Learning to paint is similar in many ways to learning to ride a bike, drive a car or play a musical instrument. Assuming that a person has access to the right materials (in this case paints, brushes and canvas), the key factors in learning a skill are:
2) the skill’s level of difficulty
3) the person’s ability to absorb and implement new information
Out of the three, motivation is the most important. Without a desire to pursue a certain subject, no amount of ability is going to mean anything. Even a high level of difficulty is no match for a person’s determination to learn if they want something badly enough. For that matter, access to art materials would scarcely be a hindrance either, because a determined person is a force to be reckoned with!
I remember a photography class I once had in a California community college. The instructor was very dedicated to his craft. Occasionally one of the students would complain about the cost of film or a particular piece of equipment. On one occasion the instructor made the comment that photography equipment was very costly, but a true photographer would somehow find a way to get it, no matter how difficult the burden. That was a thought that resonated with me and has been a catalyst for reflection since. His comment was really a metaphor for life. A person will pursue what they are motivated to accomplish in life; if they want to earn good grades in school, go to college, succeed in a marriage, own a boat, be a good person or even learn to paint, people with the right motivation will find a way.
I have often been asked by my students and interviewers what part talent plays in one’s ability to paint. I am reminded of the old saying that talent is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration; I believe that to be true. We have all seen examples of people in the news who had lots of ability, but proved to be utter failures because they wasted their lives on some self-destructive, fruitless behavior. On the other hand we have people in society who, despite a physical or mental challenge, succeed beyond any casual prediction others may have made. I know a young man named Mitch, who independently manages to go to and from work every day on public transportation and stop in the local 7-11 on the way home to buy himself a treat despite the challenges Downs Syndrome has presented to him and his parents since his birth. This might seem like a small thing to some, but to people in his situation it’s a huge achievement in life. The difference between him and another who was not so successful was the dedicated motivation of two great parents and a lot of help from caring professionals along the way. Top that off with the most important ingredient, (self- motivation) and you have a roadmap for success. I am always gratified and inspired when I think of my friend Mitch.
On the opposite extreme, I can’t help but think about the occasional student who comes to my college painting class, expecting to get a good grade by just showing up (and sometimes not even doing that). The obvious motivation is a good grade, which they always want in the worst way, and that’s usually how they go about doing it. A grade is an external motivation and a poor reason to be in a class in the first place. It usually turns out to be a test of endurance on the part of the student taking up a seat, and for me, enduring their obvious lack of interest. Sometimes when I walk by their work space it feels almost like a black hole in outer space; it zaps my energy just drifting past their low tone boredom.
Noted ’60s psychologist Timothy Leary once counseled a generation of gullible youths to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” I say, “Turn off the negative self talk and disinterested attitude, tune into life and drop the video game controller along with the ear buds”; there are a lot of positive things to get excited about in this world.
Once when I was painting out in a field near my home I was startled by a young couple who were pushing their small child in a stroller; they stopped to literally applaud what I was doing. When I asked why they were clapping, they said it was nice to see someone doing something real for a change. Their cryptic reference to the world of virtual reality had an impact on my comments today.
In another life experience, when I was in college I used to earn extra money for tuition by painting houses on the weekends and in the summer. This was a practice I even used after I got married to bring home some extra cash. I remember a contractor once commenting to me that since we had to be there for eight hours anyway, it was better that we gave it our all, than to go through the motions waiting for the 5 o’clock whistle to blow. That’s another tidbit I picked up that has stuck and grown into a philosophy about life.
I suppose by now, some of my readers are a little disappointed, hoping that I would get to the real meat of the subject, learning to paint. But, in a way, I think I have done that. If I can inspire someone to put a little more dedication into their work and make what they do an important aspect of their experience, I will have succeeded in helping someone on their journey to better painting.
In closing let me just give a few tips on learning to paint: Study from the best; be willing to devote time, energy and money pursuing your goal. Practice, practice, practice and study good paintings in museums and galleries. Invest in a good art magazine or two. Read books on the subject and get hooked up with other artists who share your goal. Go out often, painting and drawing from life. Take a trip to a museum and get permission to paint from one of your favorite masterworks. Take classes from good artists wherever you can find them; some of the best classes I have had were through local art associations who had the nerve to invite famous, and not so famous artists to put on a workshop. Do something “arty” every day, even if you only have five minutes to spare looking at a painting in a magazine. Lastly, be motivated and believe you can do it, don’t spend time spinning your wheels or whining about failures. Be willing to paint over or toss paintings that didn’t turn out, it’s all part of the process. Be sure to learn from every mistake you make, these really are your friends; turn weak things into strengths! Above all, enjoy what you are doing and share what you know with others, you’ll be surprised at your growth, both in painting and in life!
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.