12 Things You Need To Know To Be A Good (Or Better) Artist

On location at Erdenesogt, Mongolia, 2016

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw. I’ve had the good fortune to been able to work in art-related fields all my adult life, first as a sign painter and graphic designer starting when I was 22 years old, then as an illustrator and finally, since 1997, a fine artist painting in oil and specializing in animals. I’ve learned a few  things over the years, both from experience and from other artists, and would like to pass them on to you.

I always drew animals, sometimes copying them from Walter T. Foster art instruction books, which I still have. I think I was around ten when I did this lion.

1.  Painting is drawing, in the sense of making marks on a surface with conscious intent, whether you’re a representational or abstract artist. Develop that intentionality.

2. You have to gain competence in: design/composition, drawing, value, color and edges. If you can afford it, buy Richard Schmid’s book “All I Know About Painting” or google each topic.

I always seemed to have a knack for whimsical animals. I don’t feel that I was born with any particular artistic gift, just the drive to draw, but somehow animals came easily, including eye expression. It just happens. This is a mixed media piece I did after I went back to art school and got an illustration degree in 1989.

3. It’s not about detail or fidelity to a photograph as the one true criteria for the quality of a work of art. It’s about expressing your personal artistic vision however that manifests. Don’t do detail because you never learned to edit. Learn to simplify. Which is actually pretty hard, but will liberate you in ways you can’t imagine. Don’t use photos unless you know how to compensate for the way they flatten and distort. It’s obvious to an educated eye when an artist has accepted a photo as truth and simply reproduced it, faults and all.

4.  Learn from the best, but find your own path. As they told us in art school, be the best you you can be, not a second-rate someone else.

I’ve taken quite a few plein air workshops over the years even though I’m a studio painter. It’s good to get out in the fresh air and paint from life, enjoying the process and not worrying about the result. So it’s a busman’s holiday for me. No pressure.

5. Never be afraid to reevaluate your approach and process, scary as that might be. Some artists cling to how they work like it’s a life preserver without which they’d drown. Find a way to let go of that. The risk isn’t as big as you think it is.

6. There are no mistakes, only “what’s next?” This is from my oil painting teacher who I studied with privately for over two years. It got me off that big “OMG I’m going to RUIN IT!” hook.

My process has changed over the years and will continue to in the future. I now almost always do a finished drawing of my subject. I used to wing it on the canvas and that got me into a lot of trouble sometimes, with the work suffering from trying to solve problems as I painted, which kept me from focusing on my brushwork and other aspects of the finish. Much better to have made that correction of the head and neck on the drawing than on the painting. The farther in you are when you see a mistake the harder it is to make yourself wipe it off and fix it. But fix it you must.

7.Plan for “downtime” each year to recharge your creative batteries. Don’t do any art or try a new media/paper/style. It’s a chance to grow with no risk.

8. Keep a sketchbook. Use it. Consider doing a drawing a day for a week, a month, a year. Have fun. Try lots of different pencils and pens. Do them fast. Set a timer for a minute, five minutes, etc. Sketch an egg, a glass of water, an egg in a glass of water, your dog or cat, whatever you want. Look into learning contour drawing. A little tricky to get the hang of  but lots of fun once you do. Hone those motor skills to keep them fresh and available.

And the preliminary drawings pay off in the finished work . This painting “A Good Stretch” was accepted into the 2015 Society of Animal Artists international juried exhibition “Art and the Animal”.

9. Gain a basic familiarity with the history of art. Who knows what inspiration you may find. I used to pick a new poet a month to check out. Google around and pick a new artist every month to learn about. Go back to the beginning and be humbled by cave paintings.

10. Don’t be too satisfied with your work or too hard on yourself. Find a balance and keep moving forward.

Location sketch done during a trip to England in 2015. It probably took about five minutes.

11. Seek out and listen to competent criticism of your work. Access to another artist’s educated eye and input is invaluable. Damp down that little voice that says “Yes, but…”

12. If the only thing that will make you truly happy in life is to create art, do not let anyone discourage you. Ever.

I mess about with a variety of media just for fun. This frog was done on my iPad.

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