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Mar 31, 2010

Painting by Numbers . . .

I'm not a big fan of easy-paint TV art shows.

The more step-by-step they are, the more I dislike them. You know the kind -- those PBS How-to shows hosted by avuncular middle-aged men in colorful sweaters, who chat to the camera in breathy voices as they paint run down farmhouses, breeching whales, craggy mountainsides, and 'finish' them inside a 26 minute half hour. Who stand in front of a folksy studio backdrop propped with split-rail fences and straw bales. I won't mention any specific names or shows because doing so wouldn’t be polite. And besides, if I broke the TV Artists' Code of Omerta I may never be allowed to host one.

Don't get me wrong, I like the warm and fuzzy feelings those shows convey as much as anyone and will admit to watching a few of them every now and then during the lunch hour. But for actually learning how to paint they are pure foolishness and hooey. All the Magic White™, Happy Little Brushes™, and Secret Sauces of the Masters™ aside, what they offer is artistic pablum. It is method painting at its worse and frankly I wish we'd just call it what it is and be done with it: tole painting.

Painting isn't about special materials or methods, although admittedly there is much to master with regards to the tools we use. It certainly isn't about painting from out of our heads. Painting is about seeing. This means a painter should be looking at, or studying something real. Not following along with how to render a palm tree blown over by a hurricane, or an indian trapper riding a horse through a snowdrift. (And really, is that snowbank there because our genteel sweater-wearing TV artist considered it an aesthetic device, or is it there because our artist didn't learn his equine anatomy well enough to draw the dang legs of the horse?)

If you really want to learn how to paint, to improve as a painter, then you must go outside and look at things. Everything. Scrutinize what you find by drawing it. Devote time to drawing from life. Draw something once and then redraw it again. But on the second try, do a better job. But always keep drawing from life! Then, draw some more. Go to bed thinking about what you drew that day. Go to sleep, wake up, and start drawing some more. After you've draw enough you'll begin to see how everything is different from everything else and that difference is called art. In fact, it is the critical component of art.

But what about all the magazine articles, books, and DVDs that promise to teach us how to draw and paint in ten easy steps? At best, some of them might reveal one or two tricks. At worse . . . well, let’s not go there. That way, lies Mannerism . . . er, I mean madness.

Remember the old saw about teaching a man to fish? That's what you want as an artist – to know how to fish. If anyone guarantees you quick success then quietly back away. There is no such thing as easy in painting. It's always a bit hard and painful.

Every time you set a fresh canvas on your easel your heart should skip a beat. You should experience a familiar flash of anxiety and ask yourself,“Can I pull this off?” To ask it is essential. It means you are pushing your present ability and taking a risk. If you don't as it that painting will become a repeat of what you did before and your work will not progress.

The best advice I’ve encountered for improving as an artist came from Paul Cezanne. He said, “Nature is the best instructor.”

Not the easiest or quickest -- the best.


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