I never considered painting to consist of separate different skills until I started teaching. Not that I missed knowing about them. I was applying lots of different techniques and methods without realising it. I still struggle seeing painting as a set of different, and separate techniques. I have said it so often, painting is not cooking. You don’t just follow recipes, learn how to create a béchamel sauce or how to sauté a fish fillet, and follow the steps. Even if you would learn the all the painting steps, ingredients and techniques, you could still be miles away from success. And even ‘success’ is not a defined thing!
Of course you need practice, techniques and skills to be able to reproduce what you have in your mind’s eye. But you need vision and creativity to be able to create something that others will find interesting or appealing. Only a few will have all that in the bag. Yet that does not mean we cannot enjoy the act of creating. To enjoy reproducing what you have in your mind’s eye, or what you see in the world around you, can be a hugely rewarding process for yourself. When you provide pleasure and interest for others too, you might be wandering into the realm of true art.
As a self taught artist I never went about learning a certain technique. I think only later, when I started teaching, did I start to split up my experience or skills into separate compartments and started labelling them. Ah, this dry brushing is called ‘scumbling’? Good to know. Hm, this transparent wash is a technique called ‘glazing’. And my method of using a brown/white underpainting to figure out what I am painting first, is actually a ‘technique’ used by many. Good to know I wasn’t totally off the mark then.
I suppose this is typical of a self taught painter who is inventing the wheel when everyone else is already miles ahead. But you can be miles ahead in your knowledge of techniques and methods, it does not necessarily mean you are ‘miles ahead’ in your art. Knowing all the techniques and methods does make you a better artist, for sure, but it does not make you a fantastic artist automatically. It lifts you out of complete amateurish doodles and it will give your paintings a much better foundation. But without that ‘je ne sais quoi’ it will take you no further at all.
So having no skills, knowing no recipes or techniques, will not make you a better artists who can rely solely on intuition and expression. An unskilled artist has nothing else but his or her intuition and vision, and without the skills to express them to other people, it will remain a struggle to get beyond the appreciation of your own loving family.
Learning skills and techniques will give you a visual language that you can use to express your ideas and vision and then many more people will be able to understand what you are trying to express.
But what exactly are you trying to express? The ‘image’ we create is at least as important as the tools to make it. The imagery we put in front of the world, for the world to see and mirroring the world back at us, is what matters. The techniques used are only tools and should become subservient to the message of the image. They will disappear and become unnoticed. They are doing their job quietly. Just like figures of speech enhance your message without taking the limelight; painting techniques will strengthen your image without becoming the subject matter.
So you can teach and learn glazing, or scumbling, underpainting techniques and colour mixing. You can practice drawing and perspective. Expressive lines and mark making. These are the tools of the storyteller. The tools of the image maker. The tools of the show maker. But it’s the show that counts. And that is very hard to teach.
Not all art has to have a story. Not all art needs to have a watertight case. So very often the story is open ended, the case is fluid, the image is just a fleeting moment caught still. The beauty of visual art is just that. It doesn’t require footnotes or an argument with all ends tied. It can be an open question. It can be so simple. An image can create an inner world of ideas, associations, moods and feelings in the viewer. And when an artists succeeds in creating this, his or her job is done well.
But this fluid side of great art does not mean we don’t need techniques or skills. Yes, there are some artists who managed to create sublime art without it. True. Totally. But for those of us who dabble with paint, trying to recreate that cottage on that hill, that portrait of your gran, or that street scene that caught your eye; for those of us, and many of us, it is a cop-out to think we don’t need to learn a visual language in order to be able to express ourselves in that language. The techniques and methods on offer are only part of the visual language, true, but without it you’d be trying to say something in a language without knowing any grammar. Only the very few will be able to do that comprehensibly.
Art is communication. It is about sharing your vision with others. If you are only creating art because you love the process and it makes you feel better, surely it’s therapy. Perhaps therapy can create amazing art, sure, but even then it becomes great art because there is an interaction between the viewer and the art work. I am not sure whether there are three in this party or just two. Does art happen between the viewer and the art work, or between the viewer, the art work and the artist? I suspect it is just two: the art work and the viewer is what creates the art. The language is a two-way street between the receiver and the giver.
So painting techniques can be self taught, they can be taught. Skills can be practised and they can be guided by a teacher. Paintings can be enjoyed by the public, the act of painting can be enjoyed by the painter. Techniques and skills are valid, they make a difference. They will help most people to get onto canvas what they want to put onto canvas. However, so many feel frustration when their efforts result in something which was not what they saw in their mind’s eye. High expectations often come forth from believing in art as a ‘gift’, a ‘natural talent’ that does not require training. Naive art does not automatically come out of untrained hands, let alone highly skilled art. Techniques and skills will help and so I teach them for those who prefer not to teach themselves. It is great fun to see students apply their new skills and amaze at their improved results. Knowing a bit of ‘vocabulary’ will help in speaking a ‘foreign language’. I am no Michelangelo, I am no celebrated author in this visual language that we call painting, but I can teach what I know and help those who want it. The main thing I hope to teach though, is that technique is a tool. You can use this tool, this visual language, to get by and mutter something nice, or you can use it to express yourself eloquently, and some, a few, manage to use it to create magic.
PS: The image above is a still taken from one of my online portrait painting workshops: see my Art School for more info.
Excellently worded Sophie, A lot of artist's including myself seem to forget, or maybe just never think about the many techniques we have picked up over the years, be they learnt or worked out by trying something. I believe one should never stop learning, hence I took the Pet Portrait's in Pastel with you, and what a fantastic workshop it was, I am still working with the pastels and loving them,
I'm sure there is so many more techniques out there that I have yet for find out about and I am always on the look out to find more info,
But even with training or not Art is such subjective matter and it is impossible to please every one, so using the right techniques in the right places and as long as we enjoy what we do and learn from it, there will always be someone out there who will love it.
Keep up the fantastic work
Glad you enjoyed this post, Dominic! Thanks for your comment.
Dear Sophie, Thank you for the excellent and eloquent essay on your philosophy of art. (This is my second reply, but I think I forgot to “post” the first , so this will sound redundant. Even so….). I quite agree that the techniques are vital to a beginner or an experienced artist such as yourself. I am trying to absorb and use all the techniques and tips which you have given in the lessons and blogs…at least those which I can remember. I consider myself a “painter”, not an “artist” as I use mainly snapshots sent or magazine, newspaper, photos etc.. for references. A lot of images which I consider pretty or interesting.
I painted about 6 or so canvases so far during this quarantine time. It has helped keep me sane and a good relief from the terrible times of the covid 19 . At my risqué age I need a distraction. Your blogs have helped a lot. One portrait was a picture of my husbands’ grandfather and it was good exercise for some of the techniques. It almost looks like the ancient sienna photo.
We are working hard to stay safe during the resurgence of the virus. I hope you and your family stay well and safe
My best to you!
Thank you Mary Lynne, what a lovely comment! Stay safe and enjoy your painting!