Sunday, July 8, 2018

Pushing Yourself to Improve: Male Painters vs. Female Painters

A workshop student once asked me why some artists study painting for decades but never seem to improve. It’s a good question.

There comes a point for every painter when you have to push yourself into a mentally challenging state and force yourself to figure out the solutions to difficult painting problems. I sometimes hear people say that painting is relaxing. Personally, I don’t find it relaxing at all. That’s not why I paint. I paint because I enjoy the elation I feel when I’m successful at capturing the visual excitement I want to communicate in a painting.  There are other things I do to relax…read, go for a walk, watch a movie. When I do those other things, I’m not taxing my brain to scrutinize and search, which is what I do constantly when I paint. For example, I work my initial composition like some people work a crossword puzzle or Rubik’s Cube, pushing myself to search for the most ideal design. I also continuously compare subtle differences in value, temperature and chroma and translate that into specific color choices. I hunt for those accurate choices, and I continue to do so until I find what works, constantly scrutinizing, comparing and observing. These are just some of the many mental gymnastics I encounter when painting. When I finish a day of painting, I’m more mentally exhausted than physically.

I believe it’s when people hit the painful threshold of having to really look and really think and figure it out, that they often push back and simply paint in such a way that merely takes a wild guess at what’s needed in each area of their painting. When I get tired or lazy, I usually fall into this trap and end up with a failed painting. But when this less attentive approach becomes the norm for an artist, there’s rarely any significant skill level improvement, regardless of how many years take place at the easel.

It’s only the artists who take what they’ve learned (through classes, workshops, books, videos, etc.) and practice those skills at their own easel, using their years of easel time efficiently to push themselves through that painful threshold, who ultimately increase their skill level much more dramatically.

This leads to another question that frequently comes up in workshops: Why are there usually more women than men in most workshops? I’ve heard various reasons for this, which I’m sure all contribute to why this happens. I have a particular theory, though, that I believe largely contributes to this imbalance. This is of course a very broad generalization, but it seems to me that typically men like to figure things out for themselves, and women like to ask for guidance. You know, that stereotypical situation in which a man and woman are lost while traveling by car and the woman wants to stop and ask for directions while the man insists that they’re not lost and he’ll find the way. (Okay, we all have navigation systems in our cars or on our phones now, so this is sort of an old-fashioned stereotype, but you get the idea.)

With learning to paint, you actually need both of those approaches: Guidance to point you in the right direction, and then plenty of your own practice time figuring it out for yourself at your easel. Again, keep in mind I’m generalizing here (so, please, neither gender should take offense!), but I believe women err on the side of asking for help before trying to figure it out themselves, and men err on the side of wanting to figure out all of it by themselves without any help.

Well, you know what? You’ll actually become a better painter if you spend the majority of your painting time pushing yourself to figure out difficult painting problems yourself. Yikes! I hope I didn’t just talk myself out of a job as a workshop instructor! The truth is, you certainly don’t want to paint in a cocoon, especially if you’re still mastering some basic skills. You DO want some guidance and firsthand instruction so you can recognize the painting problems that you need to figure out on your own and be better equipped to handle them. But you also want to avoid jumping from workshop to workshop too frequently, hoping that this influx of constant spoon-fed instruction is going to make you a better painter. And you don’t want your only painting time to take place in instructional settings.

I realize that there’s also the comradery aspect of taking frequent classes and workshops, and it’s not everyone’s goal to push themselves in this way. And that’s fine. When I teach my workshops, I make sure to remember that some artists just enjoy attending painting workshops with other artists and talking art, and I strive to make it an enjoyable experience for all who attend. But for those artists who do have ambitious goals, the real work comes after the workshop.

My 14-year-old son is taking piano lessons. When I asked him recently some specifics about his weekly lessons, he told me very matter-of-factly that in his lessons his teacher basically instructs him on how to practice. Learning to paint works the same way. Now, if I could just get my son to practice more!


A couple of warm-weather paintings recently off the easel….

Alive!, 18x24, pastel

Rock Pile at Smith Rock, 14x11, oil

Upcoming Workshops:

White Bear Lake, MN - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
August 14-16, 2018
"Landscape & Light"
White Bear Center for the Arts
Contact:, (651) 407-0507
$475/member; $570/non member (A discount is available for first-time students at this art center.)

Mount Vernon, WA - 3-day PASTEL workshop
September 20-22, 2018
"Painting Skies, Water & Trees in Pastel"
Dakota Art Center
Contact:, 888-345-0067 ext. 5

Santa Barbara, CA - 4-day PASTEL/OIL workshop (studio & plein air)
October 9-12, 2018
"Skies, Water & Trees"
Contact: Kris Buck,
Studio portion held at a private studio in Santa Barbara, with plein air locations a short drive away.

Manahawkin, NJ - 3-day PASTEL workshop
November 9-11, 2018
"Landscape & Light in Pastel"
Pine Shores Art Association
Contact:, 609-488-5838
$205/members; $235 non-members (This venue receives generous funding for art workshops in their community, and so the workshop price is crazy cheap!!! If you live in the area and have wanted to take a workshop with me, this is the place to do it!)

Visit for my 2019 schedule!