On Growing As a Painter

It’s never too late to be who you might have been.

—George Eliot

Book Cover

Excerpted from: “Beyond Paint: A Guide to Conceptual Painting,” by M Kathryn Massey, OPA, DPS, AA

By now you understand the act of painting is considered, intentional and best undertaken with a concept each time you go to the easel. Many of us were lead to believe that painting is only about such things as self-expression, lucrative portrait commissions, copying exactly what is seen on the model stand, or selling painting after painting in a gallery. These are the goals of some painters; some painters measure their success and self worth by these kinds of benchmarks. It is not my place to argue for or against these personal goals.

This final chapter will speak to maturing as a painter. It won’t address gallery sales, winning show awards, how much of your teacher’s work is seen in your final paintings; or, how accurately you copy the minutiae of a subject. To my way of thinking, these do very little for your growth as a painter.

How do we grow as painters?

gestures fiveFirst, I can say, it’s a solitary path. What do I mean? I mean, we are alone in our work as painters. It’s a private journey, that can’t escape its source from within. The source is who we are. We must be mindful to this fact. It is where we find ourselves at any given time. This is the beginning of our work to grow as painters.

Painting is undertaken in isolation–with thoughts, feelings, memories, impulses, history and present day all contributing to our response in paint. No real work of creativity is achieved in a vacuum. So in that sense, we are not unique. We all have a history that went before us. We can’t escape who we are completely.

And yet, our very growth as a person and painter depends on knowing our limits, our strengths; and perhaps, setting aside much of our subjective interests for the good of the work. This speaks to letting the art come through us as much as by us in its final form.

Are there practical habits that can help us grow?

This may be the best place to begin. What can you do to mature as a painter in a practical sense?
Practice drawing from a live model as often as you can- weekly if possible. Test out your mettle by using charcoal, pen and wash, watercolors or paint. Stretch yourself and challenge yourself to sit in front of the model — find one or two things you want to improve upon in each session. Use the session to practice, to see, to understand what is before you and then, make art from that. Don’t just do what you know. Do more. Try more. Do what you don’t know how to do. This is practicing and stretching yourself. It isn’t enough to do what you know. You must do what you don’t know but want to do.threeposes

Go back and study old drawings and paintings you have worked on. See where you went wrong and note what is still working. The hallmark of Art is that it has the past, present and future all contained within. Therefore, it is outside the context of linear time. Your work can have this feature. This means it will be viewed as vital, compelling and “good” long after you are gone. Note where this is happening in your work and internalize it rather than guess at it when you next go to the easel.

Study the Old Masters. Understand their work, like yours, was created in the context of a culture and time. This doesn’t mean you must be time bound, or culture bound. This means you can’t escape your life and all of its constraints. Learn to lean beyond those constraints to create work that is outside any pinned down moment.

Having said this……

Is it not your goal or purpose to recreate the work of the Old Masters, any one philosophy or school; or, recreate the work of your teacher. These are benchmarks in your progress. To be Original, you must be Authentic, meaning your own. This takes time. Do your own work and not the work of any one teacher or school. If a teacher expects you to paint like them, run!!! They do you a disservice to copy their work no matter how original. They rob you of your own development and exacting voice that is yours alone. Remember, you must develop your own language through paint.

ultrmarineThis means you must hear your own voice through paint and the act of painting. You must, in being authentic, find your own way. Yes, it’s good to walk with a teacher for a while, but eventually, you walk the path alone gathering information old and new.

The act of maturing as a painter is, at times uncomfortable, and like walking a tightrope– without a net. Indeed, it must be so. If you are not discontent at some moment, you are not ready to go on. To grow, you must find moments and periods of real discontentment. These will catapult you to the next moments of discovery. It isn’t easy. It takes time.

Time. Learning to paint is not a linear process. It isn’t done by rote, by memorization of this or that. Each time you are at the easel, you must begin again. Fresh. You are different. You are new. The work will be also. Pay attention to the changes inside. These are what affect change outside. This is what your work becomes. Pay attention to your habits, your thoughts and feelings as you watch the painting unfold. Watch the painting….. It will show you what it needs and want to stretch with you. Let it be so.

pitcherQuestions. These are what make us stronger in our work. It isn’t enough to have an answer. You must be thinking about the next question. Painting is an organic process. You must begin again each time you paint. What worked in one painting may be completely wrong for the next. There is no end to the beginning…….cool, huh?

Sit with painters who are farther along than you are. If you admire there work, try and paint with them. It’s always a grand idea to paint with someone who is a bit beyond where you are. This helps you stretch and grow.

Painting, like dance, singing, or playing an instrument takes practice. You can’t paint once or twice a year in a workshop and expect to become a good painter. It’s just not possible. As with other art disciplines, you must practice over and over to understand yourself and the work. It can’t only be read about. Nor can it be absorbed through only looking at artwork in museums or galleries. It must be practiced and many choices made. Remember: there are no mistakes. Only better choices. You must make some bad choices to get to the better choices. It must be so. It’s difficult work. If you look at your choices as mistakes, your mindset is limited and closed.

Choices mean and have possibilities.

There are some painters who will disagree with this next statement. Paint from life. Is it “wrong” to copy photos? I don’t know if anything is wrong. But, you won’t learn as much by copying photos if you ‘re interested in learning to paint. I would add–painting from life is a richer, more rewarding experience.

teapotAlso a limitation to learning: projecting images such as a portrait onto the wall and tracing it onto a canvas. No one understands this as learning. Can you make money? I suppose. But is it learning? I don’t think it is. You have to do the work and put in the hours to become a confident painter. This is within you and does not live outside you. Know this. Painting comes from within.

This all points to one central idea: painting is bringing forth that which is in you; and, as you develop and sensitize yourself to painting from within, you develop more and more to the person and painter you are meant to be. Painting comes from the inside, the inner world. It does not originate in the outer world. If a critic, teacher or another painter criticizes your direction, only you know in your heart and mind’s eye if you are doing the real work that is yours. You must let these comments roll off your back. They are irrelevant to your sensibilities, your authority and your own unique sense of being a painter. Said another way, the private world, your private world is subject to being criticized publicly. You must believe in yourself and look for no validation about what it is you want to say through the language you develop. When you can do this, you will be working from a place of confidence that the work is your own and your voice is being heard. You are growing as a painter.

A word about being understood by others: throughout history, we know of painters who have used such a private language, that little of the world was able to hear or access that language. This might be said of those who caste off all reference to the past to create art void of any historical reference, context or understanding. Here’s an example, not to pick on Jackson Pollock. He dripped paint on a canvas lying on the floor. House paint. This was his contribution to the world of art; to smash any reference to narrative, time, or history by excluding these features in his work. I find his language so limited it borders on incoherent and babble—for me. Of course, it is only my opinion about surface art of this kind. There are those who would disagree. Pollock’s language and efforts were so private, I am left without any real connection to him or to his work. This is the danger in developing highly subjective language— or creating work that is shocking or offensive. No one may understand the work, or if so offensive to humanity, no one will care.

Be Sociable, Share!

Upcoming OPA Events

OPA 2018 National Exhibition OPA 2018 National Exhibition
Oil Painters of America’s Twenty-seventh Annual National Exhibition will be held at the Steamboat Art Museum (SAM), Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from June 1 through September 3, 2018. Learn More!
OPA 2016 Summer Online Showcase OPA 2017 Fall Online Showcase
The Fall 2017 Online Showcase is from October 1 - December 15, 2017 and will be open to Associate and Signature members. Learn More!
  • linds

    if you are going to mention jackson Pollock..you should at least spell his name correctly.

    • Margie Cansino

      after all you read, all you can mention is a type-o, poor shallow soul

      • M Kathryn Massey

        Hi, Margie, thanks for your note. sometimes different things jump out to different people. I loathe typos, but glad it was caught.

        glad you joined in the discussion. so much to think about, no?? mkm

  • David Henderson

    “Be yourself. Because everyone else is taken..” – Oscar Wilde

  • Elbertpat

    Controversial art can be “good” art, but because it’s controversial that alone does not make it “good” art.

  • Thomas Watson OPA

    Kathryn, the last part of your last sentence reads: “or if so offensive to humanity, no one will not care.” Don’t you mean “no one will care.” (?) The way it reads now is that if your art is offensive to humanity everyone will care. Regardless I agree with the general premiss of your article. I attended 3 different art schools from the late 1950s’ to the early 1960s’, plus attended a number of landscape painting workshops later, and never had an instructor say draw or paint like me. They gave their theory, their approach and pointed out weaknesses or strengths in their students work, but never expected us to imitate or copy their style. They always encouraged self expression, but emphasized learning the academics of drawing and painting to support our personal approach. Painting from life, I agree, is the best way, but, like Degas and so many other great painters, after they became very skilled draftsmen and painters they used photographs, especially for those angles or poses that were nearly impossible to hold for a model. But, I agree, learning to paint from photos tends to make the painter dependent on what is in the photo.. a tendency to copy while making less objective and subjective decisions in the process.

  • M Kathryn Massey

    Thank you all for your comments and typo corrections. Thomas, you are correct in that if someone brings only their subjective interest, offending others and degrading humanity, most, if not all viewers, will not care.

  • Guest

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I started painting at a mature stage in my life and have found such tranquility and peace. Like life, I’ll continue to grow as an artist as long as I’m living. Improving my skills and unveiling my artistic talents is personally very rewarding. Your article is confirmation that I’m flowing in the right direction. Gratitude!

  • Renee LaVerne Rose

    I started painting at a mature stage in my life and have found such tranquility and peace. Like life, I’ll continue to grow as an artist as long as I’m living. Improving my skills and unveiling my artistic talents is personally very rewarding. Your article is confirmation that I’m flowing in the right direction. Gratitude!

  • m kathryn massey

    Hi, Renee,

    Like you, I began to paint later in life. Age 41. That was 20 years ago.
    Also like you, I began to understand the transformative properties of painting, that being inner tranquility and peace as you describe. The painting journey is a way of being in the world, and if seen as such, the painter comes away with a better understanding of one’s Self and the world around you.


  • Chris

    Hi Kathryn. I agree with nearly all of what you had to say in your piece.

    One thing though I might qualify slightly is your comment regarding originality. While I do agree that originality requires authenticity, I do worry sometimes that too many (especially younger) people chase originality prior to technical knowledge or proficiency. I really think the constant quest for originality is misplaced. It’s a cart and horse issue. When one strives to learn first the “craft” of painting, originality will out, naturally and in its own time. It can’t help but do so, as we are all hard-wired a little differently and uniquely. To emphasize to young artists that they need to express their originality first is, I believe, to do it the wrong way. It is self-indulgent and leads to much of the kind of chaos that led to the mid 20th century modern art movement. I’m not saying that you are suggesting that originality should be paramount for each artist. I guess, as I said, that I worry that it could be construed this way.

    • mkathrynmassey

      Chris, I accidentally hit send before finished. Each of us needs to learn with our intentions in mind. After all, those are what guide us as we paint. While I could not realize what was in my mind as a beginner, it was/is in my mind that permits me to continue, albeit with struggles, to realize what was first important to me.

      Also, keep in mind this is one chapter from the book I wanted to share with our members. In a sense, it’s out of context in that it doesn’t include some of the great points you have made in your reply.

      To emote on canvas or to shock a perspective audience would be intentions which a painter owns. So in that sense, the painter is being original by doing what is important to him/herself. Originality to some painters is to be “different”, “shocking”, etc., These intentions are outside the painter. They are for the audience.

      But, what I’m speaking about is intentions for the good of the work, not the viewing audience. These intentions come from inside us. It is this aspect that has the transformative quality in both our final work and in our inner life.

      To paint for any reason other than for the good of the work, is to paint “outside’ one’s self. This is why I wrote that we must listen to ourselves (with craft in tow) to do the work that is our work, not the work of any teacher, school, or anything outside of us.

      I think?, Chris we are on the same page?? mkm

      • Chris

        I would say we are basically on the same page. Not having the full context of your thoughts probably made my comments unfair assumptions.

        • m kathryn massey

          It’s difficult to speak about painting because words don’t correlate or translate directly to dabs of paint and/or brush marks. But, it is fun to talk about. Thanks for adding to the conversation!! mary

  • mkathrynmassey

    Hi, Chris, A good point and it helps to clarify. You are correct in that our originality bubbles up to the service. I think it begins to show early on as we paint. For instance, when i began, it was important for a painting to convey stillness, quiet, and harmony. Could I do so at the beginning? Absolutely not I still struggle for those elusive qualities and they elude me more so when my life outside of painting is chaotic or distracting me. Maybe said another way: our intentions lead us to our own originality.
    In other words, what we bring to the work, our intentions, strongly influences the outcome.