Virtual Art Academy

Art Instruction Videos: 3 Things To Consider When Buying To Avoid Wasting Your Money


It seems never a day goes by these days without getting an enticing email offer in your inbox for some new art instruction videos. And all are offering valuable lessons from master painters to help you become a better painter.  

If you end up buying several of these art instruction videos, you can rapidly end up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But are you spending your money wisely? and is this an effective method of learning how to paint?

I have done some research into learning theory to try to find out the answers to these questions and the answer may surprise you …..

The Research on Video Instruction

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University wrote a paper on the effectiveness of online learning from watching videos, versus the learning by doing approach. These are the results:

They found that students doing more activities learn more than students watching more videos or reading more pages. They estimate the learning benefit from extra doing to be more than six times that of extra watching or reading.

The implication of this is very surprising. It means that you can spend a lot of time watching art instruction videos, and basically end up getting relatively little benefit.

But the research gets even more interesting. It seems that after you watch these videos, you actually believe you have learned a lot from them. But in reality, you haven’t learned much at all. It’s all about perception.

In a paper in the Harvard Business Review, the authors came up with this result:

You can find just about any skill you want to learn on the internet. Steve Jobs’s captivating presentation style, …Michael Jackson’s moonwalk — all of these are easily accessible. Clearly, instructional videos, how-to guides, and online tutorials have changed the way we learn.

Or have they? Watching expert performances might make you feel that you could perform similar skills. But new evidence suggests that learning by observation may, at times, be illusory. Observers come away feeling confident that they’re well prepared to try the task out themselves, but when they do, often they’re not better than they were before.

So not only does video instruction alone not work, but after you watch a lot of art instruction videos, you will have the mistaken belief you have learned a lot when in fact you have not improved your skills at all!

So what are the implications for the art student who wants to learn how to paint? The answer lies in structured learning activities.

Here are some key ideas to think about.

What Skills Do I Need?

It is fairly well accepted that you need a broad set of skills in order to be able to paint well. Without these basic skills you will always be struggling in your painting. In my research into the painting skills required, I found there were several hundred individual skills that could be classified into 9 skill building blocks. These cover topics such as drawing, creating form, building a color harmony, how to see as an artist, using brushwork, and coming up with a concept or idea for your painting.

Visually I group these skill building blocks into the categories of Visual Music & Poetry, which is a methodology for analyzing master works.

The top traditional Art Academies generally cover most of these building blocks in their four or five year programs.

critiquing art - skill building blocks

How Many Art Instruction Videos Do I Need to Cover The Curriculum?

So the question is: How many art instruction videos would you need to cover all of those skills?

In reviewing a number of art videos, I discovered that most professional artists in a two hour video cover mostly the same basic topics.

80% of the content in the instructional video will probably be one of these key ideas:

  • organizing your values
  • creating depth and atmosphere in your paintings
  • having a focal area in your painting and not putting it in the center
  • using a mix of hard and soft edges
  • using a variety of different brush strokes
  • using warm and cool colors
  • getting the perspective correct

However, although these are very important topics, this leaves out a massive amount of information from the building blocks I described above.

What Will Art Instruction Videos Cost?

So it turns out that just one or two videos will be enough to cover a relatively small number, albeit important ones, of these key fundamental topics. If you will cover all of the things you need that I described above in the skill building blocks, how many art instruction videos would you need to buy?

A quick survey of the price of art instruction videos will show a price range from $157 to $247 for a single video. If we take $200 as the average cost of a video, and buy 100 videos, you would have to spend around $20,000 in these videos. And even then it is highly unlikely you will still not have big gaps in your knowledge.

It turns out that it the law of diminishing returns. The first one or two videos will give you key basics. But to get everything you need to know and cover the complete curriculum, you might have to in fact buy scores or even 100 art instruction videos. And even then you are highly likely to have big gaps in your knowledge.

The problem is that in just a couple of hours of video, a professional artist just can’t go into a lot of depth on how they create their art.  They are going to cover just the most important topics they can within the one or two hours they have in the video.

A second issue is the format of typical art instruction videos. These art instruction videos often use a demonstration painting format. A master artist does a painting and talks about it while they are painting. But when an artist is demonstrating doing an actual painting, he or she just cannot go into any depth on difficult topics. There just isn’t time while you are actually painting to go into any kind of depth. This is a fundamental limitation of the format.

Another potential pitfall, is that by just watching how a master does a painting, without knowing everything that is going on in their head, and the subconscious things going on in their head that are the result of their own lengthy training, leads to another problem. You could easily just learn how to copy their style superficially, without ever learning how to come up with your own style and discover your own artistic voice.

You will see this quite often, in which a master painter has students who all paint just like him or her.

So this means that after spending several thousand dollars, you are going to just get some good knowledge on the important basics for sure, but are still going to have a major gaps in your knowledge.

And the other problem from the research shown above is that you are going to have the impression you have learned a lot, when in reality, unless you have followed through with a lot of actual practice, your skills will barely have improved (see above research in the Harvard Business Review). This is bound to lead to future frustration when you find your painting has not really improved very much at all.

What Are The Implications For To Learning How To Paint?

There are three major conclusions and implications from this research.

Implication #1: Buying a lot of art instruction videos won’t help you as much as you think

There are clearly some benefits from watching a master painter go through the actual steps of creating a painting and tell you their ‘secrets’. And they are a lot of fun to watch. But these secret are basically the same things just about every experienced painter will tell you.

The two hour format of traditional art instruction videos is also going to leave you with massive gaps in your knowledge, no matter how many videos you buy. If you fall into the common trap of continually buying one video after another looking for the ‘ultimate secret’ to painting, you are still going to end up with big gaps in your knowledge, even if you spend up to $20,000 on videos.

Implication #2: The key to learning is in the doing

To learn how to paint, there is just one secret. You have to do it! You have to actually move paint, preferably with a particular goal in mind each time you start working. If you focus your efforts on actually practicing each skill you need, eventually you will be proficient in that skill and can move onto the next skill.

Eventually after you have practiced the several hundred skills you need, you will start to see significant improvements in your work. Its just a question of effort and being persistent.

If you don’t have many hours to paint in the week, then focusing on building your skills one-by-one systematically becomes even more important. You just will not learn by watching or reading alone.

Implication #3: The format of the traditional art academy is the best approach in the long term

art academy versus art instructional videos

Art Academies throughout the centuries created apprentice programs in which students learned using a structured sequence of learning assignments over a period of many years. These apprentice programs combined lectures by the masters with hours of actual practice and assignments that included training in all the fundamental building blocks.

If you are serious about improving your painting skills, there is no quick fix (in spite of what the video marketers tell you). If you are constantly hoping the next video will hold the secret to improving your work you will probably get more and more frustrated.

The answer is to work on building your skills one-by-one in a systematic way. Then keep practicing until you master that skill. Then move on to the next skill and so on. It is the tortoise, not the hare, that wins the race! And unfortunately there are no quick fixes on the journey to producing good artwork.

Most people of course don’t have the luxury of time or money to attend a physical art academy for four or five years, but today there are online alternatives (such as the Virtual Art Academy four-year Apprentice Program for example), which attempt to provide a similar structured learning approach. But check out the structure first to ensure it is thorough and comprehensive. And also check out the author of the program to make sure he or she is a professional artist (there are a lot of amateur artists selling courses these days).

The Value of Art Instruction Videos

This is not to say that art instruction videos have no value. On the contrary, they are very useful for showing you various techniques that you may want to try out in your own work. Art instruction videos will:

  • show you a range of alternative techniques you can use to express your artistic ideas
  • help you solve various technical difficulties you may come across when you are painting
  • expose you to multiple styles of painting to help you better understand the direction in which you take your own art

How To Make Best Use Of Art Instruction Videos

To get the most out of buying a video that shows a master artist demonstrating a painting, it is best to acquire a basic set of foundational skills first. I found that watching master artists paint was much more valuable after I had already had some good experience in painting.

Most master artists tell you the simple things while they are painting, but the really important things, they do automatically and without thinking. So you will only pick these things up if you have some basic foundational knowledge first.

By getting a grounding in the fundamentals before you select a demonstration video to purchase:

  • you will have more knowledge of how to select a good video from a top artist.
  • you will already know the things the artist is doing, but not actually saying while they are working. So what they are doing will be more meaningful to you.
  • you will have already had some experience struggling with different aspects of painting, so the demonstration of techniques will be more relevant to your needs.

Follow these tips and you could save a lot of money.


    • I had already studied learning technologies and theories in a previous career and so this research did not surprise me. So I already designed the Virtual Art Academy four-year Apprentice Program to combine passive elements (such as reading and watching video segments), together with structured skill building assignments. I found that approach helped my students learn faster and solved the problems of just using instructional videos that is mentioned in the research.

  • I was very enthusiastic when I initiated the VA. I stopped when I realized that it was very weak regarding watercolor and I left it at the point of setting up the palette.

    It seems like a great opportunity. I may come back now that I am thinking of going into gouache.

    • Hello Edward, I think it was five years ago you may have last seen the curriculum? We have added a new watercolor techniques section since then. However I encourage my students to use opaque medium when learning. It is a common misconception that watercolor is a easier medium to use than oils. In reality it is the other way around. Watercolor is a very difficult medium to do well, and it requires extremely strong drawing skills and a high degree of expertise in handling the materials. Oils (and gouache) are much more forgiving and easier to use and therefore more suitable to my mind for the beginner painter. People think watercolor is easy only because you can get some nice effects quickly. But these are very superficial techniques and not really about art – just good for hobbyist and non-serious painters. But in actual fact, 95% of the course is completely independent of the medium used, as I focus on teaching the underlying ideas and principles that make good art, not just relatively easy to learn techniques. Students at the VAA are using all types of media, from oils and acrylics, watercolors, pastels, digital painting tools, even photography. Many of them, as I do, use more than one media.

  • I am an old artist, both in age (91) and experience (professionally as illustrator and with galleries). What Barry is saying here gets to the solid truth and heart and soul of how to become an artist. I have taken about an even dozen week-long workshops with the “master” artists and own a file cabinet of how-to videos. I do not know how much it has cost over the years. I arrived at the same conclusion as the research and what Barry it telling you here. Get the basics down solid, then get your ass in gear and paint every, yes every day with a goal in mind. Take it from an old timer, there are no short cuts. Thing is I still enjoy learning, trying new techniques, etc. It motivates me. What it gets down too I love the process of painting.

  • My own experience verifies that these findings are very true. I have bought a number of instructional videos over the years. They are motivating and enlightening as they illustrate a variety of approaches that different artists take, even using the same medium. But because of the differences in technique and the narrow focus of each individual video, they can be confusing to inexperienced artists. Worse, they do not comprehensively explain the underlying principles needed to produce effective compositions.

    The Virtual Art Academy, on the other hand, teaches not only techniques but emphasizes the fundamental artistic principles on which strong compositions are based, no matter what medium is used. These are taught step by step in a logical order, providing students time and encouragement to practice each step, which instills it in their understanding before continuing to the next step. Through the exercises, students not only gain practical experience in manipulating their brushes, but they come to understand color and value, and appreciate the reasoning behind compositional structure. By studying great compositions of the past, students gain understanding that can benefit their own work today. They also develop increasing confidence in their own work through consistent practice.

    I now work primarily in watercolor and oil, as well as occasionally pastel, all informed by the comprehensive instruction provided by the VAA program. And even years after completing the course, I occasionally refer back to the VAA lessons to brush up on difficult techniques or understanding needed for a specific composition.

  • Thanks Barry, so true. I heard the analogy that you won’t get fit by watching fitness videos, you have to actually get up and train, same for painting. Only after finishing the 4 year Virtual Art Academy course, do I now benefit from watching the occasional instructional video. And as you rightly comment, now I notice things I did not even know about 6 years ago when I bought some of these videos. Thanks again, all of the best, Karin