A short studio chat podcast with Martin on creativity for painters
Martin Kinnear chats about choosing and using colour, to accompany his latest article in The Artist Magazine.
Course Director Martin Kinnear on what you should look for in a good painting course.
I’m often asked by prospective students ‘ Will I learn anything?‘ Setting aside the observation that we don’t know what they know or what they could yet know, I’m afraid that the answer is ‘ yes, and if you’ve already been taught, absolutely.’
You might infer from this that I’ve got a downer on art teaching, or that I subscribe to that old lazy tutor’s standby that creativity and art cannot be taught. Nothing could be further from the truth, the trouble is that showing somebody how you paint, and teaching them to paint are quite different things, so before you book a course with us – or anybody else – be clear about the difference.
The easiest way to ‘teach’ painting is to paint in front of people. It’s an old stand by at art clubs, and if you know what you’re looking for when watching an artist any work, not without educational value.
However, as much as I enjoy painting for myself, and as much as you might enjoy the theatre of watching paintings being made, observation of myself or anyone else painting in their style isn’t a great learning experience.
All you’re seeing, when you watch me – or anyone else paint – is the end result of a series of nuanced and ongoing decisions. Questions about colour, about composition, about physicality and handling. Decisions about grounds, and imprimaturas, gessoes and mediums are all there – but are there unspoken, unexplained and under the surface. Watching a painting being made,as a means of learning to paint for yourself, is as useful as driving over a bridge in the hope that will show you how to build one.
The key to this is understanding the difference between an instance and a principal. Any given painting is by definition an instance of how painting can be done. Just as a particular painting by Monet is an instance of his style and Monet himself is an instance of to paint in an Impressionist way, and Impressionism in its broadest sense is merely an instance of how to paint from ebauche to direct. No, what you want on a course are building blocks not pre selected painting methods. Learn the principles, the building blocks of painting, and you’ll be able to paint in your way, not merely like your tutor or the thousand other students who’ve learned the instance of their style.
That’s why the Norfolk Painting School is built around teaching students the principles of painting, and despite being the leading specialist oil school in the UK has no ‘house style’.
Our 2019 Courses are built around a structured way of teaching principles, from foundational courses on core skills to the rich, challenging and full foundation of our Diploma Course and the ‘deep dives’ of our specialist short courses, everything is designed to give you the principles you need to answer that burning question. Yes you will learn something – and specifically you will learn to paint like you.
Fresh back from his Salon success in Paris, Course Director Martin Kinnear, muses on the prose and cons of starting afresh each year.
Deciding to change one’s painting style is a big step, yet I’m always encouraged in my efforts to constantly re-evaluate my methods, re-interpret my ideas and re-invent my style by following the example of great artists. It’s very tempting to get one’s style and technique over the finish line of familiarity, approbation and competence and then sit on one’s laurels. Instead I want to encourage you to look at your work on Jan 1st, throw it all up in the air, and say to yourself, ‘today is a day for what if?’
Pre Christmas was big for me, and the School. My latest body of work Beyond Here, went down a storm at its preview in Yorkshire, and then went on to bring home a Medaille d’ Argent from the Paris Salon. That matters because my work is very much a reflection of what we teach at the School, and our Diploma students quite rightly expect that the methods we teach should lead to successful outcomes.
Time then to sit on my laurels? Well I might have if I hadn’t have spent a few days with Picasso in Paris. I took the opportunity to see two shows, the first Blue and Rose at the Musee D’ Orsay, on Picasso, the second, Cubism at the Pompidou, impossible without him.
Both were shows about Picasso of course, and all that implies – the familiarity of his great works, the fame, the invention, but more than that and most of all these were fundamentally shows about Picasso’s ability to look at himself and say ‘what if?’
I start all of our Diplomas with different students, different lesson plans but the same central theme; the constant theme of change. It’s also true of our short courses, the big idea is to take on board the big ideas, and that means to be a better artist one has to embrace personal change.
It’s hard to think of an artist of note who didn’t evolve, and difficult to imagine one who was more mercurial in is art than Picasso. Love him or hate him ( and I defy you to love or hate all of his various periods ), Picasso, remains current and divisive, so much so that even 45 years after his death most of my students think of him as a contemporary artist. He’s not of course, but only if you subscribe to the position that ideas go out of date. I don’t and just like the great man himself I’m convinced that the true history of art, is the record of how we visualise our ideas. As our hopes and dreams, our concerns, our beliefs and our passions change, then so should our art.
In this respect it matters not whether visual art was created on a cave wall by Neolithic hunters or on a canvas by Matisse, Mondrian or Chagall. visual impact, clarity of thought and direction of purpose, that’s the thing, and Picasso had it in spades.
My take out from Paris? Picasso was almost completely fearless in his art, almost because even the most accomplished and lauded painter must fear that the work they create will eventually loose something of its freshness, vitality and originality if it is not constantly questioned by its maker. Fear of sleepwalking into mediocrity drove his passion for learning.
2019 is a new year and as I move forward and look towards the year, its just not possible for me to paint – paint honestly – as I did in 2018, look back too much and we close the door to possibility.
My 2019 Course roster is really a series of workshops on helping students come to grips with possibilities. Yes you can paint but how could you use colour? Should you question how to use optics? Or values? Can digital devices help you make visual poetry out of the things you see?. These are valid questions about timeless concerns. To teach is to learn, and in delivering these courses you can be sure that whatever else I’m doing with you, I’ll be questioning and refining my own assumptions.
So over that last slack week between Christmas and the New Year I’ve been kicking my style around, and doing a lot of ‘what if?’ thinking and painting in my studio. I strongly encourage you to do the same, and if you find you need help with that, then you know where we are.
Improving your oil painting is a great new year resolution, but where do you start? Here are some top tips from the Norfolk Painting School team.
- 1.Make a Space. Being creative requires room for you to work and think, so set aside room for a studio in your home. It needn’t be grand – but it must be convenient. Driving out to a studio or having to set up and clear away your oils is a sure way to reduce your time and enthusiasm for learning. If you need health and safety advice contact the School or do what we do and choose ultra safe Gamblin products which can be had from our school materials shop.
2. Skills first then creativity. Skills facilitate creativity, so invest a little time in learning how to use paint. Nothing is as demotivating as making an expensive and self indulgent mess – so build your confidence by investing time in your studio craft. Make solid start by choosing just a few colours and brushes. leave all of that extra kit for later. If you need help being reductive try a palette of three primaries plus the two achromatics, a simple medium and just three brushes. Any of the School foundation courses, such as Simply Oils, are great ways to get properly skilled up before you explore your personal creativity.
3. Get the right Kit. Take yourself seriously and get the right kit for your studio. As a minimum you’ll need a decent sturdy easel to stand up as you paint , boards or canvases to paint on, a work desk or tabouret to hold your stuff as you paint, a palette, a jar for medium, a jar for solvent a waste bin and some rolls of kitchen towel. Most of our students find they have too much kit , so it pays to take an inexpensive foundation course before you buy, or if you want to jump straight in, call the school and ask for one of our inexpensive Starter sets, of colours and mediums, which include everything you need and nothing you don’t.
4. Have a process. Painting is a skill, and like any skill it pays to work methodically. Doing so will give you great results, help you to identify what you can improve and most of all, build your confidence. We teach lots of historical painting processes at the School, but our choice is ebauche. Its easy to learn and gives you that painterly look to your work from the first lay in. To paint ebauche style just work big to small, translucent to opaque and lean to fat over a value 5 imprimatura or bole. If you’d like instruction – then any of our courses will help you with the technique.
5. Get Inspired. Enthusiasm is everything, so if your creative fires are burning a little low, then get out and see things you simply have to paint. Our favourites are gallery shows – nothing is as inspiring as seeing great work – but inspiration is everywhere if you take some time to look. Don’t forget that your skills might make some inspirational ideas difficult to pull off; so if you can’t paint it yet, take a note in your sketchbook until you can.
6. Set Targets. Many painters set out to create a painting a day for a year, and thats brilliant if you have sound studio craft, beware however of reinforcing mistakes by practicing them. Its far better to paint three pictures well than 365 badly. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll need a benchmark though, so set yourself an initial target of painting the same thing three times. Paint it once to experiment, paint it a second time to correct what you know you could do better, then for the last time to the best of your ability. When you come to the school bring your benchmarks in, they are a great way of comparing what you knew against what you learned with us.
7. Manage your time well . Painting is fantastic and we loose days just painting for the joy of it. When you set out however it helps to set some self imposed rules to help you to focus on creating, evaluating and improving your work. A time limit per painting is a great idea, a three hour morning session to create a modest ebauche oil on board is a good starting point. You’ll want to further divide that time into thinking, painting and evaluating; make sure you get into the habit of think – paint – evaluate , and you’ll improve incredibly quickly. If you’re not sure what good painting looks like, then compare your work to an relevant and accessible artist you admire or take a course with us; all of our short courses will introduce you to appropriate benchmark artists for the skills you’ll learn.
8. Reach Out. Painting’s a solitary art, but it really helps to reach out and put yourself and your work before other artists. Rule your family out as critics, and any online groups who simply say everything is fantastic. Good criticism is helpful and actionable advice. Look for feedback on how you manage the key principles in painting, find fellow artists who can identify solid actionable concepts such as value plans, colour management or compositional structure in your work will help you to improve. Finding good advice is imperative, as judging one’s own work is notoriously difficult. We all learned painting by applying the key principles to our work – if you’re not sure join us on a short course.
9. Write it Down. You are in control of the project , so make it happen by writing down what you need to do. Here’s our list : 1. Get a studio. 2. Focus on skills this year, then creativity when those are in place. 3. Choose the right kit, remembering that too much is a bad idea.4. Decide upon your painting process, and stick to it. 5. Stay inspired, diarise gallery visits and set aside time to be in places which inspire you. 6. Practice regularly and well, avoiding the common mistake of reinforcing poor technique. 7. Structure your studio time to ensure you are learning actively by evaluating your work. 8. Make finding useful and actionable criticism part of your plan. 9. Write your plan down and 10. Action it today.
10. Get Started. Unrealised potential is avoidable by getting on with it. In 2000 our course director Martin Kinnear decided to get on with it and take painting seriously. He’s now a recognised artist who paints every day for a living and enjoys every minute of doing what he’ loves rather than commuting to and from the office.’ Since 2007 we’ve helped thousands of people realise their dream of becoming better artists; it doesn’t take much but it has to start with you.