10 Tips to Help You Improve on Your Own


In a recent workshop, I gave a talk about the methods one can use to improve learning on ones own.  Not "what makes a great work of art", or "how to judge your own paintings" or anything as high faluting (and important) as that.  Just, "How can I get myself to improve more, more easily, on my own?"  How can we facilitate our own learning experience?

Many of these tips are born out of my own learning process (and learning style!), so please take them with a grain of salt.  Others I've learned through teaching students.  Still others are thoughts and methods that I've picked up at workshops as a student myself, which experience has shown me really are true.  I've stolen and amended when need be.  Thought is free.

I've organized the sequence into 5 Big Ideas for 1-5, and 5 Little Ideas for 6-10.  The "Big Ideas" are strategic and global.  They're about your approach as a whole and what your mentality should be-- paint regularly; let yourself make mistakes; critique your mistakes and apply your critiques.  The "Little Ideas" are tactical and specific.  They're about the details of painting, and how to ease the learning process through simple tricks and methods-- paint smaller, use smaller photos, use free shapes, etc.  It's worth noting that I decided to focus only on painting.  There's nothing about drawing, for example, which is an essential skill (yes, dammit!), but should be addressed on its own.  The list is meant to be about painting.

As I began to write them up, I wanted something easy to share.  But I felt also each needed a bit of explanation.  Something to unpack it, give examples, and explain why this point should matter.  And so I have arrived at what I currently have to share.  I tried to narrow them down to a nice, printable one page doc.  :)  Please ask any questions you'd like, and I'll try and follow up in the comments.


10 Tips to Help You Improve on Your Own

1) Paint Regularly

A weekly practice at a special time will help your paintings be less “precious”.  You’ll learn faster if you know you’re painting again soon, because you’ll take more chances.  Repetition matters.

2) Don’t Let Success Stop You from Growing

Be gutsy.  Mistakes are good food.  You’ll improve faster if you deliberately stretch your limits. 

3) Take Profit from Your Mistakes

You must critically assess your paintings to apply them as learning tools.  Act like you are teaching someone else.  What sequence led to your mistakes?  What can you do differently?  When?  Be specific.  Harness experience so you can “think in reverse, but paint going forwards”.

4) Don’t Fix Paintings, Iterate Them

Spend more time painting and less time fixing.  If you’re not satisfied with a painting, restart the clock and apply your newfound knowledge.  Iterating (not repeating) a subject teaches you more about the Watercolor Clock and wet-into-wet timing than fixing a dry mistake ever will. 

5) Make a Gallery of Your Work

Find a place to tape up ongoing work.  It helps you see them more objectively.  Compare them to each other and assess your growth.  Note repeated problems or a hidden bias.  Share.

6) Set Up a Laboratory

Learn through play.  Create art experiments, and explore what paint can and can’t do.  When a “happy accident” occurs, try and repeat it.  Command it and it will become a tool.

7) Small Paper, Big Brush

Shrink your canvas (such as to 1/8th sheet) and use a brush that’s a little bigger than you think you need.  The combination helps you control moisture levels and simplify wet-into-wet shapes. 

8) Use Smaller Reference Photos

A smaller photo (like a 3” x 4” or a cellphone screen) can help you simplify your subject and “see the big shapes”.  Don’t get lost in superficial details.  They make the important ones not matter.

9) Use Free Shapes to Learn Techniques

Natural shapes (such as trees, mountains, lakes, etc) are easier to paint.  They are forgiving of mistakes and allow you to learn techniques without focusing as much on drawing skills.

10) Separate Skill-Learning from Application

Practice one technique and then apply it.  Don’t try to learn a technique while doing a painting.




Plein Air Sale in Alameda Today, Sat 8/4


For those who are local, I've been participating in the Frank Bette Paint Out this last week, and I (as well as the 39 other artists!), will be exhibiting my work in Alameda all day today, Friday 8/4.  We'll be outdoors at the South Shore Center plaza from 10-6, and I will be featuring work for sale that I've done plein air in Alameda.

Paint Outs are fun , but exhausting.  Everyone I spoke to noted how they were practically zombies by Thursday afternoon (4 days in)!  And it's true.  Most folks wish for days where we could paint, and that concentrated focus is part of the real joy of participating in this sort of event, but after day 3 or 4 6-8 hour days, painting outside, you're totally zonked.  I couldn't participate Monday, but painted heartily all day Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  But by Friday, I too stayed home, framed paintings, and wrote blog posts...


Subject Hunting-

One of the harder things is hunting for subject matter on the spur of the moment.  It's tough.  Sometimes, you just have to sit down and get to painting, or you'll spend all day looking for just "that right subject".  Many times, I start up a painting like this one below, where the sketch went well but required so much editing in the background that I lost my way.  Then, while sitting there pissed...


...I discover a much stronger composition with a better story only 90 degrees to my right! 

Just like back in Yosemite, sometimes these vertical pieces can be really interesting because they really make you edit and focus on only that sliver of subject matter that is essential.  I don't think this painting would have been any stronger if it were twice as wide.



Coming Back For More-

I'm not sure how many other artists do this in the plein air events, as time always seem very much "of the essence", but I sometimes return to the same spot on an alternate day, if my first attempt wasn't satisfactory.  This helps me hone my sense of purpose and also jump in with a better sense, right from the get go, of the pitfalls to avoid.  Almost always, I have better results.

On the first day, I painted this simple sketch, looking out across the bay.  I was looking for a kind of strong set of sinuous lines pointing you into the distance, but sort of lost that focus.  For me, things were just a little too linear and not winding enough...  Not bad (I actually like the piece and am exhibiting it), but it wasn't quite what I was aiming for originally.


The next morning, I went back to the same spot for the Quick Draw and hammered the following two paintings out in 2.5 hours.  Note how much composition I had to do in the first, compared to the flats I saw in front of me.  But this time I had a very clear vision in my head of the sort of swooping leading lines I wanted, and this helped guide me immensely!  Changing the format and going vertical helped me as well, as I had more space for the lines to draw you in.


This second piece I did on the fly, partly to keep me from fussing with the first painting while it dried.  I had, once again, seen the view only after finishing the horizontal piece from Day 1 and turning 90 degrees.  I snapped a shot and thought it would make a good backup.  It was fun doing two at once!  In between washes, I marched off the beach and dried them in my truck, turning on the heater and putting them on the dashboard!  I discoverd that trick in Yosemite last winter, and it's a godsend in foggy weather too.  ;)



Persevering to the End-

At the end of Day 2, I painted this scene.  Way too tight!  Argh!


I went back on the third day, but again, I was dissatisfied.  It's very difficult to somehow get the linear blue ripples as well as the soft, wet into wet reflections! 

As I sat there, dissatisfied again, I recognized that I didn't really know, technically, how I was going to approach the subject.  Solving technical problems isn't sexy, but these sort of things set my brain on fire.  I had a vision.  If only I could get the materials to do what I wanted!

I went back in again, right on the spot, and again, I was too tight, too literal.  It was better but I was frustrated and tired.  But! ...but I know by now that if I can stomach it, it's almost always good to persevere to the end. 

At this point in the game, when I know I don't have something I like, I think, "Well, screw it.  I might as well feel free to screw this thing up, if it helps me figure out how to do it right the next time!"  So I kept at it with general abandon and a healthy disregard for sharing the final product.  Sometimes, you still get a throw away.  Other times, you don't like the finished product, but you learn something about how you'll paint it differently next time.  And sometimes you salvage it.  You'll never salvage out a painting if you don't finish it-- you'll only ever get unfinished failures.   

I very loosely slashed in the tree and its reflection on the right.  Better, I thought, looser, but still not right.  So I mixed up a bunch of white, right out of the tube, and a bit of cobalt blue, and hammered in the blue, sparkling water, opaque and drybrush, like gouache. 

And, not bad!  Considering I was going to throw it away!


I would actually like to paint it again, because (of course) after finishing this I found a better composition about 30' away.  But I've run out of time.  The event is over, and if I want to paint it, it'll have to be for my own edification.  :)

If you're interested in anything, please contact me directly.  If you're local, it would be lovely to see you at the event.  I'll have these images, and a some more, up for the day.  It's always fun to talk shop. 

Upcoming Workshop- Intro to Wet-Into-Wet Watercolors


Class: Intro to Wet Into Wet Watercolors

When: Friday and Saturday, July 27th and 28th, 930-330

This post is a reminder that in 3 weeks time I'll be hosting this summer's "Intro to Wet into Wet Watercolors" class at the Arts Benicia classroom.  This is a really fun class full of experimentation and quick iteration, as we learn to understand the concept of the Watercolor Clock the best way-- through mileage on the brush.  Nothing like trying something out, getting feedback, and trying it out again immediately to quickly learn through doing.

We'll be painting with Neutral Tint only, working on small sheets of paper, doing up to 10 small paintings and experiments a day.  Lots of clouds and landscapes and flowers, as we learn to judge just how wet our paper is and just how loaded our brush is.  This class is the educational bones for all future classes with me, and can help you out on your way forward on your own.

All links to enroll in my upcoming workshops can now be found on the Classes page, here on my website.

Cost- 195$



Figure Painting from Live Models, pt. 2


Last month I intended to follow up my post on mixing Skin Tones with more figure studies, but I got lost in the Spring rush of work and the workshop I taught.  Fortunately, paintings can wait for you, so I'm able to share them now! :)

These paintings, much like the last bunch I posted about back in February, are all done in 5-20 minute sittings.  There's such a fantastic energy in this experience!!  It's an absolute rush, and I just love love love the needle-tip-focus of thought and energy that goes into making the paintings. You have to make quick decisions, one after another, and most importantly of all, you have to SIMPLIFY, big time, bonding your darks together into a single wash and focusing on the directionality of the light.

I don't do any drawings, but instead just jump in, choosing an important, dynamic location on the body through which force is exerted or an expression comes out (a shoulder, an upturned chin, an important arm that's holding something, etc....) and building outwards from there. However, I spend some time each and every sitting making a plumb line with my brush to figure out where the body's weight is creating a through line, and measuring out comparative sizes of body parts (that are sometimes distorted by perspective) with a finger.  It's very similar, on that level, to what you might do with charcoal or a pencil.

After that, there's no going back.  I measure out the form of the model as I go along, through comparative proportion and location- the head is as big as this or that part, the arms drops down to the navel or the hip, the hand is above a foot or behind it, the front leg is in line with a shoulder, etc.  The body is floating in space, so it only has to relate to itself.  If the image goes off the page, I find that acceptable, because atleast things are (approximately) in proportion to themselves. 

Everything starts hard edged, but then you start to work wet into wet more and more as you go along, bonding arms to legs or stomachs, dropping in darker shadows, etc.  After everything has dried, I sometimes go back and drop small wet on dry details, such as the umbrella handle.


One of the focuses in the last few months has been to attempt more detailed renderings like the first image in this post, or the one just below.  I do these over an hour, with three 20-minute poses.  This allows for some glazing, where my lights now have value and hue (instead of being the white of the page).  But the truth is that the bones are exactly the same as a single 10-20 minute pose.  That's where I knock in my darks against the white of the page.  All the real forms have to go in then. The rest (the pale skin for the chest below, the paler value blue for the jeans in light, etc) are all there to push the illusion of the shape being a human, but the bones of whether the composition works or not occurs at the beginning, when my lights are still the white of the page.


Of course, we still do a set of 10 2-minute sketches at the beginning of each class.  I really like these because the images are almost entirely disposable.  There's  none of that "this is a precious work of art I must make perfect" stuff going on.  It's purely mark making and paying attention.  It's also a very good time to "get to know" the model- proportions, peculiarities of their body, their habits of sitting, how you're going to approach their hair, necklaces or scarfs they wear that can help express weight, etc.  These early sketches become important later on when I do the 5, 10, and 20 minute sketches, because it helps me build my confidence up, for when I later jump right in with direct painting.

In each pencil sketch, I focus on something in particular I find interesting, and let the rest float away.  Sometimes its the gesture of a hand or the muscles of the arm doubling back on itself...


Other times it's focusing very much on the face and the angle of the chin...


Here I found the line of the foot very elegant, and spent a great deal of time capturing it and the cast shadow on the thigh.  The rest I let drift away.  The goal is to create visual priority.


These sorts of sketches become very important when I start to attempt tighter renderings.  I'm already acquainted with atleast a few of the peculiarities of the model's body, and so can pay better attention to them.  Whether its the thinness of the thighs on one, the broad chest of another...


Or the angular cheek bones and bold hair of another.