What it means to be a ‘self-taught’ artist

I consider myself a ‘self-taught’ artist.

What does this mean?

Essentially, it means I have had very little formal training in art/painting. I took art in high school, and very briefly in college, before switching to psychology for some reason, but since then, everything I’ve learnt has been through self-guided learning, using books, videos, informal online courses, and a large dose of trial-and-error (heavy on the error!)

So in a sense, I have been taught by the people who wrote those books and made those videos/courses, but not directly, and the ‘self-taught’ label applies more to the self-directed nature of the learning. I chose what to learn and when, and at what pace. I wasn’t following a curriculum, or being told exactly what to study.

As such, my learning has been sporadic, and I’ve been known to go for months at a time without picking up a brush/pencil (although I’m getting into a more regular routine these days).

How to be a self-taught artist

Here are some of the most beneficial resources I’ve used in my learning path so far. I hope you’ll find them equally useful.

Learning to draw

The first step in becoming a good (representational) artist, is learning to draw accurately. (This may not apply to more abstract/modern art, but it may still help to have a solid drawing foundation).

By far the best resource I’ve used to improve my drawing skills is the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards.

This book changed the way I approached drawing, teaching me the skill of ‘seeing’ as much as drawing itself.

Learning to paint

I actually started out painting entirely through trial and error, without even reading a book. I just bought some painting materials and dived into it.

Finding good painting instruction outside of a formal setting has actually been more of a challenge.

Books

Most of the books I’ve found are not particularly useful, but one that stands out is Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima – Everything I Know About Painting (now in its second edition). It’s not primarily an instructional book, but there is now a companion book, which goes into more of the practical side of painting. These are expensive books, but worth it if you can afford them.

Videos

Learning to paint from a book obviously has certain limitations. You can’t see the artist in action, you only see the result of their actions, and it can be difficult to describe the technique of a brushstroke in printed words, so it helps immeasurably to watch videos of artists painting.

Some videos that I’ve found useful include:

These may or may not be helpful for you. The key is to find videos from artists whose style you aspire to, and take what you can from their lessons/demonstrations.

Copying

If the video is part of a course or workshop, then it’s most likely intended for you to paint along with the artist. Some videos are just demonstrations, where the artist might try to describe their thought process, but it’s not necessarily intended as a ‘lesson’. Even with these videos, I’ve found it helps a lot to paint along with the video, and try to emulate the techniques of the artist.

Watching a video is fine, but it’s nothing compared to what you’ll learn if you actually try to paint as that artist paints.

I had previously watched Richard Schmid’s “White Pine” painting demonstration DVD, but I recently watched it again, and painted along, trying to copy the various techniques Richard uses to create his masterpieces. Here’s my effort:

"White Pine" copy after Richard Schmid, by Dan Johnson

“White Pine” copy after Richard Schmid, by Dan Johnson

Obviously it’s not a patch on the original, but the benefit of copying the work of artists you admire (for personal use only, of course!) by emulating the painting techniques used in their videos, is that you learn practical skills that you can then draw upon when painting your own subjects.

Plus, if your copy turns out half decent, it can give you a real confidence boost, knowing that you are at least physically capable of producing a nice painting, if you can just master those techniques.

Practicing

The most important aspect of ‘teaching yourself art’, is ensuring you get enough practice. You need to set aside time regularly to devote to practicing the things you’ve learnt, until they become second nature.

A great way to practice drawing is by finding a local life-drawing class/session (it doesn’t need to be run by an art teacher, as long as you get chance to practice your drawing). It’s also a good way to meet fellow art enthusiasts.

I’ve recently started getting up at 6am to get some painting time in before starting work. I found myself in an unfavourable routine of painting for a week or two and then stopping for a few weeks, and I realised that I wasn’t going to magically find more time to paint. I had to make the time, so I made a deliberate change to my daily routine, which has enabled me to do more painting in the last few months than I probably did in the previous couple of years.

You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it. ~ Charles Buxton

I’d love to hear from other self-taught artists. Let me know in the comments what resources you used to ‘teach yourself’.

Finally, here’s a study I worked on in the early morning recently:

boardwalk-600

Happy painting!

14 thoughts on “What it means to be a ‘self-taught’ artist

  1. Hi Dan! I found myself in your blog..I have the very same background..psychology and all! I followed the same path to ‘self-teaching’ and can especially relate to the need to set time aside purposefully in order to get better at painting. At this point I have been grabbing time after hours..sometimes painting after midnight for a couple of hours. I am inspired to reverse and try starting my day with painting rather than ending it — too late, too tired!! Thanks for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim says:

    Hi Dan I have a painting in my possession and wanted to know if it is one that u painted it’s going to very colorful sky with beautiful trees in the background of very tall grass like you’re out in the field and what looks like to be a dirt road with a guy riding a Harley

    Like

  3. Hi Dan,

    I just came across your blog when I was researching how I can better explain the benefits I’ve found through self-teaching. I am also a self-taught artist. I found what I love on my own, and when I find new techniques, I try them out and see where my skills can improve and what I can do with it. I find a lot of freedom in being self-taught. Contrary to some belief, it takes rigorous and persistent practice and on-going development through experimentation and drive. I personally feel if I ended up ‘classically trained,’ my creative ideas may have been lost to a whole different direction, so it has been a great thing for me as well! So I wanted to say, nice to meet you, and I’m happy to hear you are enjoying your experience as a self-taught artist. I look forward to seeing more of your work and catching you around in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 I just started painting/drawing again after a long time of doing nothing – as you said we have to make the time. Drawing/painting after work has become a big priority for me now – and as a result I m very happy. 🙂 And even more productive at my day job. I m also a self-taught artist & whilst I think it’s a good foundation for any art career to have a formal training – I think it’s easier to find your own style by teaching yourself. Sometimes teachers can pass on styles to their students, resulting in them never really creating their own drawing/painting style.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dan. I am very happy to see I am not alone in my “self taught art”. I also struggle to find time to do what I love most. Thank you for sharing with us. The tips about painting along with an artist sounds great, and I’m inspired to set some time for my painting. Love your art style. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Teresa says:

    Hi Just found your blog. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I was telling a colleague of mine today that I had just found a gem of a book by a man called Carlson on landscape painting. She replied that you don’t need books to be an artist, you either have it or you don’t. She said that the great artists just went outside with their paints and easels and creatively painted. I had to disagree. I started painting last year and painting is not what people think. It’s a lot of learning and practice. Of course you have to have talent for it, you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t, but I felt a bit put down because what they were saying is if you have to resort to a book, then you’re not original. The creativity has to come from within she said. Of course it does, I told her, but you have to learn how to do what you have in mind, it’s not magic! What do you think. I just left it and agreed to disagree.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Teresa

      With the greatest respect, your friend doesn’t know what she is talking about! 😀

      I would go one step further and say that you don’t have to have a talent for it, and what seems like talent actually comes from years upon years of practice. I would suggest reading Bounce by Matthew Syed, to see that there is almost no evidence for ‘natural talent’, and anyone who is an expert at anything has practiced for thousands of hours. Books are great for learning technique and theory, but practice is the key.

      Have fun proving your friend wrong, and thanks for your comment! 🙂

      Like

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