Monday, December 31, 2012

104 How to learn to paint

I RECEIVED a few emails lately accusing me of teaching people to paint by numbers (presumably a critique of measuring grays and the zone system). Nothing could be further from my intent. Real art must be solidly grounded in the emotional experience of the painter. However, measuring grays using a grayscale is one way to teach yourself to measure grays intuitively. Most of the negative emails suggested that to make the artistic process rational is to sully what is essentially an emotional process.

The painting process IS emotional, but teaching painting cannot be emotional. To teach what I understand I have to drag my process into the rational world, identify my method, and articulate that process clearly and simply. There is no other way to transfer information. This is an aspect of the scientific method. I understand why it offends some artists. But once you realize it is the only reliable way to transfer knowlege aversion to it diminshes. I know few artists who are willing to slow their learning process simply because they have a philosophical beef with Western rationality.

Imagine the alternative; a teacher would suggest which paints to buy without providing reasons. The teacher would suggest which canvas to use and which brushes leaving students to deduce why. The teacher would tell the sudents to start painting with the suggestion to relax, get into the flow, and have fun. The only way such suggestions could result in students painting satisfying paintings would be if the students already had an intuitive notion of how to paint and didn't need instruction anyway.

This is actually how many classes are "taught". Ten percent of the students will have a natural ability and are held up to the class as proof that the teacher's methods are working just fine. The rest of the students will blunder on trying to reach a greater state of relaxation, trying to go even more gently with the flow, and trying to have even more fun. I can tell you from personal experience that in the absence of real knowledge few will be having fun at the end of the painting session.

Probably some artists misunderstand my teaching methods because they see me using a numbered grayscale in my videos and presume I recommend using this tool forever. But it is akin to musicians practicing scales or counting as they practice triplets. Some musicians might see a music teacher making a video demonstrating such techniques and complain, "That isn't music!" I agree wholeheartedly. It isn't music. But it is one way to reach the musical goals many musicians desire to accomplish.

I make woodcuts intuitively. I am entirely self taught. The reason I could teach myself woodcut successfully is because there is something about how my brain works that allowed me to learn woodcut almost without effort. I had spent three years drawing from the model and three years learning the difficult but essential method of drawing from memory. That certainly was preparatory to my success. But the first time I did a wood engraving it was as if I had come home to a medium I had practiced for years. My first illustrations went into the portfolio that eventually landed my first job (which was with the New York Times). I had a gift for woodcuts and wood engravings that I exploited for many years as a professional illustrator.

It may be difficult for budding artists to grasp but there are few things as damaging as an easily aquired skill. It gives the impression that everything can be achieved without effort. There are few things as difficult as learning to paint. It will take years if not decades to acquire the skills necessary. Ten percent of you will appear to prove me wrong. But you are just the ones who have a natural gift and need no instruction.

I have experienced both the joy of having a natural gift that I seemingly acquired effortlessly and the joy of acquiring a gift through hard work. They are  equally gratifying in their own way. But if I opted to become a good painter by waiting for the feeling to sweep me along, I would still be waiting.

Brad Teare December 2012

16 comments:

  1. Well said Brad. No matter how "gifted" one is, there is no replacing hard work and acquired knowledge in the pursuit of learning how to paint. You have to have some methods in your tool belt before you can "express" yourself in your art. I always try to paint with people that are better than I am or who are at least as accomplished within their focus. That way I can learn from their viewpoint. Even when painting with students, I learn things about myself when I have to formulate cohesive answers to their questions. Thanks for sharing all your expertise.

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  2. I think those who emailed you about the paint by numbers accusation are not worth listening to.

    In Jazz piano, there's years of disciplined practice, music theory, technique, and, when it comes to improvisation, studies of the myriad of scale / chord combinations. That doesn't even touch the riffs and other classic jazz elements that go into the sound of music. But when I complained to my jazz piano teacher that i THOUGHT that jazz improvization would be freer, more creative, he replied "disciplined knowledge and practice will set your jazz emotions free. Without a grounding in jazz knowledge, you can never be freed to produce the inner music your emotions want to demonstrate."

    Painting is the same thing. I find it ridiculous that there are those who look down their nose at measuring values, using color theory, design and composition theory, etc. Yes, there are those who throw color at the canvas, sometimes create art spasmotically. But mores the case that it is disciplined practice, applied knowledge taht leads to the freedoms to impart emotions and create great works of art.

    I will say that after a time, pure reliance on tools and techniques can be limiting in your development as a painter, perhaps leading to formulaic painting (e.g., Thomas Kincade).

    How many times do you hear of an Indian elephant slopping paint around with his trunk and gaining popular fame for doing so? It's not art. Slopping paint around haphazzardly, not applying the Laws that Edgar Payne often refer to...will rarely lead to a respectable work.

    The originators of the emails that moved you to create this post don't deserve much in the way of attention. Creating emotion filled art takes disciplined practice, controlled thought, intentioned design, color theory awareness, etc.

    Perhaps, if anything, there could be an argument that one could be too connected to technique and not imparting enough emotionally in their works. Maybe I'm old school, but disciplined practice will set you free...

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  3. Thanks for your comments. It is true that many people paint or draw intuitively. I love the jazz music analogy. I had no idea they had to train so thoroughly. That's good to remember.

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  4. I love your blog. thanks for all the information and help.

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  5. Thank you Mittin. I appreciate your kind words.

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  6. Brad. Thank you for taking the time to share your technical knowledge with others. I haven taken classes where I was left alone to figure out and to feel discouradge. It doesn't matter how spontaneous we want to be. The artist needs the technical foundation to reach expression. I find many of your tips extremely useful. Marisol Honsberg

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  7. Thanks M. I have had the same experience and in some cases have spent a lot of money for little info. My intent for this blog is to analyze and communicate as well as I can the process of how to learn. I appreciate your comments.

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  8. Brad, do not listen to that kind of criticism. You are an excellent teacher and an extraordinary artist. I am a beginner in painting. I have no background in art but always enjoyed painting. I have taken classes for 3 years and I have seen my improvement. You and one of the great teachers that I found in the internet. Thanks for your generosity and mastery disclosing tips and techniques for all. I have learned a lot from them. I have a lot of respect for your art, style, determination and very good heart. I wish you a lot of success in your career. My best, Sandra Broadhead

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  9. Luc Poitras (Montreal Canada)April 6, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    Brad,
    I believe we are all creative. I don't need help with ideas about what to paint. I've already got too many. What I need, though, is help to get them from my mind's eye onto the canvas. That's technique, that's skill, that's the day to day craft of being an artist. From what I see, that's what you're teaching. That's fine with me. At least I'll have more ideas on canvas than in my mind's eye. Ansel Adams should have been so lucky to have what you give. Well done Brad.

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  10. Thanks Sandra and Luc. Your enthusiasm keeps me going!

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  11. Brad,
    Just as songwriters must understand chords and scales and writers must know spelling and grammar conventions, a painter needs to understand his craft. All the creativity of the world would not have led to the theory of relativity without knowledge of physics. Your blog gives so many practical and valuable information in a quality and compactness that is hard to find elsewhere. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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    1. Songwriting is an excellent analogy.

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  12. I am so grateful for your instruction. Thank you. You are as gifted a teacher as you are an artist, and that is saying a lot!--Ellen

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    1. Thanks Ellen! I appreciate the feedback. I'm glad you are finding something useful here.

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  13. I have been the art student in those classes where the teacher feels it's all about 'having fun' and 'expressing yourself'. If i had learned to swim that way I would have drowned! Thank you SO much for being generous enough, and capable of explaining the techniques. I have searched high and low for someone like you and am grateful that I found your site.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments! It makes writing this blog worthwhile.

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Thanks for your comments!

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