An Art Reboot
Updated: Jun 28
In college I tutored math and sciences, both to make a little money and to solidify my own understanding. I remember a guy I was working with who was struggling a lot in algebra. He would run up against a wall, it seemed, and would be unable to work through problems. We spent quite a bit of time over the course of a few weeks trying to figure out where his roadblocks were. We reviewed basic concepts of algebra, then finally did some fundamental arithmetic. Long story made short: he did not know how to subtract.
How could such a thing happen, that a high school graduate, now enrolled in college algebra, was not able to subtract? It turned out that when he was in second grade, this student missed nearly two months of school when he became ill with mononucleosis. What did he miss? Well, that should be clear by now. From then on, math was a struggle. Lacking a critical, fundamental concept in arithmetic was a barrier to all of his future work in math. He was getting by--barely--but it was a constant slog to make progress.
Where was I going with this?
Art has been that way for me. A constant slog, albeit one that I enjoy a great deal. I have some competence in producing paintings, but not because I have any kind of foundation in the basic skills of art. Like my student's second grade teacher, I thought that I would just pick up what I missed, along the way. But I need to learn to subtract. So, a few months ago I decided to throttle back what I was working on in order to make sure that I have a good, solid grip on the fundamentals of art. From my experience in other fields, I know the value of a reboot, of going back to the very beginning in order to make sure that I did not miss anything. I enrolled in a terrific online program to help me fill in the basics and advance my art toward my goal of doing figures and portraits.
For the past few months I have been painting strictly in grayscale with a limited range of values (lightness or darkness of a colour), to ensure that I am seeing values correctly when I look at my subjects/models. The goals have been to master values and edges. Believe it or not, it started here:
My progress, to my mind, has been nothing short of astounding. Within a couple of weeks I was producing work like this, in less than one day:
And I kept making good progress:
Until I learned that I can paint anything, if I am willing to invest the time and effort to do so.
These are representative of about 30 paintings I have done since I started this program in March. What I am getting out of the program is far, far more than I would have expected. And partially, that is my point. You don't know what you don't know. This is a lesson I should have learned by now. Some of the reasons I wanted to do a program like the one I enrolled in are to:
Feel like I know what I am doing and what to do next at each step of the process. Until now I have been working somewhat blindly, fumbling about until I found what I needed to do to get something to work out.
Take less time getting a painting from concept to completion.
Produce smaller, less expensive, but still excellent to make my work obtainable to most buyers.
Have my work be of consistent quality and value, so that I can
Become able to make a living painting.
What is making the difference for me?
Excellence in teaching. I really can't say this strongly enough. Having a solid, well-developed curriculum to teach me the skills I need.
Accountability. Having assignments that need to be done in order to advance (even though there are no time limits) keeps me working.
Community. Interacting with a community of artists at any level is motivating, and seeing what others are capable of helps to show me what I am capable of.
Not skipping over steps. There is a best way to do every part of making a painting, and I am committed to incorporating them into my work.
Time at the easel. I have been spending anywhere from 30 to 50 hours per week in my studio, on top of my full-time job. To me, studio time does not feel like work.
And how is this different from any other endeavor? It isn't, really. If you can find your thing, then you want to put the time in to be outstanding at it. Maybe it's engineering or stamp collecting or cooking.
An interesting observation is that I believe that the time I am taking to go through this program is far, far shorter than the time I would have spent slogging to produce my next three or four paintings, and then I will be able to consistently and more quickly produce paintings that are desirable. Keep watching! I am on to mixing colours. The goal of matching any colour I see seems unattainable right now. But I'm going to hammer at it, follow the steps, and do the work.