I’m betting that, over the past year and a half of ‘lockdowns’, many of you who enjoy art either have started painting, or at least thought, ‘I’d really like to have a go…’ but not quite got round to it. In writing this, I’m hoping to encourage you to start and, even better, to keep going!
There has never been a better time to paint in East Anglia. There has been a recent boom in art classes, groups and clubs and — something dear to my heart — people getting together to paint outside in the fresh air (‘plein air painting’). This usually involves coffee and putting the world to rights. Even better, we are blessed with wonderful coast, landscape and skies. So, no excuses!
In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of how to start painting. I’ll provide a bit of home-spun philosophy, the basics of what materials you need, how to approach it, and, above all, how to enjoy it.
Painting East Anglia: why do it?
Ask yourself what you want out of painting. There are no rights and wrongs; you may want to produce cards or pictures to give or sell, to make sketches of places you visit, to delight in producing marks which express your feelings, or just to enjoy the sensation of making contact with paper or canvas and the visual delight of vibrant colours. Keep your reason(s) in mind and don’t get distracted by trying to paint or draw your subject as accurately as possible — let the camera do that!
If you’re not convinced already, let me tell you some of the other benefits. Taking up painting will improve your powers of observation — your appreciation of shapes, colours and tones. It can become an absorbing — almost meditative and ‘therapeutic’ — activity. You’ll find the tribulations of the world recede and, not putting too fine a point on it, it’s something you can do well into old age!
You’ll find that art communities, small or large, are extremely friendly and helpful. One of the art groups I helped set up is the East Suffolk Plein Air Painters*. Members range from beginner to full-time professional — all more than happy to chat and share tips and advice if asked.
How to start painting
As with most things in life, there are some basic rules. Certainly, break them later if you wish, but these have stood the test of time. And you can best learn them by lots of sketching — rapid and ‘free’ drawing and painting. You’ll learn ten times more from half a dozen 5-minute sketches than from a single laboured 30-minute effort.
I recommend getting a couple of inexpensive sketch pads: a small pocket-size one (A5 or A6) and a larger one (A3). I say inexpensive because, at this stage, the last thing you want is to feel nervous or guilty about ‘spoiling’ your paper. I still have some very expensive hand-made watercolour paper that I bought about 25 years ago sitting in a drawer — I admit I just can’t bring myself to use it. A moral there!
For the larger sketch pad, I suggest using charcoal — versatile and inexpensive. For the smaller one, a fibre-tip marker pen; although any pen will do. I tend to use a 0.5mm pen — available in any stationer’s or art shop.
Art: Practise, practise, practise!
Next step: fill up your sketch books by drawing whatever is around you. This is not to produce a finished piece of art or picture of something ‘attractive’; it is purely to train your eye and hand to capture the shapes, angles and proportions.
Remember, do quick 4- or 5-minute sketches, preferably with your eyes half-shut to eliminate detail, to capture just the important shapes. Leaving stuff out is very important in painting. Most pictures fail because there is too much detail, and no visual guidance of where the viewer should look. In your picture, you should be saying, ‘Look, this is what interested me and this is how I felt about it.’ It’s taken me quite a while to learn this lesson.
I often make greetings cards from my pictures. It eventually dawned on me that the best seller was a small, very simple ink and watercolour sketch — just a few lines and a hint of colour, done in 5 minutes as an afterthought at the end of a long painting day. End of sermon!
The art of painting colour!
I almost hesitate to bring colour into the equation at this stage, because there is so much benefit to be derived from improving your art skills with monochrome. It doesn’t have to be black and white, as charcoal smudges into a whole range of greys. You could also use any coloured chalk/pastel/crayon/pen to sketch with. I have been heard to say, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that colour is just an optional extra…
By all means, add colour! But please keep it simple. You may well have a paintbox with 24 or more colours, but if you dive into that with gay abandon, the chances are that your painting will look like a dog’s dinner. This is because most of the colours will be unrelated to each other. Food for thought: when you print a photo, your printer cartridge produces a huge range of colours from just three coloured inks — magenta, yellow and cyan plus black.
I strongly recommend starting with just a couple of colours: a blue (ultramarine blue) and a red (burnt sienna), preferably Artist’s Quality. From these two, you’ll be able to mix a surprisingly wide range of colours and tones. With watercolour, try adding these loosely with an almost dripping brush (‘dry’, broken brush strokes can make a painting look tight and ‘bitty’), and don’t try to ‘paint up to the lines’ — keep it free and it will look bolder and more energetic.
Find a friend to paint with, join a group or Art Club near you, look at as much art (online, galleries, books, magazines) as possible, keep your sketch pad in your pocket/bag, and practise!