Art for Beginners?
March 13, 2008 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Advice for the non-artist about trying art?

I have never been the type to create art. I disliked art class as a child, perhaps afraid of what I perceived to be the performative aspect of it. My sister has always been the artistic one in the family, and she is quite skilled in a number of mediums. Last year, my senior year in college, I began for the first time to engage in anything 'artistic,' mainly in the form of mail art, collages, and mod-podging a globe, which was a lot of fun. I also like to make personalized crossword puzzles for friends. I am terrible at drawing, but take a lot of pleasure in coming up with ideas and executing them well. I am nearing the end of my graduate program, and would like to spend next year (a gap year) engaging in some artistic dabbling. I would appreciate any advice about starting at art: what mediums might I enjoy? What is it like to turn a vague idea into a piece of art? How can I access materials affordably? Are there any useful exercises for getting over initial worries and doubts? Thanks in advance.
posted by farishta to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the famous first book about how to draw. Drawing is a learned skill, not just something you should expect to be good at with no training. So, don't feel bad that you can't draw. Most people can't, but most people can get better with the right kind of practice. I would even say, take a drawing 101 class if you can. It's very helpful to have a live person saying "oh, nice line there, a little weak over here" etc. One class can make a huge improvement, and basic drawing skill is the best basis for painting.

But if drawing makes you nervous, you can do plenty of stuff without it.

Craft-y stuff like collage, knit/crochet/sewing, etc.

You can paint without being able to draw, though it will tend to be abstract. I would use acrylic or oil, which allow you to change your mind as you go -- not watercolor, where decisions are more irreversible.

The thing to remember is to just go for it. Even pro artists have plenty of projects that don't turn out the way they wanted. They just enjoy the process and try again.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:52 AM on March 13, 2008

Take an art course at a local school or art gallery. You're not a child anymore so you might enjoy it now. I'm sure there'd be many options and it might give you ideas/direction. You can start generalized and find something more specific later on.
posted by mkn at 9:54 AM on March 13, 2008

If you don't like drawing but want to create visual art, think about photography. A good photograph involves planning and thinking about color, shape, composition, light, and so on; the visual elements that make a good painting can also be applied to photography. There is definitely a learning curve, but it doesn't require the same degree of fine motor control that drawing does. Digital photography has also made what used to be advanced darkroom techniques accessible to everyone.
posted by TedW at 10:01 AM on March 13, 2008

Check out The Artist's Way.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:01 AM on March 13, 2008

I'd recommend you take a look around the Craftster forums. There is so much out there to do that you might love, and Craftster's a great source for advice on materials, tutorials, and general awesome inspiration.

Being able to draw or paint is surprisingly unnecessary in flexing your artistic muscle. I spent a lot of college painting stick people, drawing cartoon bugs in lipstick, and making Britney Spears collages, and still managed an art degree. There's a Matt Groening comic in School is Hell that encourages preschoolers to grab the paint, "before they show you how to do it right, and ruin everything." The coloring-outside-the-lines, paint-in-your-hair process was way better for my creativity than any attempts at precision.

And nothing is ever really ruined, per se -- even if your art goes disastrously wrong on the first try, it just becomes canvas/materials for a new piece.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:09 AM on March 13, 2008

1. Art is hard work. Make sure you chose an environment where you have the time and peace to work hard. You will appreciate your experience more for it.

2. Art makes art. Go to museums, look at art books, read about artists' lives and times. Research is essential. When you find art you like, make it a goal to see all that artist's work in pictures or in person, and review the art by their influences and their contemporaries.

3. Medium. Pick something cheap and easy. Pencil, watercolor, or acrylics are the easy recommendations. Be prolific because you commit as much time as you can. Roll up your sleeves and enjoy.
posted by ewkpates at 10:09 AM on March 13, 2008

Doing it is better than not doing it, regardless of your shortcomings or the quality of the end product.
posted by fire&wings at 10:28 AM on March 13, 2008

Seconding Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
I was one who considered myself "terrible at drawing" until my artist girlfriend bought me the book and had me work through the exercises. Now I draw and paint all the time, and actually consider myself an artist. It was an incredible transformation.
posted by rocket88 at 10:37 AM on March 13, 2008

Maybe this suggestion doesn't fit - it's not cheap and requires facilities - but I've gotten a huge amount of pleasure and creative fulfillment out of the potter's wheel. If you can, sign up for a ceramics class that will give you access to a kick wheel (rather than an electric model). The experience of throwing a pot is meditative and abstract, and execution doesn't depend on conventional art training. Plus, you get a useful cereal bowl at the end.
posted by Greenie at 10:37 AM on March 13, 2008

I'm in the middle of taking a Drawing I class as part of a degree and as someone who used to just doodle in ballpoint at work, the techniques they teach you in a class are just a revelation. I also have Drawing in the Right Side of the Brain and the course I'm doing is pretty close to the techniques in the book. The real bonus of the course is sitting in a room looking at each others work as we do it and encouraging each other (people do courses because they want to learn how to do it not because they're already good at it so we're all in the same boat). Also having a teacher there to show me where I can improve is better for me than just using the book. The discipline of having homework to do is also useful as it makes you find the time to do some practice.

In doing the course I have discovered charcoal which is a great medium to learn in (way more forgiving than pencil) and excellent messy fun!

the confidence the course has given me is priceless.
posted by merocet at 11:03 AM on March 13, 2008

I'm an elementary school teacher and my how-to-teach-art book suggests a few things:
-Set up a space in your home for art. It can be small, but have your supplies handy and organized. Make it a visually appealing spot.
-Don't be embarrassed by your lack of confidence or perceived lack of skill. Art should be fun. Celebrate your quirky creations.
-Try using many different mediums to find what you like best. And mix it up often.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:26 AM on March 13, 2008

You know, oils are really fun, 'cause they take forever to try. I tend to do any kind of art in a one-thing-at-a-time, put-down-a-line-and-see-how-it-looks, constantly-erase-and-redraw kind of approach, so I think the constant mutability of oils are a blast.

One of my favorite pasttimes is going to museums, plunking myself down in front of sculptures or fossils and stuff, and drawing those. You might like that, if you're looking to improve your drawing skills. One of the nice things about doing this at science museums is that there are plenty of organic forms, but unlike real animals or people, they don't move around much. You can stare at them for as long as you like!

The other thing about drawing, as other people said, is that it's a skill you learn over time. Don't get discouraged when things on paper don't look the way they look in your head. In fact, most of the drawings I'm most pleased with aren't usually things I consciously plan; I tend to approach drawing in a slightly meditative way, sort of emptying out my mind and seeing what happens on paper. At the same time, though, maybe that's the opposite of the "right-brain" approach other people are recommending. It sounds like it might be worthwhile to try that book recommended above, and see if it works for you.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:46 AM on March 13, 2008

nthing Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain.

I've heard that the right/left brain thing is kind of a falacy but it's still a really effective way to learn about yourself as an artist.

I got into it because I started taking photographs and found myself doing well with it, but then started doubting myself because I thought I had "no visual abilities". With that book, I did maybe the first 1/4 of the exercises and found myself improving a lot. That's where I left it, but it definitely convinced me that there was latent ability there, just like with everyone else.

I'd definitely give it a read. It's a great book.
posted by sully75 at 12:11 PM on March 13, 2008

Shit, that should read "'cause they take forever to dry." As in, oil paints stay wet and mutable for days. You can paint some stuff, go get a sandwich, then go back and change around what you just painted.

And while I'm thinking about mutability, you might mess around with plasticine -- it's the kind of clay that's used in claymation, 'cause it never dries out. Process-oriented fun!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:12 PM on March 13, 2008

I say just do art. Experiment for a bit. There is no 'right or wrong' way of doing things. (This is long, sorry in advance)

As a kid, I was one of those who was 'horrible at art', but I did like the concept of it; I liked looking through art books, and I found museums fun, even as a youngster. I just didn't like doing what they wanted me to do. Pasting bits of dry pasta onto a can didn't exactly call to my inner muse, and by the time I hit high school, I abandoned doing art completely. But I still loved viewing it. (It also helped that my favorite art gallery was free, so it provided many afternoons of fun for a broke teen.)

Over the years, I'd take up drawing, just to put it down a couple of weeks later - discouragement would come easily as soon as I saw someone else's art, and it was much better than mine. Didn't matter that they had been working at it steadily for years, were professional artists, and/or studied it in college - they were better than me, therefore I sucked. I did this as recently as last summer. But, when I did actually draw, I found it relaxing in ways that no other activity did.

My big revelation that I could actually do this was showing my friend's grade school child my sketchbook, where I did a little sketch of the mountain landscape outside my apartment, and she was just *fascinated*, because being raised in Chicago, she'd never seen mountains like this. Mountains on TV didn't count; they weren't 'real' like these were. After that, I decided to actually take this seriously. I got all my scattered art supplies together into one place, invested in a decent portable student watercolor kit (I love watercolors), and ordered the 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain' book and workbook. Realizing that I only want to do this for fun, and not as a profession or major, freed me up mentally from that 'I suck!' voice that piped up once in a while.

So yeah - just pick up some supplies and do it. There's no harm in trying, and you might discover something really great.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:40 PM on March 13, 2008

Thanks everyone for the comments so far. I decided not to mark any as best answers because every comment has been so helpful. I'll definitely pick up DotRSotB, and I like the idea of engaging in some sculptural projects as well. Pottery sounds really neat, if I can get into a more secure financial situation. If anyone has some amazing sculptural advice on the tip of their tongue it's welcome, but otherwise I'll end with a good old fashioned thank you, for posts previous and any to come. Thanks!
posted by farishta at 12:40 PM on March 13, 2008

N-thing Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, that was the textbook for the drawing classes I had to take in art school. I'm a photographer and could barely draw stick figures, but was able to churn out pretty decent work after going through that book.

I think you would like printmaking based on what you said about about drawing and taking pleasure in seeing the idea and execution through to the end. Printmaking is very process oriented, there are certain steps you have to take and certain limitations on what kinds of marks you can do and so on. I always enjoyed the structure of it (I think this is also why I'm a photographer), picking up a blank piece of paper and a pencil and drawing is the most daunting, unenjoyable thing for me. Printmaking is like the art equivalent of cooking: you have your recipe and the steps you need to take to complete it, but what happens along the way and what you bring to it is what makes it unique and special in the end. It's very rewarding, I think everyone who gets into printmaking can remember that feeling of satisfaction they had the first time they pulled a print through the press.

You can screen print and do relief (ie. linocuts) pretty easily at home without many supplies with great results, although my recommendation is to find some kind of group setting where you can work. Many cities have printing studios where you can pay a fee or take a class for cheap in exchange for use of the equipment, and that would open the possibilities up beyond some of the simpler processes (lithography and etching particularly are almost limitless with the ways you can approach it and what you can do). Printmaking is also kind of a social, collaborative activity and it's nice to work in a real print shop with other people around.

I always joked with my some of my more fine-art oriented friends that printmaking was for artists who can't draw very well and can't operate a camera.
posted by bradbane at 12:52 PM on March 13, 2008

As a engineer by education, programmer by occupation, I have very little traditional artistic schooling, so I use my left brain to conjure up crutches when painting:
- Create your own stencils from frisket paper. Nice, sharp lines with very little paintbrush fu. Try mixing these with free-hand brushstrokes.
- Take a digital picture of something you want to paint. Use a projector (home theater or PC presentation) to project it onto your canvas. Either sketch the outline with pencil or just paint it. Either way, your proportions will be right, and the minor mistakes will look like "artistic license".
- Lean on art supply stores for your pre-stretched, pre-Jessoed (primed) canvases. They can make custom sizes too. You'll burn too much time and energy doing this yourself and never get to the good stuff. (Unless, maybe, making canvases is totally your thing...)
- Go with your crazy ideas and leverage your seemingly non-artistic skills. Do a Google Image Search for [whatever] or take a screen shot from Warcraft, then have [whatever]/Warcraft printed up on a canvas. Augment it yourself with oil paints, charcoal, or ball-point pen for that matter. Glue microwaved army-men and decapitated Barbie dolls to it, then weld up a frame and hang it from your ceiling. Call it "mixed media". Win!
posted by LordSludge at 1:42 PM on March 13, 2008

If you are interested in art I would suggest learning about art. Seeing as you are going in to a graguate program I advise you to learn to appreciate and begin to understand art while you are experimenting with a variety mediums. Ask yourself "what is art?" Chances are you probably don't have a good answer. It is certainly much more than painting a pretty picture, making a nice bowl, or chiseling a good sculpture. Those are all "skills" and the vast majority of which are accomplished by "craftsmen" and not artists.

Creating is the fun part. I say try many mediums at first, pick your favorite and figure out how to use the CRAFT. At the same time, learn about ART. That by far will be the most rewarding aspect. If anything, it will help you understand that there is more to paintings "that my child could have done" or "it's just a naked woman, so what?" or "it looks like a trained monkey splattered paint on that canvas"
posted by comatose at 1:46 PM on March 13, 2008

For me, the journey is the destination. I can have a few projects going at one time--I'll get stuck on one and put it away for a while, and pull another one out with a fresh perspective. I don't feel it's about "look what I made", or "well this sucks, that means I must suck at "teh art". It's the process of creating. I can have a piece that I just can't do anymore with, but I was fulfilled and content in the making.
posted by wafaa at 3:18 PM on March 13, 2008

I agree that art creates art. Quick and easy inspirations come from good art magazines: graphic design, "American Craft," fine art, found art...if you have a good bookstore or library in your area, just peruse the craft and illustration magazines. They're cheaper than books and can be REALLY inspiring. And remember, no pressure! Just have fun. It helps me to just doodle for 20 minutes a day in a sketchbook that I know no one will see: drawings, ideas, inventions that will never be invented, notes.
posted by cachondeo45 at 3:19 PM on March 13, 2008

Good non-answer, wafaa. Sorry. My advice is to go to a big craft store and browse and grab anything that catches your eye. Some cool paper, markers, paint, clay--and rubber ink stamps aren't only for stamping! If you're attracted to color, get paint, ink; if you're more tactile get some polymer clay, papier mache, that good stuff. Nthing DOTRSOTB and The Artist's Way. Check out what she calls "morning pages". (Julia Cameron)
posted by wafaa at 3:32 PM on March 13, 2008

nthing ceramics. You can initially treat it as a technical skill, and just from doing it over & over & over again, you'll start to learn what looks visually appealing. I can make beautiful, thin, even pots, but when I draw, even my stick figures don't turn out.
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:48 PM on March 13, 2008

Danny Gregory has some nice books and advice and attitudes and such. He largely focuses on journalling, which is sort of a nice concrete simple thing to do while you get used to arting.
posted by zusty at 5:50 PM on March 13, 2008

If you're talking about drawing better, practice drawing. Otherwise, art is ideas.
posted by apetpsychic at 6:15 PM on March 15, 2008

Oh, but if you just want a medium that's really fun to mess around with, try oil pastels.
posted by apetpsychic at 6:17 PM on March 15, 2008

Take a drawing class at the local JC. There's about a million advantages to classes over going it alone: the ability to compare your ability and improvement to others, feedback on what you are doing. The classroom will provide a nice, distraction-free place to start working and the assignments will propel you along towards all that "lotsa hard work" everybody talks about. The fundamentals of drawing are applicable to nearly every art form thereafter and unlike a lot of other mediums, materials are inexpensive and easy to find. Drawing is the ultimate take-it-with-you activity in that regard.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 5:47 PM on March 17, 2008

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