Everything you wanted to know about beginning art…but were afraid to ask (part one)

If you’ve always wanted to take up a hobby such as art, but have been too nervous to try, here’s how to dive in. Most “how to” books, blogs and vlogs are by experts, but as a beginner, I wanted to speak directly to other beginning and would-be artists.

 As a child, I loved art. Mostly, I loved the look, feel and smell of the crayons, pencils in every colour, paper, watercolour paints and so on. When I was about 12, my parents gave me a set of oil paints in a beautiful wooden box. Mostly, I just looked at them. Actually doing an oil painting seemed too daunting.

In my teens in New Zealand, I did art for School Certificate, which was a national qualification in the third year of high school, then called Form 5 and now called Year 11 in NZ and Year 10 in Australia. I passed the subject, but only with a C grade. The teacher seemed not to be very interested in me, since I wasn’t deemed to be “good” at art. One of our assignments was to stick dried macaroni and beans on a board to fill in an abstract pattern. It seemed pointless and boring, and a world away from the gorgeous collages I see some of my artist friends producing today. Another project was to do a lino-cut design and make prints from it. Lino was dreadfully hard to cut with the blunt cutters we were given. Probably the most interesting assignment was to design a cup and saucer for NZ Railways. I remember mine as being minimalist but serviceable, and it ended up in my portfolio. I changed schools after that year and I never did bother to pick up the portfolio. It would have been interesting to see it now.

Decades went by, and I still always liked art and occasionally tried to paint something, but never was able to realise on paper the masterpiece I pictured in my mind.  Five or so years ago, I finally gave away all my art equipment to a young person who I thought would appreciate it more than I did.

At the beginning of last year though, something strange happened. I had a sudden strong urge to take up painting and drawing again. Now, I’m an all-in or all-out sort of person. So I bought canvases and sketch books, watercolour paper and boards, pencils and three different types of pastels, a set of oil paints in a wooden box (thanks to my brother), acrylics and water colour paints, brushes, pens and more. My husband bought me a desk-top easel and gave me a voucher for more paints.

I’ve been delighted by this new hobby, 22 months old now, and surprised that I have an aptitude for mixing and using colour, and that some of what I paint is not bad. I’m not saying I am the best painter in the world or that I would even paint well enough to exhibit. It’s not about that. But I can paint well enough to derive great pleasure from  my new interest. I didn’t go to formal art classes, and while I have about 20 magnificent how-to art books, I have used them sparingly. What I really wanted to do was to paint pictures, and to learn by trial and error as I went.

In the next few posts, I’d like to share with you my rediscovery of fine art and a few of my paintings—each one has a story behind it and forms a kind of visual diary of my life and loves.

Brave beginnings

The hardest thing to do in order to start painting was—well, to start. Just to get used to acrylic paints, which I had never used before, I did a couple of practice abstracts first. This was advised by an acrylic painting basics book that I intended to follow from start to finish (but ended up only dipping into for handy hints).

This is one of my efforts. I called it “Australia”, because it was mid-summer, very hot in Melbourne and it was bush-fire season. I still like this as an expression of the joy of colour.

"Australia", acrylics on canvas, 2011

“Australia”, acrylics on canvas, 2011

However, I quickly tired of exercises. I wanted to do a “real” painting. I grabbed a small canvas board (8×10 inches, or 20.3 x 25.4cm) and looked round the kitchen for something simple: three ripe tomatoes, a square white plate and a knife. This is what I painted:


“Cut Me”, acrylics on canvas board, 2011

The best thing about this painting was the reflection of the tomato in the knife. People asked me how I did it. My answer? I just painted it over and over until it looked right. It was a fluke!

Then I did a lemon and knife. This one was in pastels and was the first of my works that I got framed: it was actually only meant to be a quick sketch I did to try out my new PanPastels on some cheap pastel paper. It took me less than 30 minutes, which is unusual, since I usually spend a long time—weeks and up to a couple of months—on my paintings.

PanPastels on pastel paper. 2011.

“Lemon and Knife”, PanPastels on pastel paper, 2011.

THE LESSON: Just keep painting and eventually, it will look right. If you’re using acrylics, buy a tub of gesso, a thick white paint you can use to paint out mistakes and do the section over again. Try some simple still-life paintings first. Try not to put the focal point of your painting in the dead centre (an artist friend told me this).

 Be ambitious

About this time, I joined the online art community at idrawandpaint.com. This is a great way to get some confidence, although when first I looked at it, I was so impressed with the paintings exhibited that I felt intimidated, and didn’t want to post my own. Anyway, then I decided to do it anyway, and the result was lots of helpful discussion and kind words about my art.

I got an old wooden wine box from a store up the road that recycles them. This is perfect for setting up my still-life subjects (and sometimes, the box appears in my paintings, too). I decided I would do paintings that told a story. They were complicated and very ambitious, given that I was a beginner. I had to learn to paint glass, both opaque and coloured, and fabric patterns, for example. I didn’t worry too much about perspective at this stage, and as you’ll see, I’m sometimes wildly out. But my artist friend says I can call it a “naïve” style. Another writer friend, who has worked as an art critic, says the flattening of perspective in some of the paintings is reminiscent of Cézanne. I’ll take that one!

"Only On His Day Off". Acrylics on canvas board. This one was painted for my husband, Gordon Dann, who works evening shift as a journalist. LESSONS: lines go wiggly when under glass; to paint difficult items, such as crackers, really look at them and paint what you see.

“Only On His Day Off”, acrylics on canvas board, 2011. I painted this for my husband, Gordon, who works evening shift as a journalist. LESSONS: lines go wiggly when under glass; to paint difficult items, such as crackers, really look at them and paint what you see.


“Waiting for Thai Tonight”, acrylics on canvas board, 2011. This features my Thai crockery and cutlery bought in the 1990s, and the condiments I would put on the plates before serving a Thai meal. The place mat was inspired by a Thai silk scarf given to me many years ago by my aunt and uncle, who visited me when I was living in Nonthaburi, Thailand.

Voices From Home

“Voices from Home”, acrylics on canvas board, 2012. This is a recent painting and shows my development as an artist (albeit a beginner). It features possessions of mine from my homeland, New Zealand. There is a kete (woven flax bag), books by authors I admire, a small painting I bought at Coromandel, a greenstone pendant, a paua ring, and a vintage rugby book given to me by a friend and including information about my great-grandfather, Bunny Abbott, who played in the 1905 All Blacks rugby union team known as The Originals.

THE LESSON: Don’t worry too much about technicalities such as perspective at this stage. You can learn these later—and anyway, it’s not a photograph. It’s your own interpretation. Also, try to find an audience, perhaps by joining an online art community.

Try different media

I’ve tried several different types of media, and I’ll look at these in subsequent posts. PanPastels are an unusual media in that they come in small flat pots, like a powder compact, and you brush them on with sponges in a painterly manner. Here’s more about PanPastels. I love them—in fact, they’re becoming my favourite medium. They have a great ability to provide sparkle and life to a painting. Here’s one of my favourite still lifes, a simple painting of three perfumes I have in my bathroom. The green satin is a piece of material I bought from a silk market in Shanghai, China, when I visited 10 years ago (it also features in the “Voices from Home” painting above).

"Chanel, Siren & Precious" PanPastels on Pastel Mat paper, 2012.

“Chanel, Siren & Fragile”, PanPastels on Pastel Mat paper, 2012.

THE LESSON:  when you begin, try a number of different media; you might surprise yourself with something you hadn’t thought of before.

To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s