A question comes frequently from workshop participants that I find difficult to answer in more than a single sentence: “What do I have to do to become really good at painting ?”
In the last few days I have spent a large amount of time reflecting on my own experience as a painter, from beginning to the present. Here are a few thoughts which are a very frank accounting of what it has taken me to come to my current level of skill . . . . .
I noticed when I first began to paint that something happened to me while I painted. . . I completely lost track of time and everything around me for extended periods of time. In fact, I was completely absent to what was going on around me. That certainly isn’t a requirement to become better, but it indicates that something was deep within me which pushed all of my ‘buttons’ at once to force me to go into such a deep state of concentration.
In those states I would experience a wide variety of emotions from sheer joy, to disgust, to anger, to wonder, to disappointment, to love, to hate, to happiness and all manner of stuff boiling up during and after the act of painting. Yes, all of those feelings came up. Never had I experienced such a wide range of emotions in such a short time. It was like being an emotional yo-yo. A friend calls that batch of emotions (he is also a painter) the “Ickies.” We both agree that in order to become more skilled at painting, one must first come to grips with managing the “Ickies.” In my opinion, there is nothing more debilitating than negative self talk and “buying into” those negative emotions. One must be able to say to one’s self, “Get over it! There is learning to do here!”
Our attitudes determine our altitudes in life and in everything we do. In painting, I have noticed that the really successful painters all seem to have the same degree of passion and excitement for the act of painting. That passion, in my opinion, is almost absurd it is so intense. Those people seem to be willing to forsake all sorts of life pleasures in exchange for the chance to pick up a brush and paint.
It seems to me that this passion for it has some sort of physiological effects, too. That there must be something released into our bloodstreams much like an addictive drug while we paint. And it becomes something of an addiction. We seem to derive an unexplainable sense of well being while we paint that is so euphoric that we crave it . . . and sometimes to our detriment. Painting becomes extraordinarily important to us.
Mind you, I don’t believe that what was just said is a requirement to become better. But it does provide the needed drive to push through all the obstacles in life that confront us in training ourselves to become painters. I do, however, note that our passion can, at times, prevent us from doing the necessary diligence or discipline of proper planning or preparation. The desire to “just paint” can be overwhelming and compel us to go into a painting fully unprepared, which will in most cases, call up the “ickies.” Then the internal battles ensue until we do it all over again. Eventually, we come to some hard won realizations that we had better do the deliberate preparation before we pick up our brushes.
Becoming better does require us to realize that the preparation is far more important than the actual execution. Frankly, there are many, many painters out there who depend on “happy accidents” to show up and make their paintings ‘acceptable.’ In my opinion, good paintings require much more than sheer happenstance. They require thoughtful preparation and careful analysis and problem solving. It is way more than smearing pigment around and hoping for a good outcome.
That said, to fully answer the question, it is my belief that beyond the act of adding up brush miles and painting frequently, one must study design and composition. Then, in that process of study, one must test their learning in series painting. That is to focus on a single idea or subject for many consecutive months . . . even years.
In there, among all of these aspects, the novice graduates into progressively more challenging painting circumstances until the skills are all second nature.