I am teaching another quarter of Beginning Acrylics at the local community college once again. Teaching beginners is one of my favorite classes to teach. Hopefully my students learn a lot, but it also helps me slow down, think through the basics, and crystallize my approach.
Teaching art is quite a bit different from other kinds of teaching. It is not exact. Learning to paint is more about figuring out your imagination…perhaps even your soul…than it is about exact methods. It is not always just learning technique, studying the great painters, or the science of the medium. Often studying art is about learning more about yourself. Often times when we, as adult learners, are in a new situation where we are really starting from scratch (many of my students have never picked up a paintbrush before) we sometimes act and think in ways that are outside our normal, usual self. We become insecure, we may become risk averse, we might plunge in recklessly, or we might feel totally confused or complete delight! It is definitely an adventure! So I always look forward to my “new” beginners!
As one of my favorite artist/teachers, John Carlson, would say, “The art of painting, properly speaking, cannot be taught, and therefore cannot be learned. I believe that the only way to study is to practice.” Or in our case…to allow ourselves to experiment!
So we start at the beginning. A basic palette. Which brushes? Surfaces? How do I prepare them. What shall I paint? Good basic questions.
1. Many new painters are watching their budgets, so they ask me to provide them with basic palette suggestions, which brands, etc. I always answer the same way. I use a full spectrum palette: 2 reds – one warm, one cool (Cad Red Light, Alizarin Crimson), 2 yellows – one warm, one cool (Cad Yellow Medium, Lemon (or Azo) Yellow), 2 blues – one warm, one cool (Ultramarine, Cobalt), Titanium White, and some pre-mixed neutrals (for ease of mixing): Payne’s Gray (on the bluish side), Burnt Umber (a rich chocolate), Burnt Sienna (dark orangey brown). Others that are “nice” to have: Sap Green (warm), Thalo or Veridian Green (cool), Prism Violet (cool), and Indian Yellow Deep (Orangey).
I like putting out all my paints each time I paint. Many beginners will only squirt out just what the need as they go…I think this encourages miserly paint usage, and restricts your color choices (because they try to calculate only what they need, and are trying not to “waste” paint). However, to save paint, I squirt these heavy bodied acrylics out onto a covered palette box with a moistened sponge beneath the palette paper and keep the paint puddles filled up with paint. I do not mix inside the palette carrier, I transfer dabs of paint for mixing to a separate piece of palette paper to mix on. If I get a mix I want to keep…I transfer a pile of it back to my paint keeper for next session’s painting.
2. Brushes: I use both synthetic fibered brushes and natural hog bristle brushes for acrylics. What I generally suggest for brand new beginners is they should at least have one large wash brush (a one inch flat brush with synthetic fibers) for painting smooth all over layers. Two filberts (rounded topped flat brushes): one hog’s bristle filbert (a 6 or 8), one synthetic filbert. These are used for curved or rounded objects, leaves, foliage, natural shapes. An 8 or 10 flat, for straight lines, angular shapes, smoothing.
A #3 round, for pointed strokes, and a liner brush – a 0 or a 1. Generally, I use softer, synthetic bristled brushes for fine work. But I do not use “soft” natural fibered brushes with acrylics as are used in watercolor. Do not use sable or ermine as they have no “spring” in them when wet. Synthetic brushes will snap back to a point when wet, yet are not stiff and will hold a point. This works best for acrylics.
3. Surfaces. I like to paint on wrapped canvas or linen panels, however canvas covered “boards” (cardboard) are also good. The wrapped canvas panels are usually 3/4 inch thick or can be up to 3 1/2 inches thick, depending on the frame used. The thicker wrapped canvases can be painted around their sides for a more finished look instead of framing if desired. If the staples holding the canvas show on the sides, use a frame to complete your painting. Thinner boards and canvases fit more precisely into ready-made frames. You can also paint on wooden panels that have been treated with acrylic sealer, or you can use heavy paper such as Bristol or 300 lb. watercolor paper. I would advise treating them all first with a coat of gesso (primer) so that the acrylics do not “bleed” into their porous surface unless that is the effect you prefer. Even if a canvas is “pre-gessoed”…it was probably done by mechanical dipping and might have some spots that are not completely sealed. I always recommend giving them another coat.
4. Now the most important question: What shall I paint?
That is a good question! For beginners I usually recommend a landscape. Why? Because natural forms are easier to paint because they do not have to be “precise” to look like the objects they are. A tree is recognizable whether it actually matches your reference or not. A bush or a cloud can be whatever shape you imagine. Streams can meander wherever they want…whereas a portrait or a house, bridge, or building must be precise. They all have to be painted as a “form” with dimension, and natural forms are easiest. However, no matter what you decide to paint, you need a reference, because our memories are notoriously inaccurate. Our brains “shortcut” to symbols of what we are actually seeing so we can remember it better…but we are trained not to remember extraneous details…and in painting…the details really matter. So as a beginner, do not rely totally on memory or imagination…use a reference! A photo, another painting, a still life setup or painting in the natural setting will be easiest.
Next session we will talk about the best ideas of how to start, what to paint first, when to add details. Until then, get ready, get your paints, brushes, and surfaces together, and we will BEGIN!