So You Want To Paint Outside

I previously wrote about how to get started in painting with So You Want To Paint and this motivated me to just sit down and start a book I’ve had in my head for the last few years called The Imaginative Logician which I’m writing in blog form to try out a new way to produce my books. The Imaginative Logician is less of a book teaching you how to paint and more of an autobiography on how I learned to paint. It’s a very personal book where I tell the story of my adventure in painting by way of a sequence of essays and matching exercises that show how I learned to paint. It will take a long time for me to write this, and doing so will hopefully improve my skills at the same time. I’ve found that trying to teach something, even if you aren’t really qualified to teach it, helps you learn it better.

In the meantime I’m going to lay out the gear I’ve started using to paint outside, and also what I think is a good starter kit for someone who wants to do it. I find painting outside, aka Plein Air, to be the most fun way to do art. In fact, I go to the Plein Air Convention in Monterey every year now to hang out with other plein air painters. It’s an awesome conference and beats the pants off every developer conference I’ve ever been to. Only strange thing for me is I end up being one of the youngest people at this conference. Painting outside seems to be a dying practice, and this convention is a good indicator of it. I think the average age to the Plein Air Convention is about 55-65 years old and probably skews as high as 75. It’s also mostly female which is an interesting counter to the mostly male programming conventions I’ve gone to in the past.

Why You Should Paint Outside

In the two years I’ve been painting outside I think I’ve seen a total of two other people doing it. I live in San Francisco but I’ve painting all over the world and you’d think I’d see more than just two folks doing it as well. I know there’s plenty of people who do this, but I think most of them are older and professionals. The older crowd probably is losing mobility and find it easier to simply paint from photos or range closer to home. The professionals all seem to do a little bit of outside painting, but mostly paint from photos and invent landscapes, if they do landscapes at all. Given the quality and portability of digital cameras, computer monitors, and the internet it’s becoming less important to paint outside so fewer people are doing it.

I believe though that there’s some really beneficial artistic qualities to trying to capture a landscape or cityscape from life. First, when you’re outside it changes your environment and that stimulates your creativity by simply changing your surroundings. If all you did was go outside and do exactly whatever kind of art you do now that’d probably give you about the same benefits. If you’re not so into landscapes but want a change of pace to break you out of a creative slump then try just going outside and doodling or paint like you normally do. Sit on a lawn with a towel and some of your supplies and hang out. Getting out of your studio will probably help you on its own.

Second, the outside natural world doesn’t give a fuck about your process. Nature is a complex beast that does what it wants. Trees will be in places that are not artistically pleasing. Light will change as the Sun moves adding time pressure. Flies will land on your damn canvas while your painting. I have no idea why flies like oil paint but they’re crazy about the stuff despite the nasty chemicals in them. Painting outside is one of those challenging frustrations that’s really fun and kind of similar to live coding for programmers or climbing without ropes for climbers. At a certain point the pressure of the difficulties related to painting outside forces you to cut the bullshit in your setup and get looser in your style simply because you don’t have the time or energy to paint forever. Once you can paint outside for a few hours then painting in the studio becomes even easier.

Third, despite all of this it’s really fun and because not many people do it you can socialize with folks as they come up and watch you. Painting, like many artistic activities, is solitary and can get lonely. When you go outside to paint there’s always people who will watch up and are fascinated by what you’re doing. Little kids are the best because they don’t give a shit about your artistic license. They come up fascinated and then blurt out, “Hey where’s the house?!” It’s hilarious, and it’s a lot of fun. You get to enjoy some sunshine, can take some food to eat, hang with random people, but plug in some headphones and you can tune out to paint and focus if you want. I find that this again gives you a new perspective on your painting and can get you out of a creative slump too.

Ultimately it’s all about having fun and painting outside is lots of fun. Bring some food and drinks, some friends, enjoy the weather, and try to paint something even though it’s many times a hilarious lesson in frustration.

Why I Like Painting Outside

I like painting outside for the challenge of it and the romantic aspects of it all. As I said before the challenge is that a landscape is really complicated so all your tendencies to be exact have to get tossed out along with all the other bullshit that weighs you down. Gone are the grids to exactly draw everything because it’s really hard to put a grid over the whole expanse before you. Gone are the 9, 10, 15 color palettes and huge tubes of paint and now you have 3-6 colors that are tiny. Gone is the panic over keeping all your color “clean” and instead you just rinse as best you can and wipe real good before diving back in. Gone is the desperate attempt to copy everything “exactly” because it’s all too complex, and anyway that doesn’t make a good landscape painting.

Another challenging aspect of painting outside is the fact that you have to simulate and exaggerate human vision properties more than you would with a studio still life or portrait. In a still life or portrait your depth of field requirements are about 12″ inches from the front of the setup to the back wall. This means that you have fewer opportunities to play with atmospheric perspective, blurred edges for focusing, and a feeling of depth. Even with an interior painting you don’t get atmospheric perspective and hardly any chances to play with depth of field. In a landscape of a cityscape you have endless chances to warp and play with the way the human eye sees because of the vast expanse or the complexity of what’s before you. Now you can finally play with altering edges to add depth or changing color to move things back and forward in the painting’s depth of field.

In a romantic sense there is something about just hanging out, paints on the palette, a tiny canvas up, and going for it. You can do a bit of planning, and that helps, but really you just have to try and try until you start getting better at them, so it ends up being an addictive gambling habit. You pull the plein air level 10 times and on the 10th time one good painting comes out. Yet the rest are each nice little memories of where you were that day and were fun to paint even if they might suck. There you are, out in the air, cranking out turds and loving it anyway because, let’s face it, if you’re going to paint a turd, might as well go outside.

Oil, Watercolor, or Pastel

I’m going to cover watercolor and pastel painting outside in totally separate articles because the gear needed for those is different enough that they need a whole article on their own. The processes and many of the tricks of painting outside with them are also different enough that it’s better to do a nice focused article on each instead of trying to cram them all into one giant article. Each has their advantages and disadvantages

What You Will Need For Oil Painting

To get started painting outside you need to get equipment that’s similar to what photographers use, and in fact if you can find photo equipment then usually that’s better priced and higher quality than the similar “artist” versions of the same thing. For example, if you get a photography tripod then you can spend about $80-$150 and get a decent one. If you try to get an “artist” tripod then usually you’ll get gouged for a piece of junk with a few exceptions. A quick list of what you need to get started is:

  1. A tripod.
  2. A paint box with an easel, aka a “pochade box”.3. A set of small cheap brushes, ’cause they’re gonna get wrecked.
  3. Some small little canvas panels to go in your box.
  4. Oil paints.
  5. A palette knife.
  6. Turpenoid or water if you water soluble oil (WSO) like I recommend.

For a tripod, go to the local camera store and look for any cheap carbon fiber tripods. Lately there’s been tripods that sell for $80-120USD but are light and made of carbon fiber like the $800 ones you can buy. A good simple metal choice is Mefoto A0350Q0K Backpacker Travel Tripod Kits (Black) but you’ll want to hit a store to find one that works for your height. The key is that it has to be stable when extended to about your upper chest area. I’m 6’2″ tall so that means I need a taller tripod then you do.

For a paint box, you have two choices. For getting started one one move just get the Guerrilla Painter 6 by 8-Inch Thumbox Oil and Acrylic Plein Air Kit. This kit comes with a decent little self-contained kit including the box, some tester panels, a carrying bag, sealable medium cup, brushes, and a bunch of really dumb marketing material you can ignore. If you want to go smaller then I actually got the Guerrilla Painter 5 by 7-Inch Pocket Box Oil and Acrylic Plein Air Kit which is slightly smaller but possibly a little easier to use for some folks. Both of them will attach to your tripod without much work, but you do have to assemble some screws and other things to get it all together.

If you want the absolute BEST you can get, then Alla Prima Pochade is my main kit these days. This is literally the very best designed piece of equipment I own. It has everything nearly perfectly designed. I can carry 6 panels in it, all my paints, palette knife, solvents, brushes, everything in one tiny box, and have an extender that lets me take 8×10 panels if I want. It is a marvelous design, and it’s also coated in magnets. Magnets! If you’ve ever had to find a place to put your knife then this is the best feature ever. I just stick it to a magnet and I’m good. Here’s me using it the other day:

Painting At Baker Beach from the hill (closeup).

If you want good brushes then you can just go buy some moderate quality synthetics and cut the handles so they fit in your box. It’s fine to cut the handles and you really only need a few, so get about 4 of some different sizes you like. Another option is to get Rosemary & Co.’s Pochade Set, but even these I end up cutting the handles on the longer ones. They are a decent price though and will last a while, so I can recommend them if you want higher end. Still, if you want just a good set to start with then get the ones you like and cut the handles. The Guerrilla Painter kit I mention first already comes with brushes so skip this.

Once you’ve got this little kit then you just need to get yourself something to paint on. I recommend that you get some of the Fredrix Cut Edge Panels to start out. These are basically compressed cardboard with decent canvas glued on, so not the very greatest support, but solid enough to work on, and cheap to start out. If you want better panels that are still lightweight then go get some of the Raymar Art Feather Light Landscape Panels which are really high quality and not much more than the Fredrix Cut Edge ones. Get the size that fits whichever kit you bought and stick with it.

If you need to take solvents with you then you can get a little jar that fits in your box, or you can get a Guerrilla Painter 10-Ounce Brush Washer to take it with you, or get the smaller Guerrilla Painter Mighty Mite Jr Brush Washer to fit in your box.

The Guerrilla Painter kit already comes with the little Mighty Mite brush washer, but I have to warn you that the lid has a defective piece of cardboard that comes off because the glue resolves in solvent. Yes, not kidding. That means it leaks a little and when you unscrew the top the cardboard comes off. It’s really annoying, so what I did is I took out the awesome washing metal insert inside the cup and took it to a little store to find a small plastic jar that fits it, fits in my box, and has a good lid. Really you just buy the Mighty Mite to get that nice washing insert.

If you’re using WSO paints, then you just need a regular collapsible bucket like you would with watercolor paint or acrylic. These are available at your local art store in many different forms, so just ask for one. You can also get a simple plastic jar or just about any small container and put the water in it then take that with you and seal it up when you’re done. The advantage of WSO paint is you have more flexibility in how you clean your brushes and what you need to take with you, so they have great for painting outside and also for traveling on the plane if you want to paint on trips.

Other Random Things

Honestly, the best way to figure out what you need is to try setting up your kit in your house or back yard and paint something. You’ll quickly find all sorts of things you might need, and then you can run and get them to keep painting. Once you’re done with a first painting inside, just take all the things you had to collect and put them into a “Go Bag”. Then try to paint outside with your kit and go bag and keep track of things you wish you had. Eventually you’ll get it down to a minimum depending on what you’re doing and where you’re going. I can usually just go painting near my house with the above stuff plus this:

  1. Paper towels. I recommend the Viva brand of paper towels as you can use them to wipe your brush or canvas for longer so you use fewer of them.
  2. A camera or the one on my phone.
  3. A wide brim hat. I need to keep the sun off your face to avoid a sunburn, but also because it messes with my sense of color.
  4. A small garbage bag for the paper towels. I use one of those biodegradable ones, but I just toss the towels on the ground while I work if they won’t get wet or leave paint anywhere. Then when I’m done I pick them all up and put them in the bag. If they will get paint on everything or get wet then I put the bag in my jacket pocket and put them in there while I paint.
  5. Some polyurethane gloves or other non-latex gloves. One big problem with painting outside is if you get paint on your hands it’s hard as hell to get off because you’re generally not near a water source. It’s easier to just wear gloves. One nice thing is if you don’t use many paper towels then when you’re done you can grab them all in your gloved hands, then roll the gloves out inside-out and over the wad of paper towels in your hands, effectively using the gloves like little plastic bags. Then you don’t need to take a bag.

How To Paint Outside

There a bazillion of books that will tell you how to paint landscapes while outside. I recommend you get a subscription to ArtistsNetwork.TV if you want to have a ton of videos on every painting subject for $19.99. Artists Network has a huge 450+ video collection of art instruction videos, and usually each one is about $10-60 in price, so if you watch one video a week then you’ve paid for the subscription easily. You can watch many of the videos on there to learn more, but search for “landscape” to get a good list of videos. I think one of my favorites is this one with Carol Hillock painting in a boat as a good demonstration of the kinds of painting you can do outside in weird fun places. Another good one is this one by George Allen Durkee where he paints a complete painting of a bridge outside and shows you how to do it. Take a look at his setup if you want to see some old school paint crusted ancient painting goodness.

The best way to learn to paint outside though is to just go do it. I think a lot of artists are just panic stricken about being “wrong” and plein air painting is the cure for that stupidity. You can practice in your apartment all you want, but eventually just grab your gear, and go a few blocks from you, don’t be picky about the spot, setup and paint what’s there. Just keep trying it and as you do you’ll find little things you shouldn’t be doing. You’ll ditch crap you don’t need, bring things you do, lighten up, get different gear, and pretty soon you’re as obsessed with the perfect setup as me. It’s a lot of fun to just go and give it a shot.

To do this here’s what I recommend for your first outing:

  1. Pick a place you are familiar with that is within walking distance of your house or where you work.
  2. The best times to go are 8am-10am, or 2pm-4pm. Plan to leave so that you get there about 30 minutes before then to setup.
  3. The night before pack your stuff and put your paints out on your little palette the night before and let it sit flat. You can leave the paint on the palette for a week or two actually, so no need to worry about it moving around or drying. Oil paint’s good like that.
  4. Take some food or coffee with you, and when you’re ready to leave grab your stuff and go there.
  5. It really doesn’t matter what the scene is the first time, just pick one you’ll be able to handle.
  6. Setup your stuff and then using very thinned paint do a simple sketch of it with a simple color, or lay down a single color to be the base harmony and use a paper towel to carve out the big bright shapes. If you don’t like what you’ve drawn just wipe it off and do it again.
  7. Kick back for about 20 minutes and while you’re waiting for this very thin underpainting to dry, drink something, eat a bit, and stare at your scene possibly doing sketches in a notebook so your idea is in your head. If you’re going to eat then you probably should have worn gloves while you painted so you can take them off and have clean hands.
  8. After the underpainting has dried a bit (it should feel a little tacky) then try to paint the simple shapes, starting with the darks and then adding the mid-tones, then the lights. Another tactic is to start with the sky, since that sets the harmony for everything, and then work “back to front”, so that the things in the back can be covered by things in front and make them go back. Remember that things in the back are going to be lighter, have less yellow (so bluer or violet usually), duller, and have softer edges then things in front.
  9. Think in a sequence of planes going front to back. Blur the edges of things to see how that makes them seem out of focus where you want.
  10. Other than that, have fun and enjoy it. Don’t worry if it sucks. It probably will, but that’s not the point. The point is to get outside and try to paint something difficult and yet still enjoyable because it’s a different experience.

There’s way more to it than just these 10 things, but this will get you out there and starting. Once you do it a few times then you can start trying to learn more about it and how to be efficient or how to paint landscapes better. I have this list of books for those of you who want to start doing even more research on this, and I still study many of these resources now:

  1. Johannes Vloothuis has two awesome resources for you. First is many books and videos from Northlight on landscape painting. He also runs a site improvemypaintings.com where he does live classes on various subjects like trees, water, mountains. These classes are great because he does a video lecture explaining it, then does a demo in pastel, oil, acrylic, and watercolor. Then, if you miss a class you get to download the completed and edited video. All for around $20-30. He also sells all the past courses he’s done so you can just start going through all of those and learn nearly everything you need.
  2. Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima II is the best book on oil painting there is out there. It’s more for folks who have a basic understanding on painting, but it’s so full of information on every kind of painting that you should get it no matter what you like to paint.
  3. The “landscape painting” videos on ArtistsNetwork.tv has a ton of videos, and many of them show the instructors actually outside showing you how to do it. If you get a subscription then you could spend lots of time just watching those and learning a bunch. Many of the Johannes videos are on there too so you can try his videos before buying other ones.
  4. Richard Schmid has a series of videos with him painting outside in different seasons that’s very instructive too. This set of DVDs is exceptional because he demonstrates painting outside, but also painting landscapes in the studio from photographs, which is rare for such an accomplished artist to admit and demonstrate.
  5. Bob Ross’s 3 Hour Workshop DVD Look, you laugh but this three hour DVD taught me how to paint with a palette knife. He’s mesmerizing to watch as he takes a damn knife and uses it to crank out tons of trees from imagination better than I can do while I’m looking at one. It’s also just fun to watch, so get it if you want a light fun introduction to random types of scenes you can paint like trees, mountains, seascapes, and other things.

I think those three resources are a hell of a lot. Frankly many of the books on painting landscapes are all pretty similar, and you just have to find any at used book stores and read them. I prefer these three though because they are very thorough and videos tend to be better than most books for painting instruction. Richard Schmid’s book is the exception to this rule as it’s so full of information.

Conclusion

Painting outside is my favorite thing these days and I hope you give it a try and start to enjoy it too. It’s definitely improved my painting skills as the demands of painting outside strip away all of the bullshit pretension and obsession you have with studio painting. You are simply required to just paint and worry less about exactness and correctness, and then you realize that this makes for better paintings anyway. It’s also the kind of skill that’s easy to acquire by just doing, so get out there and do it.

My Jugaad Painting Knife

I’m going to introduce you to a new Hindi word, the most awesome painting hack I’ve found, and how to match colors in one short article. If you’ve been reading my long article So You Want To Paint then this will be much shorter. If you want to learn to paint, that article lays out everything you need.

I discovered the word “jugaad” last night, which is kind of like saying “a quick hack” but has a much more positive connotation. It’s used to refer to any kind of frugal engineering where someone uses what’s available to improve something, build something, or just generally hack something. Among programmers the concept of a “quick hack” is a positive one, and we even have competitions where people try to invent the craziest hacks to accomplish things. We tell stories about that one time this guy got a PDP-11 working with some gum, two toothpicks, and two instructions of assembler. MacGyver is definitely the kind of Jugaad and hacking.

So what’s my “jugaad knife” then? If you’re a painter then this next picture may confuse you at first since it seems like I’m abusing my painting knives, but you might see the genius of this emerge from the fog as I explain things. Take a look:

My Jugaad Painting Knife

That’s the knife hanging out on my little painting kit I call “The Cutie Kit”. Look carefully. Do you see the hole in the middle of it? I drilled that hole in the knife by carefully running a sharp metal capable drill bit on it to bore it out. Why in the hell would I do that?

There’s a book by Arthur Stern called How To See Color And Paint It where he describes a process for matching a color you are mixing with paint against a spot in the scene you’re trying to paint. The idea is that you use a spot screen, your paint knife, and then try to compare the paint on your knife to the paint in the scene. The problem is this is incredibly complicated as you can see in this picture from the book:

Photo Of How Arthur Stern Matches Colors

To lay out the difficulty you have to do this:

  1. Mix the color with the knife.
  2. Get paint on it in a flat way so it doesn’t have shadowed valleys in the paint.
  3. Grab your spot screen with the other hand, which means you cannot use a handheld palette now.
  4. Find a sweet spot in the overhead light (look at that) where the spot screen is in one amount of light, and your paint is in another.
  5. Aim the hole in the spot screen at the part of your setup that has the color you need to match. This is incredibly error prone as you can be just a fraction of an inch too far in one direction and completely change how your mix looks without realizing it.
  6. Now you can tell how your paint differs from the scene, remember it, put all the stuff down, and adjust.

If you’re a painter you should suddenly be realizing what I’ve done, but here’s another clue:

Using The Jugaad Knife To Match

What I stumbled on is that I can cut out most of those steps by just drilling a hole in my damn knife. Duh. How it works now is I do this:

  1. Mix the color on my palette (which I can hold in my other hand) using the jugaad knife.
  2. Press the hole into the paint, but only if there’s none there already from mixing.
  3. Point the hole at the scene to compare it.

In fact, step #2 above just kind of happens by default because I’m doing step #1. I’ve gotten good enough at quickly mixing paint that I can get it on the knife over the hole in a smooth sheet of color to check. In addition, the reflective surface of the knife lets me adjust the angle of the knife to remove reflected light off the paint in a consistent way. I just rotate it left or right a bit until the blade has no bright reflections and I know the paint is getting a consistent amount of light. Done and done.

How you compare the color of the paint also is way easier. With Arthur Stern’s method you have to position your eyes and squint in a way that puts the paint in front of the spot hole and aim then try to check the edge of the knife. The reason is you know paint matches the color in the scene when it seems like the edge of the paint disappears into the scene. With my jugaad knife I just point it, and if the hole disappears then it’s right. If it’s not right then I can easily compare between what I have and what I’m aiming for because the hole cuts out all surrounding color information and I only compare my paint to the hole, which is incredibly easy.

Making One

If you make one you’ll probably destroy a few knives at first so just get some stupid cheap ones. You’ll need a good drill with an ability to do fraction power so you can pull gently on the drill trigger and it’ll only turn slowly. Next you just need a drill bit that can handle sheet metal.

Once you have those, put it on a surface that gives a little but doesn’t give so much it bends the knife. Put the drill bit on the blade sort of close to the edge like I have, and then slowly run the bit as it bores a tiny amount of the hole. Flip the knife over and bore some more on that side, and then keep flipping it until you’ve bored out a nice smooth hole of the size you want. I’d shoot for about 1/16″ to 1/8″ for the hole, but try to play with sizes to see what you like. If the hole is too small you won’t be able to compare. If it’s too big then you’ll have a hard time putting it on an exact spot or using it to mix.

WARNING: Make sure there are no sharp burs on either side of the knife around the hole or else you will carve lines into your palette! If you need, get a small file and run it gently over the hole to knock off any burs you feel with your finger, then test it on a junk piece of wood to make sure it doesn’t leave marks.

Learning To Use One

Learning to match colors like this is a great way to improve your color sense and ability to quickly get colors right in what you see. The way I got much better was to buy a box of 100 Pantone Postcards and shuffle them randomly. Then do this exercise while you’re watching TV:

  1. After setting up your palette with your paints, get the knife and the cards.
  2. Pull a card out and toss it on the ground near you. You can put it in shadow light, full light, whatever just make sure the card has the same light.
  3. Sitting a short distance away, use a clean jugaad knife to analyze the color on the card in that light. Ignore what Pantone calls the color and use only what the hole says it is. What’s its value, hue, and saturation?
  4. Make a first guess at the hue and value, and then get some paint on the knife hole and point it at the card again. Adjust it until the hue and value is pretty close, continuing to mix, point, mix, point until it’s close.
  5. Once it’s close in hue and value, then very slowly work in tiny amounts of the compliment to adjust the saturation.
  6. Keep repeating this dance of adjusting hue, value, saturation until the hole seems to disappear when you point it at the card. You can also simply decide that you’ve come close enough and note what the difference is, but try to make the hole disappear. Use very little amounts of paint to adjust.
  7. Another thing is you can squint a little and if that makes the hole disappear then that’s a good way to measure whether it’s close enough.

You’ll of course have to study to find out what all this means about hue, value, and saturation and how to adjust them, but this exercise is a good brute force way to get good at matching colors in your environment. The pantone cards work as a consistent randomized target color that you can put in different light without the complexity of a whole scene to interfere. Once you can do these fairly consistently then you should have a much easier time doing the same thing on a real scene.

So You Want To Paint

This article is a guide to getting started in painting, similar to my article So You Want To Play Guitar. I’m not a fantastic painter but I have spent the last two years studying it, and more importantly playing with every single piece of art technology there is. I am good at collecting resources necessary to learn things and then laying them out for you to study on your own, so I’m hoping this article helps someone who has the itch, but has no idea how to scratch it. If you want to learn to paint then follow what I tell you here and you’ll get a good start, which is ultimately the most difficult part. The thing to realize is I’m just giving a possible way to start. You should be trying different tactics to get where you want as the struggle to figure out painting may lead you to what you enjoy doing, and that’s the whole point.

Why You Should Learn To Paint

Really? I need to convince you to make art? Do you not see the effortless amount of social status even the worst artists around you get from merely crapping piles of garbage on the ground? Unlike guitar you don’t have to actually build any form of physical skill. Unlike programming you don’t have to think logically, or even at all. Unlike writing you don’t have to be articulate. All you need to be an artist is the ability to call yourself one and you too can reap the rewards of being the only unquestionable priesthood our society still has. That should be reason enough.

But seriously, of all the creative outlets I have studied, painting is by far the most enjoyable for the least amount of effort and physical or mental skill required. That doesn’t mean you are stupid if you like to make art (uhhhhhh) but what it means is that making art is accessible to people with a wide range of limitations. The materials available to the modern artist are very inexpensive and very high quality compared to previous generations, and there’s a virtual mountain of educational material. Combine that with the ease of use that comes with most art materials and the general forgiveness artists are given for their art, and you can start to see how art can be done by nearly anyone.

Let’s take Chuck Close as a very good example of someone with a disability who is able to make beautiful technically competent art. Chuck is paralyzed from the neck down after an arterial collapse in his spine in 1988. He kept painting and now produces beautiful portraits of people, and he also has face blindness in addition to his physical limitations. His paintings are not just random dabs of paint too, as he paints hyperrealistic paintings and mixes abstraction with accuracy all while being bound to a wheelchair and only able to move his shoulders slightly.

If you include digital painting (more on this in another article) you also have an ability to create art from nearly anywhere, but you don’t need a fancy computer to study drawing and painting. You can literally get a chunk of cardboard and a burned slice of charcoal from a beach and use that to paint what you see. Art materials can be expensive, but they can also be the most inexpensive devices you can find. You should be using the best you can afford, but you don’t need to spend much to craft nice enjoyable paintings.

When I say you get the most out of art compared to everything else I mean it. Even just sitting around doodling with a pen on paper can turn your brain from a stressed freaking out mess into a calm observant state. Attempting to render what you see is for me the quickest way to reach a state of relaxed flow and happiness than anything I’ve done. Guitar takes way too much studying by comparison. Writing involves a lot of thinking and contemplating. Programming is full of frustration. Only painting is effortless entry into the world of enjoyable relaxation for nothing more than slapping some pigment on a ground.

Finally, art is remarkably fear of failure resistant. Many people are freaked out when they do art, but the beauty of art is that if you make a steaming pile of crap then you just don’t have to show it to anyone and can make another. If you make a mistake, just paint over it or throw it away and make another one. You can keep trying to make art your whole life and have an immense amount of fun without ever having to show a painting to a single soul, but artist communities tend to be rather forgiving about beginner artists. There’s many artists forums where you can post your art and get feedback, and you can do this anonymously if you want. Because of this, if you go into a panic any time someone criticizes you for anything and this is holding you back in life, then making some shitty paintings and posting them online will be an awesome therapy for you. And if you just don’t want to deal with other people, then don’t. You can still make all the art you want and never show a single person ever.

That’s my pitch for what makes painting a great thing to learn. It’s not too hard, nearly anyone can do it, it’s inexpensive, and you’re more than allowed to totally suck at it. In fact, most professional artists are very open about how much bad art they make, so you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Your Goal In Learning To Paint

When I say “goal” I don’t mean what your artistic vision will be. That’s for much farther down the line and you may never even find it. Who cares? That’s not what I want you to remember. What I want you to remember when you’re reading the rest of this article is that learning to paint what you see is a process of correcting your memory and perception of what you see. We’ll get into books that explain this fairly well, but all of the art education out there teaches you tricks and strategies for getting your brain to stop interjecting what it thinks is there so you can paint what’s actually there.

Part of the difficulty in art is that your faculty to remember how things look is both wrong and in the way all the time. You look at a person’s face and when you try to draw it you draw what you remember a face looked like when you were six years old. That’s not what is actually there, so it’s wrong. When you try to match the color on the side of a barn, your memory recalls “red looks like this” and then that’s what you mix, but the barn may not really be red from your vantage point in that light. In effect, your brain’s simplistic memories of visual information are completely useless when trying to represent what you see.

Your goal then is to obliterate this injection of past memories into your drawings, and to turn this skill of memorizing what you see to memorizing the actual details in front of you so you can put them to canvas. A large part of painting is grabbing visual information, holding it in your head, and then turning your eyes away from the scene to replicate it on a two dimensional surface. This takes using visual memory, but for maybe a few seconds. Your training goals then should be to prevent the old useless memories from being there, assuming nothing about what you see, and using that latent visual memorization skill to hold what you need of the scene so you can paint it.

The nice thing about this goal is trying to learn this skill requires that you concentrate but in a very enjoyable and relaxing way. At first it’s frustrating, but then things start to click and pretty soon your brain is humming along in a nice cycle. It just takes practicing a few mental strategies and tricks of your brain to do it.

Drawing Materials You Need

To learn to paint you need some supplies, but chances are the supplies are fairly cheap in the beginning. To get started all you need is this:

  1. A big pad of newsprint. Or, An 833 sheet bundle for $20.
  2. A couple charcoal pencils.
  3. A bunch of vine charcoal.

I’m not kidding. If all you did was buy some newsprint and some charcoal you could probably spend the next 10 years painting. These three things are actually very similar to painting in black and white, so they’re a great way to practice all the skills (except color) without wasting a bunch of money on paint and canvas.

You can use this charcoal and newsprint setup to go through most of the books I list in the next section, but if you want to do more exact drawing on paper then you’ll also need this:

  1. A drawing board. You can also get a 1/8″ piece of plywood or masonite from a hardware store. Just watch the splinters.
  2. A more full drawing kit.
  3. 9×12 sketch pad.
  4. 11×14 drawing paper.
  5. A self-portrait mirror.

The drawing books (listed next) will mention other things you need, but those are fairly easy to get if you need them and you can also walk down to any art store with the book in your hands and they will fall all over their aprons to hook you up with the materials.

Painting Materials You Need

With the drawing materials out of the way you’ll need some painting materials. You honestly could just stop at drawing and be good for years, but if you want to paint in color then I recommend you get the follow simple set of things first:

  1. A 9×12 pad of canvas. Make sure it says it’s real canvas, not paper.
  2. Two basic painting knives, or even better, this set A.
  3. Very cheap decent set of brushes, but get the best brushes you can. You can shop around for all kinds of brushes, and honestly going to a local store is probably best, but what you want to start is:
    1. #5 bright. These have short bristles with a straight tip.
    2. #5 flat. These have long bristles with a straight tip.
    3. #6 filbert. These have the same length as a flat, but the tip is curved.
    4. #3 round. This is more like a pencil in shape.
    5. Some kind of big stiff brush. A 12 bright is good. This is used to coat a canvas real quick.
  4. A tube of Ivory Black and Titanium white water soluble oil paint. I recommend Winsor & Newton to start because you can get them everywhere and they don’t cost much. You can also try these brands:
    1. Holbein Duo Aqua is very professional level but a bit more expensive.
    2. Weber wOil is a good midrange price brand that is easy to work with. I use these a lot, although they can take forever and ever to dry sometimes, especially white.
    3. Daniel Smith Water Soluble Oil is damn high quality pigments and easy to work with, however I find it more difficult to rinse off than the others.
  5. A enamel butcher tray, or a palette pad for mixing on. I’d say go with the palette pad at first. If you want to splurge, get one of these beautiful New Wave Highland palettes or really any by New Wave. They’re awesome, but you totally don’t need it now.

That gets you enough painting gear to start doing the drawing exercises you’re learning with paint using just black and white. The exercises that you learn with charcoal and pencil from the drawing books I’ll list will also work with this painting setup, and the best way to learn to use the materials needed for painting is to remove color as a problem. By simply trying to “draw with paint”, which basically painting, you’ll learn to use the tools.

Caveat Huile

What I’ve given you for the beginning of painting is a type of oil paint called “water soluble oil”. Traditionally oil paint needed some form of solvent to dissolve the paint on the brush in order to clean it. These solvents are vile things made out of naphtha, turpentine, mineral spirits, and any number of flammable toxic elements. These days they’re refined to be “safer” and not smell, but they’re still not totally safe. I use them when I use a kind of paint called an alkyd (a fast drying oil paint), but that’s usually only outside or with heavy ventilation. Even though you can’t smell “odorless” turpentine you are still breathing in the fumes it gives off and need to be careful.

However there are two inventions which are working to make oil painting safer, and one of them is oil paint that cleans up and dissolves in just plain water. How these work is the oil is mixed with an emulsifier (basically a soap) that doesn’t affect the working properties of the oil until it is mixed into water, then the soap breaks apart the oil the same way it does on your dishes. In fact, you can make a non-scientific version of water soluble (miscible) oil paint by taking a regular oil paint and putting a couple drops of dish soap into it. Not kidding, it works, although not as well as the professional grade stuff.

Some artists will swear that water miscible (soluble) oil paint isn’t as good as the real thing, but typically that’s because they grab the wrong brand. Each brand of oil paint has its fans because of their formulation and how those working properties help the artist. If an artist likes stiff paint, they choose stiff brands. If they like fluid paint, they choose fluid brands. In the early days not many companies made water soluble oils, so artists who had to try them had to also try an unfamiliar brand. If someone liked Rembrandt but tried Winsor & Newton they would say they sucked. Added to this is the problem that early water miscible oil paint actually did kind of suck.

These days though very professional accomplished artists uses water soluble oil paint, and most brands offer it as an alternative with the same formulation and working properties of their non-soluble version. With this in mind, you can easily work with just water miscible oils and not have to worry about them being inferior to the normal version of oil paints.

There is one catch though, the water miscible oil paints are stupidly more expensive. Don’t ask me why putting some damn soap into some linseed oil adds 20% to a tube’s production cost, but they do end up being more expensive. That’s why there’s another invention I’ve found recently that has got me back into regular oil paint. It’s Weber Turpenoid Natural and it’s what I now advocate to painters who want to make their operation safer by removing turpentine, but still use oil paint. “Turpenoid Natural” is an unfortunate name because there isn’t any turpentine or similar chemical in it. All this stuff ends up being is a mixture of oils and citrus extract, so it smells like a nice orange cleaner you might use on your coffee table. There’s nothing flammable in it, or toxic, although I would not drink the stuff or get it in your eyes or mouth. It also seems to clean brushes like it’s nobody’s business, and I use it to pre-rinse my brushes before washing them with soap and water.

The down side to turpenoid natural is that, unlike water or real turpenoid, you can’t really use it as a thinner for paint. It sort of works, but you can easily put too much in and then the paint would never dry. But, I may be getting ahead of myself since you’ll get into techniques like under paintings and thinning paint much later in your studies than this article covers. Just realize that if you decide in the future to go with turpenoid natural that you can’t use it to thin your paints without some good testing and trial and error first to know how much you can mix it.

What’s the point of this long winded exposé on paints, thinners, and orange peels? In the beginning, you can either go with:

  1. Water soluble (miscible) oil paints and use water to clean up
  2. Or you can go with regular oil paint and use Weber Turpenoid Natural to be safer.

This article is going to push the water soluble oil paint, but if you need to save money then each brand I recommend has a non-soluble version that you can buy instead. Also, if you’re not sure how the paint works just get a tube of Ivory Black and a tube of Titanium White like I do here and try to paint something. You’ll find out how to use them without breaking your budget.

Getting Colorful

After you’ve become comfortable with painting in black and white you’ll eventually be desperate to paint with color. The books that I recommend for you will give you a list of colors, but many of them are older and aren’t familiar with recent changes in pigment safety. Recently paint manufacturers have been removing lead and cadmium from paints because they’re found to be dangerous. Lead is obviously dangerous and hasn’t been used for a while, but cadmium is debatable as a “dangerous” pigment. Some research says it’s highly cancerous and others says it’s about as cancerous as eating pickles. Regardless, states like California have been requiring anti-cancer labels, which drops sales, and so manufacturers have been coming up with alternatives. The European Union is even thinking of banning cadmium in everything except paints sold to officially licensed restoration experts.

With that in mind, when you’re ready to start painting in color, here’s a list of colors to get and their pigment codes, which I’ll explain shortly.

  1. Lemon Yellow (PY175), Bismuth Yellow (PY184), or Hansa Yellow Light (PY3), or Cadmium Yellow Light (Hue)
  2. Hansa Yellow Medium (PY74), Cadmium Yellow Medium (Hue)
  3. Pyrrole Scarlet/Red Light (PR255), or Cadmium Red Light (Hue)
  4. Quinicrodone Red (PR209), Pyrrole Red (PR254), or Permanent Alizarin Crimson.
  5. Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
  6. Phthalo Blue Green Shade (GS) (PB15)
  7. Ivory Black
  8. Titanium White

A paint’s color is created by the pigment suspended in the oil binder which hold the paint when dried and allows light to reflect off the pigment giving that color. The problem with pigments is that they can’t be made to be “perfect” versions of the colors that are seen. Let’s take red as a good example of the problem. Some reds are more yellow or orange (Pyrrole Scarlet), and others are more blue (Pyrrole Red, Quinacrodone Red). Because the pigments slant toward one end or the other on the color scale mixing them to produce other colors becomes difficult. If you mix a orange-red like Pyrrolle Scarlet with one blue you get a bright violet, but mix it with another and you get a dull violet.

One method for compensating for the limitations of pigments is to use two versions of each primary color. You pick a yellow that slants blue, and one that slants red. You pick a red that slants yellow, and one that slants blue. You pick a blue that slants red, and one that slants yellow. Since you have colors that slant toward their closer match on the color spectrum it makes it easier to mix brighter colors depending on where you need to go. If you need a yellow-green that’s very bright, you mix the yellow that slants blue with the blue that slants yellow.

How about those codes I have like PY184? You’ll notice you can click on them and they go to a wonderful site that is an encyclopedia of every pigment and how good it is and who makes it. You don’t need to know all of this, but it helps you understand what’s going on. There’s a standards body that tests all of the pigments being created and rates them for their working properties. One of the working properties is lightfastness, or how “fugitive” the pigment is, meaning how much does it fade when it’s exposed to light for long periods of time. Good pigments last hundreds of years in direct light without fading. Bad pigments last weeks or months in light. By knowing the pigment code you can look on the back of a tube of paint and see what the exact pigments used are.

There’s another interesting thing about the pigment codes. Notice I have (Hue) after some of the colors I list? These are paints that manufacturers make to simulate previously banned or dangerous pigments by mixing together two or three other pigments. This is totally alright to do, but the problem is if there’s more than one pigment in a paint it becomes difficult to mix it with other pigments accurately. In the beginning it’s alright to use Hue colors, but if you can get pure pigment colors it’ll be easier to work with and a little less frustrating.

All of this is covered in the various books I’ll point you at, but for the most part you’ll want to get just one of each of the colors I list above in the brand that you like. In one book, Color by Betty Edwards, she has you use acrylic and lists the pigments you should get, so just listen to her but don’t worry if you can’t get the exact colors she says. Just try to come close. For example, she lists a purple that’s not sold anymore, so just get Dioxazine Purple instead.

Books You Need

That’s a lot of information on what to buy, but knowing exactly what to buy to get started in art is actually one of the most difficult parts of getting started. There’s so many products and so much information about what products to use that you could spend months researching what to use. In fact, I did that and kind of went a little crazy learning about all of the things you can use to make art, but it was really fun. My list of products are just suggestions, but if you just want to get started and not fuss about the details of what you should get, then my list works really well.

The next thing you need is some books. If you can take classes that are actually a lot of fun, and there should be community centers or community colleges near you that teach art classes. Simply sign up for the “beginner drawing” class and start going. However, you should also have study material for your own personal reference, and many people don’t have the mobility or access necessary to go to a physical class with people. That’s why you need these books:

  1. Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain — This book will explain to you why you can’t draw, then teach you how to learn it on your own with a simple set of exercises.
  2. The Natural Way To Draw — I found this book to be incredibly annoying, but it does attack the problem of learning to draw from a physical touch direction, so if you find Betty Edwards’ book doesn’t work then try this one.
  3. Keys To Drawing With Imagination — It also helps to be able to draw what in envision in your head, and this book has a lot of fun exercises for doing that.
  4. Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall — This book will then amplify your ability to draw by presenting a set of visual memorization puzzles and show you how to solve them. I really enjoyed this book and feel it helped improve my painting more than any of the other books.

Those are the books to get for drawing, and you simply go through them in order, so just buy the first one for now, then come back and get the others as you go through them. Once you’re through those books you’ll want to get into painting with color, and here’s what you need:

  1. Color – This will give you the first basic theory of color, mixing, and painting. It uses acrylic but just get the cheap stuff.
  2. Brushwork Essentials – This will show you how to use your brushes better.
  3. Daily Painting – A great book on painting and posting your paintings every day. Good inspiration.
  4. The Simple Secret To Better Painting – A good simple book on composition that breaks down the myriad rules of composition into a few that work well.
  5. Alla Prima II – The best book on painting ever.
  6. How To See Color And Paint It – Your final book to tackle, full of exercises that you do in order to learn how to match the colors of what you see and paint them.

But remember, you can use the black and white painting kit I tell you to get to also practice everything in the drawing books. It’s not as convenient, but if you want to paint then using paint to finish drawing exercises is a good way to learn to use paint. I’ll explain more of why this works later on.

Online Resources

There are also many youtube videos that teach different things about drawing, so you can go there when you want some inspiration or to find out how to do something. Don’t be shocked at the low quality of the art education videos on youtube. A primary source of money for artists is teaching, so most of their youtube videos are to get you to attend a class or buy another video. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s why the videos can kind of suck.

I also highly recommend you sign up for an Artist’s Network TV account once you know you’re serious about drawing and painting or if you want classes but can’t quite attend them right now. Artist’s Network has about 450+ videos that you can watch whenever you want for $19.99USD a month or $199.99 a year. Normally, if you bought them individually, each video goes for $20-$50 dollars. With a subscription you get access to the same full videos for just the subscription fee. If you watch 4 videos a day you most likely pay for a year subscription in two days. It’s an incredible value given the quality and quantity of the content.

Learning To Draw

You have your books. You have your charcoal, pencils, and paper. You want to draw but how do you go about it. I’m going to tell you the secret to learning to draw what you see in three words: ALWAYS BE DRAWING. So simple right? Maybe you’re saying that you could never find enough time to draw and now you feel defeated. “Zed says I have to draw all the time to be able to learn to do it but I don’t have any time! Waaaahhhh!” I am going to tell you a few strategies that will get you drawing all the time without interfering with your daily life.

The trick is to always do two things at once. Let’s say you want to watch TV. Well, what is TV but a sequence of nicely shot professional photos that you can pause and draw. That’s right, while you’re watching TV have your sketchpad and a pencil with you. Pause the TV, and spend a few minutes quickly drawing what you see. Maybe it’s a face, or a landscape, or a building street scene. Just draw it, and if your TV is big enough this should be nice and easy. Don’t waste too much time on it, then hit play again and wait for the next scene.

What if your whole family watches TV so you can’t pause it? Have you ever watched your zombies watch TV? They don’t move do they? Draw them. Do you take the bus? While you sit there, try to quickly draw the people on the bus. Draw people at cafes. At work. Draw your food on your lunch break. Draw everything you see while you do other things. I one time I liked how a bathroom at a cafe looked so I busted out my sketchpad and drew it while I was on the toilet. That’s how you do it.

To be able to do this you need to follow another mantra: Always have drawing supplies on you. You probably walk around with a laptop all day long, plus a bunch of other crap you don’t need. Toss a tiny sketch pad and a couple pencils or a pen in there. Just a pad and a cheap bic pen is all you need. Standing in line at the bank? Bust out your kit and sketch the bank. Waiting for the bus? Sketch the street.

I’m so obsessed with painting that I have several different tiny painting kits I cary around with me always. I have one for watercolor, oil, pastels, and charcoal. When I’m taking a break, I paint. It’s always on me and I’m able to bust it out and use it whenever I have some free time.

Do you work a boring office job? I’m pretty sure you browse Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a whole slew of stupid sites instead of working. Next time, keep your sketch pad near you and when you see a photo you like try to draw a sketch of it. Try making a tiny little painting kit like mine and take it with you to work. If it’s small enough nobody will care. Just watch the smell as some people hate it. Watercolor is a great portable option for painting in color. After you learn to paint with oils try watercolor. Watercolor is hard, but if you can do that you can do pretty much anything, and you can take watercolor anywhere.

If you get an Artist’s Network subscription then you can watch those while you’re at work. I sometimes just watch 15-30 minutes of a video as a break. Read biographies of artists while you’re on the bus. Anything you can do to fill your dead time with art is going to help. If you keep a sketch pad and pencil on you at all times, and use it throughout the day, then you can easily get two hours or more in without even trying. Your day is probably filled with loads of pointless waiting, so might as well have a hobby.

You will also want to put in a few hours a day (or every few days) of concentrated practice. This means being able to set aside a time and place in your home to attempt something that requires longer attention than a sketch. If you want to draw then you’ll find time to do this, and it’ll be a great relaxing activity. Much better than TV to be honest. Just do the exercises in the books I listed and focus on them for a few hours and you’ll see that you lose track of the time easily.

The purpose of this plan of attack is simply that you are training two powers of observation: the impression and the analysis. When you walk around trying to sketch everything quickly you are training your ability to quickly observe the impression of what you see. This is usually more accurate in a general sense than you’d get from exact measurements. When you sit down to focus on a particular exercise or scene you are practicing your ability to accurately measure and analyze what you see, and to correct your mistakes. Both of these feed into each other such that one makes the other better.

Learning To Use Paint

As I mentioned before, a good way to learn to paint is to do some of the exercises you do for drawing, but to just use black and white paint instead. I actually didn’t think of this until after I’d been painting for a while, but once I started focusing on just black and white, my drawing and value skills improved dramatically. So did my facility with brushes and palette knives.

The reason painting exclusively in monochrome (black and white) works is because the most difficult thing for most painters is values and drawing shapes. Values is the term for how dark or light something, how black or white. Drawing shapes is something that painters have to learn since their medium doesn’t really do lines well, instead it lays down sheets of solid color. Truth is the world does not have lines. The world you see is composed of light reflecting off surfaces to hit your retina, and that produces shapes with varying edges between them, not lines between them. We’ve just developed a convention of a line means an edge, so that’s why it works.

But when you paint you rarely can use a line to denote an edge of an object. Instead you have to lay another shape next to it in a way that implies the edge is there. Doing a lot of monochromatic painting teaches you how to get the shapes right, get their values right, and get their edges to work.

You should also try to do whole paintings with only the palette knives. Lordy lordy this will feel awkward and annoying, but make yourself do it anyway.

Learning To Use Color

Once you’ve been learning to paint in black and white and your drawing is improving it’s time to start trying to use color. The remaining books all cover how to use color, composition, and theory. Simply go through each one in order, but the most important one in the series is the last one, How To See Color And Paint It (HTSC). This book is out of print, and it needs an update, but it’s the only one that teaches you how to paint exactly what you see. It’s a mountain of a book to finish, but it gives you very control exercises to finish in a sequence. I say to do it last because it’s an expensive book due to it’s rarity, but also because it doesn’t cover a lot of the skills you need to simply use paint effectively. The other books do that for you, and

  • Alla Prima II
  • should end up being your painting desk reference for years to come.

    All of the other books are good, so just read them and practice what they say to do. With HTSC though I’m going to modify what Arthur Stern mandates in his book in the following way:

    1. Get the colors I list above, not the ones he mentions. Mine are simply modern versions of what he describes.
    2. He says to only use a palette knife and never draw. This is bullshit. No artist just paints without doing some kind of drawing first. If you need to draw then use a thin vine charcoal to help you draw. You can also use thinned dark paint if you need, but vine charcoal is fine. Draw the basic shapes, no real detail. When you then paint the vine charcoal will dissipate and not really alter the color for the first statement.
    3. He says to do your first statement with only a knife. “First statement” is kind of your first guess, and using a knife to do it makes it harder to do more statements. It’s better to use a brush and thinned paint to lay down a thin painting that will dry quicker. Alla Prima will show you how to do this.
    4. You should setup the actual still lives that he recommends, but you can also do a first sketch in monochrome from the photos he has in the book. In fact, you could probably just use the photos in the book for a lot of the exercises and do just fine. You should try to paint from life as that’s the whole point, but a good path is to do a couple sketches from the photos, then do the real thing.
    5. He has a frustrating color matching procedure that is thwarted by a complex lighting requirement of a lamp over you, then one over the setup, then trying to use yours a certain way. Screw that. Have a good light for your room. Point your lamp at the setup and then use an umbrella or sheet or something to block the light from your room so that you only have one light source on your setup. Now, slap some pure white paint on a little card and put it on your still life. Back up and try to match your white paint to the one sitting your setup. Then adjust the lighting in the setup or your room until the white you are holding is close enough to the white in your setup. There, you just calibrated your lighting and can go on to use the method he describes.
    6. Don’t be discouraged if your painting sucks compared to the samples in the book. Stern obviously found ringers to paint those, and you aren’t able to see what they really painted so you don’t know how accurate they were. Instead, do yours and if you think you got close enough, then that’s good. You could probably do them 2 or 3 times before moving on if you wanted.

    Other than that the book is a great concept, even if the execution of it is a little lacking in the directions. You need to build up to it, but if you can do that book then you can be confident that you can move on to many other challenging topics and classes.

    Getting Help

    If you’re looking for help there a forum called WetCanvas that provides a lot of people willing to help. They have topics for weekly critiques, people answering questions, random advice, FAQs of information, and in general just a lot of information for beginners. It’s a forum though, so you know that means there’s also some blowhards who don’t know as much as they think they do. Definitely take what most artists think of pigments with a massive grain of salt.

    However, if you want to spend hours diving into the science of art, pigments, perspective, and many other topics then just read through Handprint. The author is a watercolor painter who’s kind of crazy, but that’s why I love him. He actually doesn’t trust any pigment manufacturers, so he’s gone to great lengths to test all of the pigments he uses himself. This means he painted thousands of swatches and then put them under lights for 800+ hours just to make sure that the lightfastness rating on them is accurate. That’s hardcore, and also sounds like a load of fun but then again I’m a huge nerd.

    I’ll also recommend that you take classes in specific things you are interested in. If you want to paint figures or portraits then you’re going to have to either use photos, torture your relatives, or attend a class where there are paid models. If you want to paint landscapes, then do a workshop to learn the basics.

    Overcoming Your Fear

    The last thing I want to cover is fear. You’re going to have to confront that fear of being exposed to criticism. Everybody’s got a damn opinion on art and people seem to love to crap all over what beginners put out. Someone will hate your “shading” even though that’s not a thing. Someone will hate your lines. Some other jackass will question your perspective. Another idiot will comment on your choice of colors. You just can’t win, and if you’re afraid of criticism, well painting might just suck for you.

    But, I’m going to tell you three secrets though which will help you realize that you don’t need to be afraid.

    First, for every single criticism anyone could level at you there is a professional revered well respected artist who has made a career of doing that very thing. Someone doesn’t like your perspective? Say, “Yep, just like Van Gogh.” Someone doesn’t like your shading? Say, “Yep, just like Francis Bacon.” Someone thinks your paintings look flat? Say, “Yep, just like Picasso.” For every single complaint someone has, there’s a professional who does it so you’re alright to do it too.

    Second, everyone, even the very best professional, makes a lot of turds. I mean mountains of turds. Thousands of turds. The only difference is most artists until now didn’t have the internet, so we never saw their turds. Artists have grown up being able to hide their turds from the world and controlling their image. You don’t get to see most artists horrible failures, but if you talk to them they all admit that they make a huge number of bad paintings and only select the very good ones. Hell, even Rembrandt had to paint a giant dog in front of some legs he fucked up. If Rembrandt makes turds, so can you.

    Third, every artist cheats like mad. By cheating I mean they use every single damn technique and tool they can get their hand on to craft their artistic vision, but they tend to pretend like they don’t. In the art world you’re allowed to do this, and everyone turns a blind eye to it because they like the paintings. Frankly, the only real cheating in art is if you claim you did it but someone else did. Other than that, cheat your ass off but try to ween yourself slowly off your crutches.

    Photos are a great example of this. Most landscape painters straight up admit they use the hell out of photos. There’s no other way they can paint in the studio or work multiple sessions on large paintings without them. Portrait artists by comparison are always pretending they don’t use photos when many times it’s really obvious they do. Like if you see a hot girl smiling with a squid on her head, then photos were totally involved. Photos and projection have also been used in painting for as long as there’s been modern oil painting or photography. It’s totally alright to use them, but painting from photos is kind of boring, and tracing is super duper boring, so you want to eventually ween yourself off them and use them sparingly. On the flip side, if painting from photos makes great art and you like doing it, then go for it.

    Ultimately what I’m saying is you don’t have to be afraid of making art and putting out your paintings for people to see. Just be honest about how long you’ve been doing it, don’t say a painting is really good or really bad, and take well meaning advice from people. If anyone tries to say your work sucks though, just fire back with some of the above three. Chances are their work is incredibly horrible, they cheat to make it, and they love an artist who is a lot like you, so you’re set.

    Have Fun

    I hope this article helps you get started in drawing and painting, but more importantly I hope you get to find out how fun and enjoyable painting is. It’s amazing how much it’s transformed my life, and I want many other people to get into it. I don’t care if you become an “artist”. Just focus on enjoying the process of making art, and you’ll enjoy it for the rest of your life. Eventually your mountain of turds will produce a few good ones you can be proud of, and you can look back on how much you enjoyed climbing that mountain.

    Anyway, sometimes making turds on purpose is the most fun of all.

    So You Want To Play Guitar

    This is a combination review and guide for the beginning guitarist.  I assume that you know nothing about guitars and need a list of gear to get so you can start off right. I also include a list of things to avoid and some simple advice on learning the guitar. My plan is for someone who wants to start off as a casual player, but eventually progress toward being more capable as a musician. I focus on Blues through to Jazz because if you can play Jazz harmony and solos then you should be able to play anything you want after that. The equipment I recommend is simply good solid starter gear at a low price which should last you about 5+ years if you use it every day.

    My Qualifications

    I have been playing guitar for real since about 2008, but I’ve been noodling on the guitar since about 1993.  During the 15 years I spent noodling I didn’t actually study guitar.  I just had one laying around and I would try playing along with random blues songs and practice pentatonics while watching TV.  You may not know what a pentatonic is, but this basically says I didn’t do much study and just goofed off.  In 2008 though I decided to go to a music school to actually study and it was a great experience.  More importantly, music school taught me how to study music.

    I’m not a fantastic shredder, mostly because I was fairly old when I started, but I play in a unique way that I enjoy.  The more important part of this tale is that I also learned how to build guitars.  I built 8 of them, and modified 2 others.  Not entirely from scratch, because that’s annoying and requires special equipment.  Instead I would buy the body and neck from warmoth.com and then craft my own crazy electronics inside the guitar.  My current favorite guitars to play are a Bass VI  and a Starcaster that I made.  Mine of course are not original Fender instruments, but that’s the point.  I was able to make mine sound and play however I want, which is what I like about building guitars.

    My recommendations on gear are entirely about getting a beginner the easiest set of equipment for the lowest price that they can play the longest. I don’t expect a beginner to make their own guitars or even setup their guitar.  I’m mostly telling you this so that you trust me when I recommend gear to you.  My goal is to give you the least equipment you need to learn based on what you want to do.  I’ve played with a lot of gear, and I’ve made a lot gear, so I know what will work well for a beginner.

    The Gear

    The essentials you need to start learning to play are these:

    1. Squier Telecaster Guitar – $179USD
    2. Korg Pandora Mini – $99USD
    3. Chromacast 12 Pack of Picks – $1.99USD
    4. A three pack of short cables with angled ends – $11.56
    5. A pair of these awesome Monoprice headphones – $24USD
    6. The New Complete Guitarist – $15.93USD
    7. Blues You Can Use – $16.57USD

    This comes out to about $348USD depending on the prices on Amazon and whether you can find a good deal or not for the items. You may be able to find cheaper prices used, on eBay, and buying the books used off Amazon. This setup will let you play and practice guitar through headphones which is where you want to play until you get good enough to not make everyone hate you. You can literally play like this for a couple years and just keep using the Korg Pandora to play. I’ll explain that device later.

    To that list I would add the following if you can afford it:

    1. Pignose 7-100 Amp – $75USD
    2. A Snark Clip On Tuner – $10.80
    3. Simple Metronome – $12.48USD
    4. A longer cable for your guitar to the amp – $12.21USD
    5. Digitech JMEXTV JamMan Express XT – $99USD
    6. Music Theory For Guitarists
    7. Mickey Baker’s Guitar Course
    8. The Real Book Vol I, Low Voice
    9. The Jazz Theory Book

    That’s it, and entire successful music careers were founded on much less than this.  You could replace the Electric Guitar and Amp with just an Acoustic Guitar, but that would mean when you try to get further along you have to go buy an electric anyway.  It’s easier to start off with the simple electric guitar and amp I recommend, then get an acoustic later if you like. With an electric guitar you and the Korg Pandora you can play with headphones on, so you can play any time you want. Without an amp a telecaster just sounds like a block of wood you keep scraping with a pick.

    The geeks I know reading this will immediately yell, “Awesome! I saw all this crap on my iPad!” No! Do not get apps for your iPad, tablet, laptop, nothing.  In fact, take learning guitar to be a break from your computer.  Your iPad will be nothing more than a point of setup friction.  When I get into how to practice later, you’ll notice I keep advocating reducing the friction to practice.  Having to plug your guitar into a janky as shit tiny little plug on an iPad and fire up random constantly crashing apps just to practice a song will only frustrate you.  Keep it simple!

    An Electric Guitar

    The guitar I recommend to beginners is a Squier Telecaster by Fender.  The Telecaster is the original solid body electric guitar and it’s a design that lasts.  They are built like a tank and actually sound pretty good for the price.  In fact I’ve seen people repeatedly grab a Squier to play with it, love it, and then realize it’s a Squier.  At the time I wrote this you could get one shipped to you off Amazon for about $179USD.  This guitar will literally last you a decade or more, should be easy to play, and sounds decent.

    Don’t blow much more than this on your first guitar as you don’t know if you’re going to stick with it. The most important thing is to get the guitar setup by a guitar repair shop as soon as you get it. Take it to a reputable shop in your area and ask them what they think of the guitar and to “set it up”. This should cost you about $25, but if the guitar is super screwed up don’t have them do it. Just return the guitar to Amazon if the repair technician says it’s totally hosed and would cost too much to fix up. Have them write it down for proof to Amazon, but usually they will take anything back and send you another one.

    An Amp

    For an amp you want something super small, good sounding, runs on batteries, and is built like a tank.  Believe it or not the best beginner amp is the Pignose 7-100.  These amps have been around for decades, and you can probably still find an original one in a pawnshop somewhere.  They are cheap, can run on 6 AA batteries, plug into a wall, sound good clean and have their own distortion.  Using just this amp and your guitar you can sound like a lot of the classic sounds you get, and there’s big name recording artists that use one.  Frank Zappa used the hell out of the pignose, and he’s awesome.

    A Pignose amp will run you about $75USD unless you find one in a pawn shop for less.  I’d just order it online and save the trouble of hauling a guitar to a pawnshop just to save $20 on a Pignose.  You might also be able to hit craigslist and find someone giving one of these away.

    I have a bunch of different little amps and I still play my Pignose the most. I will sit on the couch or in my bed, sheet music out, batteries in the pignose, and play just about anything. Jazz, blues, rock, anything. The trick to the pignose is to turn the amp up a bit, but turn the guitar down so that you’re on the edge of distortion, then adjust the tone knob to make it sound how you want. The pignose only has a volume and as it turns up the amp gets more distorted. Rather nice distortion too. With the amp up but the guitar down you get a nice smooth clean sound, and then you just roll the volume up and it’s distorted, roll back down and it’s not. Can’t get much easier than that.

    A Tuner and Metronome

    For your tuner and metronome I recommend you get a Korg Pandora Mini.  These are $99USD and for that money you get an amazing amount of practice features.  These come with about 300 different effects, hundreds of decent sounding beats to practice against, you can plug it into your Pignose or use your headphones.

    The Pandora Mini is the best practice devices ever and I wish they’d been out when I started. It has about 100 real drum loops you can practice too that sound pretty decent, as well as a full range of simple metronome sounds. It has around 300 effects with quick buttons to access your favorites, and you can plug it into your amp like it’s a guitar pedal to get the same effects through your amp. Some of them through the pignose sounds idiotic good, a lot of them sound really bad, but they’re lots of fun. It also has a tuner in it, and you can plug in your iPod to the AUX port and play along with your songs too.

    A Small Looper

    This is totally optional, but the best way to get better at playing guitar is to record yourself playing, and the quickest easiest way to record yourself is with a looper pedal. A looper is a pedal that sits between your guitar and your amp and records a small chunk of you playing when you push the foot switch.  When you push the foot switch again the loop is cut at that point and then it plays repeatedly until you use the foot switch to clear it.  This becomes the fastest way to play something, record it, then listen to it and hear how you did.  It also works later to learn to solo over chords. Just record 2-4 bars of music with some chords, then wail away figuring out how to solo over those chords. Loopers don’t get tired and using them improves your ability to play chords and keep time.

    The Digitech JMEXTV JamMan Express XT for about $99USD is a good option as a first basic looper.  It has stereo input and output, meaning you can plug two input sources and it will output to two amps.  You don’t need this level of capability yet, but for $99 it’s not a bad thing to have already.  This looper also takes a 9V battery so you don’t have to plug it into anything to sit down and play.

    Cables and Picks

    You will need some cables to connect your guitar to this setup.  You will also need some guitar picks to pluck the strings.  The cables to get are:

    1. A three pack of short cables with angled ends.
    2. A longer cable for your guitar to the amp.
    3. A pair of these awesome Monoprice headphones. Trust me. Get them. Best $24USD you ever spent.

    When it comes to picks you should get a pack of random sized ones and try them all until you find a size and style you like.  A good starter pack is the Chromacast 12 pack. These aren’t the very best picks ever, but they cover the range of thicknesses and styles of picks possible.  I suggest switching the pick once a week until you’ve gone through all of them and then just use the one you feel you like the best.  If you stumble onto one you absolutely love then just use that one from then on.

    Some Books

    To start off I recommend these books:

    1. The New Complete Guitarist
    2. Music Theory For Guitarists
    3. Blues You Can Use
    4. Mickey Baker’s Guitar Course
    5. The Real Book Vol I, Low Voice
    6. The Jazz Theory Book

    I would get the first three books, and study them the way I describe in the Curriculum section of this review.  Then get the next three and study those as much as you can after.

    This set of books will take you from total beginner with guitar and eventually lead you to being able to play some basic Jazz songs and know most any chord you’d need to know.  I recommend starting with this path even if you really love Metal or Rock because this will give you a good grounding in advanced music theory and complex chords.  If you can play this kind of music and understand Jazz theory, then most any other kind of music is approachable.  My goal with this isn’t to make you into some monster Jazz soloist, but instead give you a path that will give you the most solid grounding to then learn whatever you want.

    Curriculum

    You’ve bought a bunch of crap and now you need to learn how to play guitar. The first thing you have to do is hammer home this mantra:

    “I will only get better if I play every day. Every day!”

    You have to commit to putting in at least an hour every day of touching the guitar or some aspect of music. The secret to getting in a solid hour or more of practice is to repeat this mantra:

    “Always do two things at the same time.”

    Let’s say you’re sitting there watching TV. Maybe it’s something really boring like baseball. So much time between people running around arbitrary points on a field that you could easily sit on the couch with your guitar and practice scales. Let’s say you’re on the bus going to work. That’s 30-40 minutes you could be practicing ear training or rhythm or reading and studying the next exercise. Let’s say you’re sitting at work browsing the internet because you don’t really work anyway. Why aren’t you reading about chords? For that matter, why not take your guitar to work if you have a desk job? Just bring it. If you get fired for having a guitar at work then that place sucks.

    I would clap out rhythms to a metronome while I watched TV. I’d play guitar while I watched TV, trying to play scales on the guitar without looking. I’d walk around the city with an ear training guide on my music player and try to guess the intervals. Always do two things! Do it every day!

    The next thing you have to do is take it slow and play around. Everyone completely sucks for years when they start something difficult like learning an instrument. I keep running into people who are really great at programming or math but get frustrated after a week of totally sucking at the guitar. Expecting yourself to be a virtuoso after a week is just idiotic. This is a life long endeavor and could take a year or two to get to where you don’t feel like a poser turd when you touch the guitar. Just keep going, practice, be objective (not negative or positive) about your playing, keep notes on how well you’re doing, and you’ll be happy with your playing in a while.

    What helps with this kind of daily practice is to do things that are fun as a warmup. What I like to do is turn on the looper and just goof off before I practice something. Sometimes I end up playing for hours with a looper and that’s my practice. Sometimes I run my laptop through the Pandora and add guitar tracks to shitty pop songs on youtube that should have guitar parts. Just goof off. Stop caring that you suck and enjoy just making noise then eventually the noise will sound good.

    How you then study the books is you take each one, start at the beginning, and do each lesson in order, spending anywhere from a day to a week on it.  Some exercises might take longer, but just keep plugging away at them until you do them all.  As you do this, record yourself and listen to see how you really played.  Use the looper if you have to or your phone to record.

    Periodically mix in a song you like or that is recommended you learn and try to learn it.  The best way to learn to play a song is to go bar by bar, learning each bar until you get it right, starting at a low metronome setting, and building up until you can play it.  Then move on to the next bar, then combine those two, then three, then four.  Eventually you’ll be able to just play bars of music without studying them, but when you run into a piece you can’t just play, you will know how to break it down.

    That is really all there is to it.  Of course the details of music are more complicated than that, but the actual way you study is to do it in little chunks, every day, and slow it down then speed it up.

    Taking Care Of Your Hands

    When you play your hands are going be a little sore and that’s normal. The rule is, play gently through discomfort, but do not play through pain. I recommend that you do a set of warmup exercises for your hands to get them loose and ready to play. This youtube video has a good set of warmups and stretches for your hands:

    I also recommend before you do these that you clench and unclench your hands rapidly for about 30 seconds to a minute then rest. Do that about 3 times then do these stretches and you’ll avoid injuring your hands and they’ll stop hurting sooner.

    When I say do not play through pain I mean anything that is a sharp or continuous pain or ache. I didn’t listen to this advice and I put a bone spur in the side of my thumb because I played on a guitar with a screwed up neck for too many hours a day. I had to completely change my hand positioning and relearn how to play because of this and it was frustrating. It happened because I played through the pain, thinking that’s just how your hands feel when you play guitar. When the pain got worse and didn’t go away I realized I’d damaged it and it was two years before I’d healed up.

    So heed my warning. Only macho douchebags think a “real man” can play without warming up. Fuck them. Your hands are your life when it comes to guitar, and as Steve Vai said, “Protect your hands better than you protect your junk.” Steve Vai is a bad ass. Your douchebag friend who calls you a sissy for warming up your hands before you play can just shut the fuck up.

    Learning To Feel Rhythm Naturally

    This topic is so important I made it a separate section so listen up.  When you are learning to play there’s so many different skills you work on at the same time that you’ll have to practice them separately at times.  The one skill that separates “good players” from “amateurs” is rhythm.  You can totally suck at nearly everything else but if your time is good you can at least get buy.  More importantly though, if you work on your sense of time until it becomes an innate skill then that’s one thing you don’t have to think about anymore while you play.

    This is the secret to playing and singing at the same time.  If your time is just second nature, then to sing and play together you only need to coordinate the guitar and your voice together.  If you have to think about your time then you have three things you need to think about and you can’t coordinate them correctly.

    How do you build an innate sense of time?  With this lesson from Victor Wooten on weening yourself off the metronome:

    This lesson might not make sense now, but if you take your metronome and practice it the way he describes you’ll start to be able to feel where the key points of a rhythm are without having the metronome playing.  Here’s how this works:

    1. You put the metronome on a full beat you need to practice.  Say 4/4 time at 120 beats per minute (bpm) which means 4 clicks for every bar of music.
    2. You then try to clap or play a single note on your guitar to each beat and do it until you can feel you’re close or dead on.  A clue is when you clap you can’t hear the metronome click because your clap covers it.
    3. Once you’re doing alright at that, cut the metronome click in half so it’s 60bpm, but keep clapping at the same speed you did with 120 bpm.  This means you’ll hear the metronome click every other clap.
    4. When you do this you’ll be able to tell whether you’re too fast or too slow by where the click happens vs. your clap.  Keep clapping though and adjust your speed to match the metronome clicks.
    5. When you’re decent at that, cut the metronome in half again to 30bpm so that it clicks only once per every four claps.
    6. Keep playing with different speeds and divisions of time, and also try counting it at the same time.  Try “1 2 3 4” but also try “one ee and ah 2 ee and ah” for 8 beats of the music.  As you study music theory from the Tom Kolb book this will start to make more sense.

    Victor Wooten also shows a few more exercises you should do, and you should dedicate about 15 minutes a day to this.  It’s actually really easy with the Pandora because you can sit and listen to the metronome and tap your hand on your leg or your chest.  You may look stupid sitting on the bus tapping yourself, but if you’ve got to sit there in transit might as well do something useful.

    This one exercise will boost your rhythmic abilities the most, but don’t forget to also practice with a metronome to get accurate with time.  Eventually you’ll find this weird thing where when you play guitar you have an uncontrollable urge to keep time with your foot or hand and it won’t feel natural to play without some kind of body motion.  That’s when you know you’ve made rhythm an innate sense.

    Getting Lessons

    I highly recommend you get a guitar teacher in the beginning to help you avoid common mistakes in how you play.  The problem with finding a guitar teacher though is just about any jackass who knows a few blues licks can call himself a music teacher these days.  Be sure to look around very hard and ask if you can learn to play Jazz.  A guitar teacher who knows how to teach Jazz guitar will most likely be able to teach you simple beginner guitar.  Also look for a teacher who teaches children too.

    Ultimately though you’ll want to be able to study on your own, so use a guitar teacher in the beginning to learn the basics of posture and how to hold the guitar and get a good technical grounding, then study on your own from books and videos.

    You should however be careful of any guitar teacher that tells you these things:

    1. “Never turn your hand!”  — This is total bullshit.  Huge names in guitar, nearly every single professional including Andrés Segovia, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all turn their fretting hand while they play.  In fact, the king of Gypsy Jazz, Django Reinhardt only used two fingers on his fretting hand by turning his wrist, and he was a bad ass.  If your teacher tries to make you keep your wrist in a perfectly straight position then he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Watch how he plays fast and you’ll see him turning his hand for sure.  Nobody keeps their hand perfectly straight except a few ultra-anal classical players.
    2. “Jazz guitar needs a wound G string.” — Again, total bullshit.   You play the strings that are easiest for you to play.  People who throw out this bullshit about wound G strings are just posers.
    3. “Jazz doesn’t have pentatonics.” — Absolute bullshit.  Loads of Jazz soloists use the pentatonic scale as the basis of a solo.  If they try to tell you this just say, “Oh I’m not playing a pentatonic.  I’m playing a Major Seventh Arpeggio Add 6 Add 9 scale.” Then show them the section in Mark Levin’s <em>The Jazz Theory Book</em> on pentatonics and they’ll shut up.
    4. “You have to learn to tune your guitar by ear.” — No, use a tuner. Only a rare group of people have pitch good enough to tune by ear, and even they use a device to be accurate.  Telling people to do this does not build their ear.
    5. “Always play with a metronome!” — If you want to have good rhythm you have to be able to play without a metronome and still keep time.  If you always play with a metronome then you never build this skill.  I got sucked into this idea for years and it wasn’t until I weened myself off needing the metronome using Victor Wooten’s method that I finally found my innate sense of time.   However, I’m not saying never use a metronome.  I’m saying, use it sometimes and try to play without it too.
    6. “Your finger tips must touch directly perpendicular onto the string.”  — This is where someone says you have to contort your hand around so that your finger tips tap directly onto the top of the string.  This however makes it so you can’t mute the other strings and prevent them from sounding out with the rest of your hand and it’s an uncomfortable position for your hand.  The truth is, sometimes you play that way, and sometimes you don’t, but most often your fingers are at a slight angle and the rest of your hand can touch the strings to mute them.  Again, every professional big name guitarist does both, so don’t listen to people who claim you should always position your fingers one way.  Chances are they don’t even do it.

    I also recommend you take singing lessons if you can.  Singing lessons do so much for your vocal health and posture that they’re an incredibly good thing to do in general.  Singing also helps with your ability to hear music and it makes a lot of songs more fun to play if you can also belt out the song at the same time.  You can do about one lesson a week and practice what your teacher says, plus sing along with your guitar and you’ll double up on the music skills.

    Going Further

    This plan and the gear involved should give you years of fun. By the time you’re ready to move on from that I’m sure you’ll have found many books, people, and things to take you along the way. When you get to a point that you feel serious enough to start dropping some major cash on more things I recommend you sink your money into a really awesome amp.

    The amp is really the main part of your guitar’s sound. For the most part the sound coming out of your guitar’s pickups is pretty bland and lifeless. The amp gives it the boost, clarity, and dirt that you need. If you have the money, get the best one you can. I don’t mean the most expensive, I mean the best sounding one. Take your guitar to a local guitar store and try all the amps they have until you find one you love. Try some of the lesser known guitar stores and not just Guitar Center as you’ll have more options for alternative amps to try. Take your time and really search for one you like. Try some of the newer emulated amps too like the Fender Mustang series. These are sounding better and better as the technology improves.

    Other than a new amp, all I can say is just keep practicing every day, learning songs you like, and having fun.

    Lubitel 166+: The Ultimate Hipster Camera

    If this camera were a band it’d be Yo La Tengo, or the even more obscure Brokeback. What? You’ve never heard of Brokeback?  That’s because you’re just not as musically relevant and authentic as you think you are.  This camera will fix your authenticity deficiency, and if you actually want to take some pictures it can do that too.  I mean, if you wanted to be bourgeois about it you could even put those pictures on Flickr.  In this review, I’ll explain how to balance your need to show your vintage fashion sense with your need to express yourself in the modern world using the Lubitel 166+.

    Lubitel 166+ Looking Artsy

    Lubitel 166+ Looking Artsy

    Actually saying “one six six plus” is annoying, so from now on when I say “Lubitel” I just mean the one I have.  Lubitel fanatics will of course chastise me since I could be talking about any number of crappy Russian built cameras they bought from an estate sale on eBay. None of that matters however because this is the camera you buy to fool people who know nothing of cameras into thinking you’re a real old school meat and potatoes medium format photographer.  Real Lubitel fanatics will possibly turn their noses up at your camera and point at their Lubitel 166B laying on thick layers of poetical wax to cover the older cameras’ obvious technical deficiencies.

    I should say right away that this camera is actually a lot of fun.  If you don’t buy into the marketing then it’s an interesting thing to use and there’s quite a few learning opportunities with it.  Having this camera for one day has already taught me about aperture and exposure.  That’s the effect of simple manual controls.  It’s also very methodical and accidental in its usage.  I have probably ruined all of the pictures I’ve taken with it, but I’m betting there will be a few artistically interesting accidents to come out of it.

    I say “potentially” in that last sentence because I haven’t developed the film yet and I have no idea what the photos look like.  It’s an old school film camera, and the last time I used one of those was about 2 decades ago.  I have to actually wait to see what I’ve photographed.

    Who are we kidding though? You don’t buy this camera for the pictures. You buy it for the experience and the artistic integrity. You buy this camera to go with your full length sleeve tattoos and ironic mustache. I bought it out of curiosity, and since I’m not even close to a professional photographer, this review is based on my experience as a total newbie trying to use an old Russian camera.

    Medium Format Cameras

    Film cameras are fairly dead these days given the quality you can get out of the average consumer level Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. Some people still think that film gives them a better image, but most of that is nostalgia clouding their judgement. If you have an image that’s 35mm then it’s not going to be noticeably better quality in digital or film, and film can’t come close to the color accuracy you get with digital. It’s simple physics that film’s pigments can’t come close to a damn good sensor, but diehards still love their stupid 35m film cameras.

    The real improvement in image quality comes from just taking a bigger image. Bigger images have more information in them, so if you use a medium format camera at 120mm size, then that’s about 3.5 or 4 times the information. Again, simple physics says you’ll get higher quality, but the problem is the cost. If you want to actually take 120mm digital photographs then you’re looking at spending anywhere from $2500 to a batshit fucking crazy $37000. Even hardcore professionals who make their money at photography blink hard at buying that kind of gear.

    The other option is to use old film cameras that are Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras. A TLR medium format camera from the 40s-80s can be had for about $100-$300 used on eBay these days, depending on the one you want. Good brands are Kiev, Mamiya, Bronica, and the Lubitel. These cameras were built like tanks, so many of them lasted through the years and are serviceable purchased used. Sometimes you can find them in hipster kitsch stores where the camera is used as a prop to set off a purple hat and some ironic boy scout badges. If it works, then you can get film for it fairly cheap off Amazon and have some fun.

    My camera though is a remake of the old Lubitel 166 camera with a few upgrades to the lens and some other elements. Being a new camera you’d think this would make it less janky to work with, but as you’ll see I kept running into issues and needed to hack a few things to make it solid.

    Day 1: I Am The Destroyer Of Film

    I’m not going to show you the stupid unboxing of the camera. Yay, it came in a box and didn’t break apart in shipping. There’s a lot of crap in the box that wasn’t necessary really. A square book with a bunch of square photos and a lot of marketing words pretending to be hip. A bunch of accessories that I need. A roll of film that I couldn’t open. A manual that I couldn’t read.

    I took the roll of film out of its plastic sack and stared at it. “How in the hell do you unroll this solid piece of cardboard?” I stared at it, all of my mechanical genius quickly being tested on a roll of cardboard over a plastic spindle. I then read the manual (after wading through a bunch of pictures I don’t give a shit about) only to find that the numbers on parts on the camera aren’t right. 36 doesn’t exist. 9 is pointing at 10 and 10 is pointing at 7. I’m smart enough to figure out what should go where, and memories of playing with junk cameras as a kid help me sort it out, but still there’s that stupid roll of cardboard.

    To the Internets! The thing about 120mm film is that it had a cardboard backing. The 35mm variety is just raw film, so when it’s even gently kissed by full light it turns to photography garbage. With 120mm film there’s a protective cardboard back so you can actually look through a little exposure window and read the film number you’re on. This is why this fucking roll of film won’t open because it’s a roll of cardboard and I can’t figure out how it opens.

    When in doubt, bust out the leatherman. I was smart enough to buy a few extra rolls of film to play with, so I don’t care if I rip this one open with a knife to figure out how the hell you open one up. I cut one part of it with the knife, then realize there’s a little paper wrapper around it that was holding it together. That little paper strip was just glued on too tight so when I ripped it off the roll didn’t come loose. However, now that roll is loose. Loose all over my hand because the knife beats bad engineering any day.

    Now I know how to open one of these stupid rolls of film. I take out a simple Kodak 400 ISO color roll. I have no idea what the 400 ISO means but that’s what everyone said to start with so I bought a 5 pack of it. I carefully unroll the protective strip, then go back to the manual to figure out how to feed it, then back to the camera, then juggle the manual because the diagrams are on fold out panels on the front and back cover, then camera, then roll, book, panel, camera, god dammit what moron designed this manual?!

    They blew money making this stupid big square hardcover book of photos to convince you that this camera was awesome, then put more pictures into the manual to convince you more, then skimped on the instructions for the camera.

    This would have been better spent on a good manual.

    This would have been better spent on a good manual.

    Screw that stupid hipster junior high photo journal and give me a really great manual on how to use the camera to make my own pictures. They could have spent their money on a fantastic hardcover manual with good diagrams, quick reference cards, explanations of exposure and aperture, tricks, and exercises to practice with it.

    No, instead I’m sitting here trying to read the manual while trying to load the camera while trying to hold the film. I give up on the manual and then just figure it out on my own assuming that the Russians weren’t idiots and made a camera that a regular human could use. Only then do I figure out how the film goes in, and it’s fairly simple. The manual sucks so bad it made the camera harder to use.

    With film loaded I took a picture of myself in the mirror, then wandered around the neighborhood taking pictures of buildings. I repeatedly forgot to roll the film forward, but that will probably just produce a bunch of art. I had to constantly refer to a chart for what shutter speed and aperture did, but that was actually the fun part. I may start putting my digital camera on manual mode for a while to see what I can do with it.

    Day 2: Night Photography (I Hope)

    After the first day of playing with the settings and taking pictures I decided to try taking some night photos out at Ocean Beach. The idea with night photography is you can manually hold the shutter open to get all the light possible flooding in, but you need a steady tripod to pull it off. Obviously the one thing I was going to forget when doing this is the damn tripod.

    I get to Ocean Beach and have to walk out far enough to get way from the street lights, and then try to frame a few shots of the Cliff House and the rocks near the Camera Obscura there. The problem is when it’s dark you can’t look down in the view finder because it’s not illuminated. That means I had to flip up the little magnifying lens to try to guess where it might be pointed and then shoot and pray.

    Another thing that totally warps your brain is that the image is actually inverted in the view finder. Not upside down, but horizontally. So if you point your finger at something in the view to see where it is in the viewfinder, your finger will show up on the inverse side. If you want to compose the camera then it takes a while to handle turning the camera the right direction. It’s a super weird experience but nothing too hard. I think the most difficult part about this is it makes getting the image level a little difficult since if you tilt left, that moves the inverse side of the image.

    It was at this time that I found the first actual major design flaw of the whole camera. The Lubitel has this latch for the film door that is just a rotating knob with a slot. The idea is that friction keeps the knob from turning to the open position, however friction is the worst way to hold something in place. I think the camera door opened about four times while I was trying to use it and I’m pretty sure I ruined a bunch of pictures just because this latch would lock loose and open the door.

    To fix it I took a piece of wire, folded it in half, stuck it in the latch hole, and pinned the knob to the camera body.

    A piece of wire and it's all fixed.

    A piece of wire and it’s all fixed.

    This holds it in place and keeps it from opening until I want to remove it. I’m not sure why the Lomography didn’t fix this flaw, or even if it was a flaw in the original design, but it’s a fairly fatal one. A quick fix put it back into shape, but having the film door open in the middle of a picture if idiotic.

    I ended up trying a few shots in different lighting and different exposure times but I think I forgot to try different apertures. Then again it probably doesn’t matter since the door to the film came open and probably ruined the film.

    Day 3: Roll The Film Zed!

    I decided that probably the best way to use the Lubitel would be as a way to take pictures while I’m out painting. In fact, if I can get good at using the Lubitel I may try it as a photographic reference device while I’m painting. Richard Estes does this to create hyperrealistic art of New York street scenes with reflections and I love his paintings. Worth a try turning the pictures from my hipster camera into some paintings to see if I can.

    With that in mind I took the camera with me while I went painting at Baker Beach two times. Once at night again, and another time during the day. The night time excursion was just before sunset at Baker Beach where I painted a tiny watercolor as the sun set. First I tried taking shots of various scenes as the sun set then sat down and painted the scene I like most. Without the immediate feedback though I have no idea if I took a picture of what I painted or just took some shitty pictures on film at night with the wrong settings.

    When I went back to Baker Beach the next day I put a new roll of film in the camera. I point it at the Golden Gate Bridge, the beach, some people, the sand, then walk over and setup to do some painting. After I’m done with painting I walk a bit back and was about to take some pictures of trees when I realized…

    Fuck! I forgot to roll the film for 4 pictures! Great, well those pictures will either be the most artistic thing on that roll or just a big blob of randomized whiteness (which might still win a prize at a contemporary art competition).

    Since then I’ve developed a ritual where I take the picture, roll the film, take the picture, roll the film and now I only to do this once in a while. The upside to having to manually roll film is the ability to do double exposures. That’s where you take a picture of one thing, don’t roll it, then take another picture. People actually do this with their friends where one person takes a picture on every frame, rewinds it, then sends the roll to a friend who takes pictures over that roll. This produces randomized pictures based on two people’s shots and sometimes they come out really interesting.

    With the Lubitel you can actually rewind the film, unlike other similar cameras, so I will try this out at some point. But I’ll have to find someone who’s a way better photographer than me and way more stylish so I can ruin his film and then pretend I meant to do that.

    Photography vs. Painting: Round 1, The Ladies

    Obviously one of the reasons you may be keen to buy a Lubitel Hipster Street Cred Rebuilder Camera is for the ladies. Let’s be honest, if you’re a guy doing photography you’re probably a super douchebag who uses photography as a proxy for being a real artist. In that case, photography loses to painting no matter how awesome and authentic retro your camera is gentlemen.

    That night I also painted a tiny little water color:

    Watercolor beats Photo

    Watercolor beats Photo

    Nothing awesome at all. I’m not a professional watercolor painter by any means. My watercolor is good enough to be held in contempt at an art school as “too realistic”, but not good enough to actually be too realistic. But, that night I plopped down on the sand and through the cold and dwindling light painted that really quick.

    When I got done there were these two younger girls sitting on a blanket talking and getting drunk on wine. As I left they yelled out to ask me what I was doing and I said, “I was taking some pictures and painting a little.” To which they said, “Oh! Can we see your painting?!” I show them the painting and they’re mega impressed. They take pictures of it to save for later and talk to me about painting and never once asked me about my camera.

    Remember that gentlemen. Being mediocre at the kind of art your grandma did is better than thousands of dollars of gear you posers.

    Day 4: Night Photos With A Tripod

    I’m really sure that the first time I did night photography all I did was make a roll of dog shit. I didn’t have a tripod, and long exposures are very sensitive to motion. I drink a mega ton of coffee so there’s no way my hands are stable enough for night photography.

    I have a bunch of tripods that I use as painting easels, but they are a bit too bulky to use with this little Lubitel. What I ended up getting was a tiny Silk Compact II tripod that only comes up to my waist. That’s the perfect height for this kind of camera where you generally hold it about waist high to look down into the viewfinder from above. The Compact II is also really light, very small, and super cheap, so perfect for this.

    Not Tom Servo

    Not Tom Servo

    I got the tripod and went back to Ocean Beach at night to retry the night photos with a tripod. I did various exposures but again kept the aperture at 4.5/f since that’s what I kept reading as the recommendation. This time though I also took a few overexposed photos with my phone so I can see what they look like. I have a Lumia Icon phone that has a really great camera in it and a lot of control over all the options, so using my new found knowledge from using the Lubitel I took this shots:

    Not done with the Lubitel

    Not done with the Lubitel

    As you can see, it is difficult to keep the camera stable enough when you’re holding it, but this is the gist of what I expect from the Lubitel session I did using a tripod, except way better.

    Getting The Film Developed

    Once I had 5 rolls of film I decided to try sending them to a place that will develop and scan them. There’s a few spots on the internet that will do this, just search for “medium format processing” to find many. The one I chose was TheDarkroom.com which seemed to have alright prices and good scanning sizes. I wasn’t about to get massive prints and scanned images of the potentially horrible photos I’ve taken so far, so the minimum they offered will be good enough.

    How it works is you order online and they give you a printout to put into an envelope. You can either put an included business reply label on your own envelope, or have them send you one. I had them send me one the week before just to see what that’s like and it was your typical tyvek small envelope that could fit about 5 rolls.

    I purchased the basic developing package of $11/roll, paid with Paypal, put the printout inside the envelope, and sent it off in the mail. We’ll see how well their envelope holds up in the mail. I can’t wait to see all the art!

    Who Should Buy It

    I’m writing these reviews not to get you to buy the item, but to tell you about my experience with them and for entertainment. I honestly don’t care if you want to buy a camera and walk around like a Russian war correspondent had a fight with an oompa loompa. That’s your business, and if my review helped you decide you wanted one then great. Otherwise, I just like reviewing gear and that’s all this article is for.