We all know how to get to Carnegie Hall, right? I suppose we could change that old joke a bit for artists and inquire about how to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or one of the many other galleries in New York City. The punch line would be the same, of course.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
It’s as important for artists to practice brushstrokes and other techniques as it is for a pianist to play scales and arpeggios. No matter how good we are in any skill, maintaining proficiency requires practice.
But, we have to know how to practice. Repetition alone won’t improve our abilities, and if we’re practicing wrong, repetition can actually make matters worse. Practicing a technique incorrectly can lead to bad habits that are difficult to break.
For me, trees have always been a bit of a problem. I love trees and have always wanted to draw them more realistically, but unlike other drawing exercises, just drawing more trees wasn’t helping me improve. Obviously, I was doing something wrong. I had to take a look at everything I was doing, figure out what different techniques I could try, and watch a lot of tutorials to find instructions that “clicked” with me. My trees still aren’t great, but they’re getting better, and thank goodness I didn’t waste a lot of time drawing bad trees under the guise of “practicing.”
The moral of that little story is that if practice isn’t helping, something is wrong and needs to be fixed.
When I was first learning soft pastels, I spent a lot of time practicing. I practiced skies and clouds. I practiced ocean waves. I practiced pastel bushes and trees. I practiced rocks. Sometimes I did get a little tired of doing the same thing time after time, but I saw improvement with each pastel painting. Practice was helping me get better.
Another problem I’ve encountered with practicing is that it’s easy to “slough off”. I’ll start scribbling a bit, I’ll get careless, and I’ll shrug. “It’s only practice,” I so often say. I’m willing to let myself get by with a little of that attitude — as long as I’m learning in the process. I don’t think we need to spend hours making highly-detailed practice drawings. Of course, that depends, too, on what we’re practicing. For the most part, I want to make practice time productive but enjoyable.
Now, I’m spending more time with watercolor. I’m using better quality paper — Arches 140 lb. cold pressed — and in many respects, it’s almost like starting from the beginning all over again. What a perfect time for practicing! I want to know proper brush stroke techniques, as well as wash, layering, and glazing methods. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about pigments and paints, and I want to put the knowledge to use.
It all requires practice, practice, practice.
I’ve been looking through some of my basic watercolor books, and I came across a delightful little “practice piece”. Here’s my first rendition of the distant mountain scene:
“What do you mean your first practice painting?” my husband asked when I held it up for him to view. I explained that I’m going to paint the scene again. Several times. I’ll be changing the skies a bit in each painting, trying out different colors and using different techniques for creating light and clouds.
I’ll practice different techniques for the mountains, too. I’ll try different colors on the farthest mountains, maybe try adding snow-capped peaks, and I’ll practice lifting and shading. I’ll do the same with the closer range, as well.
Of course, I’ll practice the line of trees. I might vary the colors a bit, use different size brushes, or try dabbing in foliage with sponges.
I think it’s going to be a fun little “practice” project. The drawing is simple, and that’s exactly what I need. I can concentrate more on colors and techniques without worrying about fussy little details.
So, expect to see more “distant mountain” scenes. I’m excited about the project and am already thinking of many different colors I want to use.
UPDATE: Here’s “Distant Mountain 2”. More to come!
UPDATE 2: Here’s yet another “Distant Mountain” practice scene, using very different colors.
People often hate “practicing” because it seems dull and boring. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we can find ways to make practicing a fun process — while still keeping it productive — we can actually enjoy the long trip toward Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of art, or wherever our creative yearnings take us.