My Top Six Ideas to Help You with Your Art
Part 1. Mindset
There are many ways you can improve your artwork. I think all of these can be divided into two primary categories – the “physical” and the “mental”. The “physical” would be the obvious things like learning to paint people better, or improving perspective in your cityscapes. The “mental” aspects of improvement are often harder to pinpoint, and thus more challenging to work on. One of these I’d like to bring to your attention is . . . “Mindset”.
Here is one definition of mindset – “a mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations”. That’s quite a mouthful. It could also be defined as “an inclination, or a habit”. Or in one word – your beliefs. Let’s unpack this a bit.
In a nutshell, the first definition says that the mindset you have when you are painting (or thinking about beginning one) determines how or where that art will go. The way you are thinking about yourself and your art actually helps or hinders your progress. I really believe that!
For one thing, your confidence in yourself and your abilities will determine how well you accomplish what you set out to do with that piece of art (click on “confidence” to open an article I wrote about that).
Another valuable part of your mindset is your willingness to grow in your art. This means being available to take chances and experiment with new things. Sometimes things won’t work out like you wanted or planned when you try something new, but this flexible segment of your mindset will allow you to grow. This always brings improvement, but you have to stick with it until it does.
Here’s something else you may have not thought about – you have to be tough in your mindset. What does that mean? You have to be willing to do your own art and not care what other people think or say – paint for yourself and your artistic vision! How many times have you let someone’s comments (or their not even noticing your work) sway your confidence in your vision for your work? You will never please everyone, and until you get tough you won’t even please yourself.
At the same time, your mindset should be one of sharing. Serve others with your art . . . this is done by being open with it, sharing your ideas with others and working with other artists. Have you ever noticed that the best artists are the ones who are very open and sharing with their ideas and knowledge? That’s because it comes back to you . . . we all gain as artists as we open up and share with each other.
Be aware also that there are two different basic mindsets. Some people have a “fixed” mindset – they think that all their traits are fixed, beyond their control to change or improve. Others work with a “growth” mindset. They see their personal qualities, like intelligence, talents, and personalities as things that can be improved and developed.
Obviously as artists we belong in the second group – the one with a “growth” mindset. There is no mountain too tall to conquer if you have the right mindset – use this first mental skill to improve your attitude and your art!
Part 2. The most important part of any painting
Last time I began this series with this idea – that all the ways you can improve your artwork can be divided into two primary categories – the “physical” and the “mental”. The “physical” would be the obvious things like learning to paint people better, or improving perspective in your cityscapes. The “mental” aspects of improvement are the ones that can be harder to define, like the one I brought up in Part One . . . “Mindset”.
In this issue I’m going to give you some hints on my favorite element of the entire painting process – Value.
Value is the one thing you can’t miss in your paintings. Color, texture, line, even composition – these elements are all secondary to value.
Take color, for instance. I’ve always said that you can get all the colors “wrong” in a painting, and still have a successful painting if there is a strong value scheme. Many painters concentrate on colors without thinking about the part that values play, and then wonder went wrong in the painting. If you get a handle on one element in your painting journey, it should be value.
So what are ways you can improve the values in your paintings?
- Learn how to have a strong and cohesive value statement in your paintings. It is beyond the scope of this article to teach you all about values, but I can direct you in the right direction. Have a plan for the values in your paintings – a direction before you begin. Will it be a high-impact value scheme with the darks very prominent? Or maybe a high key painting with lighter overall values. You get into trouble when you don’t have a plan for where your painting is going with the value patterns. And I stress your1. Learn how to have a strong and cohesive value statement in your paintings. It is beyond the scope of this article to teach you all about values, but I can direct you in the right direction. Have a plan for the values in your paintings – a direction before you begin. Will it be a high-impact value scheme with the darks very prominent? Or maybe a high key painting with lighter overall values. You get into trouble when you don’t have a plan for where your painting is going with the value patterns. And I stress your”painting”, not all of your “paintings” – while I am known as a painter that concentrates on very dark passages in the negative areas, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a value plan for each individual painting.
- Work out values for a painting with a value sketch. When I began painting I did one of these for every painting. It doesn’t have to be complicated or large, nor does it mean you have to match it exactly with your finished painting. But a value sketch helps you lay out the basic light and dark patterns in your composition. It also helps you stay on the right path during the painting process – one look at the value sketch while you’re painting can keep you from wandering down the wrong path.2. Work out values for a painting with a value sketch. When I began painting I did one of these for every painting. It doesn’t have to be complicated or large, nor does it mean you have to match it exactly with your finished painting. But a value sketch helps you lay out the basic light and dark patterns in your composition. It also helps you stay on the right path during the painting process – one look at the value sketch while you’re painting can keep you from wandering down the wrong path.
- Look at value patterns all around you. You can learn a lot about how and why value is important by just being observant. Nature, city scenes, still lifes – all of these are opportunities to witness value at work. I learned a ton about it by observing the patterns of light and dark in rock shapes at the seashore. By studying these patterns I was able to use a favorite subject to learn about how value patterns actually help shape things in nature. Look into a woods on a sunny day and you’ll see what I mean.
- Look at and study value patterns in paintings that catch your eye. See if you can figure out what makes the values work in a painting that speaks to you. If a painting really captures your attention, that usually means it has a strong value statement. Analyze the painting – how did the artist use value in the work? How do the lights and darks “walk” your eye around the painting? Is value the primary element in the painting or is it something else? You can learn much about values by studying other work.
Here’s some books and artists that I’ve studied to learn about value:
- “Painting People in Watercolor” by Alex Powers. He talks about the “Paper-Doll Relationship” throughout this book. Great stuff!
- “Watercolor – You can Do It” by Tony Couch. His explanation about value patterns is simple yet tremendously effective.
- “Webb on Watercolor” by Frank Webb. Whether you like his style or not, Webb is a master of values in an almost abstract way.
Part 3. Focus
What is your focus? You really need focus to improve your paintings, or to open up new markets for your work. Many years ago I realized that I was all over the place in my work – lots of different colors, incoherent value patterns, and too many subjects and moods. Once I focused on value as my dominant design element, and close-up subjects with negative painting as my style, my work took off like a shot. You obviously shouldn’t copy my path, but you do need to focus your work to really succeed.
Have you decided the one thing that you most need to work on right now? Maybe it’s a bunch of things, but it can be overwhelming to attempt to improve in too many areas at once. So choose one and concentrate on that!
I mentioned before that I focused on value and its effect on a painting early in my journey. That was because I had heard that value was one of the best ways to make a painting stand out. You need to choose something to excel in, too – and then make that your focus.
This might be the most important thing – I set aside my study of other things (like color, for instance) to concentrate on value. This allowed me to develop that part of my work without having to worry about the rest.
Focus is a wonderful thing – it is a laser-like tool to help you push through challenges in your artwork. This is what Charles Dickens said about it:
“I never could have done without the habits of punctuality, order and diligence; the determination to concentrate on one subject at a time.”
Usually the best way to go about this is to focus on what comes naturally to you. For me this was value, and still is. I have improved my use of color in a painting, but it is the strong value patterns that are the strength of my paintings. Maybe it’s different for you – what are the elements of a painting that you seem to gravitate toward? Here are several to consider:
- Shapes (this is another one of my favorite)
It might be that one of these is already shouting out to you. I often hear this from my students – “If I could only master ______ (fill in the blank)”. It might be easy for you to identify what to focus on.
If not, the best thing to do is to line up some of your paintings, and ask yourself “What is lacking in my work?” That’s a tough question, but it can be help you define the best area to start in your improvement.
So my challenge to you is to “Just Pick One” and focus on that until you begin to get a handle on it. It might just become your best strength!