I fell in love with drawing when I was a kid. I filled notebooks with colored pencil sketches, made up my own magazines, and even designed a greeting card set that I sold to all my parents' friends. As I got older, I left visual art behind to pursue music (plus a bit of graphic design), but several years ago, a serendipitous art-making session with a friend led me back to that first love of visual art.
For years, my husband would tell me, “You’re a painter,” and for years I was confused by his unflinching belief in this. I didn’t even paint as a kid. I couldn’t imagine myself using a paint brush well.
So for years, I shrugged it off. Until that fateful painting session where I finally felt it click, and I realized... I AM a painter. (To be clear, what I painted in that session could hardly be described as good. I’m not being hard on myself; I’m being neutrally honest.)
But the next day, I went to the art store and bought canvases, brushes, and acrylic paints. I dove in head-first, laying an old sheet on my office floor to forge a little space to paint.
As I reflect on my journey to where I am now, I think about that “beginner painter” version of myself and what I might tell her, in hopes that it might inspire someone else getting started on their own art journey.
Here are 7 of the most valuable lessons I learned in that first year of painting.
1. Enjoy the process - don’t be so attached to the outcome.
It’s wonderful to have a beautiful painting at the end of a creating session. But it doesn’t have to look like it belongs on a gallery wall in order to be a fulfilling process. Painting can be meditative, cup-filling…a love letter to the soul. The act of making can be enough, if you let it. It doesn’t mean you can’t strive to be better, or be excited to improve your techniques. It doesn’t mean you can’t work towards creating amazing pieces for that gallery wall. But especially in that first of year of calling yourself a “painter,” it’s the falling in love with the process that really matters most.
2. Instead of fixating on what you're not good at, focus on what you are uniquely good at.
I have this weird tendency to find something I do easily and intuitively, and then narrow my eyes suspiciously at it, and say, “That’s toooooo easy. I should go seek out something less easy.” Sometimes it’s a good trait. I like a good challenge, and I do well seeking out new knowledge to grow my skills. But when the element of comparison syndrome comes in, along with that inability to focus on my strengths, then self doubt takes over. Like when you look at another artist's work and think, “She paints such great facial expressions. My people look like a 6-year drew them. Actually a 6-year old’s would look better.” That artist who is great at drawing facial expressions is probably terrible at drawing birds. Or abstracts. Or [fill in the blank]. They are simply following what they are most natural at. You could do the same!
3. You don’t need a lot of supplies to make art… but it sure is fun to have them!
I remember the early tutorials where the teacher would tell me I only need red, blue and yellow to make all the colors I want. Or that I don’t need a lot of fancy supplies to create art. This is completely true. And if that is all you have, you can absolutely do a million things with just that. (In fact, in a lot of cases, having constraints forces your creativity to come out in new and beautiful ways!) However…when I have an opportunity to lazily browse the aisles of Blick… it is true bliss. Varied supplies give me options, make things interesting, and allow me to explore different techniques. And when I’m feeling a creative block, a couple of new supplies can re-ignite the spark to create. Bottom line: don’t be limited by what you don’t have; don’t be afraid to explore the non-traditional; and maybe don’t go into an art store unless you’re prepared to part with some benjamins.
4. You don’t hate watercolor; you just haven’t had a good teacher yet.
Dipping my toe into painting started with acrylics on canvas. It was an easy place to start. Plus, I thought that I hated watercolor. I don’t know why I thought it. “Watercolor” evoked images of dusty paintings sitting in the back of the thrift store, faded and devoid of bold, bright colors. Maybe a duck on a pond outside a cabin. (Again, WHERE did this perspective come from?! No clue.) I found an old beginner watercolor book from who knows when in a box of old things, and I gave it a go. (It came with a set of paints.) The book’s instruction was pretty lacking—it didn’t even tell me how to squeeze out and use the paint from the tubes. At the end of that experience, I tossed it and thought, “Yep, that was exactly as awful as I thought.” And it wasn’t until I discovered Let’s Make Art tutorials and subscription boxes that I realized watercolor could be wildly exciting. (Not an affiliate here, just sharing my true gratitude for this amazing company.)
5. You learn by doing it. Over and over again.
If you really want to be good at anything, you have to be willing to put in the time. It takes showing up, sticking it out through the times where you feel like you suck, and being excited to keep learning and growing. That first year, I wanted to rush through it all, to finally get to the point where I could make something I liked. And I eventually got there…but I made a lot of flat out ugly art. And I still make ugly art, but the ratio of art I make that I like to art I don’t like has greatly improved!
6. Follow the sparks.
If it’s exciting for you, it will be easier to show up for it. It won’t always be easy because sometimes you’ll be too busy or too tired or too burnt out or too un-inspired. And it truly depends on what your goal is and how much you are willing to do to reach it (which is another conversation), but if painting horses lights you up, paint horses! If the idea of painting faces makes you want to cry, then paint abstracts instead. Of course there’s a balance of facing a fear to create growth, but in the general sense…do what sparks your excitement! Listen to your heart and soul. It will be far more fulfilling.
7. Don’t make art for someone else’s approval (unless you want to sell art commercially, then… learn to love making what sells! ;)
This is a double-sided note. If you’re just getting started, make art because you are excited to make art. Explore, and have fun on the journey. Don’t be afraid to share your work on social media, but also don’t feel like you have to. And don’t let other people’s negative comments or lack of positive comments bring you down. If you are fulfilled, or if you love something you made, that’s all that matters. I tacked on the note at the end as a kind of tongue-in-cheek message for myself (and others who might be interested in creating art to go on products or to sell commercially). It shouldn’t be priority in your first year of learning to paint to worry about making commercially viable art. You should just be making. But if your goal is to SELL things in some way, a little nudge and wink here to say it does benefit you to make things that people like and want to buy…for themselves. Because when you get to this stage, it isn’t just about you and people supporting YOU as an artist, but rather about how your art might be enriching THEIR lives or THEIR businesses in some way. (That’s a conversation for my creative entrepreneurs out there, which we can continue at another time!)
Now go make some art!