What led to your artistic breakthroughs?
December 14, 2011 4:12 AM   Subscribe

Which changes, events, discoveries, or epiphanies led to the most dramatic improvement in your painting or drawing ability?

A year ago I started drawing and painting in my free time. I try to do it every day, though sometimes it winds up being a few days a week. My training includes art classes off and on in public school up through ninth grade and nothing in the couple of decades since. Periodically in there I've drawn or doodled, but never all that seriously. I greatly enjoy making art, but I don't have the natural gift for it that some painters have. In the year since I started making art quasi-consistently I have definitely learned a lot, but my skills have only improved modestly. Given the amount of time I have to spend on art, I'd like to be able to do it as well as I can and improve as quickly as I can. What I do now gives me pleasure, but I'm eager to level up my skills. My experience in other areas of creative endeavor suggest that long hours of thoughtful practice will help, but I'm wondering if there are shortcuts--or things that I wouldn't think to do because I didn't go to art school.

Some relevant information:

--I have a full-time job and try to write every morning for 1-2 hrs, mostly fiction. The writing has led to some interesting cross-pollination, but that's 5-15 hours/week writing.

--It seems unlikely I'll ever go to art school full-time or enroll full-time at an atelier.

--I am planning to take a six-week basic drawing class starting in January, taught by a local artist whose work I admire. Funds permitting, I hope to continue this with one or more life drawing classes and painting classes.

--My reading over the last year has included any number of books on technique, art history and theory. I regularly check out and read/study catalogs of individual shows, as well as single-artist books. Over the last several months I've had books on my shelf about Thomas Hart Benton, Lucian Freud, Edward Hopper, Norman Lindsay, Maxfield Parrish, Marion Peck, Mark Ryden, Alma-Tadema, Pre-Raphaelite painting techniques, basic composition skills, pigment history, and various "anatomy for the artist" books. I also read sundry art, artist, and illustration blogs on a daily basis. I watch documentaries about artists & art now and again (Waiting for Hockney, Art21, etc.).

--I regularly poke through WetCanvas and handprint for information on technique, ideas, etc.

--Once a month or so I go to my local art museum and sketch, mostly statuary, but also 2D work to get the composition.

--While I enjoy some abstract/non-representational art, I generally aim at figurative/representational art. I have a strong interest in the fantastic, either contemporary artists or illustrators (Brom, Michael Whelan, etc.) or historical artists who dealt with romantic/fantastic subjects (Magritte, Burne-Jones, Bosch, etc.).

--My workspace amounts to either a drawing board for drawing or a table with tabletop easel. Not much ventilation in the room with the easel, so oils are not feasible at the moment.

--I draw mostly with graphite pencils. I watercolor some, but I mostly paint with acrylics. I started with craft paint, moved to student grade acrylic, tried artist grade and realized the difference, and now I buy artist grade. My brushes are student grade.

Previously: successful lessons from art class
Previously: painting in Cairo
Previously: learn how to paint
Previously: learn to paint with oils
Previously: learn how to draw
posted by cupcakeninja to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Life drawing is the very best thing ever. Pay attention to your own body and breath as you draw the nude in different positions. Use charcoal and take LOADS of paper with you, two bulldog clips and a board to lean on. Seriously, you will improve like you wouldn't believe. You don't even need a teacher, just a bunch of folk who'll kick in to pay for a model.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:45 AM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Get bigger! Nothing loosens up the muse for me like buying a huge canvas or two on sale and going at it with latex housepaint and a sash brush. Weather permitting, do it outside. If you decide you like what you're getting you can treat the latex as gesso and do fine details with your good paints and brushes. Should it wind up in a museum, they can deal with base flaking in seventy-five years or so.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:23 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's what kills the impulse to paint -- or sketch: the imagined future appreciation or, gasp, damnation of your results by persons known/unknown.

Be realistic. It's not going to hang anywhere but in your hallway. So, say, "This is a throw-away. I'll just play for a half-hour or so." And have at it. Paint the view from your front window. Paint the rear-end of your car. Sketch the goofy tree in your back yard. If you like what you've done, keep it. If not, pitch it.

The only reward you need be concerned with is your own future appreciation ... when you look at your creation three years from now. "Damn. I remember that day. That's really good."
posted by ryanpoly at 7:05 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

What led to most of my breakthroughs in drawing was just spending a lot of time drawing. Really, it sounds like you're doing everything right - looking at lots of work, taking classes, practicing regularly. So just keep that up! For me, the more I draw, the more I draw. Taking classes helps me a lot not only for the guidance, but for the outside pressure keeping me to a routine. So if I were you, I would follow the plan you have now, and keep taking classes in different drawing materials and themes so you can really experiment and play around.

One thing that has helped me (though I wouldn't say it really caused any breakthroughs...) is that I read tons of art, design, and illustration blogs. Artists writing about their practice and struggles (with photos!), people curating their favorite contemporary illustration or design or pieces from art history, blogs on certain themes, blogs that do studio visits, on and on. For art blogs alone, there are probably over 100 in my blog aggregator. Plus I'm on tumblr and follow about 100 people there. Obviously I can't actually read every post every day. When I first started I had fewer and I really did look at each one carefully and it still took an hour or two every day or so (I was on summer break from school when I started this). But since then, I've developed a sense of what interests me and can basically "skim" the images. Then I use my tumblr to save the ones that interest me most. That way, if I'm stuck for an idea of what to draw or how to draw it, I can go to my tumblr for ideas, and better than saving everything on a computer, I can tag it and follow links back to who originally created the image if I want to see more. Also as you clearly already know, looking at other artists for inspiration and seeing how they've solved problems is incredibly helpful.
posted by fireflies at 8:48 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Recognizing that when you're "on" you're in a distinct mental state, and then creating some kind of anchor for that state so that you can go into it more or less at will.
posted by cmoj at 9:55 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Develop an intimate knowledge of how color works. It really helped to refine my sensitivity to the point that I can look at any given color and instantly break it into percentages ("this color is x percent red with y% blue, z% yellow" etc.)

When I was taking production art classes for an AA degree, we learned how to do this by creating photorealistic duplicates of ads with Prismacolor colored pencils and art markers. I went on to do a BA in fine art-- but to be frank, nothing I learned at university even came close to being this useful. Lots of boring drills, but what could be more profound than to change the way you see?

I also think the community of artists at Colorlovers has a lot to offer-- check it out.

One small point that will make a huge difference to your finished product: if you're painting in watercolor, have three times as much clean water at your workspace as you usually do. You should notice quite a difference.
posted by aquafortis at 12:07 PM on December 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

I once asked a world-class calligrapher from whom I was taking a workshop what was the minimum amount of time I'd need to spend practicing every day to stay limber and maybe even become fluent, and he shocked me by loudly replying, "Minimum!?! You need to devote your LIFE to it to get anywhere at all!"

I shrugged this off as self-aggrandizement at the time, secure in my concept of calligraphy as a craft that would never be how I defined myself; just a nice adornment to the many other things I enjoyed doing, and to my main commitment, painting. And I remain convinced that there are minimum daily requirements for staying in various games of skill, as hobbies and parlor tricks, at which I am definitely not sneering.

But I now agree with him to the extent that I think the main thing anyone can do to really make progress in any art/craft is to make some quantum leap in commitment and self-expectation, either by spending a lot more time doing it overall, or by at the very least being willing to spend a lot more effort or time on a single project or piece than you currently think is reasonable.

I too spend a lot of time daily cruising painting and illustration blogs and tumblrs and this seems important as a way of keeping my standards high, my imagination awake and my color and design senses alert. And before the web and now there were books, libraries and galleries, all good things.

But they're distractions, too. Over and over in the 40+ years since I began painting seriously out of school, the only thing that has consistently resulted in me upping my game, has been some upping of what I've asked of myself, be it deciding to make a hundred or a thousand paintings of a single subject or with some single technique, or girding myself to spend days rather than hours referencing or drawing or masking for a single painting, or deciding to post a daily painting, whatever… The point is simply to look at what you currently do and accept that to get more from it, you need to somehow put more into it.

You need to first see that you're not going far enough in some important way, before you can get to a farther place. Other artist's work can certainly show you that, but just looking isn't enough.

(Maybe this means that, for a time, you pick either writing or art, "before they all disappear"?)
posted by dpcoffin at 3:15 PM on December 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, all! These have given me a number of things to try. Very much appreciated, especially with a large swatch of time off around the holidays. At this point I've got several new practical routes to take, from life drawing groups to committing more fully to increasing my canvas/paper size. I feel like I just got a fresh shot of creativity!
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:02 PM on December 14, 2011

Philosophically speaking:

I stopped looking at the creative work itself as an end product. The formula is not: skill + materials + time = thing-to-hang-on-wall (or thing-to-read). The thing-to-hang-on-wall is not the end goal.

Instead, I saw the goal as being able to express the truest version of what's in my head. Like teaching yourself how to speak a language. Whatever tangible thing that is created is like vocabulary homework. What I am really doing is working on myself.

I see creative people as snakes, and the tangible efforts of their work are like cast off skins. Sure, you can hang a shed skin on the wall and people will gather round and admire it, but the real piece of art is the artist him/herself - the living creature, who will shed skins over and over and over as they grow.

The difference is that I don't get hung up on the physical things I create. I don't worry about other people's approval/disapproval, or if the work is even seen by others. I don't worry if a drawing is ruined. I threw out a lot of old art I was keeping out of obligation. (If you want to freak out your non-artist friends, tell them they can come over and look through your finished work and take what they want, and you're trash-canning anything left over.)

Practically speaking:

- life drawing, like everyone says
- I started a scrapbook of my sketches when I was a teenager. Lots of unfinished drawings, some finished things. Experiments. Notes. Sometimes a particular section of a drawing was great and the rest flopped, so I'd crop out the great part and paste it in the scrapbook. The benefit is I can flip through and see how much I've improved, plus ideas I had to abandon that I can revisit, which is really nice when you're in the middle of an artistic doldrums.
- I keep a small portfolio in my purse filled with little prints of my finished work. 1 ) It will make you feel more like an artist, and 2) it saves a lot of awkward rambling conversation when art comes up and people ask what you draw/paint. You end up having deeper conversations about art with people, who can have really interesting ideas and interpretations of your work (as long as you present yourself as being open minded and not touchy). (I suppose you could keep an image collection on an iphone, but something about a dedicated portfolio says you mean business.)
- Harley Brown's Eternal Truths for Every Artist (there's a reason used copies are so expensive)
- black and white charcoal on tinted paper is really really awesome as an artistic palate cleanser
- There is no shortcut around doing the work. There are just different ways of keeping your approach to the work fresh.
posted by griselda at 12:39 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

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