Jill Poyerd

We’ve all been there. You’re working on a painting, have a vision for how the end result should look, and then somewhere along the line things go awry. You know where you want to be in your painting proficiency, but how do you get there? What are some proven methods for improving your painting skills?

Having painted for much of my life and worked through many difficult learning curves, I’ve narrowed down what I feel are the top ten actions that helped me improve my painting skills over the years. Even in my professional painting work now, I still put these methods into practice regularly; as artists, we never stop learning and always find new goals we want to meet.

Mastering Brushstrokes – Part 1

Last Updated September 2023

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Master key brushstrokes that lie at the core of watercolor, oil, and acrylic painting. | By Jill Poyerd

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Here are my ten strongest recommendations for learning how to improve your painting skills:

1. Know your materials inside and out

One thing I often point out to students is the fact that prior to the 1800s when the masters would take on an apprentice or student, that student could end up spending an entire year grinding and mixing the master’s oil paint as well as preparing the painting surfaces. After about a year of this, he would progress to learning to draw and could spend another year in that phase. 

This process may sound painfully slow, but it allowed them to gain a deep knowledge of the individual pigments, binders, and resulting paints, as well as the ins and outs of constructing a proper painting surface. When they were finally able to begin learning to paint, they knew the characteristics of their paints and how they would apply, interact, and layer on the surface. 

Today, with prepared artist materials at our disposal, we don’t necessarily need that intense knowledge, but it’s possible to learn it. The payoff will be an improvement in your overall knowledge and the stability of your final products.

2. Try a new tool

I think humans were made to love all things new. There’s nothing like a new tool, fresh canvas, or different subject matter to inspire your work. The benefit of trying a new tool isn’t just the element of freshness (which is a plus) – it’s also that a new tool could inspire unique ways to apply your paint. If you work in watercolor and you’ve never tried using a palette knife to apply the paint, you may find it opens the door to some exciting ideas. 

Simply set aside some time to experiment with the tool. Don’t try to paint a painting – just play with it. You may be surprised at how it could ramp up an aspect of your painting process. 

You could even think of a new painting medium as a new tool. If you work in oil paints, a brief try at acrylic painting can teach you about oils as you compare the way the two mediums perform. 

3. Plan your painting

If you find that you are faced with frustration every time you try to paint a formal painting, one thing that may be missing is a thorough planning process. 

When we see works of many of the masters from history, we tend to think they simply whipped out the painting with little effort, relying solely on natural talent and a perfect painting process. But the truth is, many masters went through extensive planning prior to laying down the paint – even those who worked very loosely. Some took their time to create multiple preliminary sketches, others produced formal drawings that they would then transfer to the painting surface, and many included full-blown color studies of the composition. 

I find that if I have a question about how to handle a part of the painting, planning often makes all the difference. If I take the time to plan that spot thoroughly (and even practice the selected colors or strokes), I have a very good chance of success. If I ignore it, it’s almost always a problem area. So, plan, plan, plan until you’re comfortable with what you’re about to paint.

4. Do a little bit every day (even 10 minutes)

This is related to practicing, but it’s a slightly different concept. 

Many years ago, I was constantly losing to my husband in Scrabble. I was so frustrated. Then I started doing crossword puzzles every morning with breakfast – just 10 minutes or so, but I did it every morning. After many months I noticed I was improving with the crosswords and eventually, I began beating him at Scrabble. It was a perfect example of how spending even a little time each day training your brain can result in surprising improvement. 

Applying this to painting means drawing or painting a study or small painting every day – some activity that works that part of your creative brain. After several months, you will see an improvement of some kind.

5. Study nature

As artists, the reality is that we can only copy what already exists in nature. Even abstract art is an abstraction of reality, so one of the best things we can do as artists is to study nature. 

This can relate to any subject matter. It can mean simple observation by going on a photoshoot, sketching live objects or scenes in order to study lines and values, or perhaps developing color studies where we try to match colors or note color combinations in nature. 

Don’t be afraid to take reference photos of your inspiration, so you can complete the effort back in the studio. The takeaway is that there’s always something new we can learn from painting from life.

6. Simplify forms

One of the best things you can do as an artist is to learn to break down what you see into a series of shapes, values, and/or colors. If you can learn to see an object, for example, as a series of sub-shapes and forget about what that object actually is, you will better convey that object in a painting. The same is true of values and color. 

A good practice activity is to take a simple object or scene and create it in terms of these three characteristics. Create a shape-only sketch of the form or composition – a series of circles, ovals, squares, triangles, etc. Construct a black and white value sketch of the object or scene – seeing it in terms of light, medium, and dark gray tones. Or, build a color study of the object or scene using blocks of color. These aren’t intended to be framable paintings – just practice activities to train your brain.

7. Visualize

One thing I always do when working on a formal painting is visualize my steps. I simply close my eyes and run through the process I plan to use to paint the piece, picturing myself painting each stage. Your visualization could be of painting each step of the painting process or simply a specific area of the piece that you’re concerned about. 

It’s strange how helpful this can be. I’ve noticed that if I’m uncertain about a spot in the painting and I take the time to visualize how I plan to handle it when I paint, I can often detect if the plan will work or if I need to re-think the concept. It also gets your brain comfortable with what you’re about to do – a dry run if you will. 

As a side benefit, it also helps me get to sleep at night if I’m having trouble sleeping (no joke!).

8. Visit an art museum

Take a trip to an art museum and examine the works of the masters. As artists, there’s nothing like a visit to an art museum to get the creative juices going. 

While visiting the museum, go beyond the normal observation. When you see a piece that draws you, get as close as you are allowed (usually a few inches to a foot), and take note of how the master approached their brushwork to convey a form or other aspect of the painting. What color combinations did they use? What strokes were implemented? Also, pay attention to the value patterns – how did they use the lights and darks to lead the eye through the composition? 

Observing and even writing down or sketching your observations can give you new ideas and new approaches to aspects of painting that you struggle with. It can also simply excite you about being an artist.

9. Discover where you are weak

Find your area of weakness and look for ways to address it. How can you tell what those areas are? Try painting a simple object and either evaluate it yourself or ask someone who will give you honest feedback to look it over and tell you which aspects seem strong and which seem weak. Then, look for ways to improve it, perhaps through a class, YouTube videos, or consultation with a talented friend. 

For example, if you struggle with draftsmanship (that is, how your forms are drawn), you can grab a sketchpad and pencil and study drawing. Is your weakness a matter of unpleasing color combinations? Consider learning about color theory. Is it perspective? Research or take a class on perspective.

10. Practice

Lastly, practice. This has been said many times before by many artists, and it’s true. The single best way to improve your painting is through practice. It seems so obvious, but the repetition of stroke-making and the sometimes painful effort of pushing yourself to progress through hands-on painting is so important when it comes to improvement. 

Although it can be hard work, I recommend trying to maintain a mindset of enjoying the process. Sometimes the fear of making mistakes is what keeps us from working, but if you go into it allowing yourself to mess up, it’ll make it more appealing. And don’t worry – no one else has to see your work! That is completely under your control.

Page Last Updated: October 2020

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