Banishing the Self-Taught Artist Stigma (+ 5 tips)

I’m always upset when I hear an artist trying to qualify him or herself as a professional by admitting they are "self-taught."  It's very sad to hear someone who may have spent the last 10-20 years of their lives working as a professional but just because they didn't have the chance to attend college or an academy they feel insecure or illegitimate. I went to school with a lot of talentless people who wasted their time and money. Having a degree doesn’t make you successful.

I've said it here many times; I didn't have artistic support growing up. All I had going for myself was the natural ability to draw with a pencil. When I finally had my first "art lesson" it was my freshman year at PSU.  Fortunately, I had regular classes in charcoal and drawing from a live model for the first two years.  From my very first figure drawing class, I knew immediately what I wanted to do and that was figurative painting.  I later made the decision to paint people once I took my first oil painting class in 1993.  Sadly, when it came time to ask my professors for advice and instruction, I never got the answers I wanted.  Crickets …

In college, critiques centered on "art theory," 99% of the time and little or no time was spent on learning how to develop my skills in figurative painting. There were days I wanted to bang my head against the wall.  I became extremely frustrated since I wanted to learn how to paint like the great masters while other "painting majors" were working on inane performance art. My favorite “art school” story is about one student who was hailed as a genius for pouring cornflakes and milk in her underwear and then, to the disgust of us all, preceded to eat it. It was the one performance piece I wish I could forget. However, the best part of this story was that she was a painting major. Yes, a painting major.  I felt like I was in a nuthouse – the world had gone mad and I was simply not told. As she received applause and praise, I recoiled – what did this nonsense have to do with actual painting?  

That story just illustrates the basic craziness that takes place in most art programs. Though I received a BFA I still never learned how to really paint – in many ways, I’m self-taught. I learned what oil painting was in school and I received some guidance but I didn't learn how to paint until I left school.  Pat yourself on the back for not taking out the loans I did.

I've learned many skills over my lifetime.  I spent every summer break, weekends and holidays working for my father from age 9 on learning the skills of a carpenter. It took many years and lots of hard work to hone those skills and become masterful.  I spent a lot of time observing and shadowing other master carpenters. I asked a lot of questions and never felt satisfied until the finished product met my specific expectations. Learning to paint is very similar though a lot subtler in how you progress.  Learning how to paint on your own is a wonderful experience and one that has helped me develop into the artist I am today.  Early on you need to accept certain facts about becoming an artist. In the beginning, your work may be clunky, muddy or out of proportion. You also may wrestle with bad compositions and terrible ideas.  Accept it and deal with one problem at a time.   

Winslow Homer was largely a self-taught artist and yet he managed to be one of the most successful artists of his time. Today he is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th-century America and a preeminent figure in American art.

Winslow Homer was largely a self-taught artist and yet he managed to be one of the most successful artists of his time. Today he is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th-century America and a preeminent figure in American art.

To mature as a self-taught artist involves discipline.  Here are some good tips I used over the years to develop my own skills painting figurative art:

1.     Get books on the artists you love and leave them out while you paint.  I never started a painting without a book on Caravaggio, Odd Nerdrum and Rubens in my studio.

2.     Paint yourself.  When you become comfortable, paint those you live with or people you have easy access to.  These can be friends, family, and neighbors.  Paint people who have no demands from you or will not judge you.  Study their faces before, during and after you paint them.  When you do this often you start to see similarities, common features, and how light bounces off their face or casts shadows. You start to recognize the different shapes of eyes, noses, lips, chins, and ears.  Observation is so important.  Look intently at how they smile or frown - study them closely and make mental notes for the next time you paint them. 

3.     Look at your work through someone else's eyes.  Ask for feedback from people you trust.  If you don't have anyone you trust, look at your work through a mirror.  Turn your canvas upside down and study your piece.  If you do this you'll be forced to accept that you could've done something better.  The mistakes will reveal themselves and you must accept them and rectify them to improve your work.  Always look at your work with an overabundance of scrutiny.  This will battle test your paintings and make you a better artist by raising your standards each time.  Don't expect every painting to be a masterpiece early on.  If you do you'll be very unhappy years later when you finally accept the mistakes you made once your eyes have developed.

4.     Keep painting.  If you've ever heard of Sir Issac Newtons law of perpetual motion you'll understand that if a car starts to roll it will be easier to keep moving at the same speed or get faster with less effort.  Similarly, if you keep painting (at least every other day) you will make vast improvements compared to if you start and stop.  Will you fail at certain things?  Yes, of course you will.  We all did starting out.  The key is NOT to stop painting.  If you keep painting regularly you will make improvements quicker.  If you get discouraged or depressed and stop painting for weeks you will stunt all progress and it will be harder to get started again.  This doesn't mean that you learn everything in one block of time, instead understand that you gain knowledge, talent, and finesse 1% at a time.  The Japanese word for this continuous improvement is "kaizen." This is how mastery is accomplished. Keep going and keep adding to your skill-set by continuing to improve.

5.     Study art in person.  Visit museums if you have them.  If not, get online and study close up details of your favorite artists.  The Art Renewal Center has one of the most comprehensive collections of high-resolution art.  It is a must for any artist wishing to learn how to paint like the masters.   Luckily, I had the pleasure of living in Italy for a semester of college and this experience changed my life as an artist. On a day off from classes, I took a trip into the heart of Rome to visit the Cerasi Chapel I sat in a church pew and observed both of Caravaggio's paintings of St. Peter and St. Paul for over an hour. I remember having to put in a 1000 lira coin in every 5 minutes to illuminate the paintings in that dark church.  They were some of the most inspiring figurative paintings I've ever spent time with.   I learned more in that hour than all the years I spent in school.  Look for the clues left behind by the masters.  They will guide you.

A self-taught artist is a professional artist if they take their work and craft seriously. Never ever give up.  You are greater than you know.  If you can improve a little you can improve a lot – there is no ceiling on your potential.  Work hard and you'll do your part to banish the self-taught artist stigma once and for all. 

If you're like me, you know that the road to learning how to paint in a classical manner can be a difficult one fraught with confusion and disappointment.  If you'd like to take advantage of my 25 years of experience as a professional artist, I am currently taking on new students for online instruction and for individual workshops.  My method of teaching is pragmatic and gets results.  I teach the same skills that allow me to create museum-quality work in a very high-pressure environment.  If you want to make huge changes in your career click here for more information and schedule your classes today.  Take action and claim your success as a professional artist.

I've started working on producing a series of videos to help artists on YouTube called "The Truth About Being an Artist."  Check it out, like the videos if you enjoy them and subscribe to the channel.  Thank you!