Teach Yourself to Paint – the Five Most Important Steps to Becoming a Successful Artist
Are you a hard core DIYer? Is painting and visual art one of your passions? Do you want to become better at it and possibly turn your hobby into a small business? If yes, this article is made to help you become your own teacher and place landmarks on your way to success.
This is a condensed form of your own self-directed learning plan:
Step 1. Define Your Own Success – think of what is the broad picture of your goal in art and how you achieve it.
Step 2. Find Your Artistic Why – write down your artistic purpose, stick it to the wall and fine-tune your art practice to match it.
Step 3. Write Your Own Learning Plan – carve the time you spend on your art education every day and hold yourself to the allotted time.
Step 4. Get Your Supplies – don’t go crazy, buy the bare minimum first and master the skills gradually.
Step 5. Become your own arts administrator – hone art marketing, public relations, branding, financial planning, and all that boring but indispensable stuff on your way to success.
Bonus Tips – treat yourself as an artist, and others will follow!
Step 1. Define Your Own Success
The first thing we set as a goal we want to achieve is success. But what is success? The definition is different for every person.
For some of us success is to get into the galleries, and museums, while others define success by numbers of likes on social media. Some creatives measure success by the amount of sold paintings and commissions, while for others success is to travel the world, paint on locations, and enjoy the life of a free artist. But this is only one side of success.
Art as a hobby or a recreational activity is one of the best things a person can engage in. But if your artistic purpose includes communication with your audience, there is more to your definition of success.
Is your success connected to your artistic purpose?
Let’s think how is our success, or in other words, our goal, related to our purpose, and why we make our art.
My own definition of success and purpose is very simple: “My goal is to make engaging art, and to emotionally connect with my viewers. I feel happy when they celebrate their life and love through my art. I achieve success when my clients and viewers experience and share their positive emotions evoked by my paintings”.
Your idea of success may change with time, and it is okay.
Last year your goal could be to learn how to make floral paintings, and this year you sell more than you can paint. Your goals have changed, and consequently, your picture of success changes every time you achieve a new level of performance.
At this point, I also feel there is more to what I define as my success, and so it is going to change to reflect it. The most important part is to have a clear goal and stay true to ourselves.
Turn your goals into objectives.
A goal without a plan is just a wish. We need to build a strategic plan and act on it. You can read more about what Forbes has to offer about how to create a strategic plan.
Depending on how you define your success, your strategy will differ. In most cases, setting SMART goals will be a useful tool. A 6 minute video below will help you to figure out whether you can use it for your art self education.
In any case, it is helpful to write or print out your goal and your definition of success and stick it to the wall to have a visual reminder of your destination. And it is easier to achieve your goal in a group of like minded people. Here is our Recreational Painting group on Facebook, it is a platform where we can get a feedback or share our art related experience.
Step 2. Find Your Artistic Why
Ten years ago, in a popular TEDx video “Start with why – how great leaders inspire action” Simon Sinek shared a great insight into how we work as people. Most importantly, he described why some people are successful in inspiring others with their passion. I would take it a step further and try to apply the same principle to our own self education.
How to find your why and teach yourself to stick to your artistic purpose?
To do it, let’s try to put in writing why exactly you want to take up painting and what you want to get out of it. Here is a structure that may help you to come up with your WHY. Complete the sentence with the most appropriate words in brackets or come up with your own to describe your motivation:
I paint to __________ (connect with, engage, express myself, share my vision to, create an emotional connection, inform, etc.) my viewers and _________ (engage, inspire, motivate, encourage, etc.) them, so that they ______________ (celebrate their existence, express their love, make a statement, start a dialogue, experience positive emotions, think about current social issues, etc.).
This example is a generalized illustration of a one sentence artistic purpose. It is not an exhaustive definition, and you can extend it to describe your purpose and passion more accurately.
Now that you know what your passion is and how it connects you with your audience, print it out or write it down and stick it to a wall.
Your answers will determine how you perceive your own art and what you should focus on while teaching yourself to be a painter. Your WHY may change and grow, there is no static learning path that everyone must follow to master art and painting. In different circumstances, you develop different tendencies, interests and natural skills which determine the optimal learning path you should take. During this learning process having a clear WHY will help you stay on the right course.
Most importantly, your answers will help you to have a clear vision of what your art does for your viewers, what problems it solves, and how they benefit from it. I do not believe in art for art’s sake. Art is a communication you as a creator have with your audience.
Art is a visual message, idea or feeling.
I want my art to create an emotional connection with my viewers and help them celebrate their life and love. Your why may be to inform your viewers and encourage them to think about current social issues.
Whatever the case, it is important that you have the self-awareness for why you are making art in the first place. And the second element in the art as a message is what you want your viewers to get out of it.
Your WHY may change, but it should be the Northern Star in your art journey.
Our knowledge and experience change and expand, and so will our artistic purpose. This is a normal course of events. You may have already had a change in your artistic why.
And also, if you have a different approach to discovering your purpose in creating art, or just want to share your Why, please take a minute to share your answer in the comment section at the end of this post. Let us help each other to be our own best teachers.
Step 3. Write Your Own Learning Plan
The “Teach Yourself to Paint” curriculum is designed by you wherever you are in your art journey – beginning, intermediate, or advanced. The goal of the curriculum is for you to have a clear context and tools that are most appropriate for your particular direction of exploration in paint. Your course may be grounded in the Western tradition, rooted in the Renaissance, or Modernity, engaging with Contemporary art theory and practice, and / or Traditional folk art of your nation. You construct your courses to reflect your own possibilities, abilities, pursuit and purpose.
You set your own pace, and focus on developing the following fundamental skills and master your craft one by one:
Drawing and painting are two separate forms of art and for those who are at the beginner-intermediate levels, I recommend to only deal with basics sufficient for building a composition for future painting. In-depth drawing courses can puzzle and discourage a painter, who is not experienced in art practice. For more information on drawing, check out this post “Drawing hacks: how to save time painting” to have a quick overview).
Value is the gradation from “light” or “dark” in painting. We can otherwise describe the values in terms of “brightness” and “contrast”. This property of color tells us how light or dark a color is, based on how close it is to black or white. I wrote an article “Painting hacks: values (lights & darks) and how to improve your painting” to help you reinforce your understanding of the subject.
Color, Hue and Chroma
Color/hue is a phenomenon of light (such as red, brown, pink, or gray). Chroma (saturation) may be defined as the strength or dominance of the hue. There is a short 15 minute video at the end of this post, it will help you get familiarized on the essentials of color theory. In this article “Color hacks in acrylic painting: theory and practice” you can get more info on how to make color look beautiful in acrylic painting
Edge quality in art refers to the sharp or fuzzy transition between two shapes of color. Read more about edges and how to handle them in acrylics in this article “Edges in acrylic painting: how and why they create illusion of depth”.
Paint handling techniques
Paint handling techniques in acrylics are different styles of manipulating and working with acrylic paints. These techniques range from painting with concentrated and thick color paints, to watered down paints and paint sold in bottles that can be poured or used for glazes. “Acrylic painting hacks: paint handling techniques to improve your skill set” gives more essentials to improve visual quality of your paintings.
Brushwork refers to the way a painter applies paint to a surface by a brush, a palette knife, a finger, or anything else used to paint with. It is typically characterized by the size, texture, and precision of the strokes. For instance, brushstroke may be described as “tight” or “loose” (“painterly”) depending on how visible they are to the naked eye. Here is a short article in Wikipedia, “Painterliness”.
Composition of a painting is the way in which its visual elements are arranged, especially in relationship to one another. Key elements of the composition a painter needs to know are: Focal point, Rule of thirds, Golden mean, Horizon line, Leading lines, Harmony, Rhythm, Movement (Direction), and Balance. “Composition in visual art” is a Wikipedia article that can help you get started in recognizing basic elements of design, and principles of organizing visual elements in painting, and photography.
Go a step further
Keep in mind that mastering these foundational skills also allows you to creatively express your vision in paint on the two-dimensional surface, whether paper or canvas. Your painting surface is a spatial arena in which you train your mind to “dream into” the flat surface images according to your current creative possibilities.
Now you know the fundamentals and can efficiently study art & take art courses according to your learning plan. Sufficient fundamentals will help you dedicate time to your artistic pursuits, and push your artistic limits.
One more important step in learning is to know when you need to find an art mentor. You can plan and improve your self-education employing various means and methods. Yes, you can and you should be creative about learning to be an artist, and if you feel like, find an art mentor or a peer who will offer you feedback and critique you need. Video 6 in the play list below, “Adopting art parents to develop your style” is a quite informative 50 minute podcast by two artists and draftsmen you can listen to while doing something or when driving.
Step 4. Be Strategic About Buying Your Supplies
Next step is buying materials. Being very mindful and frugal about this is critical in the initial stage. This will allow you to really get a feel for how the medium of your choice works, so that you can then pay more attention to the aspects of your painting that bring it to the level of fine art, that is composition, values, color scheme, brushwork, etc.
Why Should You Go With Acrylics?
Acrylics are widely favored by those just starting out with painting as they are easy to use and do not require any special supplies. The downside is they dry very fast.
Acrylics suit you if you like the following:
- Painting in layers of thin and thick paint;
- Combining different colors and techniques;
- Not spending hundreds of dollars on materials;
- Experimenting with mixed media;
- You are sensitive to the harsh chemicals involved with oil painting.
The downsides of acrylics are:
- The paint dries very fast. This means you only have a limited amount of time whilst your paint is responsive on the canvas.
- Some colors darken as they dry (the colors which are lighter tend to have a greater change).
There is no right answer here, but if you are just starting out in painting then I recommend you start with acrylics. But feel free to start with watercolors, pastels or oils if you are up for the challenge.
Do I have to only use only one medium?
I started with gouache, then I moved on to oils, and currently I work predominantly in acrylics and occasionally in oils, due to my allergies.
Also, this is not to say you must choose a medium and ignore the rest. I encourage you to try all different kinds of mediums, but have one which you really focus on and get familiar with. It is better to be a master of one medium, than be average at all mediums. And also, remember that the cost of supplies will triple, if you want to work in different mediums.
Make sure you read all of this section first before you start buying every type of brush or every color of paint – you do not actually need that much stuff! And more than that, some supplies can be replaced with inexpensive stuff from Michaels, Target, Home Depot or Lowes.
Essential supplies for acrylic painting
The supplies you get will vary depending on the medium you decide to go with. In a broad sense, all you need is:
- Canvas (for acrylic or oil paints), paper (for studies and sketches);
- Brushes (synthetic and bristle brushes);
- Paints (student grade or any inexpensive ones can do);
- A palette with a lid, for mixing and preserving your acrylics wet;
- Acrylic (polycrylic or a water based) varnish;
- A spray water bottle, to keep your paints from drying;
- Paper towels (for wiping your brushes from water);
- Palette knives (optional, especially in the beginning);
- An easel to hold your artwork (optional, especially if you work on smaller and medium size canvases).
You can read more about how to chose canvas according to your purpose in this article “How to chose the best canvas for painting”.
This article “How to save money on art supplies for acrylic painting“ will help you to stay on a budget while buying the supplies you actually need and will use at the initial stages of your painting career.
Basic colors to start with are:
This is the most used color and when buying it, grab the largest tube, jar or bottle. You need two whites. First one is Titanium white is an opaque, bright white with a strong tinting power (meaning a little goes a long way). Some manufacturers also sell a “mixing white”, which is usually the cheapest and, as the name suggests, formulated to blend well with other colors. For mixing white I buy a white matte paint at Guiry’s. You can get any water based white at a local hardware store. The quality for mixing white is not that important, I would recommend to buy one in the mid to top price range.
Blue comes second in the amount you will use. Phthalo blue is a cold, intense, and extremely versatile blue. It gets very dark when combined with burnt umber. Because of its high tinting strength, only a little need be mixed with white to create lighter blues, and it is easy to miss the mark if you are trying to mix the same color with it. I would recommend to replace it with Cobalt blue. It is lighter compared to Phthalo blue. Ultramarine is one more, warmer shade of blue. Ultramarine blue is a good and a very useful standard blue to have. Like phthalo blue, it is transparent, quite dark and slightly weaker in tinting power compared to Phthalo blue.
Yellow is one more very popular color you will use extensively and often. Start with a large tube of cadmium yellow medium. You can easily create a lighter yellow by adding white to this color. And also, consider buying a tube of lemon yellow, as a cooler, lighter, more transparent color, it is especially useful for glazes. To darken yellow add its complementary color, purple, rather than black, which tends to produce an olive green rather than deeper yellow. Purple will make yellow less warm, and more neutral. To make a warmer and darker hue, try adding brown.
Get a tube of cadmium red medium. It is a yellowish, warm red and relatively opaque. Alizarin crimson is another red I recomed. It is darker, cooler, and gives incredibly flexible variations in mixes. It can be substituted by Carmine red or Cadmium red deep. All of them are deep, dark and versatile mixes.
Mars black is a relatively opaque color and should be added to other colors in small quantities until you’ve got used its strength. Another option is any inexpensive black. And by the way, did you know about these shades of black?
Burnt umber is a warm chocolate brown that’s extremely versatile and it will soon become indispensable for your mixes. It’s great for darkening the tone of other colors. Raw umber is very similar but slightly lighter and cooler.
Phthalo green is a bright bluish green. Mix it with cadmium yellow medium to get a variety of shades of greens. Next one is Chromium oxide green, a less strong, warmer and very useful in mixes. Whan you mix Chromium oxide with Carmine or Alizarin and white, you will get one of the most beautiful and pearly grey shades.
It is worth buying a very dark purple such as dioxazine purple, since mixing a pure cool purple can be very hard. You can try mixing warmer varieties using deep reds and blues.
So these are the 8 essential colors you will need in the beginning. Experiment and mix them, to get to know how each color interacts with the other. You will eventually find combinations that work best in mixes. This video will help you stay organized when documenting how each of your paints mixes with the others. I love cold greys I get by mixing Ultramarine, Burnt umber, and White.
Heavy body vs fluid acrylics
Depending on your style and preference, you can either go with heavy body or with liquid paints. If I need my paintings to be smooth, I take fluid paints. For more visible texture and expressive brushwork, I take heavy body paints. There is no right or wrong, they are made for different effects. I described different effects and techniques you can apply while working with acrylic paints in the post about Acrylic Painting Hacks.
This is where you need to choose carefully. Do not buy the cheapest ones, as they can shed. Watercolor brushes are very expensive, but they are not good for heavy body acrylics. I plan to write a whole blog post on brushes. But for starters, get good quality medium and large size flat and round bristle brushes, size 4 and 8. The smaller the size, the shorter the lifespan of the brush. So get at least two size zeros, and two size 2 flat and round brushes.
To prime and varnish the canvases, I use 1” or wider synthetic brushes. I buy medium or higher price brushes at the nearest hardware store. Never go for cheaper brushes in an art section of your local supermarket.
There is one thing that can make a good brush go bad fast. It’s incorrect handling. Wash your brushes after every painting session and do not make them stand immersed water, but use a plate with water after you rinse them in a jar. This little trick will make your brushes go two extra miles for you.
Materials and supplies are subject to change and to minimize trial and error expenses, just contact me and we will talk what will suit your budget and your situation best. I will gladly share my experience of more than 10 years in fine art painting.
Here is my position on brands and brand names. I am not doing (and not going to do) affiliate marketing and sell any product for brands. And thus, unless I am convinced one brand’s product is so much better compared to other brand’s product, I will generalize on the type of a product without endorsing any brands. If asked, I will specify about brands and where I bought something in direct messages on social media.
Step 5. Become your own arts administrator
If your success includes popularity and/or potential growth into an art business, then this section is a key element for you. The earlier you will start to be serious about social media and marketing, the better for the development of your art business.
There is no way around it. Administrative stuff requires a lot of time and self education. The more time you will spend doing it, the better.
Remember, nobody will do art marketing, public relations, branding, financial planning, and all that administrative stuff for your art business better than you. And the earlier you start treating yourself not just as an artist, but as an art business, the better.
There’s no exact recipe for success in the artistic niche, but if you want to become a successful artist you need to do these things:
Define your success, goals and objectives that include your artistic purpose and be strategic at pursuing your goals.
Find your artistic WHY, purpose, and passion and build your art practice on a right foundation.
Write your own learning plan and buy your supplies strategically: know your craft, be frugal, master your art skills, study art & take art courses. Once you know your style and requirements, get more expensive supplies. Now that you know what and why you are buying, you can push your artistic limits. Dedicate time to your artistic pursuits and experiments to grow as an artist. If possible, find an art mentor or a group of peers you want to share your art with.
Become your arts administrator: treat art like a business, grow your art portfolio, learn what your brand stands for, build your brand on social media, increase your web presence, network with the art community, market yourself and your artistic talents, work with an art agent.
- Don’t worry about what other people think. Accept criticism carefully, do not let it be the main driver for what you do. And also, do not be overly critical to your art. There are people who will like it.
- Engage in the art community – enter or just follow online competitions, visit online and brick and mortar galleries, talk to other artists, read artist blogs, subscribe to artist newsletters, etc. The more engaged you are, the more inspired you will be. But again, do not let it take up too much of your precious time. Balance it with art practice and learning by doing.
- Do not to be intimidated by celebrity artists. They have spent a lot more time making their art and learning, that is why they are more skilled, experienced, knowledgeable or technical than you. Look to them for inspiration.
- Developing a memorable or unique style is not something you can accomplish in the beginning, when you are just starting out. Your personal style will develop over time with experience. You may even be unaware that you have it, but others will be able to tell that your paintings stand out from others.
- Learn art history, research the masters from the past. Read their biographies, where they studied and worked. This will provide you with a constant source of inspiration and knowledge.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things. You never know how it will play in future.
- Be mindful of how you use gimmicky techniques, secrets, rules or methods. Sometimes you will only learn if you break the rules.
- The only secret to becoming a great painter is to learn, practice, review and improve.
- Remember, the others will treat you as a painter, if you treat yourself as a painter!
Thanks for Reading!
Leave a comment or find me on social media, if you have any questions about paintings, canvases, painting supplies, and art in general. I’m not selling anything, so my advice will not be affected by affiliation to any brand or store. In this post you can get a few ideas of how to improve your painting and start making quick progress. And if there is any additional information you need, I’d be happy to share, just let me know.
And, as one of the coolest painters said: “All you need to paint is a few tools, a little instruction, and a vision in your mind.”