Six steps to improve your art

YouTube and other social media are filled with very helpful guides to making art, but it can be overwhelming to trawl through the wealth of material online. I have been painting and drawing for 20 years and though I would describe myself as no more than an enthusiastic amateur, there are a few things which I have learned along the way which help me produce work which gives me pleasure.

I characterise them as the three M’s and the 3 C’s.

Let’s start with the 3 M’s

  • Motivation –What are you trying to achieve? When you decide to paint or draw a picture what is it that motivates you to produce it? Why do you want to make this work? Whether it is abstract or figurative, what attracts you to the subject? What is your intention? What are you trying to say? Is it to produce an accurate representation of a place or person? Is it to use shapes and colours to evoke a mood? Having a clear idea of what you want to achieve is vital at the beginning even if you don’t have a set idea of how you want to achieve it (if you want to take an expressionist approach, for instance and allow the picture to evolve).

Without an idea (and let’s give it a title up front, even if it is “abstract in contrasting colours”) how will you know when something worthwhile has been achieved?

  • Materials – Which materials do you enjoy using? How do they relate to the motivation? Which materials best help you express yourself? Again, the internet is full of examples of a massive range of materials and new techniques but the danger is you become jack of all trades but master of none. Take some time to experiment by all means, but try and focus down on an approach which works best for you, be it watercolour, acrylic, pastel or whatever. At the same time, don’t be overwhelmed by colour and the latest hues. Experiment and try to focus down on a palette which works for you. This will enable you not only to concentrate on the subject rather than the materials, but will also give your art consistency over time.
  • Mastery – Practice and practise. No one becomes expert overnight. Try and practise every day and keep a sketch book to try out ideas. One of the things I worried about in the past was wasting paint or canvas or watercolour paper on trying things out. I felt I had to produce something “finished” at the end of it. So use your sketchbook. Learn what works and how materials behave. Look at other artists. Learn from their techniques. Learning to paint is like driving – be comfortable with your materials so you don’t have to think about them too much and you know instinctively what works and how to put paint to paper/canvas. The same with drawing. There are rules around perspective, vanishing points, shading etc. But they are rules which can be learned and used until they become instinctive. 

Now the 3C’s

These are all about some simple rules which I follow when painting. Again, they can be learned until they become instinctive and really help with a pleasing end result:

  • Composition – This is terribly important. If you don’t want your picture to look unbalanced or difficult to read, you must think about how it’s composed. Even (and some might say especially) if it is entirely abstract. Where do you want the viewer to look? What is your focal point? How will you guide the eye around the picture? For instance, the simple rule of thirds which divides the picture surface into horizontal and vertical lines. Placing a focal point at an intersection of the lines makes a pleasing composition. Or using paths of fences of lines of trees diagonally to guide the eye into the picture and so on. Read and learn some simple rules of composition and why they work and you will see your pictures improve enormously.
  •  Colour – Colour theory can be quite daunting and yet it is central to any successful picture. Colours should never be seen in isolation as each colour has an impact on those around it. The colour wheel is a great tool for learning how colours work together and rewards some study. But don’t get hung up on the complexities of colour theory. The basics of colour and tone, complementaries and colour mixing from a limited pallet will help a lot. In addition, how colour works to model form through light and dark and shadow is fascinating. As before, choose a palette which works for you and experiment.
Mondrian subverted
  • Contrast – Contrast can mean many things. It can be the contrast between light and dark areas. It can be between different colours on the colour wheel, or it can be between different shapes and sizes. Or between different textures. It is one of the key things we look for in works of art and may be related to our ancient past when we scanned the world around us for patterns and anything which stood out could be a danger. So build contrast into your work. Don’t be afraid to make your darks darker, and your lights lighter. Remember light against dark and dark against light.

So those are some of my tips for making better pictures. I’m still learning! And remember – when the fun stops – stop. When you find yourself fiddling and the last stroke you painted didn’t seem to work then stop!

Good luck and enjoy your painting!

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Abstract art and Existentialism

“Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.”
Francis Bacon

This quote from Francis Bacon reflects the tension between representational and non-representational art, both between artists and amongst audiences.

Bacon also said most abstract art was purely decoration.

Fundamentally, this comes down to a question of meaning and intention. Is the artist interested in telling a story, giving a sense of meaning to his/her image as well as a sense of composition and design, or is the artist looking at the painting as an object in its own right. That object being constructed of colour or shape or composition.

This is where Bacon has a point. Even abstract art needs to convey something if it is to avoid being just decorative.

One way to avoid this is to think about art from an existentialist perspective. Sartre talks about “contingency” which is the seeming randomness of things just existing in space. Man is desperate for meaning and order in this chaos, but the universe seems indifferent. Art, he believed provided contingency and necessity. It reflects back the objects around us (contingency), and makes an attempt to provide meaning from the artist’s perspective, whether in narrative form or through colour and shape (necessity).

Great abstract art does this.

It asks us to look at colour, shape, juxtaposition, texture in order to evoke a new perspective on the world around us. It questions our way of looking and, from a phenomenological point of view, asks us to experience the painting as a thing in itself and thereby become more deeply aware of our own existence.

Bacon was right. Abstract art is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes. But isn’t that true of the whole world?

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