Top Ten Beginner Mistakes

Even if you’ve been drawing/painting/sculpting your whole life, at some point, we were ALL beginners. We’ve all been frustrated with the creative process and sometimes it’s unclear why or what’s happening that’s causing the frustration. Here’s a list of what we think are the top ten biggest beginner mistakes and how to avoid making them:

1) You’re not using a consistent light source. 

When you sit down to paint or draw, consider where your light source is coming from. It should be consistent throughout your work. If you’re working from a variety of reference images, chances are, they will all have different light sources. You have two options then: either recreate it the best you can and photograph it with a single, consistent light source or pick one of the reference photos with the lighting you like best and try to reimagine the other images with the same light source.

I find it helpful to put a little piece of tape with a directional arrow on my paper or canvas to remind me which way my light is coming from.

2) You’re working on details too soon. 

I know, I KNOW, details are the most fun part! It’s so satisfying to put in those tiny little details that really make the final work pop. But you have to be patient. Working on details too early in the game will only frustrate you in the end. Not taking the time to check your measurements or proportions but then adding small details will result in some nice looking details on an overall bad picture. You’ll feel cheated because you’ve worked so hard to get all the tiny highlights/eyelashes/wrinkles juuuuuust right but then you step back and the head is too big/too small/the eyes aren’t in line/etc. (I’m using a portrait as an example just for the sake of speech, but this can apply to a landscape, a still life, a sculpture–anything!). Work from the general to the specific. If you’re working on a portrait, spend the time to make sure your proportions are correct before moving on to blocking in major shadows. After that, get gradually more and more specific until you can finish off with those eyelashes and final highlights. Here’s an example from the Daily Mail:  The artist, Declan Higgins, is moving too quickly to draw in individual hairs and eyelashes without considering some of the larger elements, like how all the features fit together on the face, resulting in some, errr–interesting–representations of famous people.

3) Adding white in the beginning. 

This is a big no-no. When I teach painting classes, I actually keep all the white paint in my back pocket and students have to ask for it. I’ll determine if they’re ready for it before they get any. Why do I do this? Because adding white in the early stages in your painting A) dulls your colors, preventing you from having full, vibrant, rich colors and B) prevents you from getting a full tonal range in your painting. You can always make your painting lighter, but once you’ve added white, it’s almost impossible to get it darker. Obviously, this applies more to oil, gouache, and acrylic painting (watercolors and drawings get their whites from the page most of the time, not from an additive paint/pencil, though it is possible and again, should only be done at the very end). You’ll also be surprised at how few things are WHITE when you work this way. We may describe things as being white–this is a white pot with white flowers on a white background–but none of it is really pure white. Take a look at what happens when I isolate some of these whites:They’re not white! They’re varying tints of colors. Once you’ve finished with your shadows and darker tones, you can start adding tiny bits of white to your paint to make mid-tones but keep them in the middle of light and dark. Then, at the end, you can add touches of pure white on the highlights to really make a big impact!

4) You’re not breaking it down. 

This talks to #2 a bit about working from general to specific, but it’s a little more than that. Let’s say you’re painting a landscape and there’s a tree in it. You’re probably thinking “okay branch here, trunk here, leaf there…” but you’re not thinking, “the overall shape of this tree is a triangle”, and that’s where I want your head to be at. Break things down into very, very basic shapes and continue refining from there. We talk about this in Forms into Objects and I think it’s a good refresher topic for every artist to have a quick read through. It will help you to be less intimidated by complex structures and also help you understand how the object is affected by the light source. If you understand the basic shape of a sphere and how light moves across a sphere, you can apply that same knowledge to an eye, an apple, a tree, a water pitcher, etc., etc. Speaking of which, this brings me to my next mistake…

5) You’re thinking too much about what it is. 

This is natural and your brain is hardwired to identify objects as something recognizable. It’s SO HARD to keep your brain from doing this, but I want you to try. When you begin a drawing/painting/sculpture, you automatically think, “this is a tree/face/apple/whatever the object is” and so your brain pulls up the files on what these things look like. You have a file for “apples” in your brain that the logical side will pull up and show you, “look, this is what apples are supposed to look like, they are red or green and are shaped like this” and without you even knowing it, you start listening to that records keeper and it taints what you’re doing.

Your eyes are the ones to trust. Allow them to override the logical recording brain and tell you in a more abstract way, “this section is darker than that section and this shape is like this”. There are a few cool ways to trick your logical brain into being quiet. First, you can turn your painting/drawing/sculpture upside-down along with your reference photo. By turning it upside down, it becomes more abstract and you can start to look at it in terms of shape/tone/color instead of “this is X”. Another method is to take a piece of cardboard or stiff paper and cut a square in it, then hold that over sections of your reference photo so you can only focus on a single, small square at a time, forcing you to confront the abstract image in front of you instead of the WHOLE object.

 6) You’re being too uptight. 

That’s right, I said it. You’re holding your brush too tight, your pencil is clutched in a cramped fist, you’re too close to your sculpture. Stand back. Take a deep breath. This isn’t open heart surgery, it’s art. Hold your brush loosely, work the clay in soft, loose forms. Give yourself permission to experiment. Trust me, it will work out better for you if you do this. Not only will you have more fun, but it also allows you to see the whole work of art and your reference image/object at once (which will help with your accuracy), and you’ll hold your tools in a different way if you’re further away from your artwork (which will help you to work from the general to the specific much better). Win-win. Breathe in, breathe out, step back, relax.

7) The reference photo you’re working from is poor quality. 

Sure, it seems like you can just “make up” the rest of that pixelated image you printed from Google that’s only 2″ square. WRONG. You really need a high-resolution image so you can zoom in and see exactly what things look like, exactly the color and tonality. The best is if you can work from life–that’s the best resolution you can get! But if that’s not possible, use a high-quality photograph. Bonus points if you have a tablet you can view the image on so that you can zoom in/out for various details.

8) You’re not using enough contrast. 

And it’s because you’re not considering tonality. If you’re working from a reference photo, print that photo in black and white and make a thumbnail sketch of it to figure out where your darkest darks and lightest lights are. Often times beginners are afraid of using colors or tones that are “too dark” because–eep!–it’s a big commitment! And I get it, I totally understand that putting a super dark color down is scary. But recognize the fear and do it anyway. Pushing for greater contrast between lights and darks in your drawing or painting will give it extra depth and dimensionality, something you can’t get when you use “safe” mid-tones. Use our value scale if you want help figuring out the tonality of your artwork and make sure you use the full range, not just the center values!

9) You’re buying low-quality materials. 

Very often, beginning students will buy cheap materials because they don’t feel like they’re “good enough” to buy “the real stuff” (I’ve heard it a million times). What happens, though, is that they end up working much harder than they need to and getting frustrated because the materials are causing problems. With paints, this means you’re buying hues or student grade paints, which don’t have a full pigment load, causing them to be transparent (a big problem with painting) or they become very dull and neutral the second they touch white paint. I explain this a bit more in the Supplies lesson in each of the painting courses under Student Versus Artist Grade Paint, and here’s a great video from Dick Blick demonstrating how poor quality paints become very blah when introduced to white: Artist Vs Student Grade Paints.

This applies to ALL MATERIALS across all disciplines–painting, drawing, sculpting, sewing, printmaking, etc., etc.. You’ll have a much easier and more FUN time creating if you use materials that are helpful to you. I told someone recently that you can’t win the Indie 500 in an ’89 Civic no matter how hard you try. You’ve got to have the proper materials to participate. Crossing the finish line is done with practice and perseverance. You’re worth the better materials. Even if money is tight, buy just some of the good stuff to begin with and keep on building up. You’ll enjoy the process much more and have a greater rate of success. Look for supplies at yard sales/estate sales, thrift stores; clip coupons, or go in on materials with a friend who’s also interested in learning.

10) You’re not allowing yourself to get past the “this is crap” moment. 

It happens to everyone. There is a big patch of time between the thrill of starting on a blank page/canvas, a fresh block of new clay and the last detail where all you can think is, “this is crap”. It varies in its intensity and duration. but it’s always there at some point. Give yourself permission to keep working on it and get over that hump. Tell your brain to shut up. Tell yourself it’s going to be okay. Even if you fail, you’ve still learned, but you can’t learn if you don’t try. And nine times out of ten, if you push past that “this is crap” phase and stay calm and keep working on it, you’ll surprise yourself with something that’s better than you expected. Trust me.

One Response
  1. July 23, 2019

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