Rigorous Study

I was eighteen years old when I started Art Center

I was eighteen years old when I started Art Center; So young and naïve! I was the youngest student in all my classes. Most everyone had a degree from another college. There was only one other student that was nearly my age. He only lasted two trimesters. Art School went so quickly and there was no time for long term, rigorous study of each topic. Learning takes extended time and commitment. I thought I was committed, but I was really committed to creating a portfolio and graduating, not truly committed enough to the craft of creating art.  I didn’t understand discipline or drive and the time went by way too fast!

Fortunately for me, I did learn a thing or two at Art Center, but in hindsight, not nearly as much as I could have. I was probably too young! I didn’t appreciate the opportunity to study with some of the greats in the design and illustration industry. I was so focused on the “portfolio” rather than how to gain the skills to create it!

After Art Center I worked as an illustrator but found my drawing skills lacking, so I spent as much time as I could at life drawing sessions and keeping a sketchbook. I learned on the job to draw. It was pre-internet days, so you couldn’t just find a picture of what you needed on a computer from your house, you had to go out and scrounge up “scrap” from the library to take photos of friends and family if you needed people to pose for you. We kept a “scrap” file of photos of everything from skies to architecture to bunny rabbits. It was a very coveted and valuable thing to have an extensive file! But having good reference is just a small part of good drawing.

My art education didn’t end in California. While I was still working as an illustrator in the early 90’s after moving to Oregon, I began painting the landscape in pastel. I taught myself how to work with the medium, at first mostly by trial and error. When I became a bit more serious about it, I sought out artists whose work I admired. I studied and eventually took two workshops from Richard Mckinley who is a fabulous, generous instructor. He sets the bar very high!

Soon I began to be invited to teach classes and workshops which I found taught me just as much as I was passing onto my students. Teaching forces an artist to verbalize this thing that is very nonverbal and therefore break it down into an understandable process. It also makes you walk your talk.

Now working as an instructor takes up most of my time, but I’m still learning and finding those gaps in my understanding of my craft. If I have them, my students likely have them and they need to be addressed. So I keep studying and honing my skills. It’s a wonderful thing that we can paint for a long, long time.

I think students can get frustrated if they don’t see the results they are after right away and are sometimes looking for the magic bullet, be it having the right colors or a particular technique or formula.  Edgar Payne said “Rules were never meant to be formulas for building pictures, but rather , to instruct in the storing up of knowledge and aiding skill or facility which may be brought forth later.”

What I believe is just as important as continuing to improve painting skill, is staying open minded and having great discipline. These two qualities let us make the most of new ideas and information. It’s a wonderful and magical thing about painting. Drawing and painting every day when humanly possible is really the way to get better. It’s like practicing the piano; you have to build your skills and keep them limber. They will fade if you don’t. It’s the use it or lose it principle.

Looking at everything out there both old and new is also part of being a creative. This is just staying in the flow. Study both the old masters and the works of contemporaries whose work you admire. Checking out Pinterest and other websites to stay current on what your peers are up to is fun and smart. I like to pursue Powell’s books because they stock older out of print art books which to me offer some of the best art instruction. Old school illustrators like Andrew Loomis could really draw and compose. Some of the language is out of date, but the information is unrivaled! Some of my favorite artists are Charles Burchfield, George Bellows, George Inness, Rockwell Kent and Edgar Payne just to name a few. I love looking at the composition of N.C. Wyeth and Degas. The Canadian Group of Seven provides endless inspiration as does the draftsmanship of Sargent and modern illustrators like James Gurney.

Charles Burchfield
Rockwell Kent
N.C. Wyeth

Honest and thoughtful critiques are of course part of the learning for any artist. I’m not selling here! I’ve been grateful for those in my life who haven given my their honest feedback. My ex-husband who I met at art school was great at giving critiques. I think it’s always helpful to have a trained eye weigh in on your work. It’s almost impossible to be objective when you are so “in” it. It’s much easier to see what’s happening in someone else’s stuff! It’s also wonderful to get feedback from “the man on the street” so to speak…people that will give you their honest reaction but are not necessarily artists or even have artistic sensibilities. I can always count on my mom to tell me what she thinks about my work!

The bottom line for me, is painting is a lifelong, fascinating endeavor that I will never finish or come to some ultimate conclusion with. I hope here and there, I’ll make some good work, maybe even darn good work. I’ll never finish and I’ll always need to push myself and my students. I hope I get to hold a pastel and a brush for a very long time.

Here are just a few of the resources that I have valued over the years to help me to continue to study and grow.


Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson $9.95 (great investment)

Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis (out of print) but available as a free PDF

How I Paint – Secrets of a Sunday Painter by Thomas Buechner

Drawing the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm

A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art by Dan McCaw

Painting Better Landscapes by Margaret Kessler

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel

Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland



James Gurney – www.gurneyjourney.blogspot.com

Pastel Pointers Blog –https://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-mediums/pastel/welcome-to-the-pastel-pointers-blog/

 Quiller Color Wheel – www.quillergallery.com


I hope you find your study of painting as rich and fulfilling as I do!



7 Responses

  1. I am loving these lessons. Marla is so amazingly thorough in her teaching with pdf’s and videos, tons of demos, samples, explanations, references and insights. I look forward to every lesson as I am certain another aha moment will bring excitement and satisfaction. It’s like opening a pomegranate where each layer is more beautiful than the last. These lessons are my greatest gift to myself. Thank you Marla.

  2. I really appreciate your honest approach to learning and practice. No quick formulas. It is an investment in time more than money.

  3. Marla, danke für diese persönliche Einblicke in deine künstlerische Entwicklung.
    leider ist dein Kursangebot für mich nicht geeignet. Ich kann leider kein englisch und bin auch im vorgerücktem Alter. Wobei man auch im Alter Neues lernen kann und sollte. Ich nutze da gern das Internet und werde auch deine angegebene Links besuchen.
    Mit freundlichen Grüßen

  4. Hi Marla,
    I really admire your work and your personality. You would never give up, you are always inspired and give that back to others.
    You share your refections as well as your feelings in words and in paintings. You are so authentic – it must have been hard work
    to achieve such a high level.
    I’m happy and thankful to learn from you.
    Sabine B. from Germany

  5. Thank you for this post,Marla. As a teacher, I agree with you, that I learn so much from my students. Also, that I have to be continually learning and experimenting, so that I can pass it on to them. I’m looking forward to checking out the books you’ve recommended.

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