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I Just Want to Paint

As an art instructor, I hear this phrase frequently enough that I am devoting a post to it.

What does it mean, exactly? In my experience as an art instructor to adults, when I hear someone tell me they “just want to paint,” it means they want to immerse themselves in, or enjoy a new experience – painting – without worrying too much about the disciplinary aspects of it such as drawing, composition or color theory. This to me is fine since I teach at an art center, not at a degree-granting institution. Most of my students are retired professionals who know exactly what they want out of an art class. After six or more decades of learning, my students are perfectly aware of their learning style and are able to articulate their needs to any instructor, right?

Photo of a small canvas on which liquid acrylic paint in several colors has been poured
Using an additive that breaks surface tension in this acrylic pour.

Wrong. Fast forward a few weeks into the painting class. The same student who told me they “just wanted to paint” on the first evening has had a few weeks to enjoy paint as a medium and has moved beyond the merely sensory. Precisely because they are adult learners, they have set some goals for themselves. They might want to finish 2-3 paintings in a style they like. Some don’t care if they don’t bring home a finished product if they get to use the techniques they are learning. What these students have in common is that by week 3 or 4 they don’t feel they are reaching those goals. Some ask for help but others are visibly frustrated. As I listen I realize most of us have been influenced in some way by movies about visual artists portraying the act of painting as fluid, effortless, energetic and spontaneous.

While nothing could be farther from the truth for the painting beginner, there is a precedent for these expectations in the process art movement, which has been concerned with “the creative journey or process, rather than a deliverable end product.” since before the 1960s. Expressive therapies and the transformative arts have also divorced themselves from art-making as a product-driven endeavor, choosing instead to focus on “personal insight, individual healing, and social change.”

This, however, is not what most of my students tell me in the short form I give them at the beginning of class. More than 80% want “to improve their painting skills” or “paint realistically.” These goals are reachable within the span of an 8 week class but I have to help those students gain the awareness that realism first requires understanding a few basic visual concepts. I try to keep the concepts organized and the environment safe and nurturing. Students who start out “just wanting to paint” might feel ok asking lots of specific questions to improve their understanding. Others might later decide to enroll in a supplementary drawing or color class to expand their learning. And a small minority will decide that the business of painting representationally requires a larger time investment than they can afford at the moment, and that is okay, too.

No matter where our painting takes us, it is still a journey that might begin in the simplest and most basic of ways, and that journey needs to be understood and respected for an adult learner to thrive.

A Setup For Every Need

There are as many setups as there are plein air painters. The plein air gear market has thrived in part because there is no “one size fits all” solution. The outdoor artist must research what’s out there and if nothing solves the problem, invent a solution. And what are the problems to be solved, you might ask?

Ergonomics. Young and old painters alike have experienced the discomfort that comes with trying to adjust to equipment made for other people, not to speak of the repetitive motions performed while standing or sitting. Loosening or tightening wing nuts, opening and closing cam locks, pulling heavy carts along uneven terrain, and sitting on low camping chairs made for people under forty comes to mind.

The weather. Here in the Bay Area, springtime brings strong, dry winds that tear through paper palettes, blow easels and masonite boards yards away, and freeze anyone not wearing a parka. In the summer, you can get warm days that liquify oil paints and dry acrylics before they hit the canvas. A painter’s umbrella can be set up when wind is not as strong, but what about times when you set up on asphalt?

Geography. Sometimes the best views require an arduous trek uphill forcing one to be in good cardiovascular shape. During our mild winters, slippery paths have to be tackled with carts and sure footing. And those sandy beaches along our East Bay shores can jam most telescoping easel legs. Even when no altitude is gained, dusty, bumpy roads traversed by cattle make it hard to drag anything through them.

If these are the problems, the solutions are only limited by our imagination and the media of our choice. Contrary to the opinion of many beginners, no expensive setup is required in order to create gear that works with these three challenges. Experience is the best guide to finding lightweight setups that let our bodies move naturally and that protect us from the elements. The humble binder clip, for example, has multiple uses. It can hold paper palettes, turp cups and bungee cords in place. It can also act as a makeshift hanger or as a brush holder in a pinch. A bungee cord can secure your aluminum easel, hold your backpack shut, or let your water container dangle at an accessible angle. Your jacket can provide warmth or shade, depending on the day. And so forth.

Sometimes we invest money on expensive pochade boxes and italian easels that we do not use. if this happens, ask yourself what seduced you. Was it the marketing or the myriad functions? Did any other feature end up being more important? When all the adjustments fail, it’s good to reflect on what we tell ourselves as we leave equipment at home instead of using it.

A Fragrant Still Life

Photo of woman, painting on a table.

A student covers the broad areas of her painting with mixes she is trying out.

Several new students came to my studio on a Saturday morning to try their their hand at painting a still life with a beautiful flower arrangement. This was our first Free Painting Workshop of the year, a way for adult students who have never taken a class with me to check out my teaching and learn some painting basics. Some students were beginners and others experienced, but they all wanted to spend two hours making art in a relaxed mood. I was hoping to open one end of the studio so we could enjoy the sunshine, but we had fog instead. So we stayed inside, sitting a little closer than I would have expected, but having a lot of fun along the way.
Photo of vase with flowers-

One of the bouquets we painted at the first Free Painting Workshop.


The flowers came from the garden of my student Margo Hackett. She gave me enough foxgloves, hydrangeas, nasturtiums, roses and sage flowers for four vases. I didn’t want anyone to feel nervous about drawing, so we began by rehearsing the use of a viewfinder, because it makes marking the location of objects so much easier. Then each one of them had the chance to choose one. I passed out a handout with notes so that no one had to worry about writing while painting.
Photo of woman painting a vase of flowers

The background is almost done!


We worked on primed cardboard. Everyone took home the “recipe,” and some students loved the idea that they could recycle their Amazon boxes in this manner. Then we moved to composition, how to mix a good color for the background, and when to tackle details. This workshop had something new for almost everyone in the room. Most students had questions about mixing specific colors, and others were new to acrylics.
We ended by talking about something we learned during the workshop and it was then that I found out most of them appreciated painting and learning in a supportive atmosphere. The next Free Painting Workshop is on Saturday, September 9. Register through Eventbrite a month before.


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