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.