How to paint and draw > As it turns out, this method is an important tool for the training of all artists in all subject matters.
For years, laboring in the back bedroom, my “studio,” I tried to master the art of painting. First, I was copying photographs, trying to make paintings. But my effort was flawed because my hand had no training in how to draw and paint. My paint was globby, and, worse, I could not translate what was inside my head to the canvas. I envisioned “painterly” versions of photos, but ended up with nothing more than a lot of bad paintings.
Soon, I realized I needed help. There was no Internet at the time, so I turned to a local arts center, where I was exposed to abstract modernism and self-expression, which was a failure for me. Then I turned to portraits and figures, which was life-changing, as was the practice of copying the masters.
The Lack of Training for Painters
Yet, because I also wanted to paint landscapes, I had no training available to me. I have since learned that the landscape is not addressed by most art schools and institutions, or, if addressed, it tends to be a curriculum of museum copies. Though copying paintings is a valuable step in the process of learning, the landscape carries such importance that it cannot be learned by copying alone. And, as it turns out, the landscape is an important tool for the training of all artists in all subject matters.
The Ultimate Still Life
Imagine a still life with a couple of bowls and a few flowers. Mastery of that still life requires creation of form on each object. Now think about the landscape as a large still life, lit from the side or overhead, each of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of objects requiring the sense of form, light, shadow, color, and perspective. Some believe landscape painting is perhaps the most challenging to learn because of its vast content.
Nine Letters on Painting from 1824
In the studio, with a model and window light, we’re learning form, light, color, edges, and so much more, but in the landscape, when painting outdoors, we’re learning it on steroids.
In the book Nine Letters on Landscape Painting by Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869), Carus states this: “Nature will never show itself in her true guise to anyone who makes a habit of observing through other men’s glasses, least of all will she lift her veil and admit him to her mysteries. She remains mysterious in the full light of day. As everyone surely knows, it’s no easy task to apprehend her truly; this has, indeed, always been the prerogative of genius. Who could fail to see, therefore, now and forevermore, the best of this cannot be taught. And yet, if teaching and study have any part to play in the perception of nature, there is one path on which even the lesser talent, the individual who is less than supremely productive, but who is nonetheless filled with a heartfelt love of nature and a longing to take hold of it as an artist, is able to ascend to its wellsprings: and that path is none other than science. And that word, strikes the keynote of all my further thoughts on how best to direct the full study of earth-life painting.”
He goes on, “The eye must be opened to the true and wondrous life of nature, and the hand must be trained to do the soul’s bidding, quickly, easily, and beautifully. This alone can be the aim of instruction in any of the pictorial arts … We must train the eye to perceive nature in its divine, essential life and in its forms, but wherever the eye perceives clearly and purely the hand cannot help but follow and develop the skill.”
Corus was a scientist and an amateur artist, but had grasped what I want to share today, that all painting is informed by landscape painting, and that the only way to learn landscape painting is to do it outdoors from life.
How to Draw and Paint: The Best Training in the World
On my first trip to Russia in 2004, I learned that, unlike most U.S. art schools, landscape painting in nature is part of the core curriculum. In fact, three months each summer in a five-year program (15 months in all) are devoted to plein air painting. I personally witnessed students painting nature, and painting models in nature, in order to fully grasp light and form. My friend professor Nikolai Dubovik, at the Surikov Institute of the Russian Academy — one of the finest art schools in the world — told me that one cannot fully be developed as a painter without spending a significant part of one’s studies outdoors.
For over 15 years, I’ve been telling studio artists about the importance of getting outdoors to improve and/or learn how to draw and paint. Often people have painted indoors their entire lives without once painting outdoors, or even a scene outside a window, because they have not been exposed to its value. In fact, dozens of people I convinced to try outdoor painting have told me it was the one thing that made the biggest, most significant impact on their paintings other than learning to draw.
I’m not here to change your mind or how you paint, but my interest is in helping every artist develop to the highest possible level. No matter how you paint, whether your style is one of tightly rendered contemporary or classical realism or you’re looser and more impressionistic, the outdoors will impact your work.
Learning to paint outdoors isn’t a matter of transferring your skills from the studio. As my friend Albert Handell says, some people do studio painting outdoors, and never fully grasp the beauty of plein air painting.
If you’re a studio painter or an indoor landscape painter, or even a figure or portrait painter, learning plein air painting will inform your work with a fresh feel for light and form. You’ll see immediate benefit, and you might even get addicted to the plein air lifestyle of painting with friends rather than studio isolation.
Do you consider yourself adventurous?
I’d like to invite you to explore plein air painting. The absolute best way to get exposed is to attend the May Plein Air Convention & Expo in Denver. Here you will be offered dozens of demos from top masters, and actual outdoor instruction as well. We even offer a plein air Basics Course that many seasoned studio painters have taken to learn how things differ, how to deal with changing light and weather, and even the kinds of materials needed. This class appeals to both experienced studio painters and brand new painters who want to join the plein air movement.
Should you consider it?
I can’t answer that for you, but I can say that if you feel as though you would like to take your work to a higher level, but don’t exactly know how, this might be just what you need.
I hope you’ll read about the convention here and consider attending. Or if you’re super adventurous, register here right now.
The life of a painter is a wonderful journey, and embracing plein air painting may be the next step for you.
Publisher and Founder
PS: We will have about 80 top instructors working with you in the field, and top masters on five stages teaching in all mediums. (See below.) But this event is not only popular, it’s almost sold out. We have exactly 115 seats left, which is unusually low for this time of year. After that, the registration will close and we’ll put you on a waiting list. I highly recommend you register today.