Advice for Artists - Painting Landscapes -
Landscape painting by John Hughes

Advice for Artists > In this guest blog post, John Hughes addresses “hero worship” and “pet projects” that artists may fall into. (*Note: The identities of the two students in the examples below have been altered to protect their anonymity.)

Advice for Artists: The Worst Way to Learn to Paint Landscapes

The title of this post sounds quite negative to be sure, but it’s a topic that covers some real impediments to learning, which I would like to discuss in hopes that I might help some struggling students re-orient their approach to learning the art of landscape painting in a class or workshop setting.

As each year draws to a close, I often take time to reflect on things that did and didn’t work in classes and workshops that I have taught. I find myself asking what would have been more effective and what could have been done differently?

I once had a conversation with one of my painting students and something was said that caused me to reflect on how many people attempt to learn the art of landscape painting in this same unproductive way. Sadly, I sometimes observe, how the approach this particular student was pursuing was counterproductive to the goal he had in mind. At the same time, I was also cautious about what I could do to get this point across, without stomping all over his hopes and dreams of improving his art. More on this in a moment…

It’s tough to battle a person’s preconceived notions about learning to paint, especially when they doggedly hold on to faulty ideas as though they were holding a position on a hill in a battlefield!

I may be taking this a bit too personally, because ultimately each artist’s journey of discovery is theirs and not mine; it’s just that I’ve learned to spot some of the more pronounced bumps in the road and have spent a lot of time and effort trying to point those out to others in my classes.

When doing this, I try to get to the root of what’s working and what is holding some students back. With some, it’s easy to give correction, because you just know that they are there to absorb information, while others have a lot of emotional investment in their current way of doing things.

From my experience, the number one obstacle in anyone’s road to understanding is the individual. Unfortunately, the real challenge is not just identifying misguided ideas, but helping the person to recognize them him or herself. And there’s the rub — how do you get someone to see something that they are not ready to see?

Back to my student. In this particular situation, this student said something to the effect that instructors he has worked with in the past didn’t understand him. The reason being, he was attempting to follow a path which was uniquely his, and that path didn’t typically line up with what was going on in the classes he attended.

In a nutshell, this student’s path was the pursuit of a particular technique. So that was his drive, and in some ways is not all that different from other students I have worked with over the years.

As any workshop instructor will most likely attest, this is not an isolated case. Beginning artists often will see someone’s work that they admire and spend a lot of valuable study time trying to imitate the look they fell in love with. Sometimes it isn’t until years later that they are able to see through the fog sufficiently to realize that they have been chasing a mirage of sorts.

In reality, attempting to learn a technique by itself will most often lead to imitation of another’s style and cause the aspiring artist to have a false sense of accomplishment. They wind up inadvertently denying themselves the opportunity to progress into a style of their own, which would have developed naturally as they grew in their art. In this case, the technique winds up becoming the obstacle rather than the answer.

I’m not suggesting that a lot can’t be learned from others who have blazed the trail before us. On the contrary, my advice for artists is that it’s vitally important not to let the lessons of the past go unobserved and unheeded. It’s just that imitation by itself is just copying, and often looks uninspired at best!

Another classroom behavior is even worse than the first, and this one is more common in a classroom setting than in a plein air workshop.

Once, a different student came to my community college class with the goal of having a completed landscape painting done in time for her granddaughter’s wedding. To add fuel to the fire, the wedding was a month away and any attempt to dissuade this student from the intended goal was futile. I really wanted to teach this person how to paint with understanding, and then do the project at home, but I couldn’t get her to appreciate what was being offered in the way of knowledge.

My point is this: These are non-learning goals, with a dead-end straight up ahead! As a matter of fact, these two examples were serious roadblocks to learning, which resulted in a circular pattern of chasing the elusive carrot (learning to paint landscapes), which always stayed three or four steps ahead of the student!

They may have been able to accomplish their immediate aim, but real learning and improvement as artists remained a distant illusion. The reason for this is simple — they both looked past the really important information being taught in favor of this desired obsession. Student number one was semi-engaged, and student number two was not really interested in learning, even though she thought she was. It was really all about the wedding gift!

So, why is this advice for artists called “The Worst Way to Learn to Paint Landscapes in a Class or Workshop”? How could it not be? Would someone with goals of this type really be tuned into lectures on the finer points of art? Drills on color mixing and harmony? Design theory? Unfortunately, and most likely, they would be worried that they weren’t spending enough time on their pet project and may even resent the interruption!

plein air artist John Hughes
Advice for Artists > “What is sometimes viewed as an interesting “method” is actually another artist’s personal style based on their extensive understanding of fundamental principles, coupled with a personal approach to painting.”

To sum up each of these approaches, student number one may have viewed class time as a place to turn out saleable pieces for the market, and student number two saw class time as a place to get a wedding gift done in a timely fashion!

What was misguided in student number one’s thinking was trying to learn technique by itself, the way another artist used it. I call this one “hero worship,” when someone attempts to learn to paint like this, instead of looking at their subject and asking questions like, How would I paint this scene? What are the value relationships doing? How can I unify all of the visual information into a coherent design? The hero worshiper asks, How would “so and so” paint this picture? You can fill in the blank with any name that comes to mind!

What is sometimes viewed as an interesting “method” is actually another artist’s personal style based on their extensive understanding of fundamental principles, coupled with a personal approach to painting. When one tries to mimic another’s approach in this manner without the underpinning knowledge of light, design, drawing, color, value, and edges, all the fancy brushwork in the world won’t produce a competent painting!

This student would have accomplished far more by avoiding this technique while in class altogether, and instead making a conscious effort to learn fundamental skills. This approach would have greatly added to this artist’s knowledge base, and at the same time, rectified the very thing that was holding him back.

In the second example, the student didn’t hang around for the rest of the class once the project was done! No real point in even making further comment, except to say that student number one (who had real potential to become a fine painter) was missing out on some valuable learning opportunities. Student number two really had no chance, but unfortunately both of these students wound up on the same path to non-learning.

In conclusion of this advice for artists, my aim here was not to be critical, but to point out a couple of ways of thinking that may be holding someone else back. I never saw student number two again, but I’m still holding out hope for student number one and others whose preconceived ideas and false goals keep them from making any real lasting progress.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Share your comments below.

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  1. Hi John
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write about all these amazing concepts of fine art. You are spot on about your observations.
    I don’t have university credits but after 30 years of ploughing through information I have a clear understanding of the visual language and the challenge of questions and answers being dealt with in another language.
    Keep up the good work, it’s all about the journey.
    All the best
    Ernest van Huyssteen

  2. John, This is an excellent article I hope readers will learn from your observations and avoid these pitfalls. I for one have found myself in the camp of Student #1, hero worship and trying to perfect a technique. I have heard myself ask the question, “How would so in so approach this?” It wasn’t until I really worked on the fundamentals with purpose and intent that my own unique style began to come forth. I’m sure I could have saved a lot of time in my personal growth if I’d recognized this trap earlier on. Again, great article!

  3. Trying to imitate another artist’s technique is a bit like learning to recite poetry in a foreign language. It may sound nice, but one is merely parroting sounds. How much better it would be to actually learn the language first and then one could understand the poetry and even compose original poetry or prose in that language.

  4. Thanks for your input into this situation. I haven’t been teaching very long but have experienced the same scenarios and was frustrated. I finally began “tutoring” on a one to one basis and am enjoying it more than holding classes with those who were more like example #2 in your blog. My few students are serious about learning principles and not about just making a picture. So it is rewarding to me and they are developing in their own ways because they are beginning to absorb the basics and put them to use. Maybe I am being selfish but I do enjoy the feeling of actually helping someone learn!

  5. Well stated John
    Students who adopt the shorthand mannerisms of their instructors for the quick fix are doomed to ( as Emerson said), “an extemporaneous half possession “
    Mastering general principles simply takes time and many are not interested.


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