I remember what it's like to be a beginner at oil painting, since that's what I am right now...
I started my serious study of painting four years ago at the age of 46. I fit my work in between a hectic life of kids and family and a myriad of obligations. Still, I attend as many workshops as I can manage and afford, along with taking a class every fall and winter. I recognize I've merely scratched the surface of what there is to learn. I understand and happily admit I am a beginner, which takes a lot of pressure off me to be better than I can be at this point.
A good effort from a beginner...
I believe this is a good example of a painting that reflects the improvement in my work. I have kicked a lot of bad habits that, until recently, kept me from progressing the way I thought I should. During the painting of this piece, I painted closely to the subject, but stepped away often to view what my work looked like from afar...I used a limited palette, but worked from large puddles of paint. I also painted loosely for as long as possible. I see things I could and should have done differently, but at least my bad habits were largely kept under control during the painting of this piece. I feel encouraged by my efforts and self control. My goal is not a perfect painting, but painting as efficiently as I can at every step.
Top Ten Bad Habits We Beginners Need to Shake
I find it curious when instructors fail to call students out for their bad habits. Maybe they don't notice the silly things we're doing, or they don't want to be critical, but not doing so keeps a novice stuck, unable to move to the next level. I've seen it happen countless times: the particular technique the master is sharing gets lost by the beginner during the application. Why? Only because another bad habit the student has formed foils the effort. I see beginners struggle and struggle, doing things that I myself did, habits that have nothing whatsoever to do with lack of talent or motivation. These bad practices make the process of painting harder, leaving the student deeply frustrated and ready to quit.
Here's my Top Ten List of Bad Habits we newbies need to shake, the quicker the better:
Number One: Using too too many colors before you're ready (or even need to). If you're just beginning your study, keep it simple. You have a much better chance of not muddying your colors if you don't use too many. Example: for portraits, I stick to: titanium white, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, cad red med, alizarin crimson, and cad yellow medium. For still life: Actually the same palette, and maybe bring in another color now and then. Sap green, for example. You'll feel quite fancy when you bring introduce a new color to the party!
If you want to really have fun without frustration, read about Zorn's limited palette - it is amazing to study and enjoy the beautiful paintings he created with about four colors: white, yellow ochre, vermilion and ivory black. (For brevity's sake, I'm going to avoid the whole controversy as to whether he used blues and so on...) Use the palette yourself, I guarantee you'll be shocked at how beautiful and harmonious your painting will be.
Number Two: Being skimpy with paint. Ok, I still really struggle with this. I feel like I need an intervention sometimes. So for all of us: Mix enough paint! Not baby little puddles that aren't enough to load your brush more than once! Huge amounts that keep you going so you don't have to stop and mix and remix, trying to recreate the exact hue. All this remixing really affects the flow of your work.
Number Three: Being too tight and detailed immediately. Start out big and general, and make sure you're correctly describing your form. Read up on how to measure your subject using your paint brush or a plum line. You have to get a few landmarks on your canvas in that assure correct drawing of the subject before you lay in some serious color, or details. This is probably the most common bad habit that ultimately ruins a painting. Do not plan to correct that confused problem area later, all you'll do is overwork the piece trying to fix something at a stage during which it is impossible to fix. You must at least attempt to get the underlying structure correct in your sketch stage before proceeding with color.
Number Four: Not working with as many instructors as possible. It's okay to work repeatedly with someone you continue to grow with, but make sure you add a new instructor as often as possible, or attend a weekend workshop. Each person I've studied under brings something new to my toolbox of knowledge. I love it when I'm working with a new teacher and I learn something completely new that'll make my painting easier, better and more gratifying.
Number Five: Rushing. Take your time! Seriously. People (myself included) are in such a rush to see something recognizable on their canvas, hey don't take the time to realllllly look at their subject before laying a stroke.
Number Six: Being too far from your subject. Especially for portraiture, get as near to the model as possible. Quit being timid, or worried about getting so close to the model it will freak her out. They are models and used to being studied, that's what they're getting paid for. I get to class early, staking out my claim for the best position so I can really see the subtle colors in the skin. Ever watch those tutorials of the masters on line and see how close the artist is to the model? If the master needs to be that close, doesn't it make sense the novice does as well?
Number Seven: Not stepping away from your easel enough. You MUST step away from your easel as often as you can and view your work and the subject. I can't understand why instructors aren't barking at the students to do this. Put a timer on for every 15 minutes, and step away each time. You will be amazed at what you can see you're doing right or wrong. Stepping away, getting your prospective back makes painting so much easier.
Number Eight: Never drawing. If you're learning to oil paint, all you want to do is, well, oil paint! No, no, no. Pick up a pencil, a piece of charcoal, or a marker, or your pastels...and DRAW. For one thing, you'll be amazed at how your work with paint influences your drawing. And yet drawing is the foundation for painting, so you need to keep it up. Keep a sketch book handy and draw something everyday, even if it's something small and simple.
Number Nine: Using really crummy photo references for paintings and then wondering why the painting looks awful. I've used too small references, not clear, or with subjects lit with no light source showing me any form. Experiment with your camera and take loads of photos using different light sources. Light that object from one side, or over head...or if working with portraiture: there's nothing like natural lighting.
Number Ten: Instead of watching the instructor provide a demonstration, rushing to slap around paint themselves. This is the worst habit of all. WHENEVER you are lucky enough to watch your artist instructor paint themselves, stop what you're doing immediately and watch as closely as you can. It is the absolute best way to learn to paint. It will amaze you later when your technique improves without even making a conscious effort!