Advice to an Aspiring Artist

Today I received an email asking for advice about how to proceed with improving his painting. This person sent me a couple of images to look at. I did so and responded with the following. I hope it may benefit some of you as well:

“It’s always a little difficult to know just how to direct an aspiring artist because I can’t really know what your vision is as an artist and what exactly you wish to communicate in your work. I’m going to assume that because you contacted me that you see something in my work that you like and would like to acquire some similar character in your own work. I took a look at the two images you sent me and they are both quite touching. They both definitely exude a certain spiritual quality and reach out to the viewer — so congrats on that. Even with less than great technique and knowledge of realism you have managed to make two pieces of legitimate art which communicate. And that’s the key. To my way of thinking art MUST communicate something to the viewer, even if it’s something as mundane as “I like purple”.

So…where to go from here? Again, I’m going to be making some assumptions here about what you want, so if it doesn’t resonate with you then that’s okay with me. In my own work I am greatly concerned with the form. With convincingly translating what the light is doing to the form in order to communicate a “realness” or “solidity” to the objects I am painting, whether figure or still life. This quality is lacking in your work. That concern doesn’t seem to be apparent. So my first advice to you is to study translating three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface.

How does one do this? Have you heard of the basic shapes? Sphere, cube, cone, cylinder. Begin by finding or purchasing objects that represent these shapes. If you can, spray paint them with matte white spray paint. Create an environment where you can control the lighting and set up your object with a single strong light source. You want to achieve an obvious light side of the form, and an obvious shadow side. I also recommend using some sort of reflector to create a nice reflected light in the shadow. Now draw the form with your choice of drawing materials. My personal choice would be graphite on paper, though some prefer charcoal. Also concern yourself with the cast shadow. Study what is happening to the form as the light travels across it. I know this sounds ridiculously basic but this sort of thing has been out and out ignored by many aspiring realists and consequently they still do not have an understanding of light and form. And consequently their work looks flat and unconvincing.

Once you have mastered — and I mean MASTERED — the basic shapes you can move on to more complex objects. Simple casts from Greek or Roman sculpture would be my advice. From there you can move on to even more complex casts, lighting each one in the same way as the basic shapes. One can purchase such casts online, or sometimes you can be lucky enough to find something adequate in an antique store.

If you are very good with your drawing materials and would like to work with painting materials then you can use monochrome paint to do the studies. My choice would be to use raw umber and white only. The reason many should start with drawing materials is because it’s easier to control than paint. One must have the understanding of the form first before adding trying to learn the complexities of paint handling as well.

What is the goal of all this laborious study? The understanding of light and its affect on form. But we must have that understanding. With this understanding we can then make convincing art with less than adequate information. For example, I often paint from photographic reference, but my understanding of light and form help me to augment the limited amount of information in the photo. Instead of being a slave to the photo, I use it only as a reference. It gives me basic light and shadow info, and basic color info. But in my painting I do what I want. I make the form turn and feel real (if I’m doing what I should be doing). I also make the color more convincing. I play up the warms, or make other colors more neutral, or whatever I please. Sometimes in the life studio the lighting is not what you would prefer. There may be multiple light sources, or more commonly, too much ambient light in the shadows. If you understand light and form you do not have to be completely at the mercy of the lighting situation before you. I’m not saying you can completely change the lighting setup in your painting, but you CAN alter it somewhat; making the shadows darker, or whatever.

I know you are on a tight budget, but I highly recommend the purchase and study of Tony Ryder’s book and Classical Drawing Atelier by J. Aristides. Both on my book list. While doing the basic shapes studies, or even before you do them, read and understand chapter 5 of Tony’s book. It’s all about light and form. Know it. Own it. It’s got to be part of your thought process.

Once you get into full color painting I recommend any and all the other books on my list — particularly Problem Solving for Oil Painters by Gregg Kreutz. Excellent draftsmanship does not seem to be a key point with Gregg, as it is with me, but everything else he says is spot on. Very insightful. To me Gregg is a painter’s painter so to speak. He’s all about working out pictorial problems, planning ahead, and to the devil with having special ability or “talent”.

Let me leave you with a masterpiece by Juliette Aristides — “Sutherland Resting”:

10 thoughts on “Advice to an Aspiring Artist”

  1. Hi David,
    While browsing your blog I came accross your answer to another artist, and I was blown away by the fact that you took all that time to write back your honest views on his work and how to improve it. Thanks for being so close to your admirers. Luisa

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi David,
    Beautiful new blog and well laid out template, colors etc. Your posts are encouraging.

    Thanks for this very helpful post. Do you have any suggestions on good sources to buy the basic shapes for artists or for buying good casts for a reasonable price? ~Sheri


    1. Thank you, Sheri. I don’t know where to buy inexpensive basic shapes, unfortunately. But you can make them yourself out of paper. For a sphere you can spray paint a light bulb matte white or gray and set it so the screwy thingy is facing away from you.


  3. I was blessed to attend your still life workshop last year and I continue to learn from the notes I took. Thank you so much for being willing to share your experience and thoughts. Your artwork has a deep spirituality that is so meditative and alive.


  4. Your work and generosity are both admirable and most appreciated.
    Thanks for sharing your blessed work and knowledge. Some say when you give you receive back 10-fold – You must have thousands of folds of good fortune that have come your way and all are well deserved.


  5. Just discovered your work and videos and as a result, I am suddenly very encouraged about the struggle I am enduring with a couple of portraits. You are a very generous artist to share your vast knowledge, and I am most grateful and already a huge fan! Having watched a couple of your videos, I see that you frequently paint in a well- but artificially-lit studio. I live in a sunny part of the country and feel I suffer color-wise when painting without natural light. But on days when I just cannot quit, I’d love to paint at night, therefore, do you have any suggestions regarding studio lighting? Many thanks!!


    1. Hi Gaye. Thanks for your message. I’m glad my little offerings can be of assistance. Wow! A sunny part of the country. That sounds sooooo nice! Haha! For artificial light I like to use fluorescent bulbs at 5000K. This designation has to do with the color of the light. Light at 5000K is just slightly warmer than natural diffuse light. I find it very pleasing to paint under as well as to light my subjects. It also seems to be easy on the eyes. I can’t prove that, but the light seems pleasant and “peaceful” to my eye. Much like natural diffuse light would be, I imagine. I hope that helps. Best wishes! – DG


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