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Lifehack: Taking a Painting Class as an Adult

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by the Gage Girls

Whether it’s something you’ve always secretly wanted to do, or you’re brushing up on art skills you already have, it can be daunting to take an adult painting class. But if seeing a painting makes you think, “I could do that,” or colors mesmerize you, or catching a glimpse of several misty and majestic layers of South Shore marsh makes you want to try your hand, then why not? Just as there are dozens of great reasons for taking an art class, there are dozens of different approaches. Considering these approaches may help you choose the class that’s best for you.

Taking the Plunge
The biggest obstacle to taking an art class is worrying about not being good enough. The dreaded, “Let’s all pin our paintings up on the wall for everybody to see,” still makes my palms go sweaty. It’s not all that often in our adult lives that we’re put on display, our weaknesses exposed and our foibles illuminated, but try to put your ego on hold for just those few hours. Know that there’s a fine moment in every single painting--the juxtaposition of a few colors that rings true, a brushstroke with personality, or a rhythm to the composition. A skilled teacher will recognize that moment and will encourage you to expand it into a string of good moments. The painter who avoids risk and experimentation by repeating the same successful formula may not get the sweaty palms, but will never really move forward. Learn to take pleasure in the small triumphs, such as a color well mixed or the capturing of light, and try to focus on “getting it closer” rather than “getting it right.” Painting is immensely satisfying and full of mystery, challenge and the pure pleasure of seeing.

Selecting a Medium
Another obstacle can be knowing which medium to use. Oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache—where to begin? Choosing one involves knowing your own temperament: 
Oils are challenging but highly rewarding. You can push the paint around, change your mind endlessly by painting on top of other paint, build up textures and mix amazing colors, and it has a pleasing consistency and smell.  However, it’s a lot of equipment to lug around, it’s messy and hard to get paint spots out of your clothes, and the paintings take a longer time to dry than water-based mediums. Oils have a certain physicality and can be intimidating if you’re not up to the task.

Acrylics are an alternative to oils that some prefer since they are water-based and thus easier to clean up, and are generally less expensive. Even though some swear that they see no difference between oils and acrylics, to my eye they are very different. After all, acrylics are plastic.

Both watercolors and gouache are fun and easy to use, require minimum clean up and have brilliant colors. However, since there’s almost no way to cover up mistakes, there’s a certain amount of precision and premeditation required. Oil painting is a slower, additive process than watercolors where the painting is built up layer by layer, completely covering the white space. Watercolors are the opposite. The white of the paper is left blank or with minimal layers as the white is what gives the colors their luminosity. Watercolors are not for the impulsive or sloppy in general. That being said, you should probably try them all to see which suits you the best.

Selecting a Style
Another thing to consider in choosing a painting class is what style of painting you like. Do you want to paint realistically or abstractly? Realism is a good beginning point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment. Also, what subject matter do you like? There’s landscape, figure painting, portraits, and still life. Will the landscape painting be done outside “en Plein Aire” or inside from photos, and which would you prefer?  Will you be comfortable painting female as well as male nudes? Painting the still life in the studio is probably the best place to begin because it’s a more controlled setting {nothing moves or gets rained on} and has fewer distractions, such as flies buzzing about your easel outside. Also, don’t limit yourself to only painting. Explore courses in color, design, mixed media, collage, perspective, and especially drawing to add to your skills. 

Finding a Teacher
There are different teaching styles as well. There are teachers who have you plunge right in and express yourself, learning as you go along. Others take a more measured approach, teaching fundamentals and building on knowledge. You should consider if you have the patience and temperament to sit through demonstrations and instruction or if you are more the type who wants to get right down to it. Many art schools hold open houses, which are an excellent chance to get to know the teachers, talk about your goals and see their work. Look for a teacher who has the empathy to put you at ease and whose work you like. Art teachers will often teach you how to paint like they do, so make sure you like their paintings!

Now that you’ve started your class, the sweaty palms might make you ask, “Am I having fun yet?” However, I bet you are and it probably started even before you propped up your easel for the first time. I still remember the thrill of my first art supply store excursion when I was fourteen, seeing all those sexy little amber bottles of painting potions and row upon row of paintbrushes. Having those alchemist’s tools in your hands that have been passed down through the centuries, attending to that host of pleasant tasks such as colors to mix, palettes to arrange and thumbnail sketches to squiggle out…who cares about the end product? The act of painting and the excitement of all the possibilities just waiting to happen are themselves the reward.