Learning to paint is like learning to drive a car.
I was thinking about learning new things in my studio this week. I’ve been focused on collage and composition. I’ve not had much experience with collage. So, although I have a broad set of skills that I am applying, there are still aspects of it where I feel clumsy and my inexperience in this medium is reflected on the page. But I also know now that there is a pathway to follow, and it has physical and mental aspects.
In this respect, learning to paint has parallels with learning to drive.

You’ll probably remember those early driving lessons and practice sessions when you had to really concentrate on every move. Getting the exact pressure on the brake and the accelerator was really important for moving forward, and even more so, for stopping in time. How many times did you stall the car until you knew precisely how to synchronise the release of the clutch and the pressure on the accelerator? (This one clearly only applies to learning to drive a car with a manual gearbox)
Did you talk yourself through the gear changes in your head when you first started to drive? And then there were the road signs and the other vehicles to contend with.

When I learned to drive, you didn’t go to a driving school or a professional instructor. You were taught by a parent or a friend who knew the ropes. I remember well, the day my father took me for a practice session and told me off for getting quite sweary when I got frustrated. I was working on hand brake starts and even on a fairly gentle slope, I kept stalling the engine or inching backward downhill. Eventually, I got my co-ordination and timing right. Finally, I could do hand brake starts.

Here’s how the Learning to Paint journey goes:

  • When we start we are focused on all of the physical aspects. Which brush to use, how large the support should be, what colours to apply. This is like learning to coordinate your movements to make the car move, turn and stop.
  • Then we start to think about composition and study values, colour, and more complex aspects like texture and mixing media. I think of this in the same vein as the process of learning to navigate around other vehicles, street layouts, and general obstacles you might encounter on the route.
  • Now we will have reached a point where these choices only require fleeting thought. Sometimes even without seemingly thinking about it, we make these decisions. At this stage, we can start making some more interesting decisions about what really interests us in the painting. We can decide what atmosphere and feeling we want to convey, and how we interpret what we see in order to express ourselves. In our driving analogy, this is when we have the bandwidth to choose to change route partway because we want to enjoy a particularly pleasant drive. We are able to start thinking about what gives us enjoyment in the journey. We can decide where we want this particular trip to take us.
    This is where we all aspire to be in our painting world too.

As we progress, we may reach the stage of having art collectors who buy our work, exhibitions with other artists whose work we admire, and the joy of pushing our creative boundaries with the confidence born from experience.

Wherever you are in your painting progress – the main thing is to remember it is a journey. Hopefully, it is one that continues for many years. There is no rush to get to the end. It is far more important to enjoy every step along the route.