A Painter’s Best Bet: Stay in Kindergarten


Jeffree by David Leffel, oil on canvas.
Jeffree, oil painting, 18 x 15.
All works by David A. Leffel.

I spend a lot of time brainstorming how an artist can become an Old Master of the 21st century. What kind of confidence, skill, and vision will it take for an artist working today to gain that reputation? I believe the best way is the simplest: learn how to paint–how to mix it, pick it up, put it on the surface, control it, and manipulate it with a brush.

“Painting is a game,” says artist, instructor, and author David A. Leffel. “It has certain constraints and parameters, but it is the kind of game that has infinite permutations. There are always different ways you can go.”

Students seek out Leffel’s expertise assuming they will learn specific painting techniques, but the artist stresses that the world of painting is much more than that. “Teaching someone how to paint is teaching someone how to see differently,” he says. “It is not all technically based and technique oriented. When I teach, it is like having a duel with each person.” The duel simile is a good one–Leffel teaches his students to parry expectations and formalized ideas, and to evade the temptation to formalize or codify their painting process.

Becoming more nimble and flexible in one’s way of seeing and evaluating form, light, edges, and color will also strengthen an artist’s ability to find compositional solutions and meet the challenges that all artists face. “All the great painters had visual intelligence, so when I am looking at a painting, I am seeing how the artist’s mind works,” Leffel says. “It is like reading a sign. I can see when a painter took 20 brushstrokes to make a nose and only needed three to make it look the same. They labored over it because they didn’t have a keenness of mind.”


Roman Glass with Oranges, Garlic & Grapes, oil on canvas. Oil painting by David Leffel.
Roman Glass with Oranges, Garlic & Grapes,
oil painting, 8 x 13.

As a painter, I’m still in an artist’s version of kindergarten. I told Leffel as much, and he said that is the best place to be. “The one human activity that has no motives is learning. Be willing to be ‘in kindergarten.’ Just learn. Painting is a discipline with problems and solutions. No matter what is being painted or who is painting, there are certain problems and solutions; the more intelligent the painter–the more elegant and effortless the solution.” And the finesse comes with effort and commitment. Whether one paints in oils, watercolor, or pastels, a firm dedication to developing your craft means being an artist with no limits.

This dedication and an open mind lead to surprising innovations, and enable us to develop the ability to think and see like Old Masters. Have you experienced breakthroughs that have made a strong impact on your work? Leave a comment and let me know. And consider bringing even more top painting know-how and exercises to hone your abilities, plus more access to top artist David Leffel with his book on the art of painting, An Artist Teaches. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

13 thoughts on “A Painter’s Best Bet: Stay in Kindergarten

  1. Courtney,
    This is an excellent post. We artists are life-long learners. We learn the most by doing. Cultivating your sense of wonder and curiosity help you progress and enjoy the trip. Most lasting progress happens in baby steps rather than bold discoveries. Each unsuccessful painting adds to your knowledge and informs further work. I always remember Monet in his 90’s saying”I believe Im getting close to making progress with light and color”. When I reach that age, I hope Im still striving for something I havent quite reached yet. Mark Beale.

  2. While I see the value in understanding light, drawing and values, etc. I believe that effective instructors should give technical support when requested. If there is a reason to also include painting philosophy as part of that answer, so much the better.

    The problem started when art schools got away from teaching technique. I can’t imagine a grand master learning in the Renaissance to just go with his feelings or think just about light without some technique thrown in for good measure!

  3. Hello Courtney
    I dabble a little in everything. I have 3 daughters and 1 son. I work with them to try and awaken their artistic drive. My 3rd one has a little trouble because when she draws it does not look like it. I have tried to explain that it is an evolving task. I found this article very interesting and I will have my daughters read it. One other explanation that will help bridge the gap to an evolution into art as FUN.

  4. I agree with Bill re:art schools not teaching technique…….I had 2 classes with teachers that taught heavy duty old masters technique…one for drawing, one for painting….the rest of my art classes were simply a waste, I could have learned in a book what was taught there…..Artists are creative by nature, and if taught skill and discipline and practice, they will develop individuality over time (what every artist seeks)…..The biggest experience breakthrough that has made a strong, life changing impact on my work is to dedicate myself to daily painting….as essential as food and water……..I’m still in kindergarted too, but at least I’ll be moving on to first grade next year if I continue my painting a day challenge to myself

  5. I am a huge fan of David Leffel! As a matter of fact my greatest growth and breakthrough was in reading his book. He is a fantastic instructor and his advice has had a very strong impact on my work.

  6. Only very recently I came to the realization that although we are all able to “learn” how to paint by the rules, (as other’s see them), we can only paint as we were gifted by painting as our own innate child-self using our own seeing for guidance and this takes us our whole lifetime, as we are continually evolving. This realization came from my reaction to and interpretation of this quote “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” by Picasso
    I believe we are all inherently unique artists but we loose our natural gifts by trying to “paint/create” the same way someone else (as in, the Masters) did……. and that if we pursue our own way of seeing things and interpret them as we see them, we can and will create something new and beautiful and as we progress by continually allowing ourselves to learn we will develop into our own mastery.
    Great article… thank you

  7. Hi Courtney,

    I also feel like I’m in kindergarten, mainly because I am as I’ve only been painting a few years and not really dedicated that much time to it.
    Two years ago I was in a Saturday morning class at the local college and we were doing complimentary opposites. I was trying to paint a woman with a red headdress in orange and blue but something “took over” and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t paint what I was seeing in my head. I ended up with a stunning picture in red, purples and yellow. I hope that ‘thing’ takes over again soon.

    Thanks for all your good articles too, I always look forward to reading them and do save most of them too, like this one.

    Cheers Charles Hadfield

  8. I start with a small canvas/paper, and lay down original — this is what I want to do — idea, then play… usually that eureka comes with the play. Then I expand from there.

  9. Nice post! I like that game thing. A game consists of a goal plus freedoms and barriers. And hopefully learning does have the motive of application.

  10. After taking a master workshop with David Leffel (the highlight of my life so far) my approach to painting became actually more structured and more intelligent. At the same time I was delighted to discover that he did not teach technique as I never used technique in my work before and didn’t intend to start. But he does teach approach and how to begin a painting without actually drawing. I learned how to think about my work in that class. Worth a million dollars!

  11. I would argue that a constant pursuit of the Old Masters is like talking with a great teacher, not a minute wasted. Who would not get infinite insight from Michelangelo, Degas, Raphael, and a host of others?

  12. Hi Courtney. I love this. Always being in learning mode is crucial to growth. One thing I’ve learned – I specialize in miniature fine art so I work under magnification a lot of the time. The challenge in miniatures is to create work that can be enlarged and still look like a painting that was created on a normal sized canvas. Because I work in such a small space (you can fit the painting in your palm) I have to economize on brush strokes. I can’t do mechanical drawing or any detailed drawing before I paint because there just is not room for it. I’ll often do large studies before I tackle a miniature piece. Sounds backwards, I know. But the more I learn to paint as David Leffel says, “effortlessly,” the better I can paint in miniature where the space limitations take you out of that place in your head where everything is technical and exact.