The challenges of painting properly, painterly

Painting. It’s a tricky business and I’m certainly not claiming expertise in how to do it, let alone teach others. However, this year I’ve had a great group of Year 13 Art students who, for one reason or another, have made excellent progress. A colleague recently asked me how I structured these lessons. What follows are some thoughts on this.

Amongst art teachers this topic, ‘how to teach painting’, can lift the lid on a can of worms. Approaches and opinions differ drastically. Nevertheless – and I’ll stick my neck out early here – when it comes to painting in schools, I’d rather open this can of worms than face another can of soup.*

I shared a couple of progress timelines in the previous post, including these montages of Becky’s and Anamaria’s work:


 Year 13 self portrait work 2013/14

I’m really pleased with the progress of the whole group. Aside from the most significant factor – their hard work and persistence – here are some additional aspects (‘marginal gains’ if you like) that might have edged them along:

1. Creating the right environment for learning
“Certain environments have a greater density of interaction and provide more excitement and a greater effervescence of ideas – therefore they prompt the person who is inclined to break away from conventions more readily” MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI

Challenge No.1 with any new group is establishing the right climate. It’s a slow burner. As a group we commandeered the studio space within our department. This was important to establish new mutual ground and a sense of exciting change.


By overtly paying attention to the details of setting up – through modelling, rather than explicitly teaching - the importance of preparation was emphasised from the start. Our focus for painting was self-portraits – ideal for numerous reasons, not least the density of contextual links, and more practically, if the students were present, so was their reference. This also ensured they were working from a primary source, which in turn forces greater consideration of changing light, and consequently, colour. Each stage of preparation is an opportunity to reinforce a greater sensitivity. Talking through specific actions can help, for example:

  • Reducing the ‘transfer time’ between looking and recording e.g. ‘I’m left-handed so by setting my palette and water on this side and my mirror here it will help…”
  • Ensuring quality of light / tonal range e.g. ‘I’m not fixing the mirror there because the light is just behind me – it won’t give a sufficient tonal range’, ‘If I pin some white paper up to the side, it will bounce a little more light back on this side…’
  • Considering working position – standing, sitting, use of easel etc – relative to intentions e.g. ‘If I’m going to work in a more expressive way a little more distance from an upright canvas will free my arm up a bit…’

And so on.

For me, once set up to paint, Radio 4 podcasts are my favoured, subliminal weapon of choice. Nothing better to sober a class into quiet concentration whilst simultaneously drip feeding brain food. But of course, not all students agree.


2. The right tools for the job
I’m a bad golfer. It’s difficult to fathom that Tiger Woods not only hits the ball so well, but he actually aims for a specific point on a golf ball. Unbelievable. Yet when I paint I’m aware of specific hairs on a brush influencing the type of mark or quality of line being made. Art students can become accustomed to PVA ridden brushes – not conducive to developing sensitivity! Quality brushes needed. Conversely, working on scrap bits of cardboard and hardboard provides a ready made mid-tone to paint both light and dark – would you sit at one end of a piano to play a tune?  Much less intimidating than canvas or white paper too.


As for paint, we tend to use acrylic – with a palette of 6 colours: warm & colds of each of  the primaries, set out in the correct order. White? Yes. Black? Whoa there, not yet. Oh, and mixing palettes the same material as the surface being painted on when possible.

3. ‘Turds on the Table’
Excuse the crude term, but it’s one that sticks. (Sorry). Getting previous mistakes out in the open means students are less likely to repeat them. When it comes to painting, the list of pitfalls is endless; obviously a balance has to be met between honest critical feedback and sustaining motivation. That said – and let’s be honest – portraits gone wrong can be pretty entertaining. Unintended qualities can emerge  – whether from the canvas or the context. Take George Bush’s portraits of world leaders as an example: Naive; bland; disturbing. Brilliant. Of course ‘happy accidents’ are there to be embraced when painting, but never as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for students: “I couldn’t get the eyes right, so I’m making this abstract’.” Hmm.

Common errors when students paint:

  • Muddy colour mixing – often through overuse of black.
  • Reliance on outline, rather than subtle tonal work.
  • Not dealing with the painting as a whole – working feature by feature, detail by detail e.g. two great eyes completed but unaligned on a (soulless) face.
  • Poor reference materials. e.g. painting from a picture on a mobile phone.
  • Direction of brush strokes not having any affinity with the form – the actual ’3D-ness’ – of the face.
  • Poor compositional planning e.g. starting a portrait and adjusting the proportions in an attempt to fit in the whole subject.
  • Lack of clarity regarding intended style – unsure of the ‘tone of voice’ they are painting in.

No dramas here and all avoidable through interventions (e.g. hide that black paint); teacher led demonstrations; and so on. Mistakes should be the consequences of high challengerather than basic schoolboy/girl errors – to then enable quality feedback to occur.

It’s important for students to experiment without a fear of failure.
For me, working alongside students is conducive to this – my own work is so riddled with mistakes I’m never short on examples to use. A sketchbook – or a ‘book for mistakes from which I learn’, as one student put it – is the best demonstration of deliberate practice.

self_portraitSome call it grumpy; I call it looking intensely

sketchbookspages from Year 13 sketchbooks

4. Clarity of purpose
Sixth formers often have a particular style of working when painting; one student might be more illustrative, another more painterly.  However, ensuring a student does not ‘plateau’ on a particular technique is a key challenge – especially if it has served them so well at GCSE. Students need to have a clear idea of the excellence they are pursuing and asking challenging questions of them helps to shape robust justifications.

Painting or illustrating?

It’s a good question to start with. The boundaries between the two are blurred but I’m going to suggest that in many art departments – ours included – student’s painted outcomes, particularly at GCSE level, tend to be more illustrative.  By this I mean a dominance of line; perhaps use of flat colour; an overall leaning towards a more designed, graphic outcome. I’m not neglecting the finer qualities of illustration, but there is a difference.

Painting – proper painterly painting – complex colour mixing; application; capturing the ‘essence’ of something that reaches beyond mere likeness. It’s multi-layered and bloody difficult. Although that’s not an excuse to avoid aiming for it.

The example above, on the left, is a picture I did of my Grandma when I was studying illustration. It’s a fair example of persistence and patience – safely, steadily does it. The second is more recent, more painterly, and perhaps more expressive. For me, it’s certainly a harder, on-going challenge – though one that I still labour a little too heavily through.

Students need to be exposed to examples of excellence at every opportunity and prompted into reflections on ‘value’ – whether visual, technical, contextual or conceptual. This year students have focused on a variety of big guns: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Freud…Chuck Close, Edward Hopper…naturally sketchbook research goes deeper. Wider contextual links are provoked by producing an art history timeline. Becky certainly got into this task (view timeline from 30secs in) – Michael Gove; bring it on!:

Producing coursework proposal videos has proven a useful way of pinning students down on their focus for the year. It’s a relatively new approach which I’m developing further. In addition, email feedback – via the ipad app iDoceo – has been a great way of shortening the feedback loop. Absolutely recommend it.

5. Painting: The finer details
All of the above deal with surrounding aspects rather than specifics of actually how to paint. I’m not one for step by step guides, but for what it’s worth, to finish off, here are my key principles. I think. – I’m interested in the thoughts of other teachers, so mine are certainly open to change. Apart from the last one, obviously.

  • Spend more time observing / questioning than colour mixing
  • Spend more time colour mixing than painting
  • Know your colour theory – don’t mix through guess work
  • Start loose across the whole canvas, and gradually tighten
  • Paint directly rather than drawing out first
  • Work mostly from light to dark (apart from when working from dark to light)
  • Have the right brush at all costs
  • Observe, Question. Observe, Question…
  • Clear up properly
  • Share your biscuits

Comments below or via twitter @devnicely are very welcome.

* Warhol’s Soup cans: I’m not dismissing their value; I absolutely get it, but painted re-productions of these…just not for me. Even if Warhol would approve.


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