Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Why is my painting so childish?!"

One of the things beginning painters often complain about on my teaching website is
"Why does my art look so childish".

Let's think about this idea for a moment.

When we feel our paintings look childish, it is because we are painting from our mind, using the memories stored in our minds of how things look.

As a child you are seeing things for the first time and recording impressions of a whole world full of images in your mind. Your mind is struggling to take in this vast amount of information, store it away and understand it. So it creates symbols as a way to make sense of it all. There is so much to see we have to distill it, take away the variations, simplify. These simplified mind images are symbols of what we see. Templates. That way we can compare the world to our mental images to quickly understand what we are looking at.

Another thing that happens when we are young is that we are encouraged to draw, color, cut paper, paint, mold with clay. We use these images that we have stored so far, and we get something like this:

And then we stop making art. Many of us at least, and so our stored images of what things look like remain. As we develop, our minds are able to see more detail and variety, and process it and store it. We learn skills and information to make a living, run a household, raise our kids, do all the things it takes to survive in the world. Detailed, complex ideas and skills.

Then you decide to pick up a paintbrush. The last time you tried to process the world through your mind and into your fingers for art was when you were a child! Or maybe you tried a couple of times as an adult, but got "childish" results so you gave up, deciding you just must not have the "talent" for art.

I see many people do this, and some even accept that this must be the extent of their "talent". They continue to use the same mental images, and continue to be frustrated with their art. You notice I always put the word "talent" in quotation marks. This word has been used to discourage and intimidate so many people from enjoying, and developing their art. There is no such limiting thing that you either have or don't. Making art comes from your heart, from your desire to express your own view of the world. That doesn't mean you don't have to develop the skills required, develop your craft, because you do. It takes work, dedication and perseverance. But everyone can do it!

So how can I do that? Where do I start?

The first and most important thing you need to start doing today, this minute, is to really look at what you are seeing. Bypass those symbolic images in your mind and just see with your Artist's Eye. It's a whole new way of looking at the world.

And then Paint what you SEE, not what you THINK!

Your mind will fight you. I see painters look at an image, and then paint something completely different in color and shape. They look at an image and see a tree, their mind takes over and searches the database for the image that goes with "tree". And then they paint from their mind, disregarding what they are looking at. The photo may show that the tree trunk is black and grey and green. but they pick up the brown paint.

I also often see beginners wanting to paint from their imagination. Can you see now how that isn't a good idea? I'm not saying there is no place for it in art, because there is! What I'm saying is that as a beginner, your first task is to understand what things really look like. Once you have developed those skills, then you can move on and create whatever your heart desires!

There may be purple in the shadows of trees, green in the sky, yellow and pink and blue in a white flower. Grass at sunset can look orange. We have to unlearn what things are supposed to look like and begin to see what they really look like. And that just isn't about color. Shape as well. Flowers are supposed to have a center and petals evenly spaced around. If you really look, you will see they almost never look like that in a landscape. They are at different angles, have curves and bends. It's all about training your eye to see as an artist. And you can do this every minute of every day! You don't even need to get out your paints to practice your art!

Pick up your camera, go out into the world and take pictures of everything that catches your eye. Go home and study your photos. Really look at the colors, the shapes. Take your paints outside and do the same.  How do I paint a shadow? What color is it? It depends on the time of day, the amount of sun, the surrounding colors, the shape of the element casting the shadow and the shape of the surface it falls on.

I can't tell you how to paint a shadow, or a tree, or a bird, or water. I can only encourage you to open your artist's eyes, and then point out where you have strayed back into symbolism. Take it all in, don't assume anything, and then put down the shape, the color that you see. And when you get discouraged, because you will, I do, Just Keep Painting! And then paint some more. And some more. And one day soon you will have quieted your mind, your Artist's Eye will be controlling your brush and you will lay down some crazy color and shape and step back and say Wow! That looks so real! But it's just shapes of color, without any resemblance to your old "childish" symbol.

Having this skill, gives you the freedom to create your art however you like. You don't have to shy away from subjects that are "too hard". You can be just as abstract or detailed as you like. That's when your expression can really soar. But first, develop your craft. And know that it is absolutely achievable. You can do it, and you will do it, if you keep painting. And keep seeing!

So start now, look around you. Turn off your mind and just take it all in. 


  1. Karen, aint that the truth! And you said it so beautifully. I know I"m not the only painter who paints what I THINK an object should look like,and not what I SEE and now I know why. This ties in to what I recently learned in sketching - it is the intuitive and true expression of the subject you wish to paint. TRUST the sketch and follow it completely when transferring to canvas or paper.
    Love your website and what you do!

    1. Thank so much Elizabeth!
      Absolutely, learning to trust yourself and your eye and hand are such a big part of learning to paint. :)

  2. I've just taken up painting, undergone my first project and only into a small amount of the way through it I stopped, solely because I thought it looked like something 5 year old would have done. I stopped, but have read your blog, and I'm going to carry on. Hopefully my work will be better or they may never be so, but I will never know unless I try. Thanks for your post, very insightful.