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How to Paint
sketch for an essay on painting
(primarily in oils)

by Michael Helsem

1. Painting is a craft, a tradition, a business, a hobby, & a path. I have nothing to say about the business, except by way of observing it is easier to compromise your product the more conscious a craftsman you are; therefore as a path it is a path which becomes narrower with time.

As a hobby painting is expensive, time consuming, & requires a lot of space both to work in & for storage. I would advise drawing instead.

2. Although the considerable improvement in quality & availability of painting materials — particularly for oil painting — is due to its bizarre popularity as a hobby, anyone who long perseveres at it will begin to explore the craft aspect.

Paradoxically, artschool students are often less educated about prime elements of craft, than the average humble hobbyist. There are many good craft books & also a swarm of others which might best be described as manuals for the third-rate forgery of second-rate impressionism.

Nevertheless, something can be learned from any craft book, as long as the painter is skeptical & a continual comparer of recipes. Even the best books sometimes mislead.

3. Just as craft involves both experiment & study, a knowledge of the painting tradition requires that you travel to see good paintings, & also read everything you can about the social context & lives of the artists which interest you.

I do not recommend trying to cover all eras or even all the important painters, like the schools do, because for the neophyte boredom is a worse enemy than ignorance.

4. Many art students wish to remain ignorant of the entire tradition. This would not be harmful to the Art, if they were content to be considered psudo-artists & Barbarians; but in a barbaric climate they arrogate the name & mystique of the Avant Garde while abusing all other approaches & previous artists.

Let it be known that to be an Artist means to be a student (& not a slavish follower) of Tradition, as well as a tireless seeker of new techniques. The real tradition is like an ancient tree with green living buds at its extremities. Nothing in its history can be considered superfluous or mistaken, except at the cost of curtailing your own vision.

5. Painting as a spiritual path is practiced by few, with good reason. I only mention it here because no one else ever does. Like Mysticism, it is better learned from a master; & words are shaky guides indeed for the isolated acolyte, who has no true idea of what he is going to create, & many false seductive images he can never honestly duplicate.

Sincerity is not enough. You must have a real vocation, or else you delude yourself in a way that no one will ever try to dissuade you from. Ponder this long, before you reject the more orthodox channels of spirituality ... then read The Cloud of Unknowing & realize how much harder it is to find God with a whole apparatus of post-modern estheticism in your head.


6. Painting begins & ends in materials. Inbetween is transmutation — of the painter & the painting. There are four basic attitudes you can take toward materials.

  1. You can get the finest you can afford, which i would not recommend at first because it tends to inhibit spontaneity;
  2. you can get the cheapest (or even salvage discards e.g. boards to paint on), which tends to make you devalue the final product;
  3. or you can go for a pragmatic approach, striving for durability where it matters (heavy canvas or a mounted masonite board), & economizing where you can without too great a sacrifice of quality (pigments, gesso).
  4. Finally, you can combine expensive & cheap materials in the same work according to your taste; this is a sign of frivolity or genius, but in any case not a policy for the beginner.

7. I recommend the third approach combined with extensive research into the properties of what you find in the stores. There are many inferior products on the market, also many overpriced. Art students are liable to be told too precisely what to buy, or not at all, when what they need to know is how to shop.

The best way to do this is to begin by familiarizing yourself with the physical process of painting & at the same time try a number of different brands, on small abstract studies not intended to achieve any aesthetic effect. A hundred would not be too many, unless you were born with a real knack for observing & extrapolating the laws of viscous substances, in which case there is nothing you need to read craft books for.

8. Time, light, ventilation & a calm state of mind, are all prerequisites. That’s why it can be worth the cost of taking art classes. They give you a place without having had to make a definite commitment which might prove premature. All the same, i advise against it unless you are going to adamantly disregard the styles of your peers. Look at paintings in museums if you want a model.

Don’t waste your time on picture books except as a way of deciding which museums to go to. They tell you about as much about the appearance of a painting, as a photograph of food tells you about its taste.

9. It will probably not occur to you at first that there are ten thousand ways to construct a picture with paint. Really understanding this is what makes an artist. For the reason you are painting a picture is intimately involved in the process of its unfolding. But you cannot struggle wth the intransigence of substance & concept at once.

Learn & refine a basic technique & be studying different methods available for inspection at the local museums & galleries during this time. Traditionally a student would make his masterpiece using an established procedure & execute it with all the technical finesse at his disposal: this would mark the beginning of his expressive & method-varying phase.

10. I insist upon such a rite of passage even today, using the best materials for the first time & fully committing yourself to the assumption that someone else will want to buy this painting when you are done with it.

A “master-piece,” though, cannot fail or succeed; it is a measure, a mirror of what you are at one point in time. The result is rather to divide henceforth your ongoing experiments from those rarer & sterner works which strive for a statement of ritualistic formality.

In them, if i may say so, Truth is Beauty & Beauty, Truth — without reference to other paintings or theories of painting. Thus earnestness discovers a way where there never had been a way before. This is all i mean when i say painting can be a spiritual path...


11. I haven’t mentioned subject-matter yet, because i think for the beginner to try to illustrate an idea he has, is just flat wrong. Far better to let anything happen, & if you get stuck, copy a part of whatever you happen to look at, or a photograph. Start anyhow.

The paint is what matters, until you forget that it’s paint you are working with; then you can dream with your eyes open. It will be a long time before what you actually paint pleases your sophisticated mind. Meanwhile enjoy the tactile aspect, which will teach you to appreciate good paintings, at the same time.

12. A good painting makes you want to paint. A great painting says something, besides. You can’t hope to make a great one now; & no young artist — despite all enthusiasm — has anything new to say that’s original, true, & communicable with the skills at his disposal. It’s completely erroneous to preach “do what you want” & call it Art & set it beside what professionals have done. Suppose Medicine were conducted that way?

13. Respect your awkwardness. Don’t try to progress too quickly. Take time to distinguish your happy accidents from the mud & drudgery of habit. Your final goal is to leap from one inspiration to another all the way through, you know, though it’s never completely attained.

In the end, you will have learned merely to refrain until nudged in a certain way. That selfrestraint is the essence of discipline, & it resembles rapt listening — not the clenched teeth of selfcoercion along a predetermined vector. That’s why it’s so bad to want to achieve a particular image or effect in advance. It closes the door to your best self...

“Style should be the consequence of conscience — the unforeseen consequence.”

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