Six Priorities from a Self-Taught Artist


I am proud to present Guest Blog Writer, Steven Tomsik, who I met on LinkedIn. In a Discussion on LinkedIn, he wrote extensively about his experience as a self-taught artist. I was taken by his enthusiasm and writing and I invited him to write an article for New York Artists Online’s Blog. I present Steven Tomsik, Self-Taught Artist:

1) Learn to Draw Well.

  • Michelangelo practiced drawing one hour every day of his artistic career.  Most of the great masters did this.
  • Claude Monet began by setting aside two years of charcoal drawing, four hours per day, five days a week before moving on to color.
  • Van Gogh did the same. He gave himself a disciplined routine of drawing at least one hour every day.
  • Continuous drawing practice is the best gift you can give to yourself as an artist.

Tree Sketch by Steven TomsikSketch by Steven TomsikI call this “Monet’s Curriculum”, because he dropped his university studies and delayed his apprenticeship under a recognized master to set aside two years to draw. I did the same.

It seemed to me an overwhelming task at outset, but a few weeks into the routine, I developed a real hunger for charcoal drawing (black, white, brown, and sanguine), with occasional pastel stick in special cases.

How do you get the time? For me it was easier than for most of us. I had a medical condition that immobilized me for two years. The choice was simple:  I could watch day-time television and go insane, or I could draw. To phrase it another way: I could “vegetize” on reality-shows or I could try to emerge as a “Renaissance Master”. What would you do given those choices? To be truthful, I’m not a Renaissance master. But I made progress.

2) Focus on One or Two Media

Modern education sometimes encourages “Survey” classes. Some survey Art History classes explore  prehistoric art to the 14th Century and beyond. Some fine art “survey” classes cover many different kinds of media — sculpture, painting, drawing, ceramic, etc.

My advice for the beginner artist is to focus on one or two media at a time. If you explore 30 different painting techniques, you can’t master any one of them in the time allotted. Repetition and practice are required

To use a travel analogy, taking a “survey” of touring to 10 cities in Europe in six days does not necessarily allow you the time needed to know each culture deeply. Half of the time is spent eating American food in the hotel restaurant. When do you realize yov’ve travelled well? One way is when you get a true feel of the culture and people who live there or when the locals mistake you for a native after you lost your foreign accent

In painting, how do you know you’ve learned to use your colors? When a child of five years old breaks free from his mother’s grasp to climb up to your still-life and touches the fruit slices on the canvas to see if they are as moist as you painted them, or to sniff them to see if the apple smells like a real one.

Pick any two media — and favor one of them for a year or two, while dabbling with the second. When you get restless for a change, then expand into a new medium.

3) Practice Drawing (or Painting) Using Simple subjects

Vegetable Still Life Photo by Steven Tomsik

Still Life Photo by Steven Tomsik

  • Try fruits or vegetables on a tile counter-top.
  • Cartooning can be a useful exercise if you like to draw frustrations with a warped mindset. Claude Monet began with caricatures. Exaggerating the features in a humorous portrait can get you past the fear of drawing the nose too large when it really is that prominent, or drawing asymmetrical eyes (usually, a celebrity’s “trade mark expression” comes from their asymmetrical eye-sockets, an uneven smile, and slightly irregular nose.
Vegetable Still Life Painting by Steven Tomsik

Vegetable Still Life by Steven Tomsik

Many beginning students paint flower-arrangements, but flowers can be tricky, since they give off more light (for certain colors) than they receive, and they literally erase some of their shadows.

Don’t try to do a 6′ x 8′  panorama of the Lewis & Clark expedition with portraits of explorers, Indians, horses, canoes, mountains, and lakes. A landscape for an epic story has multiple subjects. It demands studies in Perspective, Chiaroscuro, and Texture.

These skills ask too much too soon for a beginning artist. If I’m evaluating a new pastel set or a new type of ink or gouache, I “drop back” to fruit, squash, tomatoes, and maybe a plain, Pyrex-glass cooking bowl. And I don’t bother with the folds in the table cloth or special glass-cut patterns in the vase. I don’t own anything like that (kids break them accidentally while loading the dishwasher). Stick to simple subjects. Below: Bowl of Apples, 11×14 Pastel on toned paper.

Art Field Kit: Steven Tomsik

4) Gather a “Field Kit” to Get Out of the Studio

When you’ve painted your last orange, and you just can’t face another still life, it’s time to get out of the studio and join the living. Don”t go anywhere without a Field Kit. What’s in a field it? A drawing set:

  • Graphite or charcoal pencils,
  • Erasers,
  • Blenders,
  • Sharpeners,
  • Papers,
  • Colors (12 or 24)

5) Talk to new people in public settings while you draw and see how they react.

This is critical to adjusting your palette, line-weight, and style. You need to know if your art “works’ — does it touch people inside? If you draw an animal, and a 7-year old child asks if the animal is tame, if it is yours, does it have a name, and if you pet it…This tells you that your art-work brought something to life of the child’s mind. If you paint a portrait of a woman, and an man comes up and says, “I think I know her, she works in my warehouse, she’s from Guatemala. “how did you meet her?” It’s not an exact likeness, but you’ve captured her beauty and expression. If you have an encounter like this, your drawing has awakened some sensibility or meaning inside the mind of  your viewer.

This type of feedback is invaluable. You won’t get it every time you go out, but sooner or later, people will begin to respond, and as you fine-adjust your palette and technique to their likes, the same or different people will respond more strongly. More on this in a later article.

6) Don’t Try  to be a Human Camera.

  • Buy a camera. Learn to use it as a composition tool. But don’t become a camera.
  • One general rule I use for illustration is: If I can do it better with a camera, I use a camera. If a paintbrush can do a better job, I use the paintbrush.
  • Ask yourself two questions:
  1.  “Which details really matter to the composition and to your visual story?” You want to draw the viewer’s attention to the focal point of the composition.
  2. “How much color and detail do you really need?” Too much color and detail confuses the weary viewer, and distracts from the composition. The camera gives equal color, contrast and detail to just about everything. But a painter has some choice in the matter of “artistic liberty”. The purpose is not to “lie” but to tell a more simple, effective story in your own, using unique visual symbols.
Bird, pencil, by Steven Tomsik

Bird, pencil, by Steven Tomsik

The camera has no judgment or sense of what’s more important, but you do. Whatever the activity or scene you’re painting, if you care, and if you feel it, you must have a sense of what’s important in the drawing and painting. And if you don’t, maybe you shouldn’t be painting it — you might produce better work with a subject you care about.

Does all art require the heat of passion? Not really. Some scenes are calm and soothing. A child playing with a doll need not be intense. In commercial art, a portrayal of a vacation sea-scape need not be passionate, but it should elicit interest and mild yearning from the viewer, and it could just as well be painted with mild interest and wistful yearning.

There is an “art” to art. Paintings have a human touch, and sometimes, this can be where the camera and the computer stop and the artist begins. Try juxtaposing your reference photos next to your paintings, and see if you’ve improved on the camera version. Sometimes, you can, sometimes, not.….and sometimes you look at the photo and take what you see in a totally different direction.

My Final Words:

My art teacher used to say: “Perfection is the enemy of creativity”.  (Oops…my secret is out…I did have some classroom training).

So relax the tension that comes from expecting perfection, and just paint!

5 thoughts on “Six Priorities from a Self-Taught Artist

  1. Fabulous article. Thank you Steven Tomsik for writing it and Gloria for posting it. There is nothing in this article I have not heard before, but the simple and honest way it was written inspired me nonetheless. I have a blog called “Art: Help!” and I would like to draw attention to this article as well. Would you mind if I linked back to it?

  2. THANK YOU for this article!! As a self-taught artist my self, I found it refreshingly honest and personal. Thanks for that, Steven! I do have to say that I am not a painter and drawing scares the heck out of me. Although my beginning attempts turned out acceptable, there is always that fear of it being laughable. (no doubt this stems from an experience in school where my dinosaur’s dilemma was ridiculed. That is when I gave up art. Thankfully, with a lot of support, I have found my way home again!!) However, even reading this wonderful article my mind says. “There MUST be some other way!!!! P L E A S E don’t make me draw!!”

    The other item is that since I only just returned to my art “home”, I don’t really have two years to spend on just drawing. (Yes…I’m THAT old! My hero is Grandma Moses if that tells you anything!) However, since I am committed to continually learning and stretching as an artist, I WILL consider giving it a certain amount of time on a regular basis.

    But guess what! I already have my “Field Kit”! I have taken it with me when I venture out of the studio but have seldom used it (that fear thing again). AND I have never thought of just heading out of the studio ON PURPOSE to (gulp) draw. I think I will have to try it at least once. If I survive the ordeal alive….well, we’ll see.

    Thanks, Steven, for baring your artistic soul so honestly. I do love to be challenged! And thanks, Gloria, for sharing such a wonderful article!

    Love live the self-taught artists!!!

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