How Awareness has Helped Me Paint Better

I’m glad you’re here! I understand your presence here and now to mean that you’re generally interested in art and maybe interested in what artists think about the work of making art. My interests are somewhat narrower. I’m interested in painting and what painters think about the work of painting.

When I was in grad school and studying how to educate adults, I was required to learn about the “pioneers” in adult education, what their individual contributions to the field were, and how different schools of thought developed. Then I had to decide who and what I was most aligned with, and why. It took almost three years to figure those things out for myself.

Art is like that, too. There are lots of schools of thought. People who want to work in one of the art fields need to first figure out what they want to do—paint, sculpt, draw, write, perform, sing, etc.—how to do it, who to learn from, and why. I took courses in painting, drawing, photography, and design when I was in college, and I tried to apply what I’d learned about Impressionist art to my own paintings. I didn’t impress myself with what I produced, and for one very basic reason. I didn’t know what I was doing. I also didn’t know what I didn’t know until recently.

When I was in college, I thought that Impressionists and their paintings were primarily about color and light. I had learned that Impressionists worked with “broken color,” which is the technique of building up layers of color. They did invent the technique and used it to great effect because they knew what they were doing, but that isn’t all that defines that group of painters.

Now I know that Impressionism is more than a technique. The Impressionists had two important things that painters before them didn’t have. Bright new paint colors were being created by the mid-1800’s, not just earthy colors made from organic materials and ground up rock. And their paints could be put in flexible, portable tubes. Without these two things, bright colors and portable tubes, painters like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh wouldn’t have been able to take their paints and canvases outside their studios and paint en plein air. Those inventions allowed a generation of painters to, for the first time, leave their studios and paint the light-bathed landscape in its many variations. What they became well-known for was their ability to paint their impressions of light—how it changed and why. 

Representational art usually refers to images that are clearly recognizable for what they are: a tree looks like a tree, although, the tree doesn’t have to be green. Representational artists usually try to interpret what they observe in front of them. Below are two of Monet’s paintings from the haystack series. Monet, an Impressionist, represented with paint what he observed in various light conditions.

Hay Stacks Overcast DayMonet Hay Stack

I took a LONG (30-years) break from painting after college. Then in 2015, I decided to try again. In grad school, I learned that people learn best by doing (deliberate practice and problem solving). We also benefit from observing others in order to learn the processes (internships are a good example) and by acquainting ourselves with the observations and practices of those who were pioneers in our chosen field.

Final thoughts…

Self awareness has helped shape my artwork, which has a representational focus. I love the ever-changing light on the landscape and, like the Impressionists, I paint my impressions of what I see. Below is a plein air painting I did this summer. After winter settles in here in Minnesota, I’ll paint in my home-based studio except on those warm days that nature gifts us with every once in awhile.

Through the Pines

I’d love to know what thoughts you have about making art.

What kind of art do you appreciate?

I’d also love to know if any of my reflections helped you.  

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