So, You Say You Want To Learn How To Paint

So, you say you want to learn how to paint, but you don´t know where to begin. How could you? You "can't even draw a stick figure." If you would rather not give it a try, simply 'Pass Go, and do not collect $200´ and just head on your merry way. That is what I did. I believed myself. I could not draw, and had no earthly idea where to begin to become a painter. I lived that truth for three decades, yes three.  I spent three entire DECADES believing that painting was for others. I loved everything about paintings.  The paintings themselves, yes, of course, but also the life I imagined I would have if I could only paint! The half squished paint tubes laying about, the easels, palettes & copious bottles, the brushes standing at the ready in recycled tomato sauce cans, the canvases leaning up against the walls on the floor, the enormous bulletin board with all my bits and pieces of inspiration pinned right on there to keep reminding me of what I thought was important, the studio with the grand windows, the getting together with my artist chums to discuss at length the intricacies that are a painter's life... right down to the magic sofa where all of my models would lanquish their perfectly supple bodies and recline oh so gracefully while I painted them. Well, I am here to say that I am living a dream life but NONE of those "artist dreams" came true. Not a one.

And yet, I find myself becoming a painter in spite of myself.

Frank Cooling Off Down At The Lake 2017 Carolina Elena oil on mounted canvas

Frank Cooling Off Down At The Lake. 2017 oil on mounted board. 9"x12"

How did it happen? Or rather, "how can it happen for you?" is the real question you have. Learning this art thing is not linear, meaning it does not happen the way most things involving progress do, except in hindsight. Isn't everything, when viewed in hindsight, perfectly clear? This painter's path thing does not mean you show improvement with every step you take. Some of you have been drawing effortlessly since childhood, you are one of the lucky ones and should probably move on to some other post on the web. This post is for people like me... the wanna-be-painters that have no clue where to begin... yet are realizing they have to start somewhere.

In these Field Notes, I am going to share what I know, and what I learn, as I go along. If you are interested in that, I hope to see you here often. Let me know what you are thinking. Your questions, and your frustrations, are the same ones I have had, so ask me. You can comment here, via Facebook, or Instagram. I am here for you. Little by little, piece by piece, I will share openly so that you can find your own painter's path.


Having said that, I have a few thoughts I want to share with you in the next few posts, but we may as well get going and simply jump in with both feet. Becoming an "artist" (that is a BIG word, I know) is not going to be the same for everyone, but I do believe there are some things that we all will need to have in common in order for us to find success. On a side note, when I say "success,' I am not talking about sales in terms of paintings for cash. I am talking about being satisfied with your progress as a painter. To become a good painter, one needs to be hyper vigilant about:

THE 3 R's





Let's begin with RUTHLESS. My little sketch for Penny's Lane, below, is a good example of what I am talking about when I talk about the need to be RUTHLESS as a painter.

study for Penny's Lane 2017 Carolina Elena

Penny's Lane Study. oil on board 9"x12"


You have to be RUTHLESS about giving yourself credit throughout the day... every single time something catches your eye. This goes for me BIG TIME. I have to be conscious of my "self-talk." My self-talk gets me into more dead end thinking than I can shake a stick at. You see, the painting, above (and below) is of a specific place that most never give a second thought to. It is of what my friend, Penny, sees when she leaves her home. Every time I leave her house I, like you, look at my surroundings. I might think about how lovely it is, but then stopping to check it out is not on my to-do list, so I tend to just want to turn the key and get my car started. Before you know it, I am off to the next thing on my list and have skipped the all important NOTICE OF WHAT I AM NOTICING. Sounds silly, I know, but you have to become RUTHLESS about noticing what on earth caught your eye AND WHY. Take it one step further and record it. Be ruthless about recording what you see. Granted, this part, here, is where I am supposed to say "make a quick sketch in your little sketchbook,' but I have found that the stupid little sketchbook only served to reinforce the idea that I sucked at this. YES. Totally sucked. Pardon my language. But how lovely it would be to be the kind of artist that had the drawing skills to create a "lovely little sketchbook." NOT GOING TO HAPPEN IF YOU CAN'T DRAW. So you can do one of a few things: -wait to keep a sketchbook until your drawings skills magically appear on their own, take endless drawing classes until your confidence is overflowing, buy a ton ( and I mean A TON) of gorgeous untouchable sketchbooks that might never get cracked open to see the light of day, or you can do what I do: JOT IT DOWN IN YOUR IPHONE... and turn the key in your car and for heaven's sake get on with your to-do list so that you feel righteous and good about yourself. Wait. Are we not talking about how to become a painter? Yes. Jot down your quick few words, move on with what makes you feel better about yourself and then... and THEN... at the end of the week, or when the notes start to pile up on your iPhone, go back to one of those spots and LOOK. Look at it again. ideally, in the same kind of light, morning or later in the afternoon, bright or not, just look at it again and imagine it as a GLORIOUS painting.


Then go out and paint it even it turns out fairly pathetic, like my little sketch, above. JUST PAINT IT. They say that the act of "judging" is for others, but it is impossible not to look at what you just painted and not judge it. Rejoice in the fact that you actually made it to the point where you got all your gear out there. Applaud yourself for doing it in a place so exposed to onlookers (yikes!) But, wait. what about the other two R's? You need to hold back on the judging until the journey is complete for this little view you picked. Are you done? If you are giving up, then, by default, it is done and ready for judgement by you. But, here is where the second R comes in.


In order to become a painter, we have to be RIGOROUS... and one wee little shot at it is simply not going cut it, dear friend. Nope. You have to try again. LOOK, LOOK, LOOK A LITTLE BETTER. Not closer, per say, but better. Go back on a different day and play the game of COMPARISON. Look at your painting ( or, if you are more like me, the photo you took of your painting that is on your phone,) and compare what you see. compare the view to what you painted... and, then...


2nd attempt at Penny's Lane 2017 Carolina Elena

2ND ATTEMPT AT PENNY'S LANE 2017 oil on mounted canvas, 9"x12"


This time around, I got quite a bit closer to the glorious feeling I had had when I jotted it down in my notes. The shadows had some depth to them. My darks got darker, my color choices better. I had more of the right feeling in it, but my rendering skills (Argh - there is that pesky lack of drawing skills at it again!) really left plenty to be desired. So, we are on RIGOROUS... like in rigorous studying when it really mattered, like rigorous effort when training yourself for a long distance race, like leave the lazy version of yourself aside and BE THE KIND OF ARTIST THAT YOU WISH YOU COULD BE. Do it, even if you have to PRETEND not to be lazy. The more you get yourself into this RIGOROUS mode, the more the lazy person in you will learn to get out of your way.

When I finished the little painting, above, I was feeling pretty smug about it... smug as a bug in a rug...  until it kept looking back at me saying "don't you see it?" See what? I don't know, but it was missing the feeling I get at Penny's of 'trees, trees, trees everywhere.' I had the light, but not the trees. Back down there I went. I felt like an idiot just sitting out there LOOKING, but that is what I did until I realized that my painting was the wrong shape. It needed to be more wide than I had it. Sometimes, "Lazy Girl" tries to fit my scene into whatever I happen to throw in my backpack right before I left the house. Well, I didn't HAVE a long, wide shaped canvas to paint on so I did the next best thing and redid it on paper with charcoal: 

Penny's Lane charcoal study on laid paper 2017 12x18 Carolina Elena

Penny's Lane Study 12'x18" charcoal on laid paper

Are you thinking: "...but...but she can draw!?" Don't go getting your panties in a bunch just yet. It took some time for me to get to where I am and I STILL am in the beginning stages of learning how to draw. Quite frankly, it baffles me. It is definitely one of those areas in which I progress at a snail's pace and in a nonlinear fashion. I just have to bite the bullet and keep working at it. I hope to show you, in future posts, how I am going about learning how to draw. THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. If the only ones out there that can draw are also humans, then you and I are already miles ahead the rest of the Kingdom for we, too, are humans!! (Who knew we would begin this journey already ahead of the pack!) We have that in common with all the other artists out there. We need to begin somewhere... even if it feels EMBARRASSINGLY PATHETIC. You just need to have trust, faith, and a little bit of pixie dust. WE WILL get there, but along the way we will have to pick ourselves up by our boot straps. This brings us to:



attempt to paint Carolina Elena 2017

-painting a sketch on the side of the road

You know that you WANT to be able to paint, right? I am here to share with you what all artists know: some days are going to feel like you are on the very cusp of a breakthrough... only to realize that you are so far from said breakthrough that it is not even funny. In fact, it is down right scary. It is impossible to be trying to become a painter AND be a wimp at the same time. You make your painting, feel ok about it, but KNOW you are a long way off from that painting in your mind. Below is a perfect example of that:

quick sketch view on the road 2017 Carolina Elena

TOP OF THE ROAD SKETCH, oil on mounted canvas. 9'x12"


This is a little painting sketch I did on the side of the road while simultaneously swatting every darn sweat bee in the county! I could not, for the life of me paint those telephone lines. So I reached out for help. I reached out to the universe, via Instagram, and I asked for help. No less than a couple of hours later, I had at least FIVE fantastic artists offer their advice. I did not just say thank you... I got to work. Between all their sensitive comments, and what my art books offered me, I put my pity party aside and got to it. I took any sketches from the scene, my photos, and my lame attempt of a painting, and got to work in my "studio." I had to slow waaaay down, to a snail's pace to get this done. Below you can see the progression of my next try:

block in for Top of the Road. 2017 Carolina Elena


Rather than spitting out another painting, like I had done with Penny's Lane, this time I got smarter and did my sketch (with Raw Sienna, for those who want to know) first, right on the canvas. It is called a block in. I stretched my scene out wider, and changed the tree shape on the left to consume the telephone wires that were heading off into "nowheresville" in the sky. I, then, painted in the sky so that I wouldn't screw up the telephone lines... and if I did screw them up, I knew I would still have more opportunities to fix it along the way. Notice how my telephone pole is on this pass. I, myself, can be considered a bit heavy, but not so for my telephone poles. Everyone knows what they are supposed to look like. I did not SEE how thick I had painted it until several steps later.

Step 2 Top of the Road 2017 Carolina Elena



I, then, proceeded forth with color. Deep breath. I put in the sky that peeks in through the tree branches in the beginning. I have read that many artists do the opposite and put the sky last. I am still learning, so I may change that habit later IF I find a good reason to. On my first try, in the sketch, my paint was too thick in the sky (as pointed out by an artist that I admire,) so I took care to put down a thinned out mixture of cerulean blue with white. I, then, moved on to the greens. This summer, I learned something important about trees that I had never known before. The darkest parts of the trees are the upright parts, like the trunks (I learned that while doing the charcoal study for Penny's Lane.) In my initial painted sketch, the trees on the left were nowhere near dark enough. I am trying my best to learn about greens. I am giving myself a 20 year period to learn them well. 





Although in REAL life, the trees at the top of the road looked as green as the ones next to me, I had to do what I call a "fake out" and paint them in a more muted, greyed out color so that you would believe that the road went away from me, which it does but had I painted it as I saw it, you would not be able to tell that. So, do as the other artists have shown us how to do...deceive the eye so that your scene becomes believable. Get online, go the bookstore, pop into a gallery, check out a museum, and see how those wonderful artists have been deceiving us. They are MASTERS at it.

Next came the shadows. I mixed my Magenta color with Ultramarine Blue for the darkest road shadows, and added a bit of Ceruelan Blue for the lighter shadows. BTW, I use artist's quality (vs.student grade) paints because I feel that they have a higher pigment to oil ratio. We can discuss oils vs. acrylics another day. I tried my best to keep my road shadows a hair lighter than my darkest tree shadows. Having said that I got a tad overenthusiastic with my purple shadows and they meandered all the way across the street into the grass, whereby they comfortably plunked themselves into place until i noticed my blunder. I had to scrape the purple shadows off that grass and make new, more appropriate, green shadows.

step 4 Top of The Road 2017 Carolina Elena


Next came the clouds... and the dreaded telephone wires (Yikes...the pressure was on!) Clouds have a mind of their own. Even with the slightest breeze, those clouds will downright TAUNT you. When I was out there, the clouds changed shape, or better said - location, every few seconds. When you see a painting out there that has fabulous clouds, I believe it to be because that painter has painted THOUSANDS of clouds before, and he got to the point of painting so well that he can call on his memory of what clouds look like and just go ahead and paint them. I will get there some day. So will you. I did my very best with those clouds. That is when I noticed my overweight telephone pole! How could I not have noticed that before??? I used my cloud paint to bring it back to pole status. I had received a lot of good advice on how to tackle those wires. I ended up "chipping away" at them with more cloud paint, as I already had the lines painted in during the block in. I used the side of my best flat brush to repaint the telephone pole, nice and dark purple, as straight as my shaky old hands could muster. I used a 12" steel edging tool, that house painters use, as a Mal stick to try to steady myself... I was still shaky, but it did help. I tried my best to hold my long, thin, rigger brush at it's very end to gently put in those wires. Admittedly, I had to make little fixes with more of that cloud paint, but I think I got quite a bit closer on this pass. NONE of this would have happened if I had not taken the great advice of those painters whom I look up to. I follow them on Instagram ( @haideejosummers, @clarebowenartist, @artcarolinagreene, @b.baldry, and @dwsmithart, with much respect to all of them.) I should tell you that if you go to my Instagram profile (@carolina_elena_painter) you can look at my follow list. There, you will find a plethora of good painters to check into as I follow mostly other painters... and all of them, with their gorgeous paintings, teach me how to become a better painter on a DAILY basis.

Below, is my final little painting- a tiny little gem that taught me so much.

Top Of The Road 2017 Carolina Elena Oil on mounted canvas 4 1/2"x 12"

TOP OF THE ROAD. oil on mounted canvas. 4 1/2" x 12"

When I begin to sense my very own pity party coming on, I remind myself that the artists I admire WORKED HARD to get to where they are now and they continue to do so day in and day out. I look at my paintings and I see progress. By me being RUTHLESS about paying attention to my own thoughts, watching what catches my eye, and going after it like a dog on a hunt, being RIGOROUS regarding my approach to my learning and working towards improvement, and keeping myself in check by being RESPECTFUL towards the ENORMOUS EFFORTS of those who have gone before me, I should be on the absolutely most perfect painter's path for it is tailored to my specific weaknesses. I can tell you this: I could not draw a stick figure, I could not tell a rigger brush from a flat or a filbert, but I could and DID waste 3 ENTIRE DECADES believing that I did not have that special "something" in me. So, I ask you now, do you really want to be a painter? If the answer is yes, I won't teach you how to paint... but I WILL teach you how to teach yourself. How will I do this? By sharing what I know, and what I learn along my path. I am ABSOLUTELY THRILLED to be on it, for all I ever wanted to be was a painter. 

See you next time,

Carolina Elena