There’s Power in Painting What You Know

By Niki Hilsabeck in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Have you ever been told that it’s easier to paint an unfamiliar object or face than a familiar one? What happens when you spend years painting local scenery, or using the same model for your portraits? Does that translate to better paintings? When is it acceptable to “paint what you know?”

One of the first skills a beginning artist learns is to view a subject as a combination of shapes and values, rather than thinking of it as a familiar, named object. “Paint what you see, and not what you think you see,” is a popular mantra that art teachers impress upon their students. . . and yes, being able to break your subject matter down into its most basic components is a necessary skill for all representational artists.

Painting still life arrangements is especially useful for developing such a skill—instead of painting a tablecloth, cups, and oranges, the artist focuses on lights and darks, cylinders and spheres.

Many of us needed a little brain-retraining when we started taking those first art classes, so that we could see with our “artist’s eyes” (some people like to think of it as using your “right brain”). Eventually, experienced artists are able to take a fresh look at any scene and arrange it into a potential painting using this skill.

But what about using your knowledge, gained as an artist and observer, to help your paintings?

For example, I’ve spent a lot of time painting the sky. At some point, I realized that the color of the sky is deepest at its highest point, and fades as it reaches the horizon. I watch for this now as I work, so that I can focus on creating a visually interesting sky, rather than just trying to get it “right.”

Could I have read that in a book? Absolutely! Would I have remembered it without lots of practice? Maybe, but most likely I would have forgotten it until I observed the quality for myself.

An artist who lives by the ocean and paints it regularly is likely to know the ocean’s nature on an intimate level—how it looks as the sun is rising or setting, or the way the push and pull of the tide creates varying areas of calm and chaos—and is going to use the accumulated knowledge of the ocean’s nature to influence his artistic choices.

To develop the ability to paint what you know, spend some time painting things that are familiar to you. Turn your observational skills on as you work, taking note of what seems to be repeatedly true about the subjects you paint.

It doesn’t hurt to keep a list, noting your own observations and trying them out in future works. Remember not to intellectualize what you’re painting; instead, take the approach of a thorough observer. Take note of colors, shapes, lines, lights, and shadows that appear to follow patterns across the different arrangements of your subject matter.

Painting what you know doesn’t mean that you are painting what you “think” you see in front of you—it means that you take all of the tiny details you’ve mentally recorded as you’ve worked from increasingly familiar subjects, and use those details to create new rules that fit your own particular style.

This may all seem like more work than learning tips and tricks in classes or from books, but it will do much more for you than those tips or tricks ever could.

Painting what you know will build your unique brand as an artist. It will lend a level of authenticity to your work that cannot be imitated, or faked. And most telling of all. . . it’s the one skill that can almost never be learned in a classroom.


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