Acrylic painting for absolute beginners. Everything you need to know ☺️
If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of my Absolute Beginners painting series, you can check them out here and here.
So, you’ve chosen to paint with acrylics! Excellent choice! Or maybe you’re just reading this post for the heck of it – also excellent! Thank you so much. If you’ve never painted with acrylics before, please, let me be your guide.
Today we are going to paint this (if you want to):
First up, let me explain the basic of acrylic paints in this video below:
What exactly are acrylic paints. Well, as we covered in Part 1, all paint is made up of a binder or vehicle (the stuff that keeps the paint together, sticks to your painting surface, and holds the colour in place once the paint is dry). The pigment is mixed with the binder – this is what gives your paint its colour. Acrylic paint has a similar consistency to oil paint – both are generally pretty-heavy bodied and thick. The binder in acrylic paint is acrylic polymer emulsion. Straight out of the tube acrylic paint is water soluble. So all you really need to thin your paint and work with them is basic water. If you like you can buy a product called retarder which is an additive for increasing the working (drying) time of your acrylic paint. Once acrylic paint dries it is water impermeable and permanent. It is a great paint for beginners.
Basic acrylic painting shopping list
Yay, you get to go shopping! Here’s what you’ll need to get started with acrylics:
Acrylic paint, 60 ml tubes (I recommend TriArt or Golden paints): Alizarin crimson, cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow medium, ultramarine blue, burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, chrome oxide green (optional), Payne’s grey, titanium white
Brushes: Round #6, flat 1/2″ thick, filbert #2 or #4 – short handle if you’ll be working at a table, long handle if working at an easel (I prefer synthetic soft bristles, other option is hog hair, see what you like) – inexpensive is ok, but I don’t recommend dollar store paintbrushes – you would regret it
Pre-stretched canvases – you can buy a bulk pack for a volume discount (12 x 12″ is a good size to go with) and/or pad of inexpensive canvas sheets for practice
Retarder (optional) – Golden makes a good one
Palette: Disposable palette sheets (optional, looks like a pad of paper) – or a piece of plywood or Masonite board – it is up to you
Paint-Along: Still Life With Apple
Here’s what you’ll need for our paint-along:
Cadmium yellow medium
Naphthol red medium (or cadmium red medium from basic palette0
Chrome oxide green (optional)
Click below to watch me paint. You can paint along with me! I recommend you get all your supplies assembled, a nice cozy tea, and then press play! You can follow me, skip around to the parts you need. You’ll have your first painted masterpiece in no time. I’m no Bob Ross but I really try to break it down for viewers. And I apologize for the length! This is my first kind of “paint-with-me” video and there’s definitely a learning curve. But I thought, ah, I’ve got to start somewhere so here we are.
I hope you all enjoyed this little how-to and tutorial. The best way to learn how to paint, is to paint – as much as possible. If you painted along, please please please share your work in the comments below! Any comments? Questions? I love to hear from you!
I was writing what I thought was the second post of my Painting for Absolute Beginners series (you can check out the first post, How to Paint for Absolute Beginners Part 1, here) when I digressed into colour theory, and I realized – this really deserves its own post. So, may I present to you Painting for Absolute Beginners – Part 2. Colour Theory.
To begin with, regardless of which type of paint you choose to paint with, the “rules” of colour mixing are pretty universal. Whether you’re working with watercolour or acrylic or oil – red plus yellow generally makes some sort of orange. And blue plus red makes some sort of purple. There are just a few finer details you might want to consider and that’s what I’m going to discuss here.
Colour theory – so boring right? Wrong! Unless you’re just planning on throwing some paint, any old paint, at a canvas – this is the stuff that all painting is made of. Realists and abstract expressionists can finally find common ground here. Colour is everything (well, design, technical ability, narrative quality are good too – but for today’s post – let’s agree that colour is everything). Colour theory is very intuitive, and heavily studied, but there’s a little information that can help you out if you are starting from scratch.
Side note: For any scientists (mainly physicists) out there – this is strictly a bit of artist’s colour theory, ,and a little bit of advice from what works well for me. We’re certainly not talking about how your eyes perceive different wavelengths of light and the physics of optics. That was way too out there in Grade 12 and we’re not going back there now. Just had to get that out there…
Traditional colour theory: Red + Blue = ?
Traditional colour theory dates to around the 18th century when there was a push to kind of formalize the painting process and the canon of art instruction. A good first step in this colour theory is that there are three primary pigment colours – red, yellow, and blue. These colours are special because they can’t be mixed from any other colours.
In theory, the primary colours can’t be mixed from any other colours. If you take even one physics course that covers the science of optics, your mind will be blown because that’s not technically how it works in the science world, but it IS essentially how it works on your paint palette. When you mix two primary colours together, you get… a secondary colour. There are three basic secondary colours made from the three possible pairs above. These are orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue), and purple (blue + red):
When you mix two primary colours together, the resulting secondary colour lacks a little… oomph. In general these mixed colours are a little less bright, a little less intense – they are less colourful. Sometimes you will have to adjust for this in your mixtures to get just the right amount of colour and tone and hue. In fact, these less colourful mixes make sense as they’re one step closer to neutral grey which we will discuss later.
You will often see colours arranged in a colour wheel. Here are the primary colours, and the shared secondary colours appear between them.
When paint-makers make paint, they usually try to find a natural or “pure” source for a pigment, versus relying on a mixture. As we discussed, mixtures tend to be a little less brilliant, a little more muddy. So if there is a pure or primary pigment they will tend to pick that for their paint. Some pigments are naturally occurring – like a lot of the earth tones. The pigment in raw umber is natural raw umber. Alizarin lake contains naturally- occurring quinacridone pigment. Ultramarine blue was very expensive because it originally used ground lapis lazuli powder mined in Afghanistan. Today, synthetic ultramarine pigment is used which costs a lot less. Many synthetic pigments are used in modern paint which is often more economical and also safer in some cases (historical colours see to have an abundance of lead, cadmium, and other toxins and carcinogens). For some colours, like green, there are very few pigments that are found naturally. In these cases, paint-makers will turn to mixtures or chemically-derived compounds.
I want to point out something about colour permanence. When you shop for paint colours, you may notice that, in addition to other info, the tubes may be labelled with the word “permanence” or “lightfastness”. Lightfastness is a property of colourants like paint. It describes how resistant a specific colour (pigment) is to fading when exposed to light. You may have noticed that old paintings look light and faded. This is because exposure to sunlight breaks down the chemical bonds in pigments. You can see this in an old watercolour chart (above) that’s been hanging on my bulletin board by the window since 2015. The burnt sienna isn’t looking too great these days but the ultramarine blue is holding on nicely. Lightfastness doesn’t necessarily have to do with paint quality. There are some colours that contain volatile pigments. In general you want paints with a lightfastness of ASTM I. Oil paints tend to be more lightfast than watercolour – the oil binder encapsulates the pigment better and has a bit of a protective quality. Just wanted to point that out. 😉
You’re hot then you’re cold: Warm versus cool colours.
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as looking at something orange, and mixing any old yellow plus any old red to paint it. Colours do in fact have a “temperature” – you may have heard of colours being described as warm or cool before. Think of a snowy, cold painting – probably lots of ultramarine blue in the shadows cast on the snow. Or a warm sunset painting – probably lots of reds, oranges, and yellows in the tropical sky. Part of this is psychological – how a colour or colour scheme makes you feel. A painting of a crackling orange camp fire will probably look warm, while a painting of a stormy, grey sea will probably appear cool. For the same colour, a warmer hue will tend towards being more red, while the cooler hue will tend towards more blue.
When you’re mixing colours, this can be an issue. There are cool yellows (think lemons) and warm blues (think turquoise beaches). If you are looking at an object, you need to determine if it is warm or cool or somewhere in between and mix colours accordingly. When you mix a warm colour with a cool colour and vice versa, that tends to produce a muddy mix. It’s best to stay within like “temperatures” when colour mixing. Here are some examples of warm AND cool primary colours:
This idea of warm and cool colours can also be illustrated with phone filters:
You… Complete me… Complementary colours.
Colours that are located directly across from each other in the colour wheel are called complementary colours. These are special pairs of colours that, when placed directly next to each other, create the strongest visual contrast. For any horoscope buffs out there, it’s like astrological signs – opposites attract! The shadow cast by an object often contains some of its complementary colour.
Not so boring neutrals
When you mix two complementary colours together, you get what is called neutral grey. This is an excellent way to mix shadows. I know people tend to think you can just use black in place of a cast shadow, but strictly-speaking that’s not necessarily true. The impressionists really celebrated the rainbow of colours present in all levels of light in their paintings. Shadows contain all sorts of colours and neutral grey in varying mixes is a great place to start.
Paint it black!
No don’t. Everyone should use black sparingly, but you may need it from time-to-time. On the opposite end, watercolourists will use the white of their paper, but acrylic and oil painters will arm themselves with their favourite white, and probably use a lot of it! As I mentioned, there is a tendency to darken colours with black, but that’s not always the best way for representational painting. You can mix colours with neutral grey to darken them. Whenever you mix colours, you may shift the hue – you may unexpectedly make the colour more warm or more cool which may require subsequent mixing and adjustments. For example, yellow plus black can result in a greenish-blue tint because of the interactions between the different pigments and how your eyes perceive them. In colour theory, a tint is a mixture with white, and a shade is a mixture with black as illustrated below:
Putting it all together – A basic painter’s palette for absolute beginners 😉
For a basic painter’s palette, I would recommend the following colours (and this list is tried and true, going way back to my very first watercolour palette – it still works well!)
**I’ve added Payne’s grey as a staple colour over the years because it is just so great for adding depth and shadows – it’s a mix of blue and black and incredibly useful. Payne’s grey and burnt umber are always my most used paints regardless of the type of paint I’m using.
I think it’s best to start with less in terms of colour. You can get a reasonable approximation of many observed colours with the list provided here and as you learn more you can add judiciously to your palette. Sometimes there may be a modern colour that you observe that you will not be able to mix no matter how hard you try (fluorescent orange would be an extreme example). In this case you would have to purchase.
Note – you don’t need black to start! Try to work around it. Use your complementary colours, neutral grey, even Payne’s grey. Acrylic and oil painters will also want to add titanium white to your shopping list (or your favourite white – there are a few with different properties, I personally like titanium for its strong tinting strength and opacity).
A note on green and black.
Green is not a primary colour and there are not a lot of naturally-occurring green pigments. The picture above shows some examples of green. You can always mix green yourself with the palette I suggested. Sap green is a dark, earthy green with beautiful yellow undertones that you can purchase. It’s a favourite of mine. Turquoise and permanent green are a little less natural looking for painting landscapes but have their uses – always use green carefully. Especially with oil painting it can kind of infiltrate and infect and tint your whole palette if you’re not careful, you can easily cast everything in a sickly glow.
Black was one of the first pigments used by prehistoric artists – charcoal was one of the first drawing tools after fire was invented. 😝 We’ve touched on black a few times but this is important so here we are again. If you don’t have black in your palette, one work-around mix is ultramarine blue plus burnt umber as shown above – it gives you a really rich, earthy black colour. Some examples of blacks you can purchase are lamp black and ivory lack. Every line of good quality paint will offer a few blacks and these all have different properties (much likes whites). You can see the lamp black above is more transparent than the ivory black which has better covering power. Ivory black is a good, all-purpose black. Note my personal favourite, Payne’s grey on the end which can be used as a kind of black-alternative. It’s a cool black, and is a mix of ultramarine blue and ivory black.
Putting it all together.
I created this very quick painting as an exercise to show a little colour theory in practice. I used gouache paints. I started with lemon yellow, which is both fitting name-wise and colour wise. It’s a coolish yellow. I went back in with a lemon yellow darkened with some purple. I started with a more yellow mixture that I progressively darkened with more purple until I achieved a neutral grey for the most shaded areas. I used a light purple background to make the yellow lemons pop, and amplified that effect with a bright purple tabletop. I darkened the shaded areas of the table with a little more purple toned with corresponding neutral grey. I highlighted the lemon with some opaque white. No black used but representational highlights and shading achieved. The colour scheme is pleasing because it makes use of complementary colours.
This was a long post to write, but in fact this has been a very, very quick discussion of colour theory in a really tiny nutshell. If you look up colour theory online there are so many useful resources and so much has been written about this topic. For beginner painters reading this: When you go to mix colours, try not to get too lost in the details. It really is something that is learned with time, it does become intuitive, and you will kind of memorize your go-tos. It is truly more of an art than a science. I’ve tried to give you some guiding principles to follow, but there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules.
I do recommend that you try to take a more holistic approach when you’re trying to figure out how to paint something, and how to mix your colours. Really study what you are painting. Say you’re painting a portrait of a brunette. The brown in her hair – are there blonde (yellow) highlights? Is there a red undertone? Is it dark brown, veering more towards black and more towards cool undertones (like raw umber and Payne’s grey?).
When you study the world around you, when you really look at it, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of colours in someone’s hair, in the petals of a flower, in the dark of the shadows cast by a building on a sunny day. The more you can perceive those, and suggest these colours and transitions between colours in your work, the closer you will get to representing the world as you see it, through your painting.
And that’s it!
For those of you starting out, I hope this helps! For all of you who have taken the time to read this, I thank you! Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below.
Say you want to start painting but you have no idea where to begin. Let me help you.
I am thirty-seven and I started painting when I was twelve years old. Over the years I have worked my way through watercolours, acrylics, and now I am focusing primarily on oil painting for my personal work. But depending on my mood I will jump between mediums. Maybe my personal experiences can help you to decide what’s right for you.
Before I was introduced to painting I had mainly used pencil crayons for my “serious” artworks. I think because it’s so accessible for so many kids (hello, Crayola) pencil crayons get written off as being kind of a juvenile art form. There are artist quality pencil crayons that can be used to create beautiful drawings – same goes for pastels, charcoal, graphite. But ever since I was introduced to watercolours I have considered myself to be primarily a painter.
Oh and save for school-mandated projects I have never wanted to make a sculpture – I express myself through my brush.
I started out with watercolours and was taught by a real watercolour artist for a number of years. Over time I transitioned from primarily painting with watercolour to dabbling in acrylic, then primarily acrylic until quite recently (summer 2018) when I decided to take the plunge and take up oil painting for my personal paintings. Because I have a lot of experience, I’m comfortable moving between each medium depending on my mood or my vision for the finished work, but for many years now I have tended to gravitate towards heavier-bodied paints (acrylic, oils) for paintings that I think are important or significant.
I still paint with watercolours regularly, but I usually view these sessions as a warm up, or a break from the more serious work I might be focused on with my oils. With my art room set-up as it is, I can just swivel my chair around from my easel and push myself across the room to my watercolours waiting at my art table when I need to switch things up. If you’re open to how the paint behaves and flows, and if you are accepting of some lucky mistakes here and there, watercolour painting can feel very relaxing and just help to loosen you up.
So how do you choose what type of painter you want to be? There are definitely many, many artists who identify primarily with one type of paint and don’t really veer off course to dabble in any other mediums. There are definitely practical reasons for this – from a financial and storage perspective it is definitely easier to focus on one type of painting. And if you are new to painting and trying to learn you will probably be well-served to pick one and stick with it for awhile.
For me, I never felt totally comfortable with using watercolours. I have been able to achieve some level of personal success and sense of control over this type of paint, and I do go back to it regularly, but I just hate that you’re always kind of one wrong brush stroke away from ruining your entire painting. That’s a lot of risk and I’m pretty risk-averse. It’s a very clean type of painting. The paints are so beautiful and translucent and luminous and meant to show the beautiful paper underneath. If you do make a mistake, the work to fix it can ruin the delicate surface of the paper (drawing even more attention to your mistake) or any extra unnecessary layers of paint (to try to cover things up) can take away from the spontaneous properties that make it special to begin with.
So even though I have created some watercolours that I really love, and even have framed around our house, I find this to be the exception for me, rather than the rule. I also tend to prefer watercolour and ink paintings (like my east coast series) because using ink to create more detail within the painting is very attractive to me – it is pleasing in a way that I can’t achieve with watercolour alone. I guess that’s my rigid nature coming out but I like when things are defined and under control. It’s not just paint, it extends to the dogs, my hair… I like to be in charge 🙂
When I was in my teens I started getting into acrylic painting. Oils seemed like too much of a jump and I had to transport a lot of art projects back and forth between school and home so drying time was definitely a concern – acrylic (being water-based) was just the natural next step. I now feel that I like a heavier-bodied paint because I like the feeling that I am “sculpting” an image in two-dimensions on my canvas. Maybe I sound a bit weird but I know my brushes and what they can achieve with what pressure at what angle. One brushstroke can really be so powerful or central to the entire work.
For a long time now with acrylic (and more recently with oil paints), I have practiced painting with a very conservative number of brush strokes. The fewer the better I feel to convey the essence of the subject. When I get away from this, when it gets to be too fussy, too fiddly, something important is lost. All the planning and thought in the world should go into the painting beforehand so that the actual process of painting is very easy. My best paintings are also usually the ones that take the least time to paint.
Even though I feel very comfortable painting with acrylics now, for many, many years I struggled with acrylic paint because I didn’t know how to use it properly. I was trying to paint with acrylic on canvas like I did with watercolour on paper. As a result the paint just seemed too thick to me, it dried quickly, it seemed plastic-y. I couldn’t achieve the details that I wanted to.
If I can offer any advice, my top suggestion would be: for any type of paint you use, you should always buy the best that you can afford. As you go up in price point usually you’ll have a greater pigment load to binder ratio which means that your paintings will automatically look better. That alone will feel like an improvement.
In the past year or so I’ve really levelled up in a big way with my acrylic painting because I started to work with it rather than against it. My approach became more sculptural. I take more time now to consider every brush stroke before it happens. This has been a huge game changer for me.
Other breakthroughs: I started painting in layers and creating an under-painting. I spent a lot of time getting to know the nature of the paint and then one day it really was like a switch clicked for me. I look back on my old acrylic paintings and I just cringe, but I’ve included them in this post to (hopefully!!) show my progress.
Now I really love using acrylics and I continue to use it for all of my commission-based work.
I made the switch over to oil painting this year for my personal projects for a number of reasons. Even though I’ve made a lot of progress dealing with the properties of acrylic paints, I still felt limited by the super fast drying time. There’s a stage during painting when literally the entire painting surface is just tacky-sticky and no good can come of that. That’s the time when bad things happen to good paintings. The level of luminosity and realism I have been able to achieve with my oil painting so far has been so rewarding. I also feel like I can achieve more detail with oil than acrylic. It seems to work better for me when thinned down than acrylic paint – it doesn’t seem to lose its structure as quickly.
So, what do you do if you’re just starting out? What type of paint do you pick if you just want to try painting for the first time and you’re standing in the middle of the paint aisle at your local art store feeling intimidated by all the artsy looking people milling about? What do you do?
For ease of use, watercolour and acrylics are both water-based – water to thin, water for washes on paper and canvas respectively, water for clean-up. Soooooo easy. And actually, oil painting is only slightly less convenient in terms of having to use solvent and painting medium. Really, if I was advising someone on what type of paint to pick if they’d never painted before, I’d ask them to consider their favourite paintings and artists – what medium do they work in?
I put off oil painting for a really long time because I was intimidated. I told myself acrylic painting was basically the same (it’s not!!). The motivation I needed to change came this past summer when I saw the work of Canadian artist Heather Millar at Details Fine Art Gallery in Charlottetown. She is a phenomenal artist, one of my favourite contemporary artists, and such an inspiration to me. I am in awe of her talent and mastery of technique. When I experienced the impact of her beautiful oil paintings in person – I knew I had to try it for myself. I have so much to learn about oil painting, but I am grateful for the change and the opportunity to grow into a medium where I can really express my vision for painting.
No matter what you pick, the progress you make with painting technique and colour theory – it’s pretty transferable to some extent between mediums. If you want to paint, the most important thing to do is to just get started. Like today. Don’t wait. There’s no time like the present. If you want to paint give it a try! And if you do, let me know how it goes in the comments below. Thank you for reading and happy painting!
It may seem kind of daunting (or is it just me?), but starting your first oil painting is actually pretty straightforward with the right materials, a little know-how, and a bit of a, “What the hell, let’s just give it a try” attitude. Here’s a video to help you lay down your first layer of oil paint and get your drawing transferred to your canvas and ready to go.
***Disclaimer*** Cute dogs make an appearance and cause a little chaos. So sorry for any video awkwardness on my part. Oh, and please excuse Baby Riggs for growling at Teelo around the first minute or so, I don’t know what that was about. Materials listed after the video for your information 🙂
Canvas (I like the extra thick gallery-stretched canvases)
Oil painting medium (I use 1 part Gamsol: 1 part Galkyd stored in a screw top glass container)
A neutral oil paint colour like burnt umber or Payne’s grey (my favourites :)); I’ve been using burnt umber so much for my cat paintings I’m renaming it Beesa umber 🙂
A soft, flat brush (I use a 3/4″ synthetic bristle watercolour brush – reserved just for this purpose)
Paper towels or rags
Acrylic paint in your choice of colour to finish the sides of your canvas (I like Tri-Art charcoal black for the price and the quality);
My art history would not be complete without revisiting high school – however cringe-inducing it might be.
I started grade 9 in 1995.
Even though I’m talking about my past in the context of my artistic development, any walk down memory lane would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the glaring awkwardness. So let’s get it out of the way. I look back on my old photos from high school and I sincerely wonder, what on earth was I thinking? At the same time, I remind myself that it was such a different time from now. Just to give you an idea, the week I started high school the number one song on the radio (because we listened to the radio!) was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, and Friends was the most popular show on television. We all wore jeans, white t-shirts, and plaid button-downs over-top, sometimes tied around our waists. We all thought we were sooooo cool – even me! Pant waists were still pretty high back then – not total mom jeans but it wasn’t great. Nowadays people wear their high rise pants and feel ironic. Back then we did it because we just didn’t know any better. How could we – we barely had the internet!
I think most people usually just go from elementary school to their feeder high school. I had a few choices. I guess as an alternative to art school or my local high school, my mom actually lined up overnight at an all-girl’s Catholic high school that only did admissions via a lottery – it was really popular with local parents. Suffice it to say my mother put a lot of effort into getting me into this school attached to its very own nunnery.
This seemed like insanity to me. Grade 8 me was totally appalled. I already had my sights set on going to art school anyway. So in the winter of 1994-95 I applied to the Cawthra Park S.S. Regional Arts Program. The admissions process involved a few steps including a portfolio audition – it was all very proper. Two of the art teachers interviewed me, asked to look at my portfolio, and then had me draw a still-life scene for twenty minutes.
I was accepted and I was thrilled. My mom came to terms with it 😘
Cawthra Park S.S. was “famous” for being real-life Spike-from-Degrassi’s high school, but we never saw her. Students in the Regional Arts Program majored in visual art, music, drama, or dance. Art class was really great. I remember enjoying it very much right away.
The grade 9 art majors had Mr. Jensen, and let me tell you that was both an awesome and terrifying experience (I feel like that was a theme throughout grade 9). It really gave meaning to the expression, “baptism by fire.” Mr. Jensen was a no bullshit kind of guy. When you sensed he was in a bad mood (like the time he told us he got into a fight at hockey practice as an explanation for his black eye?!?) you would just stay out of his way. He was also awesome. Just a really awesome guy. He was a legitimate artist – he’d paint landscapes at his easel right alongside us sometimes. And he taught the most captivating art history classes. My knowledge of 20th Century art and the progression from impressionism through post-modernism is solidly intact because of this man. He was just a fantastic teacher. Kind of like Dead Poets Society: Cawthra Park Freaks and Geeks edition. Despite being a little bit scary, I just loved Mr. Jensen. His talks on Picasso and Dadaism and Michelangelo made me appreciate artists and styles I thought I knew or would have written off as being “dumb” or “boring”. And I loved the way he seemed to appreciate my art and my vision and what I had to offer. He seemed to think there was real merit in my work and I loved that because Mr. Jensen didn’t have time for fools – on this point he was incredibly upfront.
As an aside – I had really high hopes of finding magic again when I took art history as an undergrad at Queen’s but no such luck – it turns out Mr. Jensen was the diamond in the rough of our class. We had other art teachers over the years and they were good, but Mr. Jensen played a huge role in my high school experience and his teaching guides how I judge myself and my success as an artist even now. Definitely a lasting impression.
Academically I did very well. I think when I started in grade 9 I had enough raw talent to do reasonably alright and I thought a lot of the projects were fun. I liked getting good marks and I wanted to do well, that’s in my nature. At the same time, class didn’t feel like a chore in the first year or two. In the beginning we spent a lot of time drawing and then there were introductory “units” on painting, print-making, sculpture. Looking back, the projects were pretty disjointed. We spent time on colour theory and produced a series of abstract drawings focused on light and shadow. We spent a month on watercolours and produced a still-life watercolour painting at the end. It was pretty cool to get to go to art class everyday but I guess I’m not surprised looking back that a lot of my work has a sort of empty quality to it. It really wasn’t very inspired.
I’m not sure that I became a better artist by going to “art school”. I do think that it kind of opened up more options to me. Being a creature of habit I probably would never have experimented with acrylics (for example) without being assigned to do an acrylic painting. Likewise for oils. And I learned I hated printmaking. Like, I hated it so much and could never apply enough pressure to get an even print and it was just so… messy.
I did so well in my first year art class that I was awarded the Year 1 Visual Arts Award. I didn’t know this even existed but once I did, and once I found out that it was offered for every year of the Regional Arts Program – the gloves were off. I feel like people are really surprised about this aspect of my personality but it’s true – I am really, really competitive. As such I mounted a Herculean effort to be “the best” at art class.
What did “being the best” mean to me? Number one it meant achieving the highest mark in art class, every year, which I succeeded at. This made each year less fun than the year before. And in the process of aiming for the top, I also totally ruined the enjoyment of learning for the sake of learning. I was just so obsessed with the number awarded to my work. Not only that, I know that I wasn’t “the best”. I don’t even know what this means now. A lot of my fellow students went on to become very successful professional artists. I just got to be really good at playing the grade game. In fact, one of my life regrets is that, despite doing so well on paper, I didn’t decide to do art as a career…
One of my lasting takeaways from art school is that I really got a bit of a bug in my head about art needing to have meaning. I kind of learned the hard way back then that it’s just not good enough to create a carbon copy of the world around you. It’s ok for practice, sure, but what you paint matters. Without meaning, without a story for a Mr. Jensen to tell his grade 9 art class, the work has no soul. The story can be the colours, or the choices made by the artist, or all the things in their life that led to the pivotal point in time when a work was created. For me, art without purpose really became art that’s not even worth doing. This concept created a huge artist’s block for me in my last year in the program and lasted for a number of years (as in, what’s the point if there is no point?) but I’ve come back to it in a big way now and I find it’s really my central motivation.
By grade 11 there was a significant contingent of students that chose to focus on abstract and conceptual art, especially for our thesis project in our last year. I thought it was all just madness. I just wasn’t open to it. We got a new department head around this time who really championed conceptual art… and I really struggled to continue to paint in a realistic style with some sort of heart. When I look back on a lot of my art projects from high school they seem kind of lacking, and I remember feeling a bit empty when I was creating them too. It’s funny how that feeling isn’t lost on me even now.
Because of art school I have a soft spot for the work of Mark Rothko because it reminds me of our class trip to the Albright Gallery in Buffalo. I also have a soft spot for the super weird movie “Metropolis” that we watched there and back. I love the Group of Seven even though they are “overexposed” perhaps in the history of Canadian art – it reminds me of art history class. I’ll never forget the day students were invited to bring their dogs to art class and we spent the morning sketching in the middle of this off-leash crew of pups just wandering around the room, coming up to us to say hello. It was the best. And I’ll never forget my classmates, because even though I’m not in touch with most of them now, it was a really great group of kids. I actually recently had the fortuitous experience of reuniting with a high school friend through kind of five degrees of separation and from our conversations – it was like no time has passed. We may be separated by nearly a continent, but having this shared history makes these friendships feel like home 🙂
If I could go back in time, I would try to enjoy the “journey of learning” a little more. I suppose that’s easy to say now that I’m twenty-five plus years removed from the awkwardness of trying to paint a masterpiece while worrying about being popular and pretty enough too. I felt so creatively burnt out after art school and it took a long time to want to go back to it in a meaningful way. I was so hard on myself and my work for so long. In the past year, the most freeing thing for me creatively has been thinking – it doesn’t have to be perfect. In so doing, I feel like I’ve been creating the best work of my entire life and I really feel like the best is yet to come. I’m grateful for the solid foundation provided by the incredible learning opportunities that I had when I was younger. I just hope it’s not too late to still make something of myself in the art world.
Stay tuned for part two of my high school reminiscing – my last year in the art program and my last year in high school was a pretty pivotal time and worth its own post… thanks for reading!