7 Tips For The Self Taught Artist

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Not many of us have the luxury of going to a top art school and learning how to draw and paint in person. If you are like me and do not have this luxury, then you have the added challenge of being a self-taught artist (as if learning art was not hard enough).

There is nothing glamorous about being a self-taught artist. In a perfect world, I would love to be taught by some of the great masters of drawing and painting at a top school.

On the flip side however, I would prefer to be a self-taught artist over going to an art school which does not teach art as if it were a trainable skill.

As a self-taught artist, you will have a tough but rewarding road ahead. You will not have the structure or guidance provided by a top art school, however, you will have the freedom to learn how you please.

If you are disciplined, then you can achieve anything as a self-taught artist that a trained artist could achieve. In fact, formal art training can be restrictive to the learning of some artists, who may be better suited to the self-taught path.

Some of the great masters of painting were self-taught, including:

Albert Dorne – mostly self-taught.

Vincent van Gogh – studied art briefly at the Antwerp Academy, but this had little influence on his approach to painting.

Paul Gauguin – was a sailor and stockbroker before he began painting.

Charles M. Russell –  no training at all.

James McNeill Whistler – mostly self-taught.

Winslow Homer – no formal art training.

Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868
Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868

So if you are on the self-taught journey as an artist, here are 7 tips to help you.

1. Be your own worst critic

It can be easy to put on rose-colored glasses when viewing your own work. But in order to actually learn and improve, you need to learn how to judge your art in an unbiased and critical manner.

If on the other hand, you are your own biggest fan, you will never identify any weaknesses or areas to improve on.

If you feel your ego is getting in the way of your learning, then put yourself out there and submit your work to competitions and galleries. You may be quickly humbled.

2. Expect nothing, but aim for everything

If you expect too much as a self-taught artist then you will quickly be discouraged if it doesn’t go your way. Being an artist is hard enough as it is even with formal training.

However, it is also important that you have an almost unbound optimism. You should be aiming to achieve whatever you desire.

This is what drives you forward. You may not achieve everything. In fact, you should certainly not achieve everything you desired.

If you have, then you probably did not dream big enough.

3. Copy the masters

Sometimes the best way to study the techniques and processes of the great masters is to just try and copy their works. This will give you a better understanding of the problems they faced, the strokes they made, the colors they selected and their overall approach to art.

The objective with copying master artworks is not to try and replicate them, but rather to get a feel for how the artist worked.

This should only form a small part of your studies though, as it is important you develop your own style.

4. Consistency is key

If you want to be a successful self-taught artist, then it is important that you simply put the hours in. Unfortunately, this is the hardest part about being self-taught.

Most of you will have day jobs and other hobbies. You do not have the luxury of studying for 7 hours a day at art school.

So you need to find the time when you can. Optimally, you should have regular sessions throughout the week. These do not need to be long sessions, but they should be focused and dedicated.

You need to seclude yourself from the world and make those sessions count. Put on some music and tune out the rest of the world. Half an hour of solid practice is much more effective than 7 hours of wavered practice.

A common pitfall for self-taught artists is waiting for that perfect time to practice (which as you will find never comes). You will just need to make do sometimes.

One of the best changes I made was to incorporate small paintings into my training and aim to complete them in just one session. This is the complete opposite to spending weeks trying to finish a huge studio piece, which often will just end up being unfinished in storage.

Small and quick paintings will keep your inspiration fresh and will make sure you do not get bogged down on a larger piece.

A great book which is based on this idea is Daily Painting: Paint Small and Often To Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Artist. A recommended read for all artists.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others

When you are not surrounded by other studying artists, you may find that you end up comparing yourself to very established professional artists (generally those whom you discover on the internet). What you need to realize is that all professional artists were amateurs at one stage.

Look at the professionals for inspiration, but do not compare yourself to them. Only focus on yourself and how you can improve. That is all that matters.

6. Document everything

I am a firm believer that you should document everything you do, even when you are in the early stages. There may be a time when your early works will be very significant to you.

When you observe your artworks as a collective group, you may be able to identify any areas of weakness that you may not have been able to identify from an individual piece.

For example, when looking at a group of my recent paintings I noticed they are generally much more saturated (colorful) than a group of my earlier paintings. This is because in my earlier paintings I was using too much white. I was not able to identify this issue from the individual paintings.

I find social media can actually be a great way to keep a record of your activity as an artist. It can act as your own storyline which highlights your progression.

7 Tips For The Self Taught Artist

7. Take part in the art community

Unfortunately, nothing comes close to the community of being in an art school. The next best option is voluntary involvement in the art community through competitions, exhibitions, art demonstrations and online forums.

If you get actively involved in the art community then you will not feel so disadvantaged from not going to art school.

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in:

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

104 comments on “7 Tips For The Self Taught Artist”

  1. Great article, very encouraging.
    You have good insight and an excellent way of getting your ideas across.
    Thanks so much….I’ve been painting for 3 years under an experienced painter and really am enjoying art.
    Newly retired I have time to pursue this interest….Lorie

    Reply
  2. Great tips! I’m looking to get back into the art world. I gave up drawing and painting after feeling lost as a self-taught artist. Too many unfinished pieces wasted. Your tip to try painting small quick pieces and stay consistence will definitely help me get back in the groove of things, as i rejoin the art community.

    Reply
    • A well-known artist here in Nova Scotia once told me to never throw away unfinished pieces or things you were disappointed in. You may be inspired one day to finish them. He showed my cousin and me a basement half full of unfinished works that he wanted to finish some day. He told us that on one of his paintings he painted the rocks 7 times before he was happy with them.
      Oh, and another tip from me? Never forget tips given to you by painters who know what they’re talking about.

      Reply
  3. Thanks for the great article… I now feel inspired again to be creative and vow to make time around my hectic full time job to do a little every day. ??‍?

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the advice! A while ago I started writing short stories about animals, and after watching a role-playing group display their art, I decided I wanted to draw my characters as well. Problem was, I kept comparing myself to them and eventually I all but dropped the whole thing. Now I’m feeling a little better, so I’m gonna try and teach myself the basics before anything else.

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed the post Christine!

      That is great that you are going to start again. If you need anything, let me know.

      Dan

      Reply
      • Dan, great tips and presented extremely well. I have been painting since age 19, but more since retiring in 2011. I am self taught, but don’t take myself too seriously. I tell people I studied art in Paris. They are impressed, until I ask, “Yes, have you ever been to Paris, Illinois?”

        Reply
      • Hi thanks.but you see? Im a iranian painter and a self taught one. There is no harder way then where im even you’re book limited us but i still kicking and screaming to learn something through free stuff and it’s not fair

        Reply
  5. I minored in art in highschool, but we did such variety of projects that we never focused much on painting. I had some exposure to acrylic paint with crafts so figured that was the medium I would try. January 2017 I started painting. I found that challenging myself to start painting once a week was good. As I made time for that I moved on to 3x week. I did small 8 x10 Paintings to be able to finish and stay motivated. My skill level quickly improved with frequent practice. Reading and watching videos about technique helped me work through areas of uncertainty. Your suggestions are ones I’ve used. I’m going to study more of the Masters’ works next. Thanks for your ideas.

    Reply
    • As beginner I studied the masters by doing puzzles and paint by numbers of their works. Also tried classes each using a different medium. Like your idea of doing small paintings. Can’t wait! Thank you

      Reply
  6. This is some really good information about art classes. It is good to know that it would be smart to try to copy master painters art. That does seem like a smart thing to do because that is how the old masters learned how to paint. It might be smart to look into taking some art classes if you are struggling with a certain concept.

    Reply
  7. Thanks Dan for a very helpful article. I am biginning to be a self taught painter and started to make big pieces of art with the results l found it difficult to fill up the background of main subject in a satisfactory way. So making small size paintings is a good tip for me .Thank you once again for the very good article.

    Reply
  8. I really enjoy your articles. I do not feel disadvantaged by never having an art class. I picked up a paint brush for the first time in my life in November 2017. What a life changing moment. I have been blessed by having a lot of friend support on this new adventure. I agree that social media and participating in art events and forums have been helpful. In fact I have developed long distance relationships with professionals who have started giving me tips and directing me to resources ( You were recommended to me by one such person). I am a professional nurse. I would not do well in a formal art school. I am perfectly content to explore this and learn as I go. I do not want to be herded into a rigid form of “right” or “wrong” technique. Thanks for all you do and inspiring others to paint.
    Julie

    Reply
  9. Nice article Dan, I have been Painting Landscapes for some 35 yrs. and am self taught. I have never tried to market my Art Work as I m not sure how or not comfortable pricing it. I have been teaching Art for some 20 yrs and quite honestly enjoy doing that more than Painting myself and get more satisfaction out of seeing the smiles on the faces of a brand new student .Whats that old saying. Those who can do— Those who can t Teach. Thanks for you time

    Reply
  10. A wonderful article I was looking for it very encouraging and helpful
    I have learned a lot and got confidence Great job
    Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Thank you so much for the encouragement. I too about 20yrs ago dabbled in a bit of folk art but even when young in school I was always copying the work of different artists and topped my class in art. Pity I didn’t get into it in a serious way, but I guess better late than never, and you have definitely inspired me to do just that. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  12. “You may not achieve everything. In fact, you should certainly not achieve everything you desired.

    If you have, then you probably did not dream big enough.”

    What a great quote, Dan.

    Reply
  13. Hi! I believe this is the first website I’ve found for the self taught artist. I call myself a lazy, procrastinating, amature artist wannabe for a good reason…. I choose to tackle a large canvas and get overwhelmed and once the painting is finished, I lay my brush down for a very long time. My paintings turn out good, (or so my critics rave), but its not enough to keep me motivated. I do believe ur information is exactly what I need to do to get me out of this never ending cycle. Thank u

    Reply
  14. Everything you have mention in this article, I am experiencing! Thank you so much for sharing this advice with amateur artist! I saved this so I can go back and read and remind myself of these inportant tips, ty!!

    Reply
  15. Hi Dan, I have just started painting after 25 years. I have no quiet place to work and the family room where I’ve been painting is too noisy with the TV on and my husband and his mother talking. What should I do?

    Reply
    • Convert a bedroom try the garage but you need your own space…my studio is a very small bedroom with a bag window
      Far from ideal but its mine and I can close thedoor
      Just do the work and see what happens….

      Reply
      • Dan, thank you for this wonderful article. I am self taught and only been painting a few years. Unfortunately I allowed fear to talk me out of waiting so long to try it. Turns out I’m decent at it. However, I cannot find my style. I can replicate quite a bit of good art but I want to be able to do my own thing! That’s where I feel maybe school would have helped me…I am 52 and a therapist and I never had art classes in school if you can believe that! One thing I haven’t tried though is copying the masters. Thanks for that fantastic idea!!!

        Reply
    • I am a self taught artist. I have used different media, and even won a few ribbons — mostly second and third ribbons, and one glorious first place ribbon. I have been out of it for almost 25 years while raising my son, overcoming health issues — and a 300 mile move when my husband got a good job offer. So, I am slowly getting back into it as I saved all the supplies I could. My best medium was graphite pencil, but now I have started using color pencils. I avoid the mess paints of any kind can make (or least I can). I have always been partial to flowers, so I am moving in that direction now. There is an art group where we are now, but I don’t feel able as I have Parkinson’s disease. I don’t think I will be joining the local art group, but I still do small things at home. Art is very self-rewarding for me. I do enjoy reading reading articles, and trying out methods. Perhaps there are some here that work at home without joining a group. It would be interesting to know how they find time to do complete paintings and drawings when they have no time restrictions, like not having to have something ready in time for the next art show.

      Reply
  16. Hi! Thanks so much for your honest experiences and insight! I”m painting again after 30 years!!!! I appreciate your advice about painting small projects frequently. I’m going to get some small canvases!!!!Recimmemdations…. level 1, 2 or 3, canvases ?

    Reply
  17. Grazie per i consigli Dan,
    senza saperlo avevo già provato ad imparare a dipingere copiando i maestri e facendo dipinti in piccolo formato in acquarello. Dopo aver letto il tuo articolo sono sicura di essere sulla strada giusta perchè in quel modo ho appreso e poi migliorato la mia tecnica. Gli amici mi dicono che i miei dipinti sono belli ma io non ne sono convinta . Dipingo da circa 2 anni e non so ancora quale è il mio “stile”.
    Come fare a farlo emergere?
    Se hai un cinsiglio da darmi ti ringrazio davvero tanto.

    Reply
  18. I have started back painting after 30 years and I mostly happy with my work, but am having problems in some areas such as shadows. Can you help

    Reply
  19. Hi Dan I’ve bern dabbling in acrylic paintings for a ehile and have tried lots of different ideas to which I’m always proud of but can’t seem to settle on any particular style I can call my own…yet. I love what im doing and have begun enjoying modelling pastes for texture its great. My boss gets all my wirk on his wall and they sell from there. Yet to find my niche.

    Reply
  20. Love it, especially number 3. I’m a strong believer that the more you steal, the better. And ironically, the more people you steal from, the more unique your style will be.

    Reply
  21. Self taught artist such a motivational topic I just loved it asbirs boosted my confidence reminds me slow n steady wins the race art needs a lot of patience and the results are definitely rewarding.. Will follow u always glad I found this article stay blessed

    Reply
  22. Thank you for that – it really resonates with me. I went to art college (briefly) then did art at College of Education and neither taught me HOW, they were so busy being in awe of abstract work. Which meant very little to me – I needed the basic skills.

    Reply
  23. I took a class at Michaels when I was 50 and loved decorative painting for several years. Since then I’ve tried oils, watercolor (not successful) and acrylics. I’m 82 now and still plodding along in acrylics but just love painting. Enjoyed your article immensely!!!

    Reply
  24. Hi Dan,
    Just want to thank for this great article for us amateur, self-taught painters. I especially appreciated your comment about looking at your paintings honestly and seeing your mistakes and areas where you can improve the next time. I am 77 yrs young and started painting 4 years ago. Thank you for unselfishly sharing your knowledge.

    Reply
  25. Dan, i am glad i found your “academy”.
    I have a problem with time ,place for practice and inspiration. As I am a mum of three children.

    This year I found master she teach group of artists with oil painting. I like oil and seems to me oil likes me))
    But I like most of all paint on shirt, bags.
    Finally I understood that I need to practice every day.
    Thank you,Dan, and I’m gonna folow your advices 😉

    Reply
  26. So agree with you Dan…there are so many ways to learn from great artists today. I’m loving the online education. I have friends who are really afraid to put their work out there because of the critiques their art schools gave them. It’s what we artist’s have to do, put our work out there, so in that area, self taught artists are ahead of the game! Thanks for all the great info you share!

    Reply
  27. Thanks for these much needed tips …. Am a young artist so personally this will help me a lot in my upcoming years ?

    Reply
  28. Hi Dan,
    I subscribed and tried to order your ebook but after I entered all my card information the screen changed and went back to your Pinterest page. I don’t know if the transaction went through and I wasn’t allowed to enter my shipping address. Can you please tell me if the transaction went through or not?
    Thank you in advance!

    Reply
  29. Thank you for your article. I laugh at my works all the time because by teaching myself, I have become an intuitive abstractionist if there is such a thing. That said, I am always learning about my materials and how to use them. I just like trying different things to see what happens. Glad to know that I have such accomplished artists to be inspired by. Include your-self in that as I often use your suggestions and advice.

    Reply
  30. Hi Dan
    Thanks for encouraging me to continue in painting. In which way? I realised I had made some “bad steps” for e.g. point 5, I always compared ( and wanted to copy them) with my friends who attended some courses or have painted a larger number of years . I feel much willingly in my “painting world”. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks once again for an educational and inspirational article. You have a rare gift for being able to synthesize the complex and mysterious aspects of painting down to common practices! In my painting, I just realized that I (or some unknown art force) was setting up lessons for myself. There is always something new and challenging for me to learn in a painting. My last one was about water reflections. Current one seems to be about relective sunlight on waves.

      Reply
  31. Hello,
    You said : be your worst critics. Ok,…but then I have problem here. If I make a painting that I found it turned out well, it is not appreciated by others. If I make a painting that I don’t find terrible, but it is finished and I don’t know what to do more to make it better, I put it on the site where I keep my paintings on line anyhow : Artquid. I get more “hearts” from painters who are following me for those..some of them are professionals.
    I am not even aiming to sell paintings on that site, I just want to keep all my paintings in the same place without spending time on a blog or so.
    The best critics are your fellow artists exposing on the same exhibition..but you have to ask to be critical ! I don’t mind as long as they give me advice too.
    It is a good article you made here. Thank you
    Lisette

    Reply
  32. Thanx again Dan, for another inspirational and well written article. I always always! learn something. As a beginner, I read a lot of things about painting on the internet. Your articles are so easy for me to understand and you go way past the art….which I really get a lot out of…and talk about things that often go through my mind; attitude, mindset, and focus….to name a few. It is frustrating being new to the world of painting, and feeling as if it wasn’t meant for me, but you help me believe in myself. I know I’ll get better with time and so I paint for myself. It is my Zen, my calm, my peace. I enjoy it very much.
    Thank you again for allowing me to allow myself to keep on keepin on!

    Kathy

    Reply
  33. I’m self taught, but when I got the chance to go to art school, I jumped at it. I learned so much. A little art history, color theory, and graphics goes a long way to help you open new doors for yourself. Even now, many years later, I find myself drawing on something I picked up in school every now and then.

    Reply
  34. Boy this is so very true what you wrote here , i too am a self taught artist and i draw every day, i have come a long way and others have said this also , i love art , drawing with pencil, colored pencils, and paint…I even do Christmas cards for the elderly in the nursing home here where I live140 of them every year all done by hand ….

    Reply
  35. Hi i don’t know what to say those are good tips but i was wondering… i mean my family keep saying that being an artist is a waste of time and i just want to know what should I do i really like drawing but there is no one to say that im in the right place don’t know if you will read this but anyway good luck

    Reply
  36. Thanks for these tips!! I have only been painting about 2 months now. I have found that I absolutely love it!!!! I am going to do all of these, any help is great and makes me more excited to paint. I appreciate ya and maybe I can share some artwork sometime!! 😊

    Reply
  37. I painted professionally for 12 years 1968 to 1982 when recession hit . I was doing quite well at art shows through out the state of Texas. Had family had to go back to work as geological draftsman then retired. I’m now 79 years old still love to paint and have started back. Mainly I paint in watercolors , but also use egg tempra and acrylics. Took workshops with Robert Wood years ago. My name is Buster Manley I live in Corpus Christi Texas. I agree with all of them.

    Reply
  38. I painted with oils many years ago when I was 19 and 20, left off for awhile when I met and married a wonderful man. Throughout the years, I would pick up the brush and paint some more. I have always been interested but have not painted in a while. I keep planning to, and now at almost 88, I WILL get started again. Thanks for all the great tips!

    Reply
  39. Dan,
    It is really a nice article like your other articles, informative and giving practical tips. I am a self taught person. What I found interesting was that I was already using most of your tips. By the way, after my college days I had discontinued painting. After about 40 years, I have rekindled my interest in painting and have found my groove again!!

    Reply
  40. Hello, my name is Evelyn Smith and all I know is I really loved to color my whole life and still do, and my mother had a hydrocal business and we made plaster statues and various other like lamps and wall hanging plaques etc. and she taught how to paint in her shop and I loved painting things for everybody in the family. I would really be interested in painting art pictures now. I have a little self taught pictures I have drawn looking at other pictures but that’s as far as I have gotten, but I really want to do more and reading what people are saying makes me excited to do something more. Could you tell me how to start please and Thank You! Eager to learn, Evelyn Denise Smith😊

    Reply
  41. I’ve been painting for ABOUT 2hours years… and I find important to my life. Recently with COVID I have depended on my painting to keep me sane & productive and someone will Paint up to 7 hours a day…
    I started with note cards, I must have painted thousand for friends and family and gifts ( that the small projects) and now I’ve graduated
    to canvas. However the strange thing is that no one really used them,
    But instead they framed them, that was so cool!
    Thank you for your POST! You have inspired me to carry on!
    I’m just working on my “own style” NOW! And I love it.
    Thank you for your encouragement,and I have had Parkinson disease
    For over 40 years.
    Sincerely,
    Wendy

    Reply
  42. Dan, I absolutely agree with you. I am self taught, not professional but I only started to love my own art once I stopped comparing my art and to grasp my OWN style. Yes, I followed amazing artists on YouTube, I still do to get tips and ideas. I painted small and as I have grown in confidence, I am painting bigger, quicker and better. Its been about 4 years, I paint with mostly water colour paint and pencils an average of 2 paintings a week. Practice does make perfect.

    Reply
  43. Dan, glad I found your write up . I’m going through the struggle right now and your words are motivating and gives me a path to follow. Thank you.

    Reply
  44. Such a good, helpful article! My biggest hindrance in my development as an artist is putting in the time. I constantly deal with guilt for working on my art, feeling there are other th I vs that must be done first. For.goodness sakes, I am.72 yrs.old and should be able to.do.what I want, right? 😊

    Reply
  45. Awesome informative and Inspiring information! I feel theirs hope yet in my paintings and the style I want to achieve! I love the Impressionist style of the famous Artist and your work as they give me the inspiration to caring on! Thank You so much Dan

    Reply
  46. I have been painting since 1951 but then I was a Iithographic Artist
    And the.only training i had was to
    Do with the Trade
    To my mind Art is a passion and all you need is desire
    And a lot of work . and I mean a lot
    Of hard work . Observation. Interpretation , composition and it is the hand you have to train
    Sorry for all that fogive me I
    Am 90 and like a lot of Artists quite strong opinions . So try and try again you will get there.

    Reply

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