Sunday, January 19, 2014

Perfect Practice

"Ten Below"
Oil on Panel

No one will deny that brush mileage is one of the best ways to get better at painting. You can know everything there is to know about painting, but if you don’t paint all that often, you won’t know how to put paint on the canvas effectively enough to communicate your ideas. If you've heard of the 10,000 hours rule, you know this is probably the case for getting good at anything – simply put, most experts have put in the time.

But time isn't the whole story - most experts also know how to practice effectively, how to push themselves to the next level. If you practice the same thing over and over, you won’t get better no matter how many hours you put in.

So, what makes us improve? For me, it’s the idea of perfect practice, working thoughtfully on targeted areas. In the book “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle describes this kind of practice like this:

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it…. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn't help. Reaching does.” 
- Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

Practicing this way can be a slow, tedious process. You make mistakes, you think deeply about things that aren't working, and you try to apply different ways to correct those mistakes. It doesn't always happen overnight, but after a while, the things that were challenges become second nature. You get better.

For me, this means that I no longer set quantity goals for painting. Sure, painting 100 paintings a year is a good goal that will get me in the studio on a regular basis, but does it matter if I’m painting the same thing over and over? Now, I focus on stretching my abilities in a number of different ways. Here are some ideas:

Paint Something Outside of Your Wheelhouse

I’m all for painting your passion. I love being outside, so I paint landscapes. It’s different for everyone, but I guarantee you’ll paint your best when you paint what you love. That said, it’s easy to get complacent when you always paint what makes you comfortable, so it’s good to step outside of your comfort zone and paint something completely different every once in a while. For me, this means adding some architecture or wildlife to a painting every once in a while, or doing some figure painting in the studio to work on my drawing. For a figure painter, this might mean heading out to do some plein air. Either way, you’re developing skills that you don’t have, and it’s making you stronger.

Focus on Your Weaknesses

In order to improve, you need to think critically, identify some of your weaknesses, and then work on those things. I painted the painting above when I felt I was getting a bit too tight with my studio work – I set out a panel and told myself I was going to work on thick paint and softer edges, and ignore everything else.  The goal wasn't a masterpiece or show painting, but rather a skill set. Working on those soft edges is like playing scales on a piano – I’m working those little muscles that I need in order to commit that skill to memory. If you have a tough time with clouds, go paint cloud studies. If you struggle with drawing, get a sketchbook and a pencil and get to work.

Change It Up

Are you comfortable painting small studies on location but clam up when it comes to painting something big? Or do you love the comfort of your studio and lose focus the second you get outside? If you run out of one color on your palette does it send you into a panic, or can you go with it? It’s easy to get comfortable with painting certain sizes, or in a certain location, or with a certain set of materials. But if you want to grow as an artist, you need to work on the edge of your ability sometimes. Work a little bit bigger outdoors. Do something in a different format. Use some different colors and see what happens. If you can handle a few changes, you’ll be more versatile as an artist, and your paintings will improve.

Get Uncomfortable

I’m all for plein air painting in the summer when the weather is perfect and the light is stunning, but I’m not gonna lie - I don’t get as excited about getting out there the rest of the year! Last year, I decided to just paint, no matter what, and learned a valuable lesson. I painted on cloudy days with flat light, and I learned a lot about greys. I painted in the snow, and learned a lot about brevity. I hauled my painting stuff up a lot of trails in a backpack, and learned that sometimes you just have to paint what’s in front of you when you get there. And when I got back into my studio after all of that, I had a whole bunch of new skills, and a new found appreciation for the coziness of my nice warm studio. Sometimes, it’s good to be uncomfortable. Say yes, even when you don’t want to.

What are some of the best ways that you implement “perfect practice” into your art?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Big Picture

"Monarch Lake Summer"
Oil on Panel

I don't spend too much time worrying about what my art is saying. I just try to get out there, find something that inspires me, and attempt to paint what I feel. Nothing complicated, nothing all that profound - just trying to make something beautiful.

And if you were to ask me what my biggest goal for my art is, I would probably think for a few seconds and then tell you that all I want to do is paint some really kick ass paintings someday.

Sure, there are some shows I'd like to be in, places I'd like to paint, items I'd like to add to my resume, but those things are secondary to the big goal, which is just to eventually make some really good art. Take your breathe away good, you know?

But that sounds kind of vague. Like, what constitutes a really good painting vs. a mediocre painting, or just a sort of good painting? I feel like it's one of those things you just know in your gut. It's not technical, it's emotional. But it's also really subjective. So, my big goal turns out to be a bit nebulous.

I was reading a really good book this week - The New American Road Trip Mixtape by Brendan Leonard - and this quote stopped me in my tracks when I read it:

"All my life, I had listened to great songs and read great books and watched great movies, and some of them moved me to the point of tears welling up, chills, the hair on the back of my neck standing up, some sort of physiological reaction to incredible, created beauty. Some song by some band or section of dialogue in a movie, or passage of writing in a book that would resonate with me so deeply that I would think just for a second that maybe it was all about me, about all of us. And all I wanted to do in my life was make one thing, one piece of art, a book, that did that for someone. Maybe for everyone." 
- Brendan Leonard, The New American Road Trip Mixtape

And BAM! There it is. THAT'S what I want to paint someday.

Leave it to someone else to state it so much more eloquently than me.

(If you need something to read, pick up that book, btw - it's an excellent read)

Monday, January 06, 2014

2014 Workshops

Just wanted to take a moment to announce a few workshops I have planned for 2014, both here in Evergreen, Colorado. For updated class information, you can also check the workshops page on my website.

Landscape Painting On Location
Workshop Dates: 5/14/2014 - 5/16/2014
Location: Center for the Arts Evergreen
United States

Contact Information:
Stephanie Perkins - Coordinator of Education, CAE

This workshop is for painters who want to develop an understanding of the fundamentals of plein air painting, with an emphasis on simplifying the landscape and selecting only the most important elements in the landscape to support the artist’s concept. Topics discussed will include how to effectively capture light, atmosphere and mood in paint while using strong composition and color harmony. We will be painting on location daily. Each morning will begin with a lecture and demo, followed by painting on location, and a critique at the end of the day.

From Plein Air to the Studio
Workshop Dates: 9/9/2014 - 9/12/2014
Location: My Studio - Evergreen, Colorado
United States

Contact Information:
Stacey Peterson

This workshop will focus on how to effectively gather reference material while painting on location, and then use that material to convert field work into a studio painting. We will spend the first 1.5 days painting on location outdoors, then go into the studio and use our reference materials (studies, sketches, and photographs) to create a studio painting. Common issues that come up when converting plein air studies to studio work will be discussed in full. Demonstration outdoors and in the studio will be used to illustrate the process of producing a studio painting from outdoor reference. For more information, contact Stacey at