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Studying Other Artists, Or Dealing with a Plateau in Artistic Development

December 5, 2018
Sakura Pigma Professional Brush Pen FB and watercolor on Fluid 100 HP watercolor paper. (Fluid 100 is the 100 percent cotton watercolor paper from Fluid.)

Recently one of my Drawing Practice students mentioned that she’d been discouraged to see the “before” and “after” artwork someone had posted on Facebook. Some of the artists included showed art from childhood and adulthood. Others posted work that was only a couple of years apart, yet showed great development of representational facility. All were representational artists (though some were digital).

I wrote the following [which I’ve edited slightly for public consumption] to the student Facebook Group for my Drawing Practice students because I thought it raised some interesting issues that all artists need to think about:

One of the chief things I noticed with students at SketchKon was the desire of so many of them to have a style of drawing rather than to learn to draw. And when people focus on style before they have an ability to draw this slows the learning process down.  

Throughout my time at SketchKon I had scheduled meetings and informal meetings with students who asked for a review of their work. All of them expressed a variation of the “what’s my style?” question. Yet all of them also had other drawing skills to learn. Each of them, with their comments, expressed the thought that the way through their current situation was to find a style, not work on foundational stuff.

In the limited time I had with them it wasn’t possible to stress that the first order of business is to learn to see accurately and get things down on paper, and that style comes after that is achieved. It’s not just my opinion. Hundreds of years of art and art education have shown this to be the case. Look at J. M. Turner’s early work, Van Gogh’s early work, etc. (Look at Picasso’s early work and cry because that was when he was the best draftsman of the age and created works so exquisite, sigh…)

Anyway, all of those famous artists I just mentioned went from that position of massive amounts of practice and development of a foundation, as a place of strength, to the development of an individualistic approach to their visual response to the world.

I encourage you, when you find yourself at a plateau to come at the “issue” differently. It may be time for another series on which you focus on accurate contours; you may need to learn and practice perspective, color theory, or some other skill you currently lack.

Many people bust through a plateau in skill level on their own through observation and diligent practice. Others do it by taking a class or reading a book. Everyone who does it successfully does it through practice of that thing which is eluding them.

Wil Freeborn is a watercolorist and urban sketcher whose work I love. I wrote a blog post about his book on watercolor painting.  

Detail of today’s watercolor sketch. This is one of the first sketches I did on this paper. I was working out how the paper dried, when I could drop in the extra color, when I could go in with my wet on dry washes. And of course whether or not I liked the cold press texture. Go ahead, click on it and see how sometimes I got the timing right and sometimes I was a little too eager.

After students have been working for a while on doing contours, gestures, angles, negative space, whatever—and they admit to hitting a plateau I look for books to recommend to them that they can use for DAILY practice, to really master that thing which is stumping them.

Since Freeborn’s book came out I’ve been recommending it as something people should work through if they are interested in watercolor.

It will help people understand how to lay in washes and create certain effects, and in the process they will then be able to apply that in their daily sketching.

Sometimes in order to practice you have to remember that it’s important to understand something and how it’s put together before you can extrapolate it to something else.

This might mean that you work through a book like this one and copy his paintings each step of the way to understand what is being done. At the end of 50 paintings you’ll have a lot of practice under your belt and can start to see how to extrapolate it to your own subjects. (Or if you’ve been drawing and painting for a while you might simply use his picture examples as a suggestion of topic/subject matter.)

If some of you are thinking about doing more with watercolor this might be the time to get this book or one similar  And to do exactly that.

Even if you aren’t on a plateau spending the next 50 days doing a little painting like this to see what Freeborn does with the medium of watercolor is a great practice.

It is a great way to begin to understand water in watercolor (less is needed than many people think, though sometimes more, and you only discover this by working with the paints); that some aspects of color theory are follow your nose as long as you know how your paints layer; and so on.

Giving yourself the time to really hunker down and think and work through these things is sometimes the best use of your time. The other things you’ve learned in your art life will still be there for you to return to.

One of the reasons Freeborn is such a great artist to look at for this purpose is not that he doesn’t have a style, he does, but his style is meticulous and based on representational approach. So you can mimic and learn.

Almost all of my drawing students love the loose, quirky sketchbook style of Felix Scheinberger, as do I. Yet often beginning artists don’t recognize the representational drawing skills that he has. He went through drawing foundational work to get to that skill level you now see as quirky and individual. You can see it in his earlier book illustration work.

Building skills is the only useful way to get to quirky.

I cannot tell you how many professional illustrators have come into my classes or entered mentorship arrangements with me who could not draw. They had developed a style early on in their career, without foundational skills. That style became something that they could sell to clients, but it was a dead end as far as improving their drawing skills and doing work that they found satisfying or personal. Once you get on that rodent wheel you really can’t get off, but have to run as quickly as you can to keep up.

So that’s my pitch for foundational work you build on. Go check out Freeman’s book if you’re interested in developing more skills in watercolor.

Take A Class

If you aren’t someone who works well independently and you need feedback it may be time to take a class. Find an instructor who paints in a way you admire. Look at look your local arts organizations for adult classes. Look online—several of my students agree that Shari Blaukopf’s class in landscape painting on Craftsy is worth looking at.

The point is to take action. Don’t let the plateaux stretch out in front of you and steal your momentum.

Create Your Own Independent Study Course

Besides the book I mention above here are some other books that could form the basis of a great independent study course.

Watercolor and Painting

Charles Reid,  The Natural Way to Paint 

In this book Reid explores his loose way of handling watercolor paintings of the figure. Again—beware, there is a lot of practice and foundational work required to achieve the looseness his work shows.

I recommend that you look also at one of his earlier books like these:

Charles Reid,  Painting by Design

The paintings in this book are also loose, but there are lots of great examples of seeing values.

Charles Reid,  Painting What (You Want) to See: Forty-Six Lessons, Assignments, and Painting Critiques on Watercolor and Oil

Forty-six lessons—sounds like a month and a half of lessons to keep you busy!

Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan, Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project

If you love botanical illustration this book is a course in a book. They do a nice job covering everything from a beginning pencil sketch and getting shapes and volume accurately, to color mixing, values, and detail in watercolor painting. Even if you aren’t a botanical painter, and don’t want to become one, this material will help you work with detail in your other subject matter.

Pen and Ink

One of my drawing students asked for books to study pen and ink sketching. I think one of the best things you can do to improve your ink sketching is to work from old 19th century etchings. But not everyone has the time or the stomach for that (I had lots of time when I was 10 and got my first dip pen. I also had better eyesight.) Here are some books to look at:

Alphonso Dunn, Pen and Ink Drawing: A Simple Guide

I found this book through an Amazon recommendation and was amazed. Simple? Perhaps, I would call it straightforward. I took one look at it and decided I didn’t need to spend the time video taping myself making lines and hatches to translate my six-week pen and ink sketching class into video. Now I just recommend this book. Do the work—practice!

Joseph A. Smith, The Pen and Ink Book

I got this book in the early 1990s. It was full of product information of the type you never find in books any more. (Probably because products go out of production and date a book, or just because publishers no longer like to recommend brands—whatever the reason, it’s sad. I miss books like this.) As soon as I got it I started working with color acrylic inks in my professional work. I loved it. I still love this book which is overflowing with examples, examples, examples. If you love to experiment this would be a great book for you.

Remember This Going Forward

Practice is practice. You are where you are now.

If you practice with intention, instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes and stale approaches, you’ll get across that plateau to a new land of skill level, and maybe even a new style.

Artists of all types have been practicing and practicing throughout their lives.

It is useful to remember that Ansel Adams took pictures of Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley from the 1920s until the end of his life.

He said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Developing your foundational skills through intentional practice, regardless of your field of art, enables you to make something.

Let’s go practice.

Addendum: What about Books on Drawing?

Addendum added 12.6.18 at 5:30 p.m.

A blog reader wrote in to ask about recommendations for people working in pencil. She’s already using the Nicolaides book which is an intensive drawing plan. I suggested the following to her:

Juliette Aristides has four books on the atelier drawing approach. Look her up on amazon. I’ve got one and it’s good, but I don’t recall which one it was. I think it might be the lessons book as I wanted to compare what she did to the in-person lessons going on at the Atelier I actually go to off and on. Other authors have books in a similar vein.

If figure drawing is your thing I would suggest you check out Henry Yan’s book. He also teaches classes and one of my students traveled to his class and the report was it was fabulous.

I think Rudy De Reyna, “How to Draw What You See” is useful book, but it’s been so long since I saw it that I’m not sure if it lends itself to lessons in the way the other suggestions might. Check it out at a library.

Here’s a post with some drawing book recommendations

I love the book on The Drawing Club which I review here.

Of course you could go through Arthur Nuptial’s “Drawing and Sketching in Pencil.” In fact I would look at Dover’s Art Instruction line to see what you could pick up.

So many people tell me they learned to draw with “Keys to Drawing,” by Bert Dodson and that’s an excellent book. He wrote one on drawing with imagination too. I thought in 10 years of blogging I must have written about Dodson’s book so I did a blog search and found this post about drawing faces and a whole bunch of drawing books are mentioned there.

Related Posts

    • maud
    • December 5, 2018
    Reply

    Roz,
    The timing of this excellent post could not have been better for me. I fractured my knee 5 days ago and although I had decided that the best way for me to stay positive in the weeks and months ahead would be to recommit myself to a daily drawing and painting practice, I was not sure of my best path forward. With this blog post, you’ve supplied me with a whole textbook list! Even better, all these books are available at my local library. Thanks for making the next 120 days on crutches look slightly better to me : )

    1. Reply

      Maud, ouch!!!! First I hope that it calms down quickly and that isn’t horribly painful. And Second that you heal as quickly as possible and it’s all strong. Do whatever PT they give you religiously!

      I’m glad you’re going to use the unplanned “immobility” time to work on your drawing. Hang in there. Keep looking around at the world and sketching when you can.

    • Susan King
    • December 5, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks so much for inspiring my next project, right when I was wondering what to do next. I’ve ordered the first book and can’t wait to start!

    1. Reply

      Susan I’m so glad the timing was right. I hope you have a lot of fun with this! Be sure to let me know how it goes!

  1. Reply

    Hi Roz!

    Do you have any book or course recommendations for gouache? I’ll be getting Freeborn’s book, because it sounds amazing, but once I’ve worked through that I’d love to get a handle on gouache.

    Thanks,

    Sylvia

    1. Reply

      I’m sorry Sylvia I don’t have a book to recommend on gouache. I learned to use it from looking at artwork done in gouache and experimenting to get the surface look I wanted. Later when I was in grade school and again as a teenager I was able to watch some advertising artists work with it.

      I have a 6-week in person class that I’ve not translated into video yet, and it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon because of family obligations.

      I recommend that you dive in and start playing with the paint to get the look that you want.

  2. Reply

    Roz, I LOVE This! I was one of those Sketchkon students scratching my head over ‘what my style is’ and I also took to heart your advise and have been diligent to not let a day go by this past year that I do NOT draw. Because I love it and because I want to get better and do the work! Since I read Just Kids by Patti Smith(cannot recommend enough) and several other books and interviews with artists I realized how diligent and disciplined they are. It reinforced my efforts and commitment to drawing and I have noticed in the past 8 sketchbooks that progression which is satisfying and fuels my passion to keep working it! Thanks for the encouragement!

    1. Reply

      Susan, while we talked at Sketchkon about some of these issues remember you showed up to work on your fundamentals! And you did that. I know that you are putting your work in. Keep filling those sketchbooks. It is paying off. I will have to look at the Patti Smith book—thanks for the recommendation!

        • Susan Knause
        • December 6, 2018
        Reply

        You know Roz – the other thing that dawned on me after digesting this is maybe less about what is my style but more like what do I want to say?!

        1. Reply

          I’m glad you’re thinking this way because I remember we’ve talked about this as well. Knowing what you want to say will influence so much about how you put it down visually. Many people spend so much time thinking about style that they don’t ever ask themselves if they have something to say. When we know what it is we want to say we can make a plan for the skills we want to learn. I know for our conversations that you are already thinking about this and that means you’re on your way!

    • Tina Koyama
    • December 5, 2018
    Reply

    As always, great wisdom articulated well. I’m bookmarking this post so that I can send it to people when they start talking about the style thing. I have tried to articulate some version of this myself, but not nearly as well as what I just read.

    – Tina

    1. Reply

      I’m glad it helped you put your thoughts together, I had a sense we think similarly about this and a whole bunch of things.

    • Barbara Obergfell
    • December 6, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you once again. You do seem to have an eerie insightful timing sometimes. I mean that in a good way. Though I do love my watercolors. I have returned to pencil sketches lately. You mention many sequenced instructional books on painting and pen and ink here. What about foundational drawing books to work through. I have been using Nicolaides and replacing human models with my cat, the birds, squirrels and other backyard critters. Sometimes I use my replicas. Any suggestions.

    1. Reply

      Barbara, if you’re doing Nicolaides then you’ve got a great plan. Other books in that tradition would be Atelier style books. Juliette Aristides has four books on the atelier drawing approach. Look her up on amazon. I’ve got one and it’s good, but I don’t recall which one it was. I think it might be the lessons book as I wanted to compare what she did to the in-person lessons going on at the Atelier I actually go to off and on. Others have books in a similar vein.

      If figure drawing is your thing I would suggest you check out Henry Yan’s book. He also teaches classes and one of my students traveled to his class and the report was it was fabulous.

      I think Rudy De Reyna, “How to Draw What You See” is useful book, but it’s been so long since I saw it that I’m not sure if it lends itself to lessons in the way the other suggestions might. Check it out at a library.

      Here’s a post with some drawing book recommendations https://rozwoundup.com/2012/06/loosen-up-two-books-on-drawing-with-a-nod-to-some-others-i-really-like.html

      I love the book I review here https://rozwoundup.com/2014/08/the-drawing-clubnot-just-another-book-on-drawing.html

      Of course you could go through Arthur Nuptial’s “Drawing and Sketching in Pencil.” In fact I would look at Dover’s Art Instruction line to see what you could pick up.

      So many people tell me they learned to draw with “Keys to Drawing,” by Bert Dodson and that’s an excellent book. He wrote one on drawing with imagination too.

      Those should keep you busy. Have fun.

      P.S. as soon as I hit send I thought “I must have written about Dodson’s book on my blog in 10 years!!!!, So I did a search and found this post about drawing faces and a whole bunch of drawing books are mentioned there.
      https://rozwoundup.com/2009/02/drawing-faces-some-book-recommendations.html

        • Barbara Obergfell
        • December 7, 2018
        Reply

        Thank you Roz your attention and advise is a kind of lifeline. I will continue working through Nicolaides for now. Of the books you suggested I purchased Bert Dodson’s Keys, Juliette Aristides lessons book, and Charles Reid’s Natural way to paint (I love his paintings). Looks like I have much to work with. Thanks

        1. Reply

          Barbara, glad the additions helped. You definitely have a lot to work on now!

    • Corinne McNamara
    • December 6, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks, Roz, for the reminders. I have some of the books you referred to; it’s time to dig them out and work through the exercises –again.

    1. Reply

      Corinne, so here’s a thought. Since you have these books and you’ve done the exercises maybe it’s time to seek out other books that would be more helpful. Go to the backs of those books and see if they have a bibliography and check out those. Also go to the author’s website and see if they suggest any books.

      It seems that rather than repeat the exercises your time would be better spent expanding outward with new exercises that seem logically connected to those?? Have fun.

  3. Reply

    Thank you Roz for this list of books. As you know, I’m keen on discovering new books on art, as this way of learning particularly suits me, even more since I learned how to analyze my works in your drawing course – and be my own teacher!
    I already own books from Dunn, Nicolaïdes, Joseph Smith and Aristides. I’m not perusing them just now because I’m focusing on watercolor, but they are quietly waiting their turn on the shelf.
    I will order the botanical illustration course right now ( I continue drawing a lot of plants) and one of Reid’s books. My question is: which one do you recommend to buy first? I can’t afford to buy all three at present.
    I’m tempted to buy “46 lessons” because I love books that are structured in lessons and are easy to turn into a learning program. But is maybe one of the two others better suited for “beginners” in watercolor?
    Although it may be stimulating to pore over advanced material, wondering which path could possibly take you there!

    1. Reply

      I would go with the Painting what You Want to see, book as it is more about seeing values and such and later books are all about his looser style. But if you want to get into some real basics of approach in watercolor I have some other books on my list that you might enjoy: “The Watercolor Book” by Dewey. “Watercolor Techniques” by Michael Reardon (I think his style of work would be very amenable to your sense of balance and delicacy with strong focus), and “The Urban Sketcher” by Marc Taro Holmes.

      Both Reardon and Holmes have a version of the Tea, Milk, Honey approach to wash strength. And MTH is I think great because he is an Urban Sketcher and really pushing his working methods to work fast on site.

      Have fun with your watercolor explorations.

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