I was recently heading out for an evening walk, and opened the door just as someone was ready to knock. A smiling man dressed like a college professor held up a postcard and said, “I have something of yours.” My mind raced, trying to place who he was and what he wanted. The postcard was addressed to me but had no postage. The man explained that he had just returned from the Galapagos Islands, where they have a tradition of putting mail in a barrel to be delivered by whomever was traveling closest to that part of the world. This practice dates back to a time when mail was delivered by sailors rather than professional mail carriers.
If you had asked me then, I would have guessed that letters posted using this system had as much chance of reaching their destinations as if they were folded into paper airplanes and flown off the back porch. Nonetheless, the man had looked through the barrel, knowing he would be in Seattle. And, as it turned out, I received my letter in less time than it took postcards I had written in Italy that summer to reach my friends in the States.
It struck me that there are similarities between painting today and mailing letters in the Galapagos. Painting cannot be called art while the uncomfortable element of faith is absent. Just as the residents of the Galapagos Islands trust their letters will reach their destinations, artists need to believe in the value and outcome of their work. There is no such thing as a flawless step-by-step system that results in a perfect product. Personal struggle, talent, inspiration, and passion, when combined with hard work, create a unique outcome. No matter how dedicated and prepared you are, when making art, you are stepping into the wilderness. From this uncertainty comes some of the joy and wonder of art. It is human, imperfect, and filled with mystery.
Knowing there is much that can’t be controlled, it makes sense to enter this profession well equipped for the areas that we can influence. This book is a record of the foundational painting skills that I learned as a student, I use in my own studio, and teach in my atelier. It offers many tools, solid artistic principles, step-by-step demonstrations, and hands-on lessons designed to increase your skill. It contains time-honored techniques and those gained through personal experience and shows works of past ages along those of contemporary artists. And finally, it includes essays that focus on specific questions that tend to crop up during a course of study, such as, How do I deal with criticism? And How do I keep going when I feel stuck?
This book progresses much as you would be taught in an atelier. The study builds on a progression from flat, abstracted painting in black and white to a focus on developing form, followed by studies using a limited palette, and, finally, paintings in full color. It is worth noting that in an atelier you spend at least a year drawing, and for that important subject I have written two books: Classical Drawing Atelier and Lessons in Classical Drawing.
Learning from a book is not the same as studying in person in a studio; however, books share the knowledge of a community and provide encouragement from people on the same path, allowing you to follow at your own pace. The creation of art requires intense focus and a stretch of uninterrupted time, which, for many of us, may be the hardest part. Yet this undistracted time is essential, since art stubbornly exists on a different timeline than the quick pace of modern life. It reveals itself by degree, and it is worth waiting for. While a teacher, or a book, can make space, provide structure, and facilitate growth, in the end, the journey is one of self-education.
There is a correlation between the act of seeing, the arts (in every form), and a life worth living. Interestingly, the same habits and skills required to become an artist are also needed to become a fully realized person. “Everyone is born with a mind,” writes William Deresiewicz, “but it is only through introspection observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.” The same could be said of finding your artistic voice.
A painting education may have a starting date, but there is no natural ending. The branches of artistic knowledge take several lifetimes to explore. After foundational studies, we all end up specializing in what is most interesting to us. The goal of this book is to provide a strong start, knowing that this will be only a brief introduction in a process of lifelong education. How you choose to apply your training will be part of your own story. What you add to the world through your art will be your gift to others. Henry James noted that, “A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it.” I hope that this book will be a useful tool, enabling you to more clearly add your voice to this great tradition, providing a legacy for those who come after us.