How can I learn to be a very good acrylic painter?
June 6, 2014 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I've been a professional writer all my working life--non-fiction: newspapers, national magazines, books, tv--and now that I'm semi-retired I'm attempting to learn a new skill. Painting. It's thrilling to see the world in a new way and I love it. The instructor is delightful: accomplished and generous with praise. I've taken her beginners' course and learned a lot--by my subjective eye, I went from worst in the class to second best. Now I'm in the follow-up course. But I'm not very good yet and nearly all the 15 or so others in this class have painted for years or have taken lots of courses, and they're embarrassingly far ahead of me. I know that I must "compete" only with myself. I know that I can advance only at my own pace and that should be fine. But I want to learn faster! I want to be the best! I'm reading books, and practicing outside class, and messing around with different paints and colors and substrates, and that helps. Is there anything else I might do that would help me learn faster? Tips? Reading? Materials? Just practicepracticepractice? See, I don't even know enough yet to ask a clear and concrete question. Mefi artists, can you show me the way?
posted by fivesavagepalms to Education (12 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Paint the same thing over and over and over, try something new every time you paint it or work on perfecting a technique. I paint miniature figures for games like Warhammer so it's not quite the same but decided I wanted to do more than slap paint on and call it a day so I picked up a box set with tonnes of figures in and started to work my way through the box, one figure from start to finish at a time. I lined them all up on the window sill, by the end of the box I had learned oh so much and had a time line of space marines and orcs that showed just how far I had come. I can't see why the same principle wouldn't work for you. The important part is to keep these earlier attempts so when you think you'll never get a technique, you'll never be as good as someone else you can look back and see how far you've come.

Paint everyday if you can even if just for an hour. I like to run instructional videos in the background while I am painting, YouTube is a gold mine for things like that.
posted by wwax at 9:43 AM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am also a writer-turned-artist (well, haven't abandoned the writing). Some folks on here pointed me to the forums at , which is great for all mediums and styles.

Things that have helped me are to look at lots of art. The book Art and Fear is a great read. Michelle Cassou's books are inspiring.

For me, the biggest obstacle is stopping analysis, stopping big concepts, and just painting. What's helped with that for me personally is to do a lot of small, inexpensive pieces rather than getting wrapped up in huge projects.

Good luck! I hope you have fun along the way.
posted by mermaidcafe at 10:04 AM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you want to get better at technique or at painting-as-art? Because wwax nailed the technique part — practice, man. Practice practice practice. But for the broader question, where you want to become a better painter-as-artist?

See as much art as you possibly can. Go to local galleries, museums, take trips to museums… Acrylics can range wildly from pop art flatness to color-field depth. Seeing what other artists have done with the medium will give you a better appreciation of both how to construct that art and what things are important to your eye. Not only that, but art in different media will also influence you. See some cool sculpture? How would you translate that to canvas?

You can also look for local artist groups who can help you do two things: Critique and show. Critiquing will help you develop skills that both bring depth to your own work and also help you catch unproductive or poor practice before you waste a lot of time on it. The other thing, and I'm bad at this myself (but great at advice!) is that showing will also really help you get out there in contact with other artists and help you get the opinions of people who don't know you and don't care about you — they won't know the backstory about the teddy bear that came from your dead grandma, won't care unless you make them, and because of that are a pretty good gauge of how much you're actually able to communicate with your work.
posted by klangklangston at 10:04 AM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

All good advice, and also:

Carry a sketchbook wherever you go and sketch from life in the in-between, waiting-room moments. It trains your eye to see what things are physically like, your brain to get into visual observation mode, and your critical consciousness to get over itself. Sketching from life is to visual art what scales are to playing music.
posted by glasseyes at 10:12 AM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Get in touch with how you feel when painting something. Anger, joy, beauty, irritation? Then start to think about what color is anger for you? What shape is joy? How soft, or hard, is beauty? This exercise can help you develop a deeper understanding of what you are doing and how it is your personal expression is showing up.
posted by Vaike at 10:40 AM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

These ideas are all very helpful!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:39 AM on June 6, 2014

What glasseyes said. I'm a writer/artist, freelancing in both disciplines, and have taught them, too. Definitely draw, draw, draw. Take a drawing class, even. Learn the basics of perspective, layout, and composition. Your painting will be the better for it! Life drawing is great fun, too. I love it.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:03 PM on June 6, 2014

I've signed up for drawing class and am looking forward to it.
Any other secrets to impart?
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:32 PM on June 6, 2014

Honours Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts, concentration in Studio work (painting, drawing). I am not working as an artist full time, but have been commissioned in the past.

You need to know how to draw to paint - taking drawing class is a good thing.
Continue to go to classes, and receive critiques on your work from peers (this is rough for those that are sensitive, but getting a perspective from others really does make you a better artist). Constructive criticism is IMPORTANT to your artistic processes. Offering critique is also important. What do you think of others' work?

This is going to sound a little academic, but play with different painting styles. How? Look at what other artists are doing or have done. Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh - all had diffferent styles. Try different subject matter - landscapes, still life. You learn from doing, but you also learn from observing.

Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain really helped me to open up another way of drawing. I highly recommend that book.

Sketch every day, even if it's something small.

Keep your brushes washed and clean.

Most of all, have fun with it! :)
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 4:00 PM on June 6, 2014

Full-timer here.
Just want to add that within your sketchbooks, keep notes & tips on your paintings. Successes and failures. I refer to my notes pretty regularly to reference how I achieved a certain glow or the varnish used or an unusual color juxtaposition. A simple thing really.
posted by artdrectr at 4:32 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Re: playing with styles, as mentioned by MeatheadBrokeMyChair above - don't ever hesitate to copy the masters for practice! I felt weird and squicky about this for ages, especially with artists who were completely out of my stylistic comfort zone, but oh, the things you can learn from copying! It really opens your eyes to things you might never have noticed, like the way an artist can evoke the shine on a girl's hair in a single brush-stroke, or the use of colors you would never have thought to use, or a thousand other things. You can look at a painting all day and still not truly see it until you try to reproduce it yourself.
posted by po at 12:28 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much to all for terrific, helpful answers. I'll be following every one of your suggestions and expect to be a rich and famous artist soon. Or at least pretty good.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:22 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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