I’ve spent time over the last week with the oil paints, down in Cornwall, painting boats. It’s been a learning experience. I know how to paint watercolour, but never before with oils, so there’s a lot to learn. The whole premise of watercolour is that you float the colour over a layer of water. With oils, you paste is on like plaster. The two mediums are like chalk and cheese.
It struck me that i’m trying to learn two things simultaneously: on the one hand, i’m trying to learn the conventions of oil painting, the foundations of ‘how they work’, whilst on the other, i’m trying to defy conventions and define my own individual style.
Learning any new skill can be like this; first you have to master the basics, then you go on to make it your own. This is true from painting to riding a BMX. First you have to learn to ride the bike, then you can work on your tricks. This is a theme i’ve covered before, but it’s on my mind, so i’m returning for another look.
Mastering the basics is what we typically get from formal eduction, from training and from books. We learn the tips, tricks and techniques that are needed to be competent. Conventional wisdom is that you need to master these before you can progress. Part of any mastery is physical, building coordination and muscle groups, working on timing and stamina, but the other part is mental, your attitude, experience and motivation.
For me, learning oils is frustrating, because with watercolour, i already have my own style and visual language. It’s easier to describe this for painting than it would be for others skills, because the manifestation of that style is there on paper for all to see. I have a colour palette that i favour, a loose style and i use pen a lot to work over the images. I feel fluent with watercolour, so i feel frustrated with oils. It’s like trying to speak a different language. You know some of the words, you can communicate the basics and order a beer, but i am not fluent, and it’s fluency that is rewarding. You have to be fluent to write a poem, unless your defined style is ‘naive’, like that of Alfred Wallace in his Cornish paintings (Wallace had no formal training or style, but defined his own notion of perspective and movement).
Intellectually, i know that i have to just put the time in. A friend recently talked about the ‘bum on seat’ time required to learn a new skill. I have to accept that i need to grind through the thirty rubbish canvases to hit the decent one. Or maybe it’s 100, I don’t know.
I’ve been painting for 19 years with watercolour and can chart my own progression, see my style developing, so maybe i need to sit in for the long haul. Some skills you never master, you just progress.
Learning is a continuous process of feedback and improvement. Some knowledge you learn ‘definitively’ once and never have to learn again, but skills grow and mature over time. It’s an interesting journey.