Can anyone learn to paint?

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1. Nature or nurture?

Being able to paint or draw is one of life’s pleasures. However often only those who believe they are artistic actually pursue this as a pastime. The British artist Damien Hirst once said, “That's the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice you can make great paintings."

But many would disagree and believe that, like musical ability, art is a gift - you either have it or you don't. Is this true? Do you have to be born with natural ability or, with the right help, can we all be artists?

2. Is everyone artistic?

Why is art so important to us? Is art something all of us can do? Artist Lachlan Goudie visits an art class to find out.

With a class comprised of all ages and abilities, do the students of Heatherley's Art School think anyone can learn to paint?

3. So what's stopping you?

As children we paint and draw all the time. We enjoy the chance for self-expression and are unconcerned by the final result. As adults we are a lot more afraid to paint. We have become more inhibited and psychological barriers are usually to blame.

Can’t paint

Our first experience of art training often comes at secondary school and it is at this time that people decide that they aren't good at art. It is during these years that we lose belief in our ability and we don't try drawing or painting again. We lose the confidence that we had as a child.

This perception can be compounded later even if we do pursue art as we often set ourselves unrealistic goals. Attempting paintings that are beyond our skills levels convinces us that we have no talent and we give up.

Just not creative

Another psychological barrier is the belief that you have to be naturally artistic or creative. Creativity is actually about engaging with the world and trying to express how you feel about it.

Starting out, a lot of people feel that they don't know what to draw or paint. If you don't know what to paint then paint things that you like or something you care about. A lot of painters draw landscapes and portraits of family and friends. You can get a lot of satisfaction from just drawing what you see.

Worrying less about the outcome and enjoying the process of creating art is the best advice any would-be artist can receive.

4. Learning to see

However to improve as an artist you need to master some basic principles. The biggest obstacles facing novice artists are the technical aspects of painting. The key to this is something called the 'artist’s eye’.

When we look at objects our brains create simple shortcuts to provide information quickly. For example, looking at an apple the brain recognises it and provides information based on previous experience – in this case, a round green fruit.

Painting a round green fruit wouldn’t make a good painting, however, and artists have learned to ignore these sensory shortcuts and instead focus their full attention on the objects they paint.

This is why artists are so good at capturing the things they paint which such precision and detail. This is their ‘artist’s eye’ at work.

Learning this skill makes the other technical skills that you need to know easier.

5. Can anyone learn the basics?

Once artists are looking at the world around them and observing what they see properly, putting this information on canvas is the next step.

Drawing distance

There are various techniques that artists can learn to help make their paintings better such as composition, use of colour and basic draughtsmanship. One of the most important – and usually the most difficult – skill to master is perspective. In fact, accurately recreating the complex world around us on a flat piece of paper catches out even experienced artists.

In order to make paintings of the world around us look realistic artists have to give their work a sense of depth and distance. To accomplish this task all the painter has at his disposal are lines and colour to make there painted world look real.

Hours of practice

The good news is that these skills can be learnt. The bad news is that it takes time. Often quoted is the rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get to be good at a task – be it playing the violin or painting a portrait.

In the modern world art is less about technical skill and more about a distinct and personal way of looking at the world. Conceptual and abstract art is just as valid as more traditional 'realistic' art.

6. Is abstract art an easier option?

So if you don't master technique, can you just do the kind of abstract painting that seems to comprise mostly of splatters and drips? A common criticism of creating abstract art is that it does not require talent.

The name usually mentioned to support this view is Jackson Pollock – often nicknamed ‘Jack the Dripper’ due to his technique of splashing and dripping paint on to his canvases.

While abstract art does free painters from the constraints of capturing reality accurately, it is important to note that the majority of famous abstract artists – Pollock included – underwent the same extensive formal art training as other traditional non-abstract artists.

The new styles and techniques they employed were developed alongside the more typical artistic skills - not to compensate for a lack of these skills in the first place. Abstract art should not be thought of as an easier option.

The joy and beauty of art is that it is a journey that lasts a lifetime regardless of age, gender or even ability. You might not be an old master but you can improve with practice.

7. Lachlan's advice for artists

There are simple things that all novice artists can do to improve their abilities and stimulate their creativity.

  • Make time to paint. This can be hard to do in modern, busy lives so devise a routine
  • Go outside! Many novice artists just recreate photos and never actually leave the house to paint.
  • Train your eye to observe the world – see how light falls on objects and look at the lines and colours that forms them.
  • Carry a sketch book with you everywhere - sketch on the bus, sketch at lunchtime.
  • Go to galleries and look at art. Explore how other artists see their world and how they capture it.