How to learn photography and painting
September 23, 2012 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I'd like some guidance on learning how to paint, and learning how to take photographs.

I have no artistic background to speak of. I tried to get into photography a while back (before the digital thing) but found I was kind of turned off by all the knobs and numbers. I've never really tried to paint at all, but I spent three months in Paris going to art museums for four hours a day, and some of the artists I was introduced to then still strike me.

Paintings that inspire me. I purchased a painting by the musician/painter Laura F Bennett, and I could look at it forever. Here's one online. It reminds me of Jean Dubuffet. I did actually like Yves Klein. I have no real desire to paint anything very realistic looking, but I would like to figure out how to "plan" a work - people do that right? I started reading about canvas, and gesso, and other things, but man it seems to get complicated and expensive fast. Where to start?

Photographs. Conversations about all the blah blah numbers and F-stops and the gearheads bore me. However, there is a particular style of composition that really speaks to me. Unfortunately I can't link directly to any of the photos that I know of because they're all behind Facebook, but I have a professional photographer friend (does catalog work for a retail chain) that somehow just seems to walk around and take the most amazing pictures of found objects. And it's seeing these things and the composition of these photos that is amazing. I've tried to do it and it just looks pretentious. How to learn?
posted by sciurine to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
For photography, try tracking down the old Time Life set of books on photography. They run the gamut from the technical stuff you don't care about (though you will eventually need to know what the numbers mean, if you get deep enough into photography) to the more artistic concerns of composition, tone, colour, etc. You'll get a pretty good look into every aspect of the art and science of photography from a 1970s perspective (so no digital and lots of stuff on how to develop your own film and prints).

Other than that, your best bet is to go out and shoot. More specifically, if there are specific styles or traits you'd like to see in your own photography, keeping trying to mimic them in your own work—it's how lots of people pick up new techniques, styles of composing and seeing, etc. It'll also give you insight into your camera as a tool, which will be very helpful if you don't care to learn what f-stops are all about; you can eventually come to a point where that stuff makes sense intuitively, even if you don't care about the science. After a while you'll obviously need to step beyond slavish copying, but most creative people will do that as a matter of course—just copying other people's work stops being satisfying very quickly.
posted by chrominance at 9:14 PM on September 23, 2012

For photography: practice, practice, practice. Practice includes not just taking photos, but also reading about artistic composition generally, and also looking at other people's photographs critically.

I use a DSLR and like the manual control of my exposure settings. But I started with a decent point & shoot camera, and a couple of really good books on composition. The Photographer's Eye by Michael Freeman was very helpful, as were some of the older John Hedgecoe books I found. Hedgecoe's books will surely be available at your local library, along with some other books.

From reading, you will learn some of the tricks that artists, including photographers, know tend to make an image pleasing.

Once you start getting ideas, try to examine photos and ask yourself what you like about them and why you like it. Also consider asking your friends who take photos you like to tell you which photographers they admire. Your library will probably have many books of photographs by particular artists which you can spend time looking it.

Last, but not least, get out there and take photos. Consider accompanying friends or joining a group.
posted by Hylas at 9:18 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first two pictures in this classified ad show you the set of books I'm thinking of. Apparently finding a used copy isn't too difficult either, so you won't have to shell out a ton of cash for it (the $150 in that ad also includes other books, so the Time-Life set on its own should be quite a bit cheaper).
posted by chrominance at 9:19 PM on September 23, 2012

I recommend Angela Gair's book "The Artist's Manual" for beginning painters, Chronicle publishers, $25. This great book has many different styles of painting, and lots of helpful information on materials and techniques that make it easy to begin in the style of painting that specifically interests you. Happy painting.
posted by effluvia at 9:29 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stop reading, start doing. Get some cheap paint, brushes and just paint. Try to paint the paintings you like, to sort of deconstruct them and see how they were made.

For photography, get a cheap digital camera and start shooting. Shoot whatever, whenever. It'll be set to auto, so you won't have to fiddle with any knobs.

Be aware that 90% of what you paint or photograph may look like shit. That's good, it means you're learning what not to shoot or paint.

Yes, it may often be hard work, forcing you to think or act outside your comfort zone.

If you it, you can upgrade to more expensive tools.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:33 PM on September 23, 2012

There are two ways you could go about achieving your goal of creating a painting or photograph. You could take a painting or drawing class and learn the basics of combining colors and perspective drawing.
Or you could just buy some paint from an art store (watercolors or a basic acrylic set) some brushes, a canvas (most art stores sell premade canvases) and just have a go at it.
As someone who majored in photography and painting and went on to get an MFA in photography, I would suggest forgoing the classes and just jumping right in. Regarding "planning a work" When I was painting large scale (4 feet by 4 feet usually) I often did not plan things out and just picked a color that looked nice that day and went with it. I knew many people who did plan out their paintings with sketches and full color mini paintings, but I always thought that took too long and was too stuffy for my free-flowing painting ways. I often found things easier to paint when I had a subject, so I would suggest picking a subject you like and trying to paint that. Personally, I enjoy animals, so I started off painting neon-colored animals.

tl,dr: Just do it!
posted by ruhroh at 11:04 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get some Liquitex Basic Acrylics--don't start with oil. Maybe just red, yellow, blue, and black to start with. Get a paint extender so that you have a bit more open time on the paint. Use multimedia paper instead of canvas. Some nice synthetic brushes. Maybe some gesso. And just paint stuff. You can't be a painter or a photographer without actually doing it. So just do it and don't worry about how things are "supposed" to be. As you work you'll pick up some things on your own, discover problems to solve using research, youtube, etc.
posted by xyzzy at 12:44 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mention two related areas of interest.

A continuum of skill applies to both, ranging from the simplest application of their respective tools to the complete and domineering mastery of every aspect.

Where do you want to be? Photography without study is called snapshots. Painting without study and practice is called house maintenance. Neither qualifies as high art and doing it without understanding IF and WHY your efforts are good or bad seems like time wasted.

It takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill, according to a Mr. Geoff Colvin, in his worthwhile book Talent is Overrated. To get closer to competence is the goal I presume you wish to seek? If so, just starting is key but starting with the attitude that you are ignorant, smart, persistent, creative (or want to be), willing to exert some effort and trainable is not a bad approach.

The internet and common culture sometimes imply effortless achievement of artistic skills, but IMO, you just can't get good by wishing. Technology and technique are involved and the thing separating decent artists from hacks is how closely their work matches their intent. It's the same for sculpture, writing, music, dance, painting, drawing, photography, weaving. Accidental art.... stuff that looks 'good' but can't be planned is just a sorting exercise, and even dogs can be trained to do that. The best art involves lots of work, just like the best engineering, science, sport. No easy way out if you want to be taken seriously by yourself, first, and by anyone else later.

The book I mentioned is a good one. Art and Fear is another personal favorite.
posted by FauxScot at 5:16 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might consider starting with pastel chalks. The process can be a lot like painting and can be a good way to start. You can build up colors in similar fashion, blend, smear etc. It can also be pretty affordable (a high end set of pastels can be price, but there are good starter options). Pastels come in a huge range of colors. They're very portable. Not too messy (dust). They allow you to work in a wide range of styles.

I don't agree with FauxScot. I like Lin Yutang's comment on art:
"Art is both creation and recreation. Of the two ideas I think art as recreation or as sheer play of the human spirit is more important. Much as I appreciate all forms of immortal creative work, whether in painting or literature, I think the spirit of true art can become more general and permeate society only when a lot of people are enjoying art as a pastime, without any hope of achieving immortality."
So... however you proceed, have fun, play with it, and don't worry too much about the outcomes. You'll progress and get better.

FauxScot says: "The best art involves lots of work, just like the best engineering, science, sport. No easy way out if you want to be taken seriously by yourself, first, and by anyone else later."

I say: No. Your art can be anything you want it to be. Take it seriously... or not. It's legitimate creation either way.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:21 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

For abstract art just slap some paint down... go cheap to start with, just a set of basic paints and paper. Try and copy what you like at first then go off in your own direction as the mood takes you. Move on to bigger and better quality paints as and when you want to. You might want to read up on colour theory and the basics of design... may be a bit of the history of the art to see what worked and why.

Photography - just take loads of shots. Don't be afraid to try at odd angles and get in close to avoid visual clutter.

A lot of what you do will look terrible to you... that's ok. A big part of it is rejecting stuff that does not work. Eventually you'll start to produce stuff that you do like

You'll be surprised just how little art is actually planned out... especially by experienced pros. They just go by mood and instinct a lot of the time.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:28 AM on September 24, 2012

Reddit has a Photo School that is probably one of the best guides to photography that I've seen on the net. I'm at work, so I can't link to it right now, but if you search for it, you shall be rewarded. The Photo School comes with its own homework assignments, too, which is great, because it will force you to Do Stuff.

As for composition, one of the best things you can do is to look at loads and loads and loads of images and to break down for yourself what works for you and what doesn't. Go on Flickr or 500px and start favoriting every photo that you really like. Now look at them all together. Ask yourself, what holds them together? What can you do to similarly succeed?

Regarding f-stops and stuff, I used to be bored by them, too, but then I discovered just how important it was to be familiar with them and their underlying concepts. After you take lots and lots of pictures, it will quickly become apparent why people pay attention to these things.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:42 AM on September 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the feedback. On the painting side, xyzzy, thanks for your recommendation of the Liquitex stuff. I'm just going to go buy stuff and start. Good recommendation on the paper too - would something like this work? Or is that not "multimedia"?
posted by sciurine at 4:09 PM on September 24, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, I forgot to say, thanks also to ecorrocio .... for the link you gave to Daniel Smith. Turns out that place is about a 5 minute walk from where I work. :) Looks like I will be taking long lunches for a while ..... :)
posted by sciurine at 4:12 PM on September 24, 2012

Yep, that acrylic pad is perfect. I've used tons of that. It's great for practice. Once you feel more confident you can spring for cheap pre-stretched canvases at ACMoore, DickBlick, or the like.
posted by xyzzy at 5:38 PM on September 24, 2012

Oh, and grab some white, too. You can thin acrylics with water, but sometimes you do need a pure white.
posted by xyzzy at 5:40 PM on September 24, 2012

I'm an acrylic hobbyist too! Never taken any art instruction, but I have fun. The Liquitex basics are a decent place to start, but they have a funny consistency and the colors don't always mix well. The red/yellow/blue I'd suggest in that line would be Quinacridone Magenta, Primary Yellow, and Pthalo Blue. And titanium white and any other specific color that you love because mixing is tricky. If you decide that you like to paint, get a mixing set in artist quality paints (I like Golden paints and have the colors that come in the Modern Mixing set as well as the Primary 8, but the Liquitex artist line are also good). At some point the quality of the paint does become an issue because you may not be able to get the depth or transparency you want. It happens sooner than you might think.

A few random thoughts: Synthetic brushes are more durable and easier to clean natural bristle, if you want to use brushes. Also get a liquid gloss medium for extending and glazing. Daniel Smith might be convenient, but Dick Blick is cheaper. I like to tape whatever I'm painting on to a large piece of thick foamcore so that if I go over the edge, I'm not ruining anything. Play on paper and foamcore and canvasboards first, stretched canvas has a bouncy quality that takes getting used to and good ones are pricey. The best part about acrylics, over watercolors, is that you can go over anything you don't like with another coat after it is dry. Just have fun with it.

In any case, the best book I've found for exploring the amazing world of acrylics is Acrylic Revolution by Nancy Reyner. It isn't about how to paint, but what you can do with the paint. For theory and ideas, Conversations in Paint by Charles Dunn. He gives a lot of the language and "why this way' of painting in an accessable way. This would also be useful in photography for info about composition.

The best advice I ever recieved about photography was from a photojournalist. Take lots of shots. Lots and lots. Don't wait for the perfect moment, because you can't predict it, so just keep shooting. Get close to the subject instead of zooming. Candid shots are usually better than posed because people are relaxed. Keep every photo.

Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by monopas at 12:29 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Side comment: I'm obsessed with hobbies. I can't stop collecting them. I've discovered past couple years that the amount of time I spend on a hobby is inversely proportional to the initial investment that I make in gear. Wanted to learn how to scratch, dropped loads on turntables, records, lasted all of a month. The list too embarrassing to list.

Now I try to start with the cheapest shit I can find. Seems to make the hobby last longer.

Interesting that it also works the other way .... I have a couple hobbies that pay and those stick around a long time. I'm thinking, "Perhaps if I like painting I should immediately attempt to profit from it purely so it will endure?" Hmmmmm......
posted by sciurine at 10:56 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: monopas, what would I use other than brushes? fingers?
posted by sciurine at 11:01 PM on September 25, 2012

Fingers are good. So are rags, sponges of all kinds, toothpicks , toothbrushes, feathers, palatte knives, popsicle sticks... It all depends on what effect you're going for. I'm not that fond of brushes for applying color, but I'm self-taught and have poor hand-eye dexterity. ;)

Whatever paints you use, and some of my early stuff was done with Delta craft paints but still looks nice, if you want it to last it needs a final clear coat of gloss medium and then a removable varnish. Acrylic paint is porous and will pick up dust over time. MSA varnish can be removed if there is ever smoke damage or the painting gets dirty, then another coat can be applied. Just a thought, if you plan to sell or even gift your paintings.

My mother is the same way with hobbies! She has a great sewing machine, insane amounts of fabric, and top of the line tools. Over ten years she's finished two baby quilts. Instead she Zentangles, basic cost is pencil, pen and paper. We have a whole bedroom that is mostly filled with craft supplies. It is kind of fun to go scavenging in there.

I heavily invested in knitting, but once I got reasonably skilled it got boring and I don't do it much anymore because there's no instant payoff. I just can't stand to spend weeks knitting a hat that no one wants. At least with painting I like what I do, enough so that it is ok if no one wants my paintings because I can't bear to give up most of them anyway! I gave it up for most of ten years, and restarted again only last year. The paints were still good. I still have the knitting needles too and maybe that will cycle around as well. But I have to work not to find expensive new hobbies. I figure that if I really love it, if it will really work for me, any reasonable supplies will do to start and will help me appreciate the good stuff later on.

And now I'm going to shut up.
posted by monopas at 1:01 AM on September 26, 2012

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