The Most Neglected Skill of Aspiring Painters
I have been asked many times, “What can I do to improve my painting?” There is one skill that is almost universally recognized as the most important to an artist and almost as universally neglected. I would hazard that almost every artist I know wants to and has hurried through the development of this skill in building up their repertoire. I will say this very succinctly because this is advice that is guaranteed to change you as an artist.
If you want to improve you MUST learn to draw!
Okay, maybe you’ve heard that before. Well, I’m going to explain just WHY it’s so important in a way you may not have heard before.
Before we go any further, let me say that when I say you need to learn to draw, I mean you need to learn to draw like this:
Don’t let anyone tell you, or worse convince yourself, that you don’t need to draw this well. Resolve right now to put in the hard work and learning required to be able to draw this well because beyond the obvious benefits of improving manual dexterity and fine-tuning careful observation there are two invaluable lessons as an artist that only comes from drawing and drawing a lot!
Let’s back up a minute so I can explain that last statement. Most good painting rests on whether you get your values and composition correct. Color is somewhat important but I argue that getting your values correct in your painting is going to guarantee some measure of success in your painting’s color. To me, the most under-emphasized purpose of drawing with pencil, charcoal or Conte is the definition of form with the use of value. Consider for a moment that all drawing is really the creation of form by the representation of value! Read that again because it’s important! The manipulation of value is inherent in the medium – the more you draw the more you are going to improve at representing value. Can you learn that from painting? Probably if you’re some kind of prodigy you can stick to value exercises when painting but there is so much more going on with the painting medium that it is difficult to learn it separately and frankly you will get it incorrect.
So an important lesson from drawing is the mastery of values to represent form in your artwork.
There is a reason that drawing is considered fundamental in art and it’s probably not what you think it is. Most musicians consider the piano to be the most fundamental instrument because learning it teaches you the most about the manipulation of sound to compose great music. Drawing is similar. By learning to draw through many, many hours of study and careful observation one begins to learn the art of the composing. With no other medium in art do you begin to develop the mysterious characteristics known as “voice” in art. It’s amazing to me that this is not emphasized more than it is. Look at any great artist of the past and each has such distinctive drawings that one can easily identify them from one artist to the next. Their style is distinctive in the drawing and their style was developed by drawing! They naturally developed the subjects they liked to explore and they developed distinctive marks to represent them.
The second great lesson from drawing then is the development of voice or style in your work.
And that’s why drawing will improve your painting! Drawing more will develop your visual language through composition and value and whether you know it or not that’s what you instinctively know is missing from your painting. So get some drawing books. Learn perspective. Reproduce the old masters. Carefully observe still life and life drawing with a pencil in hand and find your way to better painting!