning efforts with masterworks. First of all, I want you to know, I don’t think there’s any such thing as “bad” art. I maintain that every single expression is viable because it is made out of nothing, from the experience of its maker. I also believe art is about the PROCESS, not the finished piece. Therefore, the simple act of its creation is what is important. In other words, just DOING it is “good”.
Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way that we all must be willing to make bad art in order to, someday, make good art. While I don’t agree with the good/bad distinctions, I agree with her idea. You must let what is trying to be born, be. To do this you have to create in freedom without judgment for what is coming. I paint in series now and, almost always, there are paintings that come between each series that are real anomalies. They are unlike anything I’ve painted before or likely will again. They are my transitional pieces and, as such, are very important to my process. If I edited them as I painted, trying to make them fit my overall body of work, I might never bridge the gap from one series to the next.
Another way I would like to set you free: There should be NO RULES in art making. If ever there was a place that was meant to be free, it is the world of making art. As Ferruccio Busoni, Italian composer, pianist and conductor said, “The function of the creative artist consists of making laws, not in following laws already made.” Yet people still try to impose restrictions on creating. One that particularly rankles me is the notion that “you’re not a real artist if you paint from photographs.” Hooey! The same people who try to set this limitation say an “acceptable” practice is to paint from life, either a model or still life, or directly from the landscape. While this is fine to do, I don’t need to tell you how limiting this is in terms of subject matter. The whole of my career, as long as I painted realistically, I painted from photos and I’m not ashamed of that. I don’t believe it makes me a lesser painter. And, now that I’m an abstractionist, I still sometimes work from photos and representation has been known to slip into my work. That’s ANOTHER supposed rule: If you’re an abstract artist there can be nothing representational in your work. I reject that idea, too, and I paint what comes. I suggest you do as well. As much as possible, free yourself from anything that limits or stops you. This includes the dictates of teachers!
There is also an impression out there that art is meant to come from our imaginations alone—from some ethereal image in one’s head. Take it from me: This is a very challenging thing to do, even for professional artists. It’s one of the reasons abstract work is so demanding. I encourage you to use any and all tools you can find that make it easy for you to get to your art. Listen to your own heart. That’s your artist within speaking to you.
Because we are human, it is in our nature to try to control everything, especially those things we don’t understand. And real art is born in mystery. It is not meant to be contained. There is so much dogma surrounding the act of creating that most people are intimidated and stop before they can even begin. Don’t let this happen to you.
Here are my recommendations to you for beginning to paint (or advancing your current efforts):
1. Carry a camera with you wherever you go.
2. Pay attention to what draws your eye. This is your artist within guiding you. Ask what about that thing drew you—was it color, shadow and light, subject? Pay close attention to this in the future. It’s what inspires your artist.
3. Take photos of whatever speaks to you.
4. Look at your photos as “painting scrap” and choose something to paint.
5. Go to an art supply store–probably several times—all at once can be overwhelming–and begin to pick out your materials (tomorrow I’m putting a list of beginning supplies on the blog). Do you want to try oils, acrylic, or watercolor? Choose a tube or two. Handle the brushes. Buy one or two. Buy a canvas tablet (like a drawing tablet with sheets made out of canvas).
6. Begin—one day just paint. Feel it, don’t judge it.
7. Continue. Once you begin, keep going.
8. If you feel like it, find a painting class, but be very careful whose class you choose. Quit if it doesn’t feel right.
9. Be gentle and supportive of your artist self. Never criticize, always encourage.
10. Use this blog as a support and teaching tool (see below).
There you have my ideas of how to begin. I’d truly love to address any thoughts or questions that come up for you, here in this blog—a sort of online class. There are plans in the works to create an online classroom, but until we do, let’s begin by using the comment boxes at the bottom of the post. I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU and I want to support your process. We all need encouragement as artists and we could open an ongoing discussion to support each other. Please know you are not alone. The first steps to your art are the hardest and I’m here with you, I promise.
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