Pin this on your wall. It’s your license to learn. I’m giving you permission…right now… to slow down. We’ve become victims of speed. “How many paintings did YOU get done today??” A better question. What did you feel about the place you chose to paint today? Someone once asked me, “What do you paint?” An innocent enough question but I knew that they were asking what ‘things’ do you paint. Do you paint landscapes? Do you paint cats? I didn’t say anything for a while because I wanted to give them an honest answer. I finally said, “I paint what I love.” And you can’t love something in a hurry. It takes time.

Okay let’s talk about speed. You’re watching the Olympics. You see a skier totally shred a slalom course at a billion miles an hour carving a perfect line as you hear them give the smack down to each gate. It’s INSPIRING. It’s so inspiring you run out and buy skis (probably the wrong ones) and a lift ticket. You dump yourself off at the top of a Double Black Diamond and with every cell of your being, every ounce of your will, every deep desire of your heart you decide to just ‘express yourself’ with wild abandon. You launch yourself over the edge. You are carried down in a stretcher. Do I need to say it. You see a great painter. You are INSPIRED. You buy a bunch of stuff. You launch yourself at your canvas to express yourself with wild abandon. You’re carried out on a stretcher.

I’ve been asking myself a question for the past couple of years. Why do we as painters sometimes try to ‘cheat the gods’ – meaning – try to shred the gnar without the chops – when athletes and musicians would never dream of it. Because they clearly know if they do they will end up dead, in the hospital or humiliating themselves on stage at Carnegie Hall. As painters we can cheat because: One, we’re not going to poke an eye out with a paint brush if we do piles of paintings showing zero improvement. Two, we can always find someone who doesn’t want to hurt our feelings to tell us we’re brilliant. Three, we can find a show to enter that gives out so many ribbons they’re pretty much participation awards. For us there are no life-threatening consequences. Except maybe to our soul. Then one day we look in the mirror and say, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” We get a fire in the belly that drives us to find another way. We wake up and start working our butts off to conquer the skills that have bucked us off a hundred times. We never give up and we let out a battle cry that echoes off the canyons the day we stick it – the day we stay on for the eight seconds and hear the buzzer. Now THAT makes life sweet and imbues our paintings with a power that speaks to our audience.

Taking on the coaching style that athletes and musicians practice, can, by slowing us down, actually kick our progress into high gear. One of the keys is to clearly separate practice from performance. The masterful painting comes at the end of much preparation and study. When we go to a concert the musician has already prepared. We don’t go to watch them practice. Be patient. Work the problem. Practice. Study. Do it when nobody is looking. When there’s no glory. Then present your performance. Give the audience your best.

Here are a few of the exercises I use to herd my own set of mental cats:

a.) Every 90 days or so give yourself a report card. On paper or mentally – first list the core skills: drawing, perspective, composition, values, color. Next, list the higher level skills: edges, brush handling, surface quality, intent, site selection, atmosphere, carving space, designing using local tone, designing use light and shadow, rhythm, intervals, pacing, eye travel, etc.

b.) Without over thinking quickly assess your skill level in each area on a scale of 1-10. Make note of the weakest area.

c.) Set yourself on a focused course of study until you’ve brought the weakest area in line with the stronger skills. As you continue to do this your whole skill set slowly improves and becomes more cohesive.

You may have great skill in a few areas but your painting can be totally sunk when you confront something that reveals your weakness. Pretty much…we can’t run. We can’t hide. Measuring our progress also gives us the time to reflect on and feel the satisfaction that we ARE indeed improving. This CAN be done.

a.) For 9 painting sessions – studio or plein air – don’t make a painting. Painting infers we are going to create a finished product – come to a conclusion. Instead on the 9 canvases – study your core skills in order of weakness.

b.) Make the 10th canvas the performance. Attempt to orchestrate the skills you worked on in the first 9 into a harmonious painting.

c.) Then do it again. And again.

I used to be so performance oriented I tried to badger every canvas into becoming a painting. I murdered many a nice study session that, though not perfect, had some nice passages I could have used for future reference.

a.) Mentally separate studying from painting – the practice from the performance. Be clear about what you are doing and do nothing until you are clear. Just moving your paintbrush doesn’t accomplish anything.

b.) If something goes sideways in a painting, stop, analyze, set a course of study to correct the weakness, then revisit the subject and try again from a point of knowledge and a stronger skill set.

Buy stacks of inexpensive 5″ x 7″ canvas panels so you won’t feel they are precious. If you really have a problem reining in the desire to ‘perform’ rather than ‘practice’ then choose something non-archival so there is no chance you’ll be tempted to think you might come home with a painting. It removes the pressure to perform. Use one brush a size larger than feels comfortable to you. I prefer a nylon long-flat made for oils that can hold a clean edge when I want. I can get nearly every stroke I want out of this one brush. Before you begin a study on one of your wee canvases first set a problem to be solved or a question to be answered. Be curious. Set your intent. Examples: Today I will get the values right. Today I will see the scene as 3 to 5 large shapes. Today I’ll work on edges. Today I’ll do wireframes of a landform to better understand it. How does the light falling on this object change throughout the day? How many value steps are there between the zenith of the dome of the sky and the horizon at high noon? Next work the problem. Enjoy the process. No..bo..dy..is…watching. Work on one and only one problem at a time. There is no sense trying to orchestrate the complexity of a complete painting without mastery of the individual skills. One oboe out of tune can ruin an entire concert. Spend only about 30 minutes on a panel NOT in an effort to ‘paint fast’ but to practice the discipline of focusing your mind, making clear and simple decisions and resisting the temptation to wander, daydream or start picking at the canvas. Don’t ‘pet the kitty’! The urge to lay down a stroke and then ‘pet’ it again and again. Don’t place a stroke until you are sure of why you are placing it. Then place it, leave it and move on. When you are finished do your post game analysis. How did you do? What buffaloed you? What new light went on in your head?

Daily painting is an excellent discipline to develop a work ethic. However, I’d like to refine the concept a bit and take it a step further. I prefer to call it daily training. Putting paint on a canvas every day without purpose and direction – without a program – doesn’t do much to move us forward. Athletes take rest days. They plan their program so they peak at the right times. They know how to not burn out. To not injure themselves. Schedule in days to do nothing but flip through your collection of books on the great artists and illustrators throughout history. If you don’t have a collection start building one. Schedule in a day to simply pack a lunch and explore an area that you’ve had an interest in painting. Sit and become aware of the sounds, the feel of the light and shadows as they change throughout the day. Take the time to truly connect with a place. Find a coach who will help analyze where you are in your education as a painter and help you create a program for moving forward. If you can’t find a coach do the best you can to model a program for yourself. We have a world of great material available to us. Be selective when choosing material, teachers, workshops, coaches.

In the end it is only in slowing down that we’ll be able to speed up, to learn to lay down that confident stroke that doesn’t need correction or fiddling. To say what we want to say with brevity and elegance. The end credits on a favorite old TV series of mine always makes me take notice. Over the sound of a film reel rolling there’s a voice-over. It says, “I made this!” After our work, our commitment, we get to stand back with deep satisfaction and say, “I made this!”

Below I’ve included 4 examples of my own 30 minute training sessions and a description of the question I set out to answer, the skill I chose to practice – the motivation – for each.

For my study sessions I use inexpensive 5″ x 7″ oil primed panels and normally only one brush – a Rosemary Ivory size six flat/long bristle, long handle.

I hope if you incorporate the study sessions into your training program you’ll enjoy doing them as much as I do. You’ll find the descriptions below the block of four images.

I set out on a ‘light and shadow’ day to describe trees using basically two values with a clear division between light and shadow. Reduced to the simplest shape these trees are simply tall cylinders and obey the same rules of how they interact with light.

When another painter recounted a somewhat humorous story of setting out in the morning with a friend to find a painting location, they drove for hours and…yes…ended up back where they had started and finally stopped the car and set up their gear. It made me wonder why the endless search for the perfect time of day, the perfect light, the killer scene, as if finding those will somehow make us good painters. The answer came in another story I heard of a writing instructor at an Ivy League college. When final exam time came, each student pulled a piece of paper out of a bowl with the subject they were to write about. When one student whined it was a boring subject the professor said, “There are no boring subjects only boring writers.” OUCH!! That sounded so incredibly harsh but I never forgot it. I took it as my job as a painter to learn to be able to paint any subject, any place, any weather, any time of day and find beauty in it. My new mantra. Just stop the darn car! For this session my intent was to go out on what appeared to be a dull, gray, uninteresting winter day and paint the first thing I came upon which turned out to be a tree and a phone pole. I was fascinated to learn that something so mundane could become a nice little study. I found a pleasing value pattern relying on local tone.

I’m always tuned to moments when an opportunity presents itself. I glanced up one day from what I was doing and saw a scene entirely made of grays, clearly divided into 4 differing value shapes with each gray bent to a different cool or warm. I immediately grabbed one of my small training panels and set my intent to get those values right and also to practice mixing the subtle shifts in the grays.

When a study panel can become your backup plan. Always keep a few of your 5″ x 7″ panels handy. I was painting with a pal and didn’t want to bail even though my invincibility cape had temporarily failed and half my brain was being used for pain management. I knew I didn’t have the focus to ‘paint’ but really wanted to have the time with my pal AND not have to admit I was a weeny. I downgraded my plan for the day, took out one of my small study panels and set a very simple task for myself. I glanced around and became interested in a patch of light in the mid-ground that was equal in value to the values of the dome of the sky and light on the mountains. One of those exceptions when the dome of the sky is in fact not lighter than everything on the ground plane. What also interested me was because the patch of light abutted the darker value of the foothills it in fact appeared lighter than the sky and the light on the mountains when in fact all three are the same value.

Upcoming OPA Events

Eastern Regional Exhibition 2021 Eastern Regional Exhibition
The Eastern Regional Exhibition will be hosted by the ArtCenter Manatee, located in Bradenton, Florida, September 28 through October 22, 2021. Learn More!
OPA Fall 2021 Online Showcase OPA Fall 2021 Online Showcase
The Fall 2021 Online Showcase is from November 1 - December 15, 2021 and will be open to Signature and Associate members only. Learn More!
Western Regional Exhibition 2021 Western Regional Exhibition
The Western Regional Exhibition will be held October 15 through November 27, 2021 at the Mary R. Koch Arts Center (Mark Arts), located in Wichita, Kansas. More details to be announced as they become available. Learn More!
31st Annual National Juried Exhibition 31st Annual National Juried Exhibition and Convention
The Thirty-first National Exhibition and Convention will be located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The Convention will be from May 31 through June 5, 2022. The Exhibition will be from June 3 to August 27, 2022.