How do I learn; let me count the ways

After a career mostly spent teaching others how to be creative wordsmiths, I’m having fun advancing my own artistic skills with brush, ink and paper. Chinese brush painting became a passion by chance; by choice I spend endless hours in self-directed study. With new year resolutions on the mind this last month, I reviewed some of the strategies that have ‘upped my game’ in the art room. Here’s some things that have worked for me:

1. Take a class, workshop, or course. A structured introduction to this art form can be invaluable in getting you familiar with ink, paper, brushes, and basic strokes. My intro focused on the materials and how they’re used, setting up your table for success, painting the four gentlemen, sourcing supplies, traditions and relevant principles, and other such basics.  Check your local schools, libraries, and rec centres for offerings every change of season. I blogged about the availability of lessons in Victoria some time ago and those opportunities still exist.

2. Look to other art forms. Learning to use watercolors, acrylics, or oil paints are obvious choices, but don’t limit the field. Look to printmaking, collage, encaustic, batik, textiles, and so on, and so on. Design and compositional elements come into play in all such endeavors.  I attended a short workshop on mat cutting at a local art store, and yes, I purchased product, but at a DISCOUNT. The inspiration of greater accessibility to mats pumped up the energy for painting. Here’s a link to the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts, as mentioned in the ‘news sharing’ at art group just last week. The setting itself would surely lead to greater creativity, but the available courses also sound intriguing.

3. Teach a course. Every teacher knows that students take a course but once, however when you deliver courses repeatedly you learn something new EVERY single time. Whether it’s a fresh idea you trip over when doing the prep, or a new interpretation offered by a student, or other such pleasant surprise, teaching can indeed prompt learning on the part of the teacher. It’s happened to me many a time, as recently as last month when delivering a workshop on horse painting. My prep led to many new finds, participant questions led to others, and the whole experience reminded me of how far I’ve come with the subject in only one year.


4. Read, read, read.  Go to the library, research on the Internet, borrow resources from friends. DO return the items, and the favors, if you want to stay friends! Several artists in my two art groups willingly lend treasured resources, mostly because they ‘know where to find me’. Reciprocation IS important. If you don’t own a scanner to capture images for your own long-term use, consider the photocopiers in a library. Mine has machines with large screen capture perfect for some of the older, large format CBP art books.

This composition of red plum in a large format book featuring Xu Zuoren’s work must be captured on camera or large format photocopier if you want to see the fine detail in a copy you take for your own use.


5. Build a library. Haunt the thrift shops and used bookstores in your neighborhood, your city, online. Check out garage sales, e-bay and the classifieds in papers and online. From the beginning it is important to organize any computer files you establish. I’ve yet to catalogue my books as my accountant/artist friend Bard D has done (easily done in a database software like Excel) but have orderly subject files on my MAC. We live in used bookstore heaven (nearby Sidney-by-the-Sea has seven such stores within a six block stretch—great browsing on a sunny day.) I make a point to snap up inexpensive copies of ones I already own for a library donation at one of our art groups, or offer at cost to other group members.

6. Learn to draw. Drawing is the foundation for all good art. Collect how-to books, take a class, carry a journal or sketchbook and USE it…. to doodle, jot notes about key finds whether in the field or in class or wherever. We recently got caught at a so-called Hurry Lube where they were short-staffed for the day. A planned half hour wait turned into a marathon and I was spared two hours with old magazines and lousy coffee because I had my sketchbook and a stubby pencil. I soon had pages of donkey poses worked out and a better grasp of their body proportions. The lousy coffee was quickly forgotten.


7. Collect images of what you like—electronic or otherwise. Store/file in a way you can access them readily. Cull from time to time and re-visit your stash for inspiration. Bird Woman insists on referencing PHOTOGRAPHS as opposed to the art of other brush painters (an accepted—and encouraged–practice in brush painting BTW). She packs a RELIABLE bird identification book with her art gear, and it comes in handy many an afternoon when some inquiring mind wonders where the Chinese Mandarin’s orange sails emerge, how a chickadee’s beak differs from others, which kingfisher hangs out where—it helps to be prepared.

Good reference books like these can be picked up ‘for a song’ in local used bookstores.


8. Learn how to use your “collection” tools—camera, scanner, computer, and printer. So many of my art friends these days carry an ipad or iphone and thus easily carry resource materials to art group, or capture images in a flash. Having extra camera batteries on hand is a must. When our mentor John Nip showed up unexpectedly at art group with a monstrous scroll painting he’d done, fortunately the moment was captured by those with cameras or iphones in hand.

John & Calligraphy 1 John & Calligraphy 2

Here’s a photo opp caught by chance when John Nip demonstrated some calligraphy for those of us painting the horse last year.


9. Join a group. I paint regularly with two such CBP art groups. They are GREAT sources for shared knowledge, encouragement, and inspiration. The bonds of a shared passion cannot be under-estimated. Here’s one of my groups caught at tea break one painting afternoon, sharing our ‘war stories’ from the art room.

GHartgroup2 copy

10. Ask questions and show an interest in other group members. You’ll only get out of group participation proportionate to what you put into it. Of course, ‘what goes around comes around’ and in turn when you let others know your prime interests—figure painting? monkeys? penguins?—then you’re likely to have friends surprise you with their finds. A loan of Hokusai’s Sketchbook, some monkey figurines, a rare copy of an original Mustard Seed Garden Manuel all came to me because I let my interests be known. One friend showed me how to glue, another how to use border paper, and they are all just one click away when I am challenged by a compositional or method problem. My gratitude cannot be adequately expressed. THANK YOU, THANK YOU.


A friend loaned me these porcelain figures she found in a garden shop when I was working on monkey compositions.

11. Enter a show. It pushes you to raise your art another level, to polish up a piece or two. What you may have grown tied of, frustrated with, and outright displeased with, may bring joy to others. Sometimes we can be our own worst critics. Celebrate your successes, and those of your friends. Reminds me of a Swedish proverb (Delad glädje, dubbel glädje: delad sorg, halv sorg) also claimed in other ethnic groups I’m sure! It means that happiness shared is double the joy; sadness shared is cut in half. Here’s a wall from an art show in the Cedar Hill Rec Centre held some time ago; what a thrill to have my art right up there with the work of some VERY talented people!


12. Practice, practice, practice. You may not reach perfection, but you do get better.

On that note, I’ve got to get back to the art room.  While gathering images for this post I found inspiration in some forgotten books, some misplaced images, and an old sketchbook.  Then there’s the course at Metchosin to consider, some plum blossoms across the road to photograph, and blank paper spread out on my art table… much to do and so little time.


This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How do I learn; let me count the ways

  1. Aki Graber says:

    Eloquent and informative. Thanks, Barb!

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