What I've Learned (after 120 paintings)

I should have posted this earlier (right after #120), but I swear it seems like the more I learn about painting, the more it changes. Lucky for me the most important things I've learned haven't changed one bit.

This is the short version of what I've learned:
Consistent repetitive practice and tolerance/acceptance of negative emotions/thoughts are critical. Everything else will be learned on the way. That's really all I have to say. You can skip to the paintings now.

This is the long unnecessary version:
If there is one important thing I learned about painting this is it:
Learn to tolerate the negative thoughts and feelings. Painting has been one of the most frustrating and most rewarding things I've ever done. I wanted to quit a whole lot especially during the beginning. It really hurts to want something so bad, to love something, only to be denied it again and again. In short it just hurts a lot. Building up a tolerance and acceptance of those negative thoughts and emotions along the way is the greatest and most useful thing I've learned. Often when I am painting and about 45 minutes into it, my head might says "You're terrible, you should give this whole thing up" and I then feel the frustration or despair that comes along with that thought. But by now I'm used to it and I say,"Ah there you are. Come have a seat. You are welcome here, but we ARE going to finish this painting". In the past I wouldn't have realized I was being taken over by despair and I would throw the painting down and my hands up (literally). This awareness and acceptance has made all the difference. To me this is the most important thing that allows the second most important thing...

The second most important thing that goes hand in hand is brush mileage. You need to paint miles of canvas to get better at painting (thus the first step with 120 paintings) I don't think you can get a whole lot better as an occasional sunday painter. You can't just take one class that meets once a week. I think you have to make it part of you life. Every day would be great or even maybe three times a week, but I think you have to put much more canvas behind you and also keep it fresh in your head. This is why I committed to 120 this year (see Larry Seiler anywhere on wetcanvas.com). I needed to put a good mile behind me relatively often to see if it would improve me. In my humble opinion, I really feel like I have gotten a lot better. Obviously I still have miles to go, but I really look forward to those miles.

I may have made this sound like a lot of pain, work and struggle, but I can't adequately express the rewards. I see the world much different. "Things" have now become colors are shapes that I never saw before. Colors that never appeared to me before seem to just reveal themselves now. It honestly changes the way that you physically see things. Please pardon my mushiness, but it just seems like a miracle sometimes and I am astounded and sometimes just stare in awe. (that's what you get for reading the long version :P)

The rest is a random list of the last ten percent of what I've learned. This is just random stuff I've learned along the way and are certainly subject to change. These are not necessary in order...

  • Ivory Black is a murderer. I tried to shade with black on "first apple" and it just kills the chroma of any color it touches like the spreading of the black plague. Now I mix any darks.
  • You don't need a million paints to get started. I used a bunch of random paints at first and it was chaotic and frustrating. Mixing was a crapshoot and color harmony uncommon. Under Kevin Macpherson's advice, I painted with the very limited palatte of cad yellow light, alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue (See Macpherson's "Fill Your Oil Paintings With Light & Color). A little later I added cad red and thalo blue to be able to reach greener greens, bright oranges and some very deep dark colors as well. It's been very liberating to mix all my colors from a primary palette.
  • At some point around the beginning to middle, this book was a godsend for me: Macpherson's "Fill Your Oil Paintings With Light & Color" It made things a lot simpler and easy to understand in every aspect of painting. I highly recommend it to anyone learning to paint.
  • Value compostion. I find that a painting has to have a good value composition underlying it's design. Basically I draw it (at least I should every time) as a two value black and white sketch before I paint. You want to hold your light family and dark family group to this basic value design. Otherwise it will become flat, muddle and lack the punch you were hoping for.
  • There are two family in light, the dark side and the light side and never shall the twain meet. Seriously. To keep to that underlying value composition, keep your values for each family within that family only. You're lightest dark shouldn't be as light as your darkest light. Otherwise it will poke holes in your basic value composition.
  • You don't need super fancy brushes. I started with those nice silky sables and it was just an invitation to fussiness. I switched to bristol brushes and am not going back. They don't let me obsess over detail and they make for great texture and fun brush strokes.
  • Details are dumb. Sorry for lack of a better phrase, but for me I found I was trying to make a painting "better" by adding little detail which didn't help at all. What I was missing was the correct values (or good basic design) and was trying to make up for it with details.
  • Values are critical. This can't be overstated. If you don't get the value relationship right between your color masses, it just won't work. You'll get the mid-toney local color look in so many paintings have that drives me crazy.
  • Squint to better see values. Do this experiment- Squint next time you're outside and you'll see how dark a tree line really is in comparison to the skyline and the ground plane. I had never really realized the reality of the value difference before.
  • Blur you vision for color. It gets rid of details and really lets you see the chroma.
  • I love my pochade box. My little paint box sits on top of a tripod and carries everything that I need. It's great for keeping my unorganized ass together. Forget easels and french easels. Try a pochade box on a tripod. It's a joy.
  • Edges are important. Do not leave them all sharp or you painting will look like a cutt out and pasted on objects. It took me quit awhile to see this for some reason.
  • Don't overblend, hell don't even blend. Just make an intermediate color when transitioning. I have overblended so much and sometimes still do trying to "improve" a painting (like details) and it just starts to kill it.
  • Make a comitment on your center of interest or you painting will feel conflicted like "what is this really about?" Make decisions toward that end like sharp edges and value/chroma contrast at your center of interest.

Recommended books:
"Fill Your Oil Paintings With Light & Color" Kevin Macpherson -This is a great book for the beginner. My #1 book. Breaks it all down to manageable steps

"Capturing Radiant Light & Color in Oils and Soft Pastels" by Susan Sarback -descendant of the Cape Cod school reinforces the importance of getting the intial color masses correct (very similar in method to Macpherson)

"Dramatize Your Paintings With Tonal Value" Carole Katchen -emphasizes the importance of correct value and value compositions

Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson -Though dry, fascinating and useful in what you learn about outdoor light.

I love all the painters in my list but these painters especially should be watched everyday. These painters more that any others I look to for inspiration and constant education. They are simply wonderful:
Carol Marine
Qiang Huang
Karin Jurick
Jerry Lebo
Aaron Lifferth
and Terry Miura
related posts:
My Setup - All my basic equipment for painting.
What I've Learned (after 120 paintings)
Digital Starts - Photoshop, but it's exactly how I paint anything.

See available paintings | Email me about a commission


Nancy Van Blaricom said...

Great post. I'm so glad you mentioned Macpherson. I think his book alone will aid me through my 50 1-hour paintings. You've put into words some valuable information that I'm sure will stick with you through out your future paintings. Great post. Thanks........ oh, can you speak a little about the brand of pochade box you have? I recentily made one from a cigar box. I'm questioning how strudy it will be now.

Jeff Mahorney said...

Thanks Nancy. Yes I think that book will server you well.
I've got this box:
I love it because it store everything for me, but I haven't tried the others...
Everyone raves about the Openbox M and Macpherson has a pochade box named after him here:
Basically I'm sayin though if yours is workin for you then great. If not there are some affordable solutions. :)

indiaartist said...

I visited for the first time and loved your paintings, especially still lifes. Good work,keep it up.

Chris said...

Very insightful post. Well written. You've really laid down some important aspects about painting.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. I like what you said about accepting the negative. I hate almost everything I paint for at least 10 minutes, at that transition stage usually. I'm just sick that I am missing the workshop with Carol and Karin. I'm wait-listed. Oh well, I'll keep looking at the website and learning.


Hello Jeff,
I'm a beginner myself from Brazil and thought this post very helpful.
Thanks for the tips.
Luciano Figueiredo

Anonymous said...

"Consistent repetitive practice and tolerance/acceptance of negative emotions/thoughts are critical. Everything else will be learned on the way."

I couldn't agree more! I'm going to write a post about this idea and if I can figure out how to make a linkback to this post I will. :D

happy painting!

Jeff Mahorney said...

Thanks very much for all your kind words guys. I'm really happy if any of this was useful to anyone, especially new painters.
Good luck and keep painting. :)

Rhonda Hurwitz said...

just found this other blog of yours... we seem to share the same sensibility since many of your favorite artiss are also mine.

can't wait to get the books you mentioned here, as I am planning to try to learn oils. thanks for the tips.

experipainter said...

I love your idea of posting all 120 paintings in order--and you've inspired me to start plugging away myself at a more regular, stepped up pace. Your list of "what you've learned" and the book recs were fantastic, too. And in case you've still got any doubt: it's obvious that you've made incredible progress since those first few paintings. I'm definitely going to keep tuning in, so keep it up.

Jeff Mahorney said...

Rhonda- I love keeping up with your blog. I'm amazed by your pastels and you'll take to oil like a fish to water (or oil?) :)

experipainter-Thank you for the compliments and I'm so glad some of this was useful. I'd love to keep up with your blog also, when it's up.

Anonymous said...

I just found this wonderful blog of yours as I was looking around pochade.com and I'm simply amazed at your progress. All your comments about wanting something so bad, but being denied is sooooo familiar to me.

I think of painting EVERY single day but I find an excuse not to paint equally as often. I know deep down that it's because I don't want to fail. I don't want to lose my adoration of art due to my pathetic attempts at creating something myself.

Your approach makes 100% sense and I applaud you for coming up with the idea and for following through with it. I'm quite sure that you have helped a whole lot of aspiring painters out there and I'm one of them.

I'm gonna go away now and set my own target. It may not be as ambitious as yours, but I promise that I'll stick to it. Thank you so much for your inspiration!

Kind regards,

Tom McQuiggan (UK).

Jeff Mahorney said...

Tom-Thanks much for your comments and kind words. I'm so glad my advice/experience might be helpful. It's well meant and heartfelt.

Yeah I can just hear those negative thoughts trying to steer you from what you want. You can't deny those thoughts/feelings and wish them away ,BUT they don't have to drive the bus. Make em take a seat while you drive (paint). Sure they'll bitch and complain. They always do. Just keep drivin (painting) and you'll get use to them. Funny thing is when you get used to them they eventually start to quite down which is nice.

You bet, I know what it's like to find excuses not paint today. That's ok, sometimes you just have bad days or even weeks, but you have to get back on and keep it fresh and consistent in your mind. A good test for me is if I'm walking around and color relationships just jump out at me (like the blue of a shadow), if composition just appear and you think "man I wish i had time to sit and paint that". If you are looking down and street and your mind starts to break the scene down into major masses of colors. That's when I know Im painting often enough. Get it in your brain and daily life. Consistent painting does this.

Good for you Tom! Make a commitment to that number and do it small and often if you can. Remember, it's far better to do 6 1-hour paintings than 1 6-hour painting (paraphrasing Nelson and Macpherson). Try not to focus on one painting too much or think too much just put in your time and work toward your number. Each painting is just a stepping stone toward your commitment. Some times they come out crappy, some sometime they come out great, but that's not really your business. You job is simply to show up and put in the time toward your commitment. Keep the faith and it will pay off.


Brian said...

I just stumbled upon this blog. I have to say, over the course of your 120 paintings your work improved beyond all recognition. You have done all beginners a huge favour by posting this whole series.

I have not started painting yet. It took me twenty years to learn to draw even marginally well, but of late I have been thinking of taking up oils, perhaps initially working only in monochrome to first learn to see values, and to learn to handle paints and brushes. I have been looking forward to it and dreading it; from my experience with drawing, I know all too well how frustrating it is. Your comments on the negative thoughts, and how it is both the most frustrating and the most rewarding thing, all ring very true!

From what I have read thus far, I think I can confirm your statement that value and composition are more important than individual little details. One can see this happening in your series: not only your painterly technique improved, but also your compositions.

To your list of valuable books I would like to add two more:

1. 'Traditional oil painting' by Virgil Elliott. Elliott has an encyclopedic knowledge of Old Master techniques, which he shares in his book. It is perhaps the single most interesting and useful art book I have ever read. One can get more details on his website at www.virgilelliott.com

2. 'Mastering composition' by Ian Roberts. He touches upon many of the issues you mention here, including not only composition as such, but also values, using hard and soft edges and so on. It is one of the most useful art books I have read in a long time.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Thanks for a fascinating blog. I'm sure it required much courage to post those early experiments. But you did us all a favour. Do keep on posting!


Marian Fortunati said...

I know this is an old post, but I just read it... Why is it that I can know those things, but not really make them mine...
I especially like your thoughts about accepting the negative thoughts.
Also ... some of us take far more than 120 paintings.... Oh well... Thanks just the same....Love your work AND your wise thoughts.

Anonymous said...

From another late arrival - thank you for sharing your tips and thoughts on the process! Love your fuzzy generous brush strokes. Ordered the book right away!

Spankey said...

Please keep the advise coming...it is gold for the "virgin" and frustrated painters!

Elizabeth Elgin said...

Thanks for your blog posts. I'm newbie and got a lot of good info from what you have posted. I love your work, tonal values and brushstrokes and really relate to the negative thinking when the painting is at the ugly stage. Then overworking the details and fussing with the blending until everything looks one tone. That's me! I am going to get MacPherson's book and commit to 120 paintings this next year -- just DO IT. Thanks again.

Tracy Haines Fine Art said...

Very helpful post; thanks for your generosity. I'm a pastelist having one heck of a time transitioning to oil. I just can't seem to get the stinkin paint off the brush. I love the thick, juicy, clean color strokes ! Are you blocking in thin then going back thick with one stroke? Do you think the black surface is what helps your colors pop? Would love to see a painting demo by you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

FCP said...

Hi Jeff,
I just discovered your blog, love your sense of humor and honesty about how painful/exhilarating painting can be. Like you, I am a fan of Kevin Macpherson's books, and decided make the commitment to paint miles and miles of canvas in order to improve. And some time later, I had the privilege of painting with Kevin and talking with him about it. We talked about the transition that takes place, how differently you view the world, always thinking about values, shapes, etc. in every moment of life, and how you begin to "see" for the first time. And then he said "NOW your assignment is to paint 5,000 more" at which time he promised I will "REALLY see"-- I thoroughly get what he is saying and why that would sound too discouraging to a beginner. But as you have pointed out, the more you paint, the more you realize it is a lifelong commitment. I think it was Whistler who said that after 40 years of painting, he felt that he finally was beginning to learn how to do it! Thanks for sharing your wonderful work and clever insights along the way.

Angela Sullivan said...

Oh my gosh this sounds just like me. Wanting to paint but feeling inadequate. Struggling yet striving to do better. Painting for hours on end. And yes little by little day by day I sometimes stand back and say OH! Wow why didn't I do that before. Thanks for these words of wisdom and yes they do help. They have for now helped me to have the inititive to keep on painting for another day and to reach for the stars.

Dottie said...

Thank you so much! Your comments are an encouragement and an inspiration to me! Sometimes I feel that I ought to just quit - but I love it sooooo much that I can't.

Virginia Floyd said...

Jeff, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I was delighted! I come back and re-read this post on occasion. It really helps to know that we all have these feeling of being so inadequate! I can see beautiful paintings and recognize them, but I can't paint them!

Kristen Dukat Art said...

One of the first things I do when I stumble across a new daily painter that I admire, is go to the very beginning of the blog to see how they started out and what the first efforts looked like. When I do this, it just gives me hope to get back out there and keep painting! I love your post about what you learned, I have been meaning to do this as well, as I've painted for a little over a year, but you pretty much said it all!

Marla said...

Jeff, I loved seeing how much you've grown over time. Your progress is astounding, and it gives me hope that I'll make progress too. I especially appreciate this "What I Learned" post - it's actually giving me a lot of ideas. I liked your Digital Starts posts too! I sometimes use Photoshop in a similar way to help me see what I'm looking at. It's been a great aid and now I don't need to rely on it, I've trained myself now to see the right way. Love your work, especially "Serendipity Path."

Tuna said...

Thanks for the tips! I have just started painting myself, but have not made it to 120 yet. I have a blog also, and posted my portrait diary so far. It's true, you just have to muscle through times when you're feeling down on your paintings. Yours are fantastic- I wish I could learn to keep it loose with the edges.

A Sunny Yellow Window said...

Thanks for sharing these generously. Haven't finished reading till the end, but I'm bookmarking it for frequent reference.

Unknown said...

This is very informative post! Thanks for sharing.

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