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What I’ve Learned After Two Years of Painting

So this month will mark two years since I started oil painting. Let me say again…oil painting. Yes had I painted a little bit before… not very well, with both watercolors and acrylics. I’m not good at either. Watercolors are just really hard to master in general and acrylics just always felt wrong to me and dried too damn fast. They both left me feeling angry and exasperated and I had resigned myself to the idea that I was just not an artist who paints. Anything else. But not paint.

A painting I did of Frida Khalo, 2022

Then during our first lockdown in 2020, I decided to try painting again, and thought I’d experiment with a set of embarrassingly poor quality oil paints I had sitting around. And from the moment my brush touched the canvas and made a stroke, something sparked inside of me. Oils felt… familiar. They felt like how I’d always imagined paint should feel. The texture awoke what felt like a memory. Except how could I remember something I’d never done before? I still have no idea where it all came from. But I immediately fell in love, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So I thought I’d share a few things that I’ve learned in my journey as relatively newly minted oil portrait painter. These might be useful if you want to do oil painting, but they can be applicable to just about any pursuit, too.

1. Invest Time in Learning

I knew two things about oil paints when I started: You needed turpentine (or something like it) to dilute them, and they took long to dry. That was it. When I tell people I've been painting for two years, their first reaction is disbelief and their second is along the lines of, "Surely you've studied art before?" Yes, in high school and some classes in college.

I did Figure Drawing and even Intro to Painting. But they did very little to inform me on how to approach oil portrait painting. I spent pretty much my entire first year of painting in learning mode. I devoured everything I could on learning how to use oil paints, different painting techniques, brands of paints, brushes, lighting, composition, art history, style, colour theory, painting surfaces, and mediums. I’m still learning. Fortunately for me, we have the internet. YouTube has been my professor, and I found many deeply knowledgeable and generous creators who shared endless hours of free content. I've also acquired many books on painting that have also helped me develop my craft. Investing the time in learning is what has made my art grow in leaps and bounds. I had no idea how much I didn't know.

2. Practice, Practice, Practice

I think a lot of people think that having talent means you can just do things well, naturally. I'd like to challenge that idea. I think talent means you have an affinity for something that you work really hard to get good at. No one starts off knowing how to draw, paint, or play a musical instrument. You learn, and as you practice, you get better at it. I may have been painting for two years, but that is built on more than forty years of practicing art.

I approach many of my paintings as practice pieces. Usually I'm trying to work on a particular technique, style or type of lighting. Sometimes the resulting piece is good enough to sell, sometimes not. And that's ok! Progress isn't always linear and everything isn't going to be a masterpiece. The important thing is to keep working at it.

This was the first portrait I ever attempted in oils. As you may notice, the left one is unfinished, because at the time I still hadn't figured out how to paint hair and was too intimidated to try. I felt that this had the potential to be a good painting and it irked me that I never completed it. A year later I went back and tackled it anew, and the results are very different. I was much more confident in my painting at this point. I didn't put the same effort and care as I did in the first painting because my goal this time was just to finish it. But the difference a year of practice made is evident, I think.

3. Don't Be Afraid To Put Yourself Out There

For most of my life I've suffered from this fear of being "seen". I'm not sure where it comes from, if it's related to imposter syndrome, or if it had to do with being uncomfortable in the spotlight. I always thought it was weird, because I wanted people to know that I was an artist and I wanted people to see my art! I've also done lots of things that put me in the spotlight... I've acted on stage, done commercials, modeled, and even hosted a TV show! I dunno it's weird. So I made a deal with myself when I started painting, and that was that I was going to put every piece out there, good or bad, and deal with the consequences.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, 1892

The results have been nothing short of amazing. First of all, I was finally able to come out of the closet, so to speak, as the artist I had always been and show people who I really was. Second, the response to my work was incredibly positive, encouraging and supportive. Within the first few months of posting my work on social media I began to get commissions, and have done so steadily since then. Third, all of this validation gave me the courage to submit my work for exhibitions, and I had works in three shows last year, and sold quite a few pieces in the process! Last and most unexpected, was that so many people reached out to me and told me how much the new direction of my life had inspired them. Either to change their direction, to start devoting more time to art in their lives, or just to try something new.

We are usually our worst critics, and I think our fear of not being good enough often stops us dead in our tracks. But who are we comparing ourselves to? Sure I'd love to master painting like Sargent, my ultimate portrait painting hero. But right now I'm focusing on learning how to paint in my own style. And it's important to remember this: Most people cannot do what you do, even when you think you're not doing the most amazing job of it. So put it out there! You never know what can happen.

4. Experiment and Have Fun!

By nature I am an inquisitive person and I approach every craft I undertake with a sense of excitement and curiosity. And while you cannot beat acrylic paints for their versatility (there a gazillion different additives and mediums out there for acrylics, so much fun!), playing around with oils has its own rewards.

A portrait on gold leaf

The long drying time means you can work and rework them to your heart's content. You can layer paint thickly to build up texture, you can incorporate metallics and gold leaf into your paintings, and I enjoy trying out the different styles of some of my favourite painters. While I think it's important to develop a signature style, I also think it's really important to just play sometimes. Not all of my pieces look the same because sometimes I'm just messing around, satisfying my curiosity. I've been able to create some really interesting pieces by having a more experimental approach to my work. In fact I've dedicated this entire year to doing just that. Sometimes you just gotta step out of the box!

5. Find Some Balance!

I'm not great at this. When I get hold of something new, I go all out. I eat, breathe and live my new passions. I have the ability to work for hours on end, for months on end, pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. It's not good and it's not healthy. Yes you make very fast progress, but the downside is that you wear yourself out, both physically and mentally.

I work full time as a painter and part time as freelance graphic designer, and because I'm self employed and work from home, the line between work life and personal life can get very blurry. I'm also a bit of an introverted hermit, so it's easy for me to forget to socialize and get out of my house every so often. Exercise? When? All of this adds up to an unbalanced lifestyle.

I've found that it's important to have as much of a routine as possible. I try to wake around the same time every day, paint during the same hours every day, and make sure I have adequate time for myself in the evening to relax and sometimes even socialize. On days when I cook or bake (baking is one of my hobbies) I have to factor in time for that as well. I'm still trying to figure out how to fit in a regular exercise program in there. It's a lot. And working a creative job is very demanding on your mind and body. On days like today where I'm working on the computer, I consider it a rest day, as I'm not engaging my body in painting. I get to relax with my laptop on my bed while technically working. I'm still figuring it out. But I can say I have a better handle on it now than I did two years ago. Maybe there's a future version of me that's found all the answers to the work/life balance. I'm excited to meet her!

If you've read this far, thank you for joining me on this look-back at my painting journey. I hope this can be helpful to anyone wanting a start in a new direction, professionally or recreationally. I'm sure in another two years this list will read very differently as I'm constantly growing and evolving. Change is good and it's important that we embrace it. I say that as someone who has a really hard time adjusting to change. Without it we become stagnant, and next thing you know you're buying a sports car and getting hair plugs, steeped in a mid-life crisis. I think the message here is change, but in consistent increments. Because it isn't really a journey if you're not actually moving is it? Enjoy the ride folks. We don't have as much time as we think we do.

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