Top 200 Things That Will Make You a Better Artist.

The award goes to Doug Swinton.

Top 200 Things That Will Make You a Better Artist.

art trophy doug swintonLadies and Gentlemen, this year’s Award For Writing Art Stuff goes to… Doug Swinton!

Let’s go back in time to put this amazing achievement in context. The year is 1978 and Disco is King. The school is Dr. E.P. Scarlett. (Strange, I still don’t know after whom this school was named. Does anyone know?) Up to this point, the total number of written words in my entire school career was less than a 100. I was that kid in school with the worst book report but totally rockin’ book cover... Why am I telling you this? 

Below is my 200th newsletter! Where, when and why I started to write about art is a mystery, but in the last 24 years I have written over 200 of them. I’m no Robert Genn who wrote some 2 newsletters a week, but once a month I sit down in front of the computer and do just that… write.

In honour of this great achievement, I went through my notes and hand picked the Top 200 Things That Will Make You a Better Artist...


Most of these 200 gems are my thoughts from time spent at the easel and some are the thoughts of countless others, acquired from their books, workshops and time spent together sharing art tips (and a gin or two).

In no particular order…

  1. It’s easier to warm a cool colour than to cool a warm colour. Start with your warms.
  2. For outdoor painting, your darks are usually lighter than you see. Paint them a touch lighter and your painting will look fresh.
  3. Branches on trees get lighter and cooler as they get smaller.
  4. Branches coming toward you will get darker than those moving away from you.
  5. Branches coming toward you warm and branches going away from you cool.
  6. Paint your sky to reflect the land. If you paint your sky first it will likely be too blue and too dark. Put it in last and you can adjust it to your land mass values.
  7. Remember what you are painting, regarding one of five light sources:
    - Light
    - Mid-tone
    - Dark
    - Reflected light
    - Accents
  8. Shadows determine your lights. The warmer the light the cooler the shadows.
  9. Broken colour and greying with compliments is always better than greys from a tube.
  10. Use the 2nd stage of painting for top to bottom and side to side design. Use the 3rd stage for front to back design.
  11. Render your lights and simplify your shadows.
  12. Paint details to the outside of objects and texture to the inside.
  13. Texture gives an implied sense of detail that works better than detail itself.
  14. If it’s about the light simplify the shadows and vice versa.
  15. If it’s about the colour simplify the values and vice versa.
  16. Find what’s important and simplify the rest.
  17. A painting should be a poem not a police report.
  18. 20% underdone is better than 2% overworked.
  19. Tell me When you were painting not What you were painting.
  20. 20. There are rules and there are laws. Rules can be broken, laws can’t. Learn both.
  21. A good shadow and reflected light beats a highlight every time!
  22. Paint every day, at least in your mind. One should paint at least three days a week just to keep up.
  23. Suggestion beats detail every time.
  24. When at an impasse, look at the work of masters. Keep lots of books of the pros on hand or hit the internet. No need to re-invent the wheel.
  25. Learn your materials and what they can do. You’ll thank me.
  26. Use the best materials you can afford.
  27. It’s not so much whether your blue has red in it as much as whether your red has some cool in it. Think temperature more than actual colour.
  28. Back off on the zoom Billy. Avoid telephoto pile-up. Use your computer to zoom in on a subject not the camera.
  29. Straight Cadmium Lemon is brighter than Cadmium Lemon with White. White dulls colour.
  30. Shadows define the structure. Light defines the colour.
  31. As white recedes it gets warmer. Opposite to all the other colours.
  32. Detail is over rated. Texture is underrated.
  33. The brighter your light source the more you will have reflected light. Think Monet and high key.
  34. Snow: The higher the sun, the cooler it is. The lower the sun, the warmer it is.
  35. Large to small. Thin to thick. Dark to light. Always.
  36. Fast and furious at the beginning; Slow and steady near the end.
  37. Remember local colour. The shadows may look red but if the light is warm then the shadow must be cool! (see rule #1)
  38. Addition of white always cools a colour. (and dulls - see #29)
  39. Distant colour is not always a greyed version of the mid-ground. It may sometimes be a completely new colour.
  40. Texture = art. Detail = zzzzz!
  41. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Practice is a waste of time unless you have a goal.
  42. Repetition is key boys and girls. Paint similar subjects until you get familiar with them.
  43. The first 90% of the painting can take as long as the last 10%
  44. Large paintings are creative. Small paintings are intellectual.
  45. Keep things as close to the same as possible. Your outdoor set up should be the same as your indoor set up. Same paints, same brushes, same beer.
  46. Squint for: shape, relationships, values, simplification. Also squint to be cool.
  47. Photo reference: Find the truth that’s in the photo before you paint the reality.
  48. First, learn to see. Next, paint what you see. Then you can learn to paint what you want to see.
  49. Learn to practice retraining your brain so it’s used to asking what’s next. This will allow you to never fall into bad or repetitious habits.
  50. Look carefully. Do not assume. The part you made up is almost always the part that’s not working.
  51. If you identify the problem you can find the solution.
  52. Values, temperatures, colours. Compare, compare, compare.
  53. Don’t stay in one area too long. Dart around. Things get over worked if you linger.
  54. The more you finish the background (or non important stuff) the more you will need to finish the main subject of focus. Let the background be underdone and the main stuff will read better.
  55. Do not recreate, interpret.
  56. Nothing in the background should compete with object your painting.
  57. Light on ground swells. Warm in the middle and cooler on the tops, picking up sky colour.
  58. Anything below your line of sight will rise to it and anything below the line of sight will drop to it.
  59. Use a dry brush between your masses to soften the desired edge. (That’s a clean dry brush)
  60. Equine tip: Vertical planes tend to be neutral. Top horizontal planes tend to cool picking up on the sky. Bottom horizontal planes tend to warm, picking up the reflected ground colours.
  61. Think… is this a landscape with a barn in it or is this a barn with landscape around it. Make sure you are telling the right story.
  62. Warm colours tend to look lighter and cool colours tend to look darker. You can paint them the same value and they will look different. Compare, compare, compare.
  63. Zinc white is great for portraits. It’s slightly transparent and offers great luminosity.
  64. Smooth paint reads lighter and thick paint reads darker.
  65. Short paint (thick) can read half a value darker than thinner applications.
  66. Cloud highlights are warmer near the horizon.
  67. Doors and windows: Cool in the lower area picking up the sky, warm on the inside top.
  68. Black is a value not a colour.
  69. Always put a temperature into your darks to give them life.
  70. You’re better to fail by painting too warm than too cool.
  71. Receding hills have more to do with the sky than they do with the landscape.
  72. Mountains have more to do with the sky than the land.
  73. Try red violet in your distant hill rather than blue, to make it recede more.
  74. White is an absence of temperature. Always give your white temperature.
  75. Put warmth on the light side of your clouds. The grey blue bellies will look softer and you won’t need as much blue in your sky making it look more natural.
  76. Besides Burnt sienna and a white ground, the simplest palette I know of is The Zorn Palette: Napthol Red , Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black. The black, when used correctly, will be your blue. Alizarine Crimson, Cad Orange, Cad Yellow, Ultramarine Deep (Rembrandt) and Titanium White is another simple combination to use.
  77. Go to sleep thinking about what you’re going to do first thing tomorrow.
  78. Don’t be an art snob. This is a survival game. Most painters I know supplement. Teach, do illustrations, sign paint, murals or work in some art-related field. We’re all just trying to stay alive.
  79. Study those that have come before you. It’s surprising how much you will retain.
  80. When painting outdoors, sit on your hands and look long and hard before starting.
  81. Study how Rembrandt creates flow of tone. You wont be disappointed.
  82. Find the artists who are on your wavelength and constantly increase that list.
  83. “I haven’t the time.” You have as much time everyday as the great masters.
  84. Study artists who have dealt with the same problems that you’re trying to solve.
  85. Look for what you can learn from the great painters, not what’s wrong with them.
  86. Howard Pyle said, “Throw your heart into a picture and jump in after it.”
  87. Always adjust for value first, then grey it. If you do it the other way your colour will look chalky.
  88. Reflected lights are lighter than the mid tones but not as light as the lights and are generally warmer than mid tones.
  89. Tie you shapes together with the darks whenever you can.
  90. The definition lines or perspective lines in your foreground should be warm.
  91. Outdoor painting process:
    - Analyze your subject
    - Pick your motive: Foreground, mid-ground or sky
    - Identify your masses (no more than 5)
    - Place you horizon line
    - Place your ground planes and sky planes
    - Work darks, mids, lights, then reflected lights
    - Tweak the centre of interest
    - Work the edges
    - Sign your work. (I wrote an article about this - HERE)
  92. Ways to make edges soft: Same values + Same temperatures + Same colours = Smudge.
    Ways to make things stand out: Different values + Different temperatures + Different colours = Coherence
  93. Detail in an object only happens when you have a high value exchange.
  94. The more you blend an edge, the more your colours will loose their identity, becoming sullen and overworked.
  95. MUD!
    - Bad value exchange; values are too close.
    - Bad temperature exchange; temperatures are too close.
    - Mixing too many warms and cools together.
    - Over blending your colours making them indescript.
    - Dirty water, brushes, rags, palette, mind.
  96. 5 different ways to start a painting:
    1 - Mono chromatic. The more you use value the less you need colour.
    2 - Complimentary block-in; Great for getting warm and cool relationships.
    3 - Full colour block-in, Start with the colour you want to finish with. Wash in first then build up.
    4 - Light and shadow block-in. Good for strong light situations. Morning evenings, dramatically lit still life. Simple divisions of shape, no detail at first. It’s either light or it’s shadow.
    5 - Direct painting. Not for the faint of heart! This is the fastest way to get into things. When time is something of an issue… One stroke next to one stroke so each one will mean something. It doesn’t matter what you put down as long as it’s accurate.
  97. Clean your water bucket (thinner pot) often. Use one pot for cleaning and one for mixing. Dirty water makes for muddy painting.
  98. When painting, always keep in mind what your picture is about. Don’t get lost.
  99. The answer is never “More”. When in doubt; take it out.
  100. It’s almost always an issue of adding more light, almost never dark.
  101. If you’re bogged down with detail try using a bigger brush.
  102. Look at your palette. How much red are you using? Use more red!
  103. You can make big shapes into little shapes but little shapes can’t be made into big shapes. Start with big masses, then divide.
  104. You can’t paint the fleas on the dog until you have painted the dog. Big shapes first.
  105. The key to good painting is a good foundation. I don’t care what kind of house you build, I don’t care what colour you paint it. I DO care what kind of foundation it’s on. A bad foundation won’t hold up no matter what is on top of it. Select, reject and arrange.
  106. Loss of confidence. Loss of enthusiasm. These two things make paintings go south more than any other.
  107. On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless millions who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and in resting died.
  108. The more ornate the frame, the less you need darks and large value exchanges. In other words, heavy value exchanges are better suited for less ornate frames. Softer paintings can handle a more ornate frame.
  109. Watch the direction of your brushstrokes they must be varied but also must conform to the item that they are trying to depict.
  110. Similar values in your large areas. Use a temperature change more than value or a colour change. This creates more interest without using detail.
  111. Take advantage of your brush getting “dirtier” from your strokes by working into greyer and noncommittal areas of the painting.
  112. Shadows tend to cool as they move away from their source. Also, the farther away from the source, the more light moves in.
  113. Leave room in your darks for accents and reflected lights. Go too dark too fast and you won’t recover.
  114. Try using an alien colour to enhance a focal point.
  115. The area between the light and the dark is called the “war zone”. This is where to watch your edges the most. Not too soft, not too hard. This is a delicate area.
  116. It’s not the way of painting. It’s a way of painting.
  117. A rag and a wipe will correct faster than a brush and a mark.
  118. The habit for putting too many brilliant lights on all forms or planes is responsible for many good studies coming to grief. Lights usually belong only on the horizontal planes.
  119. Sacrifice everything in your painting for unity.
  120. Horizontal marks tend to recede and vertical marks tend to advance.
  121. Warm colours advance. Cool colours recede.
  122. Cool colours tend to fall and warm colours tend to rise.
  123. As Rembrandt said: “Give me mud and I will paint the skin of a princess, as long as I can paint what I want around it.” Nothing exists alone. Local colour is only as good as the colour next to it.
  124. Don’t think: I’m going to get there eventually. You’ll never get there that way. Instead, go for the gusto right away - especially early in the process while your actions are fresh.
  125. 90% of problems are value related.
  126. The more thought and preparation you put in, the more likely you are to reach a good outcome.
  127. Paintings never really end, you just chose interesting places to stop.
  128. Reflected lights and accents exist not only in the darks but in the lights as well.
  129. The brain is always ahead of the hand. No one can paint better than they know how.
  130. The stronger you paint in value, the better painter you will be.
  131. Reserve is strength. Over statement is weakness. Just ask Winston Churchill.
  132. Recognize your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses.
  133. Remember: Michelangelo was once a helpless baby. Great works are the result of heroic struggle.
  134. Inspiration doesn’t come when you are idle. It comes when you have steeped yourself in work.
  135. Repeat themes often. Vermeer found a life’s work in the corner of a room.
  136. Starts are more important than finishes. Make lots of starts and some of them might reach a finish.
  137. Memory feeds imagination. Repetition is key to learning.
  138. Don’t paint too thick too soon. Save the thick paint for the end. Reserve is the key.
  139. It’s better to look over your shoulder than to paint into direct sun.
  140. Refections: Darks are lighter, lights are darker.
  141. Refections: Cools get warmer, warms get cooler.
  142. Darks say more than lights. Transition in shadow is more important than lights. Another Rembrandt quote: A painting is complete when it has the shadows of a god.
  143. If you’re at a loss for what to do next, paint a self-portrait.
  144. If your sky won’t settle down try adding a bit of green near the horizon.
  145. Holding your brush back near the end will make for more delicate strokes.
  146. 3 kinds of motive: Foreground, mid-ground, background. Which one is dominant in your composition?
  147. Toning a canvas: There are more cool lights outdoors than there are warm tones. Tint your canvas warm and paint the cool lights over top to achieve vibration. Keep the tone warm, transparent and fairly light, to the higher end of the mid-tone. This will allow you to paint that the real mid tones as opposed just leaving the mid-tones. The lights and the darks will look more natural and will keep every value in good relation.
  148. It’s easy to use full colour but when your painting starts to fall apart, but what will you have in reserve to pull your self out? Learn to back off a little. Save some for reserve.
  149. Simplification is really just not painting anything you don’t need.
  150. There’s no such thing as under painting. It’s all part of the process.
  151. Be careful of what you are thinking. It gets into your painting.
  152. Not till you give up the will to fail will you succeed.
  153. Keep a clear understanding of what it is you are about to paint. If you get lost, your painting gets lost.
  154. Compliments: A colour doesn’t come alive without its compliment. Blue and orange are the same colour just at the ends of their spectrum.
  155. Colour characteristics. Colours that are close on the colour wheel are trully friendly. Colours that are far apart on the colour wheel are friendly. Colours that are somewhat far from each other are unfriendly and do not work for colour harmony. These colours are called discord colours.
  156. Discord colours are like hot peppers in cooking. Doesn’t take too much to overdo it.
  157. If it's chroma you’re looking for; Do less mixing and use more pure colour from the tube.
  158. Only break a rule when you’re sure you need to and you’re absolutely sure you can get away with it.
  159. Breaking a rule; If it’s a broken rule and looks wrong, it’s wrong. If it’s the right rule but looks wrong, it’s wrong. If it’s a wrong rule and looks right, it’s right. Now my head hurts…
  160. The most important thing about painting: Show up and pay attention!
  161. The less you fiddle with a brush mark the crisper your colours will look.
  162. If the ability to learn was just the accumulation of knowledge, we would all be geniuses. Practice, practice, practice.
  163. Nature will never reveal itself to any artist who will not humble themselves to it.
  164. Your philosophy will determine some of what your style will be.
  165. Composition is the element that tells the viewer what you are trying to express. It’s the foundation of all good painting.
  166. Everything you think and everything you feel comes out the end of your brush.
  167. You don’t have to have perfect perspective but it certainly shouldn’t detract from your painting.
  168. Enjoy your subject matter or don’t even bother.
  169. Backing away from your workstation helps you make better decisions.
  170. Through your eyes you understand everything. Learn to trust them.
  171. Once you have realized your scene in paint you have a painting. This is a good place to stop.
  172. Revisit compositions. A slight tweak can make a whole new thing.
  173. Unconvincing and unconfident areas in a painting come from worry and indecision. Try painting faster.
  174. Paint fast enough to keep the left brain chasing the right. Thinking and indecision will not get in the way.
  175. Chasing the evening light is easier than chasing the morning light, but all light is paintable.
  176. Believing in a philosophy of painting will allow you to paint from start to end without expectations.
  177. The sky is bluest looking directly overhead because the observer is looking through less air, resulting in a deep blue sky. You can see farther at the horizon than you can if you look up resulting in a greening near the horizon.
  178. After you learn to paint what you see, paint how you see it.
  179. Paintings are part of a process. Know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
  180. Read values relatively. Find the lightest light and compare all other light values to it. Do the same with the darks.
  181. Squint your eyes to find the big, fluent shapes.
  182. Your own standards have to be higher and more scrupulous than those of critics.
  183. Guiding the viewer through the nonessential parts of the painting is just as important as having them pause in the essential areas of focus.
  184. Think “Edges” all the time. Beginning, middle, end.
  185. Have a strong light and dark pattern. Light and dark is the most powerful tool we have.
  186. In painting, sacrifice everything for unity.
  187. Don’t tell me who the model is. Show me what the model is doing.
  188. Form is defined by shadow, not the light.
  189. Shadow patterns hold the reality.
  190. Is your painting about trees in shadow with a little bit of light or is it about trees in light with a little bit of shadow. Never make it 50/50 (Article: The Magic of the 70/30 Split)
  191. Is this a painting of a horse with a bit of landscape in it or is this a painting of a landscape with a horse in it. Be careful not to make the subject and what’s around it the same visual weight.
  192. Black is a beautiful colour but when to start to use it for darkening colours it’s time to take it off your palette.

  193. Don’t go back to the palette and make the same colour.

  194. The viewer’s imagination can finish it better than you can ever paint it.

  195. If you’re going to lead a viewer somewhere, there better be something interesting to look at when they get there.
  196. Broken lines or entry points will weld you to the environment. Don’t build walls. Let the eye travel through areas. Pathways create unity.
  197. A head on a figure in a street scene can work if it is too small but make it too big and it’s the kiss of death.
  198. Too much interest will kill a painting. Interest should be found almost accidentally and not hit you over the head with a hammer.
  199. Big shapes are restful. Medium shapes are for transition. Small shapes are busy and interesting. Use small shapes in your centre of interest.
  200. We identify things pictorially, not by colour. Trees do not necessarily have to be green.

Painting is peace but it can be a struggle. I hope some of my observations help you find your way. 

Your friend in art,
Doug.

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