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Art Instruction Videos: The 2 Major Pitfalls To Watch Out For And How To Solve Them

Introduction

It seems never a day goes by these days without getting an enticing email offer in your inbox for some new art instruction video. And all are offering to reveal valuable secrets from a master painter that will 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?

art instruction videos

I have done some research into learning theory to try to find out the answers to these questions. The answer was not what you would think, and I end the article with some suggestions for how to get the best out of these videos.

The Research on Video-Based 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 disturbing. 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 improved very little or not at all.

So what are the implications for the art student who wants to learn how to paint?

Here are some key ideas to think about.

What Skills Do I Need?

critiquing art - skill building blocks

First of all, let’s look at what you need to know and the skills you need in order to improve your painting. All the top art academies will tell you 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 chunks of knowledge and related skills. To put some order into it, I classified them into 9 skill building blocks. These cover topics such as drawing, form, color, brushwork, design, and so on.

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

If you take a four or five year program at a good traditional Art Academy, you will typically cover most of those Building Blocks. (Except for some of the classical ateliers that miss out a big chunk of color and design topics, but that’s a subject for another article.)

Pitfall#1: What Will It Cost To Get The Information I Need?

art instruction videos

So the question is: how many art instruction videos will I need to cover all of those skills in the full curriculum?

In reviewing a number of art instruction videos, I discovered that most professional artists, in a two-hour long art instruction video, cover only a limited set of same basic concepts:

  • organizing your values
  • creating depth and atmosphere in your paintings
  • having a focal area in your painting
  • the rule of thirds
  • 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 is just the tip of the iceberg, and leaves out much of the information in the building blocks I described above. It covers maybe only 10% of what you need.

So how do you get the rest of the information? One or two art instruction videos will cover the topics in the basic list above, but to get the rest of the information you would get at a top art academy or university, you might have to buy perhaps 50-100 videos.

A quick survey of the price of art instruction videos will show a price range from $157 to $247 for a single professional video (amateurs make videos for less, but you are taking a big risk of learning wrong or misleading information from them). If we take $200 as the average cost of a video, and you buy 100 videos, you will end up spending $20,000 on video instruction.

But even then, it’s not certain it would cover all or even half of the topics in the building blocks I mentioned earlier in this article.

The underlying reason for this is that in just a couple of hours in a typical art instruction video, a professional artist just can’t go into a lot of depth on how they create their art.  They are going to cover the most important topics they can within the one or two hours they have in the video. But there is no way they can distill their years of training into a two-hour video. It’s impossible. Since each video is by a different artist, they end up all saying roughly the same things.

So, it turns out that it is the law of diminishing returns. The first one or two art instruction videos will give you key basics of what you need to learn as a painter, and are good value. But each successive video you buy gives you only a little more information, at a relatively high cost.

Pitfall #2: 1000’s Of Hours Of Video Instruction Available: A Good Idea?

As all the research has shown, just watching an art instruction video is not going to make you a better painter. You have to actually get to work and do something. So this comes down now to a question of the most efficient use of your time.

I recently saw an ad for a video-based series of online art classes boasting of 1000 hours of video instruction available.

Now if you really think about this from the perspective of learning, this is not a benefit at all, but a significant problem.

The best way to use video instruction is to watch and hear something, then immediately apply it to some kind of practice assignment. With a typical two-hour long video format, by the time you have sat in front of the screen for two hours, you have already forgot that snippet of valuable information you heard in the first 15 minutes.

Now multiple that up by the 1000 hours of video to get all the information you need, and you will rapidly calculate that you will actually spend most of your life watching videos and, according to the research cited above, not make any significant improvement in your skills.

What you really need is much shorter videos, or even written information which can often be a quicker and more efficient way of getting information. No one format fits all needs, people learn in different ways. Then you need to get down to some guided task that will help you develop a specific skill. Doing is the secret to learning.

It turns out that the very nature of a two-hour demonstration video is just not a good format for basing online painting classes on. It’s fun. Everyone loves to watch a master artist paint, including me. But it’s just not a very efficient way of learning how to paint.

Many years ago a top publisher of art instruction books privately admitted to me that he was in the entertainment business, not the education business. If his art instruction magazines taught students effectively, they wouldn’t have to keep buying them, and he’d have no subscription business! I strongly suspect the same applies to the art instruction video industry. The only way to stay in business is to keep producing more and more videos that people think they need. But the business model only works if the last video you bought didn’t teach you how to paint.

So why do people buy them? Basically it’s for entertainment. Videos are fun to watch. But buying art instruction videos and books on painting ultimately becomes a substitute activity for not actually getting your paints out and getting to work!

And spending hours and hours watching YouTube has the added pitfall that most beginner painters cannot distinguish an amateur painter from a professional (since most of amateurs making videos call themselves ‘professional’). By watching these videos you are probably going to pick up some very poor painting practices and take your art down the wrong path. A path from which your art may never recover.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There are two major conclusions and implications from this research.

#1: Be Selective In Your Purchases

By all means, buy one or two art instruction videos from a master painter whose work you like. But be clear that these, although fun to watch, are not going to turn you into a good painter by themselves. Choose a well respected painter and ask the opinion of a professional artist you know before buying.

#2: Get Your Paints Out More And Watch Less!

To learn how to paint well, there is just one secret. You have to do it! You have to actually get your paints out, move the paint around, and experience the problems for yourself. I recommend dividing your time into two segments.

  1. Play time – in which you just play around with the paint, creating some kind of painting and letting your creativity flow. Don’t think too much during this time. Work small and do a lot of them, rather than laboring on a large painting for days on end. You’ll learn much faster that way.
  2. Learning time – in which you focus on learning and practicing just one skill at a time. Be patient, and be content with learning just one thing at a time and mastering it. Over time your skills will grow and you’ll start to see some significant improvement.

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

If you are serious about improving your painting skills, there is no quick fix in spite of what the marketing people tell you. If you are constantly hoping the next video will hold the secret to improving your work, you will probably end up getting more and more frustrated.

The bottom line is get yourself organized, put some structure in your learning and get to work!

For some ideas of what to work on, see the curriculum below. This is a list I came up with after several years of research many years ago. I developed it to help my students figure out what they needed to learn to improve their painting.

10 comments

  • Yours was the voice of artistic authority and academic clarity.

    I can’t tell you how much I know the Virtual Art Academy is the right course for me. I discovered your tutorials on you tube a few months back. Bogged down by listening to endless one trick pony excuses of ‘how to’…… and nearly in tears because of how desperate I must be for even listening/watching, it only took, when your video automatically rolled on, your introduction for me to know that I was listening to experience and was intrigued to explore more and was completely energised by what I found and learned.

    I can’t wait to be in a position to enroll/join the course but want to tell you that in the meantime your tips are incredibly helpful and a constant incentive to continue painting. The course you offer includes everything that has ever exited me about art and has things that are completely new to me as well, and recognise them as the tools I lack in my work. It’s both generous in content and is excellent value for money.

    OK so look forward to joining in future, I can’t do the ‘like button bit’ after watching videos you send me because of social media complications with my tablet, this is the reason I have sent this to let you know I appreciate them very much.

  • Barry
    Virtual Art Academy is tops when it comes to a four year curriculum. It covers anything and everything one should know about the art world. I needed to read your article above because I am guilty of a lot of these things. Here I’ve had virtual art academy at my fingertips and am ashamed to say I have not stuck with the curriculum like I should. Every time I open up one of the lessons, I become so intrenched in absorbing everything i read and always find it so informative. Then I look at your beautiful work and wish I could achieve the same. I have not earned that and realize how much learning it took on your part to be able to put this incredible curriculum together. It has been your whole life. That’s what discourages me in a way. I guess I’m like a lot of people who want to be good at it, but want the shortcuts. In art, there are none. My mother was another example of this. Her whole life was built around playing the piano by ear or written music. She was so accomplished with her natural talent that I never went in that direction to learn how to play because I felt she was so ahead of anything I could accomplish if I tried…..even though I have a musical ear and can harmonize in any part.
    Barry, your artwork and knowledge and hard work have taken you to where you are. I know the academy is where I need to be and will do better at doing the lessons and learning as I go. There has never been a better way to learn than your art academy. Since I saw you in Italy, I have lost my husband and moved to a different part of the city. I am in the process of renovating, but have been painting too. Lately, I have had difficulty with the human body in some of my work. I pulled up your session on that when I was there, but realize it takes practice too. Maybe now that my move is behind me, I can catch up on my learning. I brag about the academy all the time. I just need stick to it ness. Would love to make another trip but looks like COVID 19 is still too much of a threat. Hope you are well and really appreciative your tips online. Will be in touch again. Take care and stay well.
    Gayle Barber

    • thank you Gayle. So sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. I do hope you can get back to enjoying painting again and also back to Italy after all of this is over. I think by 2022 everything will be fine and we’ll all be able to travel again. We should plan a big VAA party in Italy!

  • I couldn’t agree more. After watching lots of art videos for free, online, I found I thought I could paint.. but when I finally got around to it, — big surprise!- it was all in my head. Art videos are very entertaining and relaxing!! I finally enrolled in Virtual Art Academy because I realized that, in order to be able to paint, you have to …. PAINT! There’s no quick fix. The program is arranged with many small projects, each building on the other. The student reads about the subject, sometimes watches a very short video, sees examples of the project and can see what other students have done. Then, most importantly, the student does the project. The learning is in the doing. I have to say, that can be uncomfortable at times because you are trying something new. But, you are doing small projects on canvas taped to cardboard (my choice), so there is no “fail”. I find that now, after a year and a half in the program, my drawing and painting has improved markedly. I also have a vocabulary and theoretical understanding of painting that allows me to analyze my work and figure out why it is or isn’t working. It is like a university level course, at a very reasonable price.

  • I absolutely agree that expensive art instructional videos have very little benefit. I probably have 35-50 videos in my library but the instruction I got from VAA’s training and assignments are, by far, a much better way to advance art skills. My art has improved significantly since taking the course and more time to paint would enhance what I learned even faster. Loved the course!

  • Thank you Barry for this article that validates my experience. After retiring, I spent a few frustrating years trying to improve my painting by watching videos. I love watching a masterful artist paint, but it did nothing to make me a better painter. On the other hand, the Virtual Art Academy’s 4 year structured, step by step course has made me a better painter. The way Barry has analyzed and broken down the knowledge and skills of the Masters is itself masterful. Each lesson has assignments to put the concepts into practice. Each workshop builds on the previous ones with more depth and complexity. This way of learning to paint that builds on success is very effective and satisfying. I’m grateful for the opportunity to study with Barry. Though I’ve completed the course, I continue my connection to the academy to review, refer back to lessons, and to study the works of the Masters. It is also my resource for any questions regarding materials and process. I highly recommend the Virtual Art Academy.

  • Barry I think this is a truthful analysis about watching instructional DVDs and unless you are alongside practicing what the teacher is demonstrating I think you really only come away with an impression of how well they do it, or as you point out, a false belief that you, (I), the viewer will know how to do what they did by watching. It is interesting often to see how Painters we admire do their work, but it may not be very instructional.

    As you said for learning “ several hundreds “ of skills this can amount to many years. As someone who began painting way later than most I know how frustrating it can be to want to learn and do it quickly, but most classes don’t even give you a vocabulary to start with. I have learned so much from the Virtual Art Academy and am so grateful for the system of learning and practicing different skill sets, I can watch my understanding growing and know that however long it takes, I’m improving.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.