On being a self-taught artist

I recently tried gouache paint for the first time.  I was prepared that the properties of gouache that can be similar to acrylic paint, but what I was not prepared for was the negative associations which flooded back to me as I struggled and became frustrated with the learning process.  The negative association comes from an art class I took in college.  This class (along with other negative experiences) have also strongly influenced my decision to become a “self-taught” artist. 

Gouache (left) vs. watercolor (right)

My sad experience with higher education and art

When it came time to pick a college to attend, I purposely chose a liberal arts college instead of applying to art schools.  I was not convinced that I could make a living at art and had no desire to be a “starving artist.”  Instead, I decided to go to a college that would open up alternative career options for me.  I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in art.  My heart regrets this decision, but my spine (which requires good health insurance to cover the 5K in medications I need per month) regularly reminds me that this was a good decision. 

Some of the art classes I took in college were not taught very well. This did not help to raise my confidence that I could have developed the skills I would have needed to make art my career.  The worst art class I took was an introductory painting class.  In this class I was expected to buy supplies with no guidance of the type of brushes, paint, or what colors to choose.  I decided on acrylic because they were cheap, and they were readily available at our university bookstore.  I was not given instruction on techniques like mixing colors, blending, or how to keep the paint from drying out.  I was given a demonstration on how to stretch canvas, and I watched the instructor paint a bowl of eggs.  During the demonstration I asked why he included blue paint in the shadow areas.  I asked him if he was seeing these colors as I didn’t see any blue on the eggs.  He didn’t have a good answer for me.  I spent the entire semester frustrated as I struggled with the medium.  My instructor never gave me feedback on my paintings, and I received a B as a final grade.  I guess I did ok in the class, but have no idea what criteria he used to judge my work. 

After that semester, I made the decision that I was not a painter. I haven’t made an acrylic painting since.  Maybe things would have been different if I would have gone to an art college.  But the biggest thing I have learned over the last several years is you can’t go back.  You can only go forward in life.

Since I decided to take my artwork seriously in 2017, I’ve sought ways to gain an art education without art school.  I don’t live in a place that provides me access to good art schools and my previous experience with higher education has left me cautious about spending a lot of money to take classes in which you learn very little.

How I self-teach myself art (and how that term is a bit of a misnomer)

Turns out, I am a painter (specifically ink and watercolor).  Turns out, I just needed to find the right medium and to find folks to teach me the right techniques to be successful at watercolor right away.  Turns out, when you teach someone how to find the right paper, paints, and brushes and you teach them water control, blending techniques, and effects, they fall in love with a medium.  Turns out, fighting with acrylic paint for months and months just made me hate it more.  So how have I taught myself art over the last several years?

I find good teachers: Who are my secret (free) teachers you ask? YouTube. I watch tons and tons of YouTube videos. There are so many excellent artists online who are willing to give you basic instruction for free. I watch videos on drawing, painting, sculpture, framing, and how to keep a sketchbook. I also watch videos about running an art business such as packing orders, organizing a business, marketing, bookkeeping, and how to make a living at being an artist. I have learned more from watching YouTube videos than I’ve learned in any college art class. We tend to call this type of learning “self-taught” but I consider all of these folks as excellent teachers and I couldn’t have progressed this far without them.

I look at a lot of art:  My other teachers are my own observation of other’s artwork.  Most of this observation is online as I don’t live in a location with good art galleries.  I spend time on social media looking at other’s work, I go to outdoor art fairs, I read art magazines, and I check out art books at the library.  By looking at other’s work, I develop an eye for what looks good and what doesn’t, and I set goals for how I would like my art to look like in the future.

I practice a lot: Everyone will tell you this, and it is absolutely true, you must practice in order to improve. I try to draw in a sketchbook several times a week (every day if I can). The most useful advice I have received from my YouTube teachers is that making several small works will help you to improve faster than a few large works.

Improvement: A piece from 2018 vs. 2022

I critique my own work:  Practice by itself will not help you to improve, however.  Otherwise, we make the same mistakes over and over again.  So, in order to improve, one must self-critique.  I look over my work and ask myself what is working and what is not working, what do I like and what do I not like about the piece.  It is very difficult to see mistakes in your own work, however.  So one of the secrets to a good self-critique is to put the piece away, not look at is for a week or more, and then look at the piece again with fresh eyes.  Writers have been doing this for ages, and it certainly works for artists. I also feel like I have gotten better at critiquing my own work over time with practice.

I research ways to fix problems and improve:  Once I can identify what needs improvement in my work, I research ways to fix it.  If it is an issue with technique, I usually go back to YouTube to find some instruction to fix the problem.  Sometimes the problem has more to do with style or composition, so in this case I spend time looking at other artist’s work.  Sometimes I do a master copy of another artist’s work to get a feel for how they solved a particular problem. 

I practice more:  Sometimes it is just a matter of doing something over and over again until you can get your hand and brain to produce the thing that is in your mind.  It also helps to remind myself that my art journey is not a race, and I am cautious of social comparison with other artists.  I try to spend time appreciating the artwork I make right now.  This helps me to not get as frustrated that my skill level is not quite where I would like to be yet. 

It is very likely that these stages would be a lot faster if I could go to a good art school, with good instruction.  The process I state here is very much missing someone with a good eye who can quickly identify why your piece isn’t working and to give you advice on how to fix it.  But I feel like my process is great substitute for not being able to attend art school, it’s completely free, and has given me a higher self-confidence that I can solve creative problems on my own. 

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