Is It Better to Learn From One Artist or From Many?

While I was working recently on American Artist's new special issue, The Complete Painter's Handbook (order now!), I had a little debate with myself. The question at hand: If you are working to learn how to paint, is it better to focus on following the practices of one artist, or to learn painting from many?

Down East Reflections by JC Airoldi. Airoldi is one of the professional artists who shares advice on painting in the upcoming American Artist special issue, The Complete Painter's Handbook.
Down East Reflections by JC Airoldi.
Airoldi is one of the professional artists who shares advice
on painting in the upcoming American Artist special issue,
The Complete Painter's Handbook

The Complete Painter's Handbook falls squarely into the second camp. It features dozens of artists sharing advice on how to paint in oil, watercolor, acrylic, pastel, and numerous other media. Some artists' are featured in long articles; others drop by just to share a few words of encouragement and offer a painting tip or two.

The thinking behind this style of learning is that diversity of opinions and methods is crucial for an artist-student. I think it's a terrific way to learn, because everyone can find something new that fits with his or her practice. And if you're really eager to learn, there's a lot here for you. Whether you are a growing artist who needs a little more refinement to bring your fine art to the next level; an artist with experience in one medium looking to learn how to paint in another; or someone who has only recently started painting, there will be professional artists whose advice can help your art progress.

But this isn't the only way to go. There's also the school of thought that the best way to learn to paint is to apprentice yourself to a great painter (or devotedly study the books, DVDs, and teachings of one artist) in order to master one approach to oil painting, watercolor, etc. The goal, of course, is not to just emulate that artist's style but to equip yourself with strong enough tools that you can build an accomplished and original practice of your own.

So what do you think? There's certainly value in both approaches–it's important to try many things and also to pick something and stick with it. But which is paramount? How do you prefer to learn? Leave a comment and let me know!



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Austin R. Williams

About Austin R. Williams

Austin is an associate editor of American Artist, Drawing, and Watercolor magazines. His interests include a number of artistic subjects, in particular contemporary drawing, and he is also a lover of literature and movies.  His favorite artists include Durer, Guercino, Degas, Menzel, Cezanne, and Blakelock. His favorite book about art is Michael Frayn's Headlong, and his favorite movie about art is Orson Welles' F for Fake.

11 thoughts on “Is It Better to Learn From One Artist or From Many?

  1. I like to study many painters, love to copy their styles from Van Gogh to Burchfield. I love works from the “The Ashcan School”, Maurice Pendergast, “Central Park” the colors is what draws me to the painting, not the subject matter, yet it lacks detail, it looks unfinished, Yet he is one of my favorite artist beside George Luks…and many others. I have found, that one artist to use as a tool, to get you to where you want to go, is all you need

  2. Why do you need a one size fits all answer? I think individuals vary in what works for them, whether they have found the master who speaks to them, what their personality/learning style is and how it meshes with group versus individual instruction. The whole point of creativity is to bring out the best in each artist’s work in whatever way works for him or her. For many of us this involves exploring our options, not being told the “right way.”

  3. Hola estimados amigos…
    Para mi ha sido muy importante aprender de varios artistas, de cada uno he aprendido cosas diversas, y todo eso más la experiencia vivida en la ejecución de cada trabajo artístico y el resultado obtenido es lo que va modelando en nuestra mente lo que nos gusta y lo que no. De esta forma he ido desarrollando un trabajo cada vez mas profesional y auténtico, sin copiar ni imitar a otros, y algún día mi estilo de trabajo me identificará como creadora…
    Saludos cordiales…

  4. When I was exhibiting and selling a lot of my work I found the main ‘criticism’ I got from so-called experts and art critics was that I had no particular ‘style’. For some reason critics feel a need to categorize artists. I used to put a ‘disclaimer’ in my catalogs or in joint exhibition on my artist profile that stated that it may appear I have no particular ‘style’ and that was because I enjoyed the challenge of learning and experimenting with new techniques and that my mood on any particular day effected how I painted , as did the feelings about subject. So if you are serious about building a career in art you may find you will come up with this ‘problem’ – you might like to study and develop one style – but for me that would be a bit too boring!!


  5. There was a similar topic here not too long ago.

    “How to” books and “How to” instructors unfortunately set up artists with inherent limitations. You should run from anyone who says this is how to paint a tree or this is how draw cats.People who want a recipe on how to do art are attracted to “how to” instructors or advice. It’s a dead give away that they are novices or posers. Instead, understanding composition, color, proportion, perspective, and other fundamentals of art is important. Know these and you can draw or paint anything. With that being said, you can learn these fundamentals from many teachers and many sources.

  6. I have to disagree with Katpaints comments about “posers and novices”. In fact it could be quite offensive to some people. There is a whole gammit of material these days to choose from when studying art, from books, to DVDs and even utube have been a great source of encouragement to a lot of budding artists. As to the question in hand. When I was studying I found that once I knew what and how I wanted to paint I would concentrate on just a couple of artists with the same passion as me otherwise I became frustrated at the many different opinions and styles offered.

  7. Yes CeeBee7 there are plenty of materials for people to choose from. What I am suggesting is that people avoid teachers and materials that teach step-by-step exactly what to do without teaching proper methods of observation and understanding form, color, perspective, etc in and of itself. People and children who are beginners tend to be drawn toward exact step-by-step because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. What I am saying is that this is not understanding how to draw and paint in the truest sense. Fine start out this way, but move on.

    Unfortunately, I have run across many people who are still in this beginner’s stage of copying and creating work according to a step-by-step formula (and I do not mean step-by step of working from an under painting to building up layers in a painting. I mean draw the round head then add on the ears. Let’s make lines for the whiskers…)They hang a shingle out and call themselves and artist too soon. Some quickly move on to teaching workshops themselves. Mastery needs to be a priority. Find a teacher or method that moves you forward so that you are able to make creative decisions outside of rote learning. If you find that you are copying a teacher’s style, it means that it is time to find your own voice.

  8. When I am taking a painting class, I find I learn the most, when I give myself homework.
    Working with other artists of both greater and lesser knowledge than mine, gives me both a feeling of accomplishment and the motivation to reach for higher goals. Everyone has something to offer.
    Getting inspired to paint differently, definitely appeals to me.
    Aspiring to reach higher goals is the greatest reward of painting.

  9. I believe in learning from as many artists as possible, from work shops to observing others work, keeping what I feel really works. For example, skin tones with much green tone or blacks don’t appear normally except with very dark skinned subjects, so they appear not normal in caucasions to me. Always the contradiction of ‘if you don’t see it, don’t paint it’ with ‘if you know it’s there put it in’. Fortunately currently working artists have advanced rapidly and their technique if evident and admirable; learning from their works as well as the Old Masters helps much.

  10. It is best to take lessons from a variety of people then you learn many techniques so you can then decide which suits you or you may want to do a variety of things, depending on your mood!