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?
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.
- Reference: Learning is Not a Spectator Sport: Doing is Better than Watching for Learning from a MOOC . Kenneth R. Koedinger, Jihee Kim, Julianna Zhuxin Jia, Elizabeth A. McLaughlin, Norman L. Bier 2005 Vancouver, BC, Canada.
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.
- Reference: Watching an Expert Do Something Makes You Think You Can Do It Too. Michael Kardas and Ed O’Brien, Harvard Business Review.
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?
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.