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Don't Panic

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Advice for nervous beginners

Don’t Panic: so reads the title on the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, in Douglas Adam’s famous book. And it is a good place for beginners to start too. As I said to one lady, it’s not war in Iraq, it’s just an art class!

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint' then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced"

Vincent Van Gogh

I have been teaching beginners for many years now, and the same issues come up time and time again. This page is not about the nuts and bolts of painting; it is about answering the real fears and anxieties that people have when starting art classes or learning to paint. I sincerely hope it helps you:

'I have barely picked up a pencil since school, what if I am no good?'

You need to give yourself time. Nothing is learnt quickly, least of all painting and drawing. Allow yourself to make mistakes, they are necessary, you will not progress without them, and have fun. Laughter is the best antidote to making a mess of your work. Understand that improvement is not a straight line to your goal; it is a series of ups and downs. Art is not like typing or cycling. There never comes a day when you can ‘do it’. It is a journey. Artists are always learning, even professional ones.

Remember: It’s just a piece of paper, and there is always more paper.

'I am worried that the other people in the class will be really good, and may laugh at my attempts?'

This is the biggest fear for beginners, and it is always unfounded. Everyone in the class (including the tutor) was a beginner once, and will want to help you by sharing their knowledge. Art is such a broad church that comparison with others is pointless. Some people can draw well, others are better with colour. Some love abstract brush marks, others botanical accuracy. Focus on finding your own style and preferences, on personal improvement and learning.

'But aren’t some people just naturally gifted at art?'

It is true that some people are gifted at art, just as some are gifted in other areas of life. But just because it doesn’t come quite as easily doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

A true story:

I struggled with driving, failing my test three times in my early 20’s. I gave up, decided I just couldn’t do it. Over time it became the family joke, my confidence diminished further. 10 years passed, I walked everywhere. Then something happened, I needed to drive. I found myself in a difficult position; now I was a single parent, and one who needed to be able to transport not only a child (and friends) but heavy paintings about. I decided to try again, picking a teacher who was friendly but chatted rather a lot; I failed my test a fourth time. I changed instructors. Surprisingly this new instructor seemed to think I just needed a few lessons, he believed in me and assured me I was nearly there. He was firm but helpful, he gave me the real help and techniques I needed. I gave it one last shot. Fifth time lucky, I passed! I have been happily driving for nearly two decades now, and currently zip about in an obscenely bright green Skoda Citigo.

Just because you are not Jenson Button doesn't mean you can’t drive a car.

Just because you are not Scarlett Johansson doesn't mean you can’t star in the local amateur dramatics society play.

Just because you are not Gordon Ramsey doesn't mean you can’t be a great cook.

I have never taught anyone who didn’t learn, and gradually improve. We are all gifted at something; the other stuff must be worked at. If you want to learn to paint, find someone to teach you and get on with it!

'I think I have left it too late; I am probably too old now…'

My oldest student came to me via a community arts project in a residential home; she was 87 and had never painted. In between crocheting garments for her great grand children she produced watercolours of local views and flowers, turning some of them into cards and presents. She showed her work in some of the local exhibitions. This new hobby filled her with pleasure, and gave her a connection to many people in the community. Any other excuses?


' I am never going to be that good, is it worth learning to paint?'

Firstly you will never know how good you are going to be until you do it.

Secondly there are many reasons for painting, apart from the result. Painting is hugely relaxing, which can be beneficial to health. Life can be hectic and stressful. Painting makes you sit still and appreciate the things you barely notice normally. It gives you a resource that you can call on during times of convalescing or temporary disability. Painting also gives you a real insight into the world around you. Just like the seriously ill patient who recovers, you will suddenly notice colours and shapes you never looked at before.

'I get so frustrated in the class; I want to do well, but always seem to mess up!'

Art seems to be unlike learning anything else. If you went to learn computer maintenance, flower arranging or pottery class with no prior knowledge whatsoever you would not expect to be very good. But from day one in an art class, students expect perfection from themselves. Please understand that failing is part of the process of learning absolutely anything. It is the failures that teach us what not to do next time. It is important to change your view of success. Ask yourself at the end of a class not: ‘Is it perfect?’ but: ‘Have I learnt something useful today?’


'Some of the subjects in my class look really hard, I can’t do any of those things, how will I manage?'

In a mixed ability class, it is necessary to also cater for people who have been attending for years; some may even exhibit or sell their work, a thought which terrifies beginners! But any subject or class can be suitable for beginners if the teacher is happy to welcome them. If you can’t paint a bowl of fruit, perhaps you could just start with sketching an apple. Ask the tutor how to start, and if they can demonstrate new techniques. There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ subject, and trying something that is outside your comfort zone can bring surprising results. If you never take risks you never improve. Resolve to just ‘have a go’. The worst that can happen is you ruin a piece of paper, and there is always more paper.


'I would prefer a beginners class, but can’t find one.'

Whilst a short course for beginners can be a place to start it is not always an advantage to be with lots of other people who are just as inexperienced as you. A teacher can’t be everywhere at once; how nice if that lady sitting next to you could give you a few tips, or help you mix that colour you need!

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'I try my best in the class, but never seem to improve, and the teacher makes me feel inadequate.'

Just as there are good and bad dentists, there are good and bad art teachers. Perhaps for whatever reason the class just does not suit you, try a different teacher, a different medium; don’t give up!

Some things to look for in an art class:

  • A nicely comfortable temperature, with good light. (Think about this before taking an evening class, the older you are the harder you will find working in artificial light.)

  • A good atmosphere, friendly students. It isn’t school; you shouldn’t have to work in silence!

  • An interesting range of techniques/subjects/media, including real objects not always just photographs.

  • A teacher who is gives constructive criticism, in a positive way and offers real techniques to help you improve. Avoid teachers who want you to paint 'just like them' or who just offer vague encouragement. You are paying real money and should expect something in return for it.

  • A class that enables you to progress at your own speed, and find your own style and direction, with encouragement and help.

'I enjoy painting but my family/partner/friends always criticise my efforts'

What can I say, everyone’s an art critic. It’s a safe occupation, since art is subjective anyhow and even the world’s most successful artists are regularly hated by someone. Remember: Van Gogh never sold a single painting; he gave a few away, sometimes bartering for rent and food. The people he gave the paintings to were embarrassed by them, one man used his to cover damp patches on the walls. Now they are worth millions. If you enjoy painting don’t let other people’s comments stop you. People often do not realise how hurtful they are. And often it’s jealousy, because you are brave enough to try something new and they are not.

If you are waiting until your work improves and people stop criticising you, I am afraid you will wait a long time. The most successful and talented people in our society attract the most criticism (at least here in England, where we root for the underdog… until they win!). You cannot control what other people say, you have a choice over whether to listen or not (life is short; don’t waste your precious time.)

Learn to recognise the difference between constructive criticism from an expert who truly wishes to help you and a lot of waffle from some clueless motor-mouth who couldn’t paint a wall if handed a pot of Dulux.

If all else fails and some know-it-all is standing at your shoulder pointing out the faults with your artwork try this retort:


“Oh, well perhaps you could show me how it’s done then?”(Smile sweetly, hand over paint brush, watch them make themselves scarce.)


"Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend"

John Singer Sargent

"I hope I will be able to paint as long as I live"

Margrethe II if Denmark

"I believe, I believe every day is a good day when you paint"

Bob Ross

"Why sit on your butt watching 'Jersey Shore' when you can learn to paint a beautiful picture?"

Levin Rambin

"Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing. and being nothing."


"I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it"

Pablo Picasso

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