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How to paint like a professional

27 November 2017

Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner, presenters of Sky Art’s Landscape Artist of the Year and Portrait Artist of the Year, share their top tips.

Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell
Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell

Invest in good tools

Joan Bakewell: A selection of quality brushes are worth their cost. And buy good paper. An art-supplies shop is usually staffed by people who know what they’re talking about, so ask for their advice. Don’t go mad and buy lots of tins of different colours, though: you can mix and make your own. Red, blue and yellow will get you a long way.

Don’t be timid

Frank Skinner: The reason I find painting terrifying is that you’ve got this beautiful white canvas and you’re probably going to spoil it. But you mustn’t be intimidated. Just think, ‘Oh, if what I do is rubbish, I’ll get another sheet’.

The artists on the shows that I enjoy the most are the ones who utterly attack the big white space. They’re fearless. If you don’t, you start doing little pencil lines and you’re slightly hiding in one corner. What you want in a painting is life and some sort of passion. Watching quite a lot of the artists paint, it’s like upper body work. That energy comes out in the painting.

Study the Old Masters

JB: Visit galleries. There’s nothing better than getting up close to how the great painters did it. It’s a revelation to see the way Cézanne’s brush strokes differ from Van Gogh’s. Study how they structured a painting, too. Narrow your eyes and see the verticals and horizontals, and how they cross and collide. Nothing is an accident.

Put your subject somewhere unexpected in the picture

FS: For a lot of people, the temptation is just to stick your subject in the middle of the canvas, whether it’s a National Trust house or a person. But if you go for the obvious composition, you’re in the territory of the predictable before you’ve put anything on the canvas. Take a moment to think and change things about – putting a figure at one side of the composition, next to an expanse of colour, perhaps. You want people to look at the painting and think ‘Ah, that was a clever idea’. Something that grabs them, just as you want the first paragraph of a book to grab you.

We had someone who painted a celebrity and they put their head right at the bottom of the frame. That made you think differently about the subject. You started viewing them more as a person, because they’re not centre stage – part of a bigger picture.

Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell in Knaresborough

You don’t have to be too literal

FS: When you paint a landscape, it’s your landscape. It doesn’t have to be a photographic representation. If you think it would look better if a feature was over there, then move it. That’s not some weirdo modern art thing. There are paintings by Turner where he’s thought, ‘If that tree was nearer the castle it would be a better composition’. Nature can be a bit random, which is annoying when you’re doing a painting, so you can do a nice edit of a landscape. Moving things is also quite exciting because it probably means you’re going to paint something no one else has.

I don’t think you can do it in portraits so much, though. You can’t say. ‘Oh, they’ve got a big nose – I’ll give them a new one’.

Take time to really look at your subject

FS: I’ve stood looking at a landscape with an artist and they’ve said, ‘There’s a lot of purple in that hill’. I’ve thought, ‘It’s just green’. Then they’ll say, ‘No, if you look at that shadow…’ and, almost like a Magic Eye, you look and look and the purple appears. I think we’ve probably all got the ability to look at things this deeply, but we don’t. We probably see them at about 60%, while artists see them at 95%.

I once studied a lake with the artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg for about ten minutes and he talked about the effects on the surface of the water – the reflections of the light and stuff. The more he spoke, it was like learning a language. I was like, ‘Yes, of course. YES! I can see that now’. I’d looked at that lake ten times that day and none of those things had occurred to me, but he’d found a way of getting straight to the heart of the matter.

With portraits, a lot of the artists like to get the sitter chatting. When they get their personality a bit more, it influences the way they paint them – a bit of the inside of the person on the canvas, as well as the surface. If you decide they are warm and kind, for instance, the way you paint their eyes or their mouth is just infused with that.

Know when to stop

FS: People say, ‘The thing about a painting is, how do you know when you’ve finished?’ I used to think it was a trivial, jokey remark. But after doing the show, I’ve realised it’s a massively important thing. I’ve walked past so many people and they’ve got something brilliant on the canvas. Then they’ve had a little pick at that, a little pick at this, I’ve gone back five minutes later and they’ve killed it.

It’s important to be brave enough to look at what you’ve done and say, ‘I really like that now,’ even if you might not think it’s properly finished. I’ve watched even really good artists destroy their pieces by over-working. ‘What if I put just a bit more colour in it?’ they’ll say, and suddenly throw the balance of the painting. Then they have to go to another part of the canvas to redress things and suddenly two things are going wrong. They lose confidence in the whole painting, start redoing it and end up putting a bad painting over a good one.

Decide to love what you do

JB: When you start painting, you are about to embark on a wonderful journey; one that is uniquely yours and expresses your true self. I had a go at watercolour once myself and produced the work of a giddy, chirpy optimist. ‘Where did she come from?’ I wondered. Don’t let the world judge you, and don’t be hard on yourself, discouraged or disheartened.

I always pity those painters working in the open when passers-by stop to look, and comment, and spoil the moment. Find a place to be on your own.

Frank Skinner spoke to Simon Hemelryk

The third series of Landscape Artist of the Year is on Sky Arts now. The fourth series of Portrait Artist of the Year starts in January

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.