Recently I took a two day workshop on portrait painting in oils. With only four students, it was an intimate and intensive class. It was also an opportunity to make some observations about teaching, learning, and various types of students that are relevant to miniature painters, too.
Knowing is only HALF the Battle
Those of us who are more left-brain learners tend to overemphasize the value of study type learning. We figure if we just watch enough videos and read enough tutorials, we’ll grasp the concept and understand the techniques needed to execute it, and then we should be able to sit down and just get ‘er done. So when we feel nervous or doubtful about trying the new thing, we may tend to seek out more and more videos and tutorials and forum posts in an attempt to feel we’ve mentally mastered the topic. Or if we sit down and try the new thing and the attempt goes poorly, we get very frustrated and beat ourselves up for not learning well.
A study approach might work pretty well for learning history or science or other fact-based subjects, but when you’re learning a skill that has a physical component, intellectual study can only get you so far. And where it gets you probably isn’t even fully half of the battle. There’s no substitute for hands on practice. There is no way to avoid the fact that you are going to make mistakes and it’s going to be slow going working on something new. You will get further and get there faster the better you are able to accept that reality.
Step 1: Apply butt to chair.
Step 2: Learn
Watching videos and reading about painting is great fun when you’re not in a position to sit down and paint. If you’re in a situation where you have a choice between sitting down to practice and watching another video, push yourself to sit down and paint. You will learn a lot more from the butt in the chair practice. Even if the attempt goes very poorly, it gives you experience to draw on the next time you do study a video or text tutorial.
That’s not to say that your left brain analytical skills can’t help you learn something artistic like miniature painting! Put those skills to work analyzing and comparing your work to examples of the technique or effect that you’re trying to master. Figure out the differences between them, and you’ll have a map to follow to try to get closer to where you want to be. Look at work you like and figure out what about it you like. Look at more intermediate level work and try to identify specific flaws and successes. The more you train your eye in this way, the better you’ll become at analyzing your own work for issues and potential solutions.
I’ve been watching videos and studying art related topics for three years now, but I learned more about oil painting in those two days of hands-on guided experience than I have from any video. My general art study was a great foundation, but I had to struggle with mixing the paint and goofing up the brushstrokes to start learning those skills on a physical level. And I had to be patient and kind with myself and accept that I was going to be a lot slower than instructor OR the students who were more familiar with the materials.
These pictures were not drawn in the order you imagine. I didn’t just figure out how to draw a face a bit better and never goof up again.
Knowing is only half the battle in another way, as well. You might intellectually know you need to paint with more contrast, or maybe you’re trying to improve your ability to do smooth blending. Sometimes you’ll finish a miniature and see that you’ve made progress towards your goal. Then the very next figure you paint might feel like a big step backwards. Remember that your hand and your eye have to learn how to do the thing as well as your brain. And you have to stay very conscious about it when you’re working on something new or trying to change a habitual way of painting. If you zone out listening to a movie or talking to friends, you will more likely than not slip back into your comfortable old painting habits. You can’t expect to paint one miniature ‘right’ and then you’ve just gotten it and you can go into auto-pilot mode and get those same results.
Multipass… er Multitask
Trying to do a bunch of new things at once is hard! Trying to do a bunch of anything at the same time is hard. If you can find ways to split something up into separate tasks, it can be very helpful to increasing your chance of success. On the first day of the workshop, we did something similar to what I discuss in my hands-on how to paint contrast post – we used a limited palette of colours and concentrated on blocking in the main areas of light and dark, and then refining from there. We started with a series of quick lighting exercises in the morning, and then working on one longer pose painting in the afternoon. I’m new to oil painting, so I was still juggling a few things as well as trying to deal with painting slower, but for the most part I felt like I had a handle on things and was grasping the idea.
The quick lighting exercise from day one of the oil painting workshop. It was challenging but manageable. (Though because I was concentrating on a number of things at the same time, I repeated a common error of make of the nose/center of the face being too long.)
On the second day, we repeated the quick lighting exercises in the morning, but with the addition of trying to see and incorporate as much colour into our painting as possible. I’m still working to see the kind of subtle colour variations practiced artists can see in surfaces. I’m still working on colour mixing on the fly, and on how best to apply a lot of colour to a canvas. Trying to do all of that at speed and while still maintaining the light/dark value system we worked on the day before, and having a completely new angle of the model… that was a lot going on at the same time, and I had moments of feeling like I was drowning. (I flashed back a little to the workshop I took with Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes, and what I learned there was an additional resource to draw on for these colour studies.)
Wait, now I have to do the same thing but with lots of colours I can barely see?! The quick lighting exercise on day two was much more challenging for me.
As we started working on the long pose in the afternoon, I made the conscious choice to narrow my focus. I decided to concentrate on the ‘drawing’ (getting the shapes and proportions correct) and the values while I had an experienced instructor available to correct me. Colour is something that can be layered over a value scale painting. There are ways to do this on miniatures, and it’s an even more accessible approach in oil painting on canvas. I decided that seeing, mixing, and applying more vibrant colour was something I could work on learning later.
My point in mentioning that is that sometimes when you take a class or workshop, you may not be at a level or mindset to incorporate all of the information being presented. Try to make note of what you can for future use, but it’s okay to focus on the parts that are clicking and sparking your interest. It’s probably better to do that than to try to do everything and barely learn anything.
My long pose painting from day two is not very colourful. I chose to continue concentrating on value and drawing.
The Challenge of Experience
In addition to learning more about oil painting, the class was also an opportunity to observe different types of students and learning methods, and to reflect on some approaches that might make it easier to learn a skill. Each of the four students, myself included, represented a different level of knowledge and approach to study.
Student A was quite expert, both in general and in this instructor’s method, having studied with him extensively. Their results were very similar to the instructor’s, and the feedback and guidance they needed was much more nuanced and refined. Some people might have wondered how much value they could get from receiving more instruction, but as I recently opined, there’s always something to learn, regardless of your level!
Student B had not painted in decades, and my guess would be that they did not receive extensive art training at that time. But they were very open to diving in and trying things out, and were very willing to follow the guidance offered by the instructor.
Student C was clearly an accomplished artist with a good deal of training. I suspect they also practice their art frequently. So frequently, in fact, that their issue was that their usual approach and technique was so ingrained that they very easily went into autopilot and did what they always do. Student C’s paintings were well-executed and demonstrated a pleasing style. But at the same time, they also diverged from the method used in the workshop, and they frequently jumped ahead of where the instructor was guiding us. It was clear that Student C wasn’’t really following the instruction all of the time, and thus they probably did not get the full value out of taking the workshop.
Being a good teacher means doing your best to reach students with different learning styles. Picture from workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio in Denton, Texas.
I have taken and taught miniature classes with students like Student C pretty frequently. Once some people have a miniature in hand and paint on the palette, they jump in painting just as they would at home. They’ll often be two or three steps ahead of where the instructor has directed. And if the technique or effect of the class is different from their usual method, that causes problems. They end up confused about why they aren’t getting the same results as others, or fall behind as they scramble to redo things.
The tendency of people to jump in and start painting at the first opportunity has affected the way I teach classes. There are some steps where I do not pass paint around to the class until after I have both explained and demonstrated the technique. One example is glazing. I explain it as just enough paint to make coloured water, and then I make a glaze to show the exact consistency. And walk around and show the class. If people have access to the paints, there will be at least one person who will start mixing their own glaze while I’m explaining, they’ll mix it too thick, and they’ll paint over all their hard work from the last hour before I can go through all the information they need to prevent that from happening.
If you’ve been attending classes or trying video/text tutorials with this kind of approach, I recommend you reconsider. Don’t worry about losing your style, and don’t stress about it being uncomfortable. As you continue to practice with it at home, you’ll either get more comfortable with the new methods/tools/approach, or you’ll figure out how to incorporate the bits that work for you into how you usually work. And in the same way, you’ll incorporate the new approach into your style.
A Better Way to Learn
So how should you approach study in a class or workshop, or when you’re trying to learn from an online video or text tutorial? Here are some tips to get into the right mindset and get the most value from your effort.
Being a good student sometimes means being willing to put aside what you already know and being open to trying new things in new ways. Photo from Fernando Ruiz workshop in Atlanta.
Like a Virgin
No matter how skilled you are, you are working on learning something new. You need to approach it as a new thing. There’s a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You can’t expect to do things the way you normally do AND learn something new.
Try as much as possible to put aside your current methods and habits. If the tutorial says X brush, get something as close to X brush as possible, don’t use your usual. If it says paint highlights first, paint highlights first, even if you usually paint shadows first.
One of the challenges I have found as an intermediate/advanced miniature painter is expecting myself to pick something up quickly. I know how to paint, I should be able to get up and running with a new technique pretty quickly, right? If anything it’s the opposite, because my usual way of doing things is so ingrained. I haven’t even spent a full 50 hours oil painting yet. I don’t have muscle memory for handling the brush or mixing the paint or anything else. So it was easy-peasy for me to shift to do something the way the instructor suggested. It was much, much more difficult for Student C to do the same.
Slow is important for another reason. When you’re learning, the best kind of practice is focused, deliberate practice. The auto-pilot of how you usually paint teaches you nothing. You need to slow down, and be very conscious and focused on the task at hand when trying something new to get the full benefit from it. When I’m doing my everyday commission painting, I need to have YouTube videos or an audiobook running. When I’m learning and practicing something new, I need to NOT have those things distracting me so that I stay focused on doing the thing the new way rather than fall back into my usual habits.
Step by step pictures from the long value pose on day one of the workshop. This is the same sort of thing people talk about with sketching or blocking in on miniatures. First you work on the correct placement for the broad areas of light and shadow. Then you refine those and working blending. And only as a last step work on details.
Learning and trying is going to mean failing. No matter how well you focus and follow instructions, there are going to be times where you misunderstand an element or need time to train your hand to paint that way. That’s how learning works! Keep your expectations for yourself realistic. Congratulate yourself for the hard work and effort – it really is as much about the process as the result.
I was very results focused when learning to paint miniatures, and as a consequence I experienced a lot of mental turmoil if I didn’t do well. This was discouraging and sometimes kept me away from practicing. (Who wants to do something that makes them feel bad about themselves?!) When I started to learn 2D art, I initially had a similar approach. It was frustrating, and I was not learning consistently. Eventually I came to a realization – I enjoyed being in the moment and drawing and painting, even if I hated what the picture looked like at the end of it. I was happier overall when I was drawing and painting regularly than when I wasn’t because of the zen moments of the process. I got value, even from the ‘failures’. I redefined success to be regular practice and sincere attempts to learn rather than what I thought of the end results on the paper. I have been able to study much more regularly and with a lot more pleasure than the results-focused approach I took to miniature painting.
Take a Look at Me Now
During your study, pause to periodically look closely at what you’re doing. This is best done after taking a brief break where you leave your desk and then return to it. Does your work on the whole look like the example you’re following at this stage of the process? Likewise, once you finish your practice, put it aside for a few days and come back and look at it with fresh eyes. Do you feel like you successfully executed the technique or effect you were attempting?
It’s far from perfect, or done, but I’m pretty happy with the result considering my current knowledge and experience level!
If the answer is no, the correct response is not despair! Do not just paint everything over, or start again immediately on another practice piece. Instead, stop and analyze your work and compare it to the example you were following. Try to identify what exactly is different about your work. THIS is where you really start to learn and build your skills. This type of ‘failure’ might ultimately be more instructive than getting it right your first go out of the gate, because it will give you a much more conscious understanding of how to execute the technique/effect.
Key elements to consider are the contrast range (the darkest value compared to the lightest value); where the dark, mid, and light values are placed on the figure; the proportion and size of the dark, mid, and light values; the texture of the surface (clean smooth blending vs large patchy strokes vs fine stipple and/or dash strokes, etc.).
Elements of colour can play into some techniques/effects, but on the whole try not to get too caught up in worrying about colour. If your version is much more vivid or dull in colour than the example, that’s not as important as did you manage smooth blending or creating the illusion of reflected light, or whatever technique/effect you were practicing.
It is unfortunately quite difficult to perform this kind of analysis on our own work. Our hobby in general does not emphasize training of critique skills, and even with those skills it is always easier to critique work by someone else that you have no emotional attachment to or knowledge of. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and it remains the best way to practice and study.
Here are some tips to help you see your work differently:
Take a photo of it. For best comparison, manipulate a photo of your example in the same ways described below.
Convert your photo to black and white.
Shrink your photo down until it’s the size of a miniature on your screen.
Flip your photo (or look at your miniature in a mirror).
I hope that some of you will share your tips for successful learning in the comments! The better we can get at learning, the better we can get at painting!