Tuesday, 24 February 2015


I read somewhere "Life is too short to learn painting only by trial and error".

When I visit art forums on line, I am often confronted with people picking up a photo, doing their utmost to copy it, but sadly,  never doing anything more to learn about painting.  They clearly expect, by trial and error, to learn as they paint.....well, they may learn SOMETHING as they paint, but all too often, they will repeat "learned mistakes".

We all have to make mistakes, yes.  But to keep on repeating those mistakes because no attempt has been made to discover what they are, and how to correct them, seems a bit daft to me.

So what is the answer?  You live miles from anywhere;  there are no decent classes to go to;  you are too old to start going to classes anyway;  you have no alternative.

I would argue that yes, you do, actually.

There are libraries everywhere.  There are books galore out there.  There is the internet.  You have to make the time. While it is fun to sit down with paper/canvas and paint, or to spend hours browsing the internet, working out what next to buy in terms of art materials - all that is the easy stuff.   But the harder stuff....the learning....can only be done, if you have no nearby class to attend, (or even if you do, depending on the skill of your tutor) by reading.  Lots of reading.

Let the writers of those books be your teachers.  Let them inspire you, and motivate you.  Learn about :

TONES - and value patterns

COLOUR - learn the colour wheel, colour temperature, and how to make colours "work" for you in a painting.

DESIGN - try to find out what makes good design, and why.  If you have a good underlying design for your painting, it will stand out from the crowd.

EMOTION - Think of it as a treasure hunt.  It will take you quite a bit of time to find out what it is that makes a painting special, makes it memorable, makes the viewer feel the artist's passion.  Painting what you feel - delight, despair, love, anger, awe - all of these are emotional responses to your subject, and you need to BEGIN, at the very least,  to find out how best you can express something of your feelings in your work.  Why bother otherwise?  Copying photos?  Most of the time, you just end up with a second-rate version of that photo! 

Learning about tone, colour, and design - these are things which truly can be "learned".  There are rules to follow which will help you - how great is that!

Learning about how to express your feelings is something else again. And not easy.  But the good news is that as we gradually learn, we begin to find out what satisfies us as artists...what challenges us....what excites us.   Take time to think about what it is that is most important to you....is it particular subject-matter?    Others are driven by colour, and/or design, or the prevailing light....while their subject matter is varied.  What matters is your sense of commitment.  Learn to recognise your passion, and that will give each day more meaning, and your paintings will reflect that.  Try finishing this sentence:
"If I only had one day left to paint, I would paint..............."   

Finally let me introduce you to an artist who is passionate about painting, and about landscapes in particular. He is a bit of a hermit, tucked away painting every day with absolute passion and commitment. He has no interest in painting "for the market ", or in copying photos.  He is not worried about whether his work is "in fashion".  His work has deep emotion, with a dreamlike quality  - simple, but powerfully emotive.
Steven Outram :  I recommend a visit to his website:  http://www.stevenoutram.com/index.html
He made it his business to learn, thoroughly, from the Old Masters.....yet despite their influence, or perhaps because of it... he is absolutely his own man, he emulates nobody.  He understand the craft of painting really well - and he produces beautiful, sensitive work revealing his emotions and feelings....and has this ability because he left nothing to trial and error.

‘I want to create a reality that the viewer feels they can step into, even to lose themselves in. My works are imagined,   but have their origins in how I’ve felt about something actually seen. Themes that run through my art are transience, the sustaining power of the forces of nature, and an elusive beauty which can be seen if we care to look


  1. I think a lot of people misunderstand the term trial and error. It's about observing your results and diagnosing how you got them, and how to avoid the passages you don't like, and how to do better. But I do see people doggedly pursuing the same old attempts. And getting the same old results! that's not trial, that's habit.

    But it's painful to step out of your habit and do something quite different. And that brings up the notion that making art is not an easy and relaxing task, it's a great demand and an exhausting one. And wonderful, but you can't get to wonderful without giving yourself to it.

  2. Good post. The phenomenon that I notice when attending workshops is the people who attempt to copy what paints the teacher buys, what brushes, what sizes, what kind and weight of paper, what colors she is mixing to get what colors…it's not magic, people, if you mix paint like her that doesn't mean you can paint like her! She has painted a picture a day for 10 years--when you have done that, maybe you will paint that well too.

  3. thanks both of you. Melliott....if you go to art materials conventions, you see this all the time. People actually asking demonstrators what they are using...then rushing off to buy exactly the same thing in the hope they will produce the same results. Might be OK in relation to a particular colour, perhaps, but I know jolly well that is NOT what is going on. However I do understand, it is tempting to think that if you use the same paper, for instance, you might get a similar result. The deluded ones are those who imagine they might get the SAME result !

  4. I teach most emphatically that by trying to paint like me, using the same colours, paper brushes etc etc, will not help them at all in fact only learning how to copy someone else will paralyse them when they come to approach their own work.... instead I try to encourage them to learn the skills and techniques I am teaching them and hope they can then incorporate them into their own work. I do share the colours I am using, but only once, and if they ask me again I don't tell them so they choose their own palettes!! In most workshops I do, everyone produces something different which I believe means we are seeing glimpses of themselves rather than copies of me!! BTW I too suffered from the lack of learning by trial and error and continuously made the same mistakes, mainly because I didn't know what were mistakes and what weren't and if I did spot a mistake I didn't always know why it had happened or how to stop it happening again.... what I would have given for some good tuition in those earlier days!!


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