Do You Want to Get Better at Painting? Master These 3 Skills

If you want to get better at painting (and you might not; there is a market for “bad” art) I have found 3 important factors that will do a lot to sharpen your painting. If you learn the basic skills of drawing, composition, and using color, you will go a long way to getting better.

Drawing

This is where you parse what you see or think and make it come out of your hand. Even if you work in an abstract or non-representational mode, you still have to be able to draw. It is how you translate what you see, think, and feel onto a two-dimensional surface. Or to prepare to create a three-dimensional object.

Drawing is the basic means of visual expression. You learn to divide things up by line, texture, volume, shading. You understand the weightiness of things or the wetness of water. You grasp how to form and reuse symbols. You learn to see things as they actually are, and to question what you actually see. What are you actually seeing?

In this way, drawing becomes a metaphysical exercise.

Composition

In college I took Drawing and Composition I and II, so my drawing skills and composition skills grew stronger at the same time. The two go hand in hand. Composition is arranging things within the picture plane so they harmonize with each other.

It is also editing. Unless you edit what goes on in your picture, your sculpture, your film, your song, you will have more information than the audience knows what to do with. You have to be able to edit what you see or what you are visually expressing in such a way that it accomplishes your goals. The way you arrange things lets you tell a story or express something. If something is right in the center of your picture it will naturally be more prominent. If something is partially hidden, it might be part of a slow reveal.

All art is editing.

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Ultimately, all art is editing. (Tweet that)

If you don’t edit, you just have raw sensory data. That data has to be filtered in some way. In order for it to be anything, to express anything. Otherwise if it isn’t filtered, it is just noise.

Maybe you want your viewer to decide what they make of it, but when you do that, you open the floor for interpretation. Nobody knows what it’s about.

So when we encounter something we are unfamiliar with, we apply whatever the closest thing there is in our own internal narrative. What you experience right at this moment is influenced by what you have experienced before. It is only babies who have no previous experience.

(And I wonder how much of an impact things that happen in utero carry over after birth. I am convinced that certain songs resonate with my children because I sang them before they were born. I would put my face next to my wife’s belly and sing.)

What composition does is it gives everything a place in the world, certain clues to the viewer about what they are supposed to take away from the piece.

Color

This is one of my favorite aspects of painting, despite a ten-year period where so much of my work has been pretty gray and brown. But those works are of urban spaces and highways, and well, those things are pretty much gray and brown. (It’s amazing how many things are almost no color at all, so many of dull shades of non-color.)

Color gives spice to life. It gives paintings an energy that would not otherwise be there.

There are a lot of ways of seeing and teaching color, ways to look at color schemes. Unless you have a good sense of how colors work together, how colors work… You have to understand that colors are influenced by other colors. They don’t exist in isolation. Even the canvas itself is influenced by what ever else is in the room. You have to understand the nature of colors and how colors interact with each other. Not just one color, but how to combine them and mix them.

Learn the Rules, then Break Them

I hope by now you can see how mastery of these important skills will go a long way to improving your paintings. Master them, then figure out how to break them. That’s why sometimes the “bad” art isn’t so “bad” after all. Picasso, for example, was an excellent draftsman. He mastered drawing and rendering. Then, he decided to explore the nature of how we see, fracturing the world into a million tiny pieces, thus contributing to the development of Cubism and the rest of Modern Art.

Which of these skills are you going to develop?

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Images from New Old Stock  Brushes from my own studio.