Discover more from Diane V. Mulligan - Teacher, Novelist, Artist
Vol 4. Big Small Things
In this post, some thoughts on the importance of deliberate practice, a sketchbook prompt to help you put deliberate practice in place, and a book recommendation.
First, a quick announcement: This fall I’ll be holding a virtual studio sale. Paint Waster Club subscribers will have early access starting October 1, and the sale will open to everyone else on October 15. If you want first dibs, please subscribe! Okay, now onto our regularly scheduled content!
My Instagram handle, @dianepaintsflowers, is accurate. I do paint a lot of flowers. Flowers are my go-to whenever I want to paint but don’t know what to paint. When I first started using watercolor paints, I painted an awful lot of imaginary flowers. Eventually, I started trying to paint actual flowers. Flowers are pretty, and they don’t move, and they have interesting organic shapes that you don’t have to get right to convey the general vibe of the flower.
The thing is, what I aspired to paint wasn’t flowers. I wanted—and still want—to be a landscape painter. In fact, in the summer of 2021, when I was a few months into my painting practice, I had one simple goal: Before school resumed in the fall, I wanted to complete one landscape painting that I didn’t hate. I did approximately a zillion Skillshare classes that summer on painting with acrylics (I didn’t buy my first set of watercolors until late July of that summer) and I tried hard to replicate the teachers’ steps and brush strokes. How easy art teachers make everything look! All I had to do was follow along, but I’d get to the end of a class, look at my work, and think, “It looks like an advanced ten-year-old painted that.”
And when I wasn’t following along step-by-step with a teacher, when I was trying to work on my own “original” paintings—oh, the horror. Thank goodness acrylic is an opaque medium. I became very good at quickly painting over my canvases and boards with fresh layers of gesso so I could start again.
The thing about landscapes is that the landscape, by its very nature and definition, is large. Even simple scenes are complex when you try to draw and paint them, and it is extremely challenging to take something that is quite literally as big—bigger, even—than your eyes can take in and convey it in something as small as a 9x12 painting.
The things you have to do to successfully convey a landscape are numerous and complicated. There’s perspective and atmospheric distance. There’s figuring out the right level of detail in each of the foreground, middle ground, and background. There’s identifying a focal point and composing the painting so that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the focal point. There’s understanding the values and arranging a value pattern that is interesting and creates a sense of depth. There are a million decisions about color. There are hard and soft edges. Lost edges. Things you can see but you don’t know what they are and you worry that if you include them, the viewer will also not know what they are. And there are just so many individual objects with their individual form shadows and cast shadows.
Which is to say, painting landscapes is a lot, and it’s no wonder I so often end up painting flowers instead of entire scenes of the landscapes or rooms containing the flowers.
I used to feel bad about my tendency to fall back on flowers as a subject matter. Real artists, said the critic in my head, don’t just sit around painting daisies. Real artists paint landscapes.
It’s surprising how long it took me to be able to turn to my inner critic and say, “Actually, I’m a beginner. It’s sort of unrealistic to expect me to be able to just up and paint a landscape when I’m still building technical and observational skills.”
What made the difference, I think, was when I began to focus my daily painting time on deliberately practicing particular skills instead of trying to Make a Painting. Throughout my two million hours of Skillshare classes, I had done lots of exercises, don’t get me wrong, but I was mostly focused on the end result, the class project that would be a finished piece.
But as I outgrew Skillshare painting classes and my art practice became more self-directed, I began to see patterns of error and places where I lacked skills. I knew the only way to interrupt those patterns was to be deliberate. I could sit around painting abstract flowers day after day, or I could focus on things like color mixing, understanding the correct water-to-pigment ratios, one and two-point perspective, and portrait drawing.
As I mentioned in Vol 3., I used to make a lot of greeting cards. That was my daily art catharsis. But as I began being more goal-oriented, I stopped painting cards and began filling sketchbooks with deliberate practice. Instead of sitting down to Make a Painting, I would set a specific goal like, Today I am going to paint a scene with alternating warm and cool colors to create a sense of depth.
Along the way, I did an awful lot of simple studies of objects. I have drawn my morning coffee mug many, many times. Coffee mugs are surprisingly hard to draw. Ellipse in perspective are not intuitive and mug handles that don’t look wonky are a real feat. But what I see now, looking through my sketchbook pages, is how much my drawings improved over time. Because I was deliberately practicing things like ellipses in perspective, I got better at drawing them. If I just drew an occasional mug now and then as part of a still life or cafe scene, I would probably struggle every time and keep repeating the same mistakes. Instead, now, I have trained my brain to better understand the shapes of a mug and I can draw them with some degree of confidence.
Now, when I work on a landscape, those same observational skills that I use on simple objects help me more accurately draw what I see. Deliberate practice makes progress! I still have a long way to go as a landscape painter, but through deliberate practice, I know I can continue to improve.
Sketchbook Prompt - Think Small
So often when trying to decide what to draw or paint, the mind immediately goes to BIG things—people, houses, entire landscapes. Here I am with my sketchbook trying to figure out how to fit a 5’6” person, a two-story house, the view from here to the horizon on a 6x9 inch page. I’m juggling scale, proportion, perspective, composition—it’s a lot! But what happens if instead, I choose something small as my subject: a button, a paint tube, a seashell?
Interestingly, I find that when I am drawing something that is smaller than my page, I tend to draw it nearly one-to-one for size. For me, this just automatically happens. I think it is perhaps related to how much eye-hand coordination training I’ve done through many drawing exercises. The challenge then becomes figuring out the right level of detail. My eye can see so much more than I can manage to include with my pencil or paints.
This spring I decided to force myself to draw small things—a series of seashells—larger than they are. I didn’t make them huge like Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers, but I made them distinctly larger. The shells are all maybe a couple of inches across and I painted them on 8x8 inch paper using my hand as a rough size guide for how large I wanted them to be. Not surprisingly, it was significantly easier to include a high level of detail when I gave myself room to work. Also, watercolor techniques had a bigger payoff in terms of the effects I could achieve.
So my assignment for you, if you choose to accept it is to try small subjects but make them larger than they really are. This is a great practice for honing observational skills, working on drawing and painting techniques, and creating satisfying sketchbook pages in a short amount of time.
I hope you’ll give it a go! If you do, please share in the comments to let me know how it went!
As you know, I love urban sketching. One of my favorite things is seeing the wide range of styles people bring. Throwdowns at the end of a session where everyone lays out their work in an impromptu gallery are always inspiring. This week’s book recommendation is like a greatest hits of throwdowns: The World of Urban Sketching by Stephanie Bower. The book takes you around the globe through the work of sketchers. My favorite aspect is the Then
& Now pages where Bower highlights the growth of certain sketchers over a ten-year period to show how their styles have evolved. These are people who were already talented artists when they were featured in a previous urban sketching book ten years earlier, and to see how they used to sketch and how they do now is often astonishing. It is enough to make anyone believe that practice makes progress!
Share your thoughts!
Thanks for reading Volume 4 of The Paint Waster’s Club. If this post resonated with you—or if it didn’t!—I’d love to hear about it. Give me a shout in the comments or over on Instagram so we can keep the conversation going!