Maybe for someone starting out the goal is “I want to learn to paint”. So the student goes out and buys paints, canvas, and brushes and begins to paint. But their goal is too broad and general, and they’ve failed to invest in themselves by building a solid foundation first. They haven’t identified where they want to go in their own work, or how they can get there.
For me, my investment in self takes many forms. There are the books – not technique based books though – those get put aside and forgotten quicker than yesterday’s failed canvas. But books about ideas, theories, and the thought processes of other artists. There are a few workshops. All carefully vetted to make sure it meets with my long (or short) term goals. I have a short list of artists I want to study with and I don’t sign up for a workshop just because it’s offered, but because it matches my goals. If you take every workshop ever offered all these different styles and techniques end up on your canvas, with the result that your work may lack focus and intent.
Not every investment is so serious. The biggest investment is a commitment to daily practice and play. For this I turn to the sketchbook. I occasionally look for fun workshops or lessons that are totally unrelated to the work I do on canvas, such as children's illustration. This is at once frivolous, but there is a more serious underside to this work. It is exercising the visual muscles – kind of like yoga for the hand and eye. One of the common threads I have identified in almost every contemporary artist I admire is that they came to painting through a career in illustration first. Every time I find a new artist I love their bio invariably says “illustrator”.
Informal study (or even a formal study if one was so inclined) into an unrelated style or discipline offers an artist the opportunity to learn a different way of expressing yourself visually. This kind of no pressure play can lead to surprise discoveries which can be used in your more formal work, and opens doors for your own unique voice of personal expression.
My artistic ‘yoga’ practice had taken the form of daily portrait doodles for most of the year in 2016. Why the human face when I’m focused on landscape paintings? The face offers the opportunity to easily judge accuracy and allows me to explore a variety of methods for creative expression. In this exercise I was not looking to produce laboured or artistic drawings. I know I can do good charcoal drawings of people. What I wanted was quick sketches to capture an expression, emotion, or characteristic of a person. My parameters were that a) they had to be quick b) small – just a few inches c) at least one a day. But I usually ended up doing several a day. I drew faces from a variety of sources; a couple of online portrait groups, vintage mugshots (my favourites), myself, family…. I drew happy faces, sad faces, goofy faces, young faces, old faces…. Some were good, some were downright horrible.
The investment of time and energy doesn’t really offer a clear progression of improved ability. That’s not the goal of this type of exercise. It’s to explore expression and to find out what factors contribute to likeness in an illustrative sketch or caricature. It also continues my exploration of the power of line. This year I am focusing my illustration and sketches more on the landscape and figure, working out ideas for expressing concepts and abstraction within a representational realm. It is a little more focused and serious than the portrait sketches of last year, but still offers some frivolity in that I can explore different ideas, styles, and methods of mark making within a small format that I can (hopefully) transform into poetry on canvas.
“Line is a rich metaphor for the artist. It denotes not only boundary, edge or contour, but is an agent for location, energy, and growth. It is literally movement and change – life itself.”
Go ahead and invest in yourself. Find a strategy that works for you, and pursue that learning with both seriousness and frivolity, but always with purpose. Have a long term goal or idea of how you want paint and what you want to say. If you focus your energy into that you will likely find it will translate well at the canvas, and will be rewarded by those willing to invest in you!
Addition: This was written several years ago. I myself hit that roadblock that I mentioned. Life turned upside down and I didn't have the time or energy to invest in myself having a plan and I truly didn't know where I wanted to go. I am still on the very edge of that roadblock, just starting to make a plan and investing in myself.