Practicing Art

"Saturday Wash" by Jane Barton

"Saturday Wash" by Jane Barton

It has always struck me as odd that physicians “practice” medicine. Aren’t they ever done? Of course not–doctors are required to learn new things–they must keep up with the latest science and treatments. With this in mind, I decided to begin or rather, renew, my own art “practice”. My office is my studio, my tools are the obvious ones, and I have begun to write myself prescriptions for regular check ups, (value studies, 1x/day), continuing education (workshops, 1x/year or as needed, constant study in my library and on the internet), and booster shots (at museums and every week with my art friends). You get the idea.

It all began last fall as I was planning a trip with some artist friends to Italy to paint where Edgar Payne captured those marvelous orange-sailed boats in the early 20th century. I was really nervous. I live in the desert. I don’t know a halyard from a square knot and I knew I’d better start “practicing” painting boats. Two months before the trip, at the OPA conference in Idaho, I went to a demo by Ned Mueller and he advised us to get up every morning and, even before that first cup of coffee, head into the studio and paint a small study for exactly 15 minutes. No more, no less. So, I did just that, except I had my coffee in hand, for 64 days before my trip to Italy. Most of the 64 little paintings were done in black and white to help me with the values, but it also helped me to became familiar with the perspective and beautiful curves of the boat and the sails. It helped me so much that I still do it. Ok, sometimes I miss a morning, but it’s become such a habit that I actually feel guilty when I don’t do it. What do I paint now that I’m back on solid sand? Anything I want to paint. It’s just practice, after all. Although I can tell you that those little, 15 minute studies have grown up to become some of my best paintings. Besides being a great way to warm up my painting muscles (both physical and mental) this is a practice that really pays off.

Jane Barton - Boatmaker Value Study

Jane Barton - Boatmaker Value Study

All of this brings me to the point of this blog. As artists we never stop learning, but sometimes it feels like we’re just treading water, going nowhere fast. I tell my students not to throw away their old, rejected paintings, but to date them and keep them for comparison to newer paintings. Sometimes we don’t feel like we’ve made any progress until we can actually see what we were doing 3 months ago. Then we see some movement, however small, that’s enough to encourage us to keep going. This year, I decided to make a conscious effort to take my work to a new level and started to think about how to do that. The 15 minute sketches were the beginning, but I found a few other ways to work on this that I’d like to share with you.

1. I made an effort to find an art “support group.”
I remembered reading Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland which describes a study about those artists with/without support groups. They studied art students for 20 years and discovered that the ones who had connected with other artists were more likely to still be making art. This connection was more important than talent in the long run.

I think that a good support group, with artists who you trust, is like a marriage that works: when you’re “up” you help them, when you’re down, they help you. Not often in the same place at the same time, but it works. Now I meet with artists at coffee or in one of our studios at least once and usually twice a week. We share show information, frame suppliers, etc., congratulate each other or commiserate and talk about anything that we’re thinking about art-wise over coffee for about 2 hours. We artists, like writers, lead very solitary lives, so this is an incredible way to leave the studio and still feel like we’re “working” and, of course, learning.

2. I rediscovered the joys of getting back to basics
I took a workshop with Skip Whitcomb and he had us working with an extremely limited value palette–white, black and one grey very close to either the white or the grey. Wow. Talk about challenging you to simplify!

Then I did some new color charts with a four color palette I was interested in trying. These exercises really helped me to find new ways of saying what I wanted to say with the paint and reminded me to just enjoy the process of painting, without always having a specific painting or show deadline in mind.

3. I remembered the importance of making mistakes–it’s how we learn.
“You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours.” Art & Fear, p26

4. I set some new goals for myself–at least two paintings a week, good or bad!

"The Boatmaker" by Jane Barton

"The Boatmaker" by Jane Barton

5. I went back to my art library.
I revisited old “friends”: some books are more dog eared than others–you know which are your favorites. I also made myself reach for the books that I’d never really spent any time with–I wanted to try new ideas on for size, taking the lessons of other artists and trying them for myself

6. I started to thumb through my old workshop notes.
I wondered, “Why do I keep writing down the same things?” I paid to attention to that and decided to work on those areas. In some cases when I revisited the lessons, lightbulbs went off! I was in a better place to understand some of the ideas now and actually put them to use in my work.

The short version of this is: keep practicing and find artist friends, even if they’re only in blogs! And, as my friend (and fellow artist) Joan Larue always says, “keep your brushes wet!” I’m reminded of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!” Just substitute “How do you get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art” and you’ll get my point.

Thanks so much for listening and please let me know how it goes for you!

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  • Maureen

    Great post!  Common sense is underrated, isn’t it?   These are golden nuggets!

    • http://www.janebartonstudio.com/ Jane Barton

       Thanks, Maureen. I tell my students that whenever they get “stuck” or are faced with a new subject, the basics will see them thru. Forget about what it is, just break it down to simple values and shapes and you’re on your way. It not only helps the end result, it gets you “into” the painting faster, with confidence, and past that glaring white canvas!

  • Geriacosta

    Great “get going and growing” ideas, Jane.  I have observed that the best artists put in the practice. However, I find “time” to be my biggest obstacle in doing all this…..I have eliminated a lot of distractions, in the mean time,  ie: husbands and pet management as two examples. Do you have any advise on how to make the clock stop ticking?!

    • http://www.janebartonstudio.com/ Jane Barton

       You’re not alone, Geri, and for those of us who have a studio at or near our house, it’s especially difficult to carve out painting time. When my kids were growing up, I worked at night so that I could have 5 or 6 uninterrupted hours. If you’re not a night owl and can afford it, a space “off site”–away from home–is great. And no phone calls or emails until you’ve put in your daily quota! Some artist friends, those “morning” people, get up before anyone else to put in the time. I guess it’s up to you, but the most important thing is to have a schedule that you stick to and let your family and pets know that you mean business! Good luck!

  • Bgl

    Much more complex than I imagined. I thought the perspective of the artist would interact with the subject o create the approach…..forgetting the basics entirely. so sometimes you have to re-learn how to ride the bicycle?

    • Jane

      Absolutely. I think painting is a lot like golf or any sport: there’s the mental game, of course, but then there’s muscle memory. Use it or lose it. The good news is that if you’ve got a good foundation, you’ll be back on the bike in no time! That’s where some of the “back to basics” tools come in handy. If you’re feeling rusty, just go back to the values, etc., just like going to the practice range before a round of golf. But most important, get those brushes wet and spend the time in front of the canvas. All of this so that you can interact with the subject and get what you really want to say down in paint. 

  • Ruthie

    I LOVE this blog post, excellent stuff… it is right on & adding to my inspiration to paint every day, even if it’s just an apple…& I am taking the summer to browse thru some of my favorite art books & go thru notes from classes & workshops. I need to exercise & stretch my painting muscle, my seeing muscle, my making marks muscle…thanks Jane…

    • Jane

      Thanks so much, Ruthie–and be sure compare your first canvas this summer with the one you do on Labor Day. Sounds like you’re going to see a real leap in your work!

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