It takes time to become a great painter. . . developing your skill in a chosen medium can only be achieved through hours of studio time, and by putting effort into discovering your personal voice and style along the way.
However, there are several small changes that artists can make which will add up to big improvements—and these changes can be made in virtually no time at all.
Here are 4 small changes that I have personally tested:
1. Upgrade your supplies
I was a finicky six-year-old and turned up my nose at no-name, discount-brand pigment-poor excuses for crayons.
Strangely, when I started painting in watercolor I was too cheap to buy quality watercolor paper. As a result, I struggled with unpredictable washes and masking fluid that tore my paper upon removal.
Through that experience, I’ve learned that paints and paper are called “artist-grade” for a reason. Skip the student-grade and pay a little more for good paint, paper and brushes that will perform the way you ask them to.
2. Improve your reference material
If you work from reference photos, start painting from life. As easy as they are to use, photographs are a limited copy of the real thing—they tend to flatten scenes, and subtle details are always lost in the translation.
Some art critics even insist that they can always tell whether a painting was painted from life or photograph, and that a photo-derived painting will look dull and lifeless compared to one painted from real life.
All that being said, if you must paint from photographs, avoid using blurry, over- or under-exposed photos and only paint from the best photograph you can find, so you won’t have to guess at details.
3. Work larger
While artist trading cards and the daily painting movement have increased the popularity of small paintings, painting small is very easy way to get bogged down in finicky detail.
If your goal is to get looser and allow your creative spirit a voice in your painting, grab a larger surface than you’d normally use and allow yourself the freedom to fill it.
4. Use a larger brush
This is probably the most common tip for artists that I have ever encountered, and so it bears repeating:
Great artists paint with the largest brush that they can get away with.
Why? Because using a large brush makes it difficult to get fussy about detail and allows an artist to focus on the major shapes and ideas in the painting.
5. Plan the entire painting ahead of time
Many successful artists know that the fun (painting) doesn’t start until the work (planning) is done.
Know what you want to say, how you want to say it, and use thumbnails and composition to determine how to make it work – before ever putting a brush to paper.
6. Use darks
In the 30 years I have been teaching, one of the biggest problems I find is that my students have difficulty putting darks in their paintings. I am not sure if it is because they are afraid that a dark is too much of a statement or they don't know how to make one. What ever the reason, not having a dark leaves the painting lifeless and flat. A strategically placed dark (equal to black in value) can bring life to a painting.
Students and professionals alike will benefit by frequently painting "quickies", a limited, timed painting. Using a timer for 3 to 5 minutes while painting is a freeing experience, teaching the importance of freshness and a partial statement. Many of your quickies will put more labored paintings to shame. Work fast, dryer than usual, and aim at a more interpretive result.
8. Ask for help.
I have benefited many times from the advice and critiques given to me by more mature artists than myself. Being critiqued can be painful, but an honest appraisal of your work will give you the focused and specific instruction that you can instantly apply to future paintings.
Art is a process, and there are always new paths to explore. Hopefully these 8 small steps will lead to big changes and new vistas on your artistic journey.