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.
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.
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:
- The Alla Prima Portrait – Robert Liberace (as well as his other DVDs)
- The Captain’s Portrait – Richard Schmid (and all his other DVDs)
- The Portrait Sketch – David Bruce McLeod
- The Classic Self Portrait – Kerry Dunn (and other painting courses on Craftsy)
- Richard Robinson’s landscape painting workshops
- John Crump’s landscape painting demos
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.
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:
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.
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: