Whenever artists wonder how they can improve their painting skills, I tell them to make sure to paint a variety of subjects—still lifes, portraits, and landscapes—rather than focusing on just one type of painting. Here’s why:
Still lifes are made up of an unmoving subject and a steady, constant source of light which allows you to develop technique, experiment with color, texture, lighting, composition, edges, etc., etc (in other words, everything that is important to painting) at your own pace and on your own time.
You can paint a still life in the privacy of your own studio without people peeking over your shoulder (unlike landscape paintings). You can paint the same subject several times, experimenting in oils, pastels and watercolors to get a feel for which medium you find most satisfying.
And if you have “mother’s hours” as I do, setting up a still life may be the only way you can consistently paint.
I paint at night after my daughter is asleep, or if I have a few hours during the day. I find a spot the family is not currently using and set up my objects to paint. I can leave my easel set up for several weeks at a time, and come back to it whenever I have time.
I tell my students try many different objects in as many light conditions as possible. It’s always enlightening to paint ordinary objects, such as a coffee cup for instance, and see how close by a lovely painting can be.
Portraits, Figures and Life Painting
Painting the face and figure will ALLWAYS force you to focus hard on accuracy. If the nose is a little to the right, or too long, it will certainly be noticed—as opposed to a missing limb on a tree or the proper length of a house.
I suggest using a plumb line and level when painting portraits and figures, but even with those tools, you will quickly learn to deal with criticism—at the very least, your subject will be there to judge your work!
Painting a live model will also teach you to work calmly within a time limit, and adjust to slight changes in your subject. Models tend to turn gradually when sitting, and their faces change as they get tired.
Some of my students panic when the end of a session is near; they begin to paint what they think they know of a face and not what they really see. Learning discipline and focus is the only way to be successful at painting portraits—and once you do, it will pay off in all your paintings.
In my opinion, painting landscapes is the best way to learn about color. Nature’s palette is unlimited; its subject matter is infinite; and the light is constantly changing, forcing you to paint quickly and with confidence.
On most days, you have at most three hours to get it right before the light completely changes. That may not seem like much, but it is possible if you keep your eyes (and paintbrush) moving around the composition. If you don’t, parts of it will look out of place because the light—and therefore all the the colors and values—will have changed on you.
You may also enjoy doing many small value sketches with pencil in between your larger paintings. That’s what I do, because it helps me to see the value range in the scene. This technique has helped me in many other painting situations, too.
By beginning with still lifes and then adding portraits and landscapes, you can actually achieve a very well-rounded schooling. Without thinking about it, you will naturally improve your technique and style, your accuracy and focus, and your ability to see colors and values.
So get out there and try everything! Paint as often as possible—before long you’ll find yourself painting better than ever.