Four Phases of Learning to Paint

Four Phases of Learning To Paint

When learning to paint there are four phases you go through.

Actually this is true of learning anything.

Its important to know what these four phases are and have a clear understanding of where you are right now. Where you sit within these four phases will determine what you need to focus on in order to improve.

When learning to paint we all start pretty much in phase 1.

And most of us have a goal to transition to phase 4.

So let me explain these four phases to you, and remember these apply to anything you want to learn but are very applicable to learning to paint.

Phase 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

In phase 1 you are incompetent. In other words you have no skills in the thing you are wanting to learn. You also have no knowledge of the fundamentals you will have to learn.

This is where all beginners start before we pick up a brush yes?

No skill and no knowledge.

But here is the real key … in this phase we are also unconscious of our own incompetence.

We don’t even know what we don’t know.

When it comes to painting, if you have never picked up a brush before then you are probably not even aware that there are different brushes for different applications.

With no knowledge of the thing you are trying to learn you don’t even know where to start because you don’t even know the beginning point.

Sadly most people who have a desire to learn to paint are in phase 1 and not even aware of it. So they often make comments like ‘I can’t even draw stickmen haha’ or ‘I have no artistic talent at all’. So they don’t even try which is the really sad part. They defeat themselves before finding out what they don’t know.

If your desire to learn to paint is sufficient though you can quickly move to phase 2

Phase 2 – Conscious Incompetence

In phase 2 you start to become aware of all of the things you need to know and the skills you need to acquire … but you are still largely incompetent as far as practical application goes.

So you become aware of things like:

* Composition
* Different paint mediums – oils, acrylics, watercolour
* Brushes to use
* Painting surfaces
* Mixing colours
* Tones, Values, Hues & Saturation
* Blending
* Cross hatching
* Glazing

and on and on. At this point you realise there is a lot to learn to become a good artist.

And because your awareness is raising, you are becoming consciously aware of the skills and fundamentals you need, but your still largely incompetent in application … guess what happens?

Yes … frustration, self doubt, anger, despair, self criticism, and a desire to give up mixed with a desire to keep going.

At this point many quit.

Don’t let that be you … recognise if you are in this phase and keep going because if you can move to phase 3 then everything changes.

Incidently I think this phase 2 period is the longest and most challenging for the vast majority of aspiring artists. If you are in this phase then just stick at it and you will eventually break through to phase 3.

So how do you achieve this breakthrough and move to phase 3?

You need to spend time acquiring the right skills and knowledge and then practice them. Do a hundred paintings. Experiement with ths skills you learn. Try different concepts and ideas. Find a good teacher who underestands how to teach painting and follow everything they do. Practice, practice, practice until you feel the shift from incompetent to competent starting to happen.

A word of warning – make sure you do learn the skills and fundamentals first though before you do a lot of practice or you might wind up doing a lot of practice of the wrong things.

Phase 3 – Consciously Competent

Phase 3 is the breakthrough level that changes everything. In this phase you are conscious of what you need to know and do because you have taken the time to learn and study.

And you have applied this knowledge enough that you are now starting to become competent.

Your paintings are improving and you are noticing the improvement.

At this point you might be entering paintings into local art shows and maybe even selling a few paintings here and there.

You are becoming a good to very good artist and you get lots of positive feedback.

This is an enjoyable phase to be in because you know that you know what to do to produce a good painting and you can do so consistently.

And most rewarding is you have started to develop your own style.

But here is the trap with Phase 3 … you are still having to think about what you are doing.

So you are still making conscious decisions such as thinking through what shade of green you need for the middle distant hills and how to mix it. In Phase 1 you wouldn’t even know that it was something to think about. In Phase 2 you would know you need to mix a green but you would become frustrated by the muddy green you ended up with. Now in phase 3 you know you need a middle distant tone green and you think through how to mix it and you do.

But you still have to think about it.

As you transition through phase 3 and into phase 4 you think about it less and less.

Phase 4 – Unconsciously Competent

In phase 4 you have become unconsciously competent.

In fact you are probably highly competent with a high level of skill and knowledge.

But you never even think about it.

You just do it.

You mix colour effortlessly.

You form perfect compositions naturally.

And great painting roll of the easle with ease.

And anyone who sees you paint or one of your paintings rightly sees you as a great artist.

You know longer think about what you are doing it just flows. It’s almost like you are painting intuitively or channeling your inspiration and creativity.

This is where you become a true artist.

This is the level where your creativity flows.

This is the level of artist most of us aspire to and want to learn from.

There is just one problem.

By the time most artists get to this level they are unconscious of their own competence.

They have forgotten most of what they have learned.

And so they have trouble articulating what they do and breaking it down for those in Phase 1 and 2.

Hopefully understanding the four phases of learning helps you to get clear on where you are in your journey to learn to paint?

It goes along way to understanding why its so hard to learn to paint when most of the really good painters have trouble breaking down what it is they do.

So I have written this article because I know most who will read it will be in phase 1 and 2.

And if thats you then understand the struggle to learn is normal. The frustration and self criticism is something we all go through.

Just keep at it.

Learn more.

Study the fundamentals.

And practice them more.

In time you will transition into a phase 3 painter and you will love it when you do.

My mission is to help people like you move to phase 3 as easily and as efficinetly as possible.

It’s up to you to move from phase 3 to 4 and that’s a lifetime journey.

So if I were you right now then I would re-read this and then get clear on where you are at the moment.

Phase 1, 2 or 3?

Then when you are clear decide on a path to get through to phase 3 and ultimately phase 4.

There is no rush and its not a race as we are all on our own journeys.

Most important have fun and enjoy it even when you feel the frustration of levels 1 and 2

6 replies
  1. Dr Colin Hadfield
    Dr Colin Hadfield says:

    I like your article Rod. A lot of thought and observation has gone into your four stages. How one fits into this schema is now the challenge. Thanks for drawing our attention to the issues inherent in visual arts education.

    • rmoore68
      rmoore68 says:

      Thanks for your feedback Colin much appreciated. Yes determining where you fit is an interesting one. There is no right or wrong its just a sense that you will have as to what is most appropriate for your stage of development. More important though is planning a course of study and development to move forward I think is the key.

  2. Susan
    Susan says:

    Great article, recognized exactly where I’m at! Made a lot of sense. You’re right about the practice, practice, practice. It brings about confidence and belief in yourself as an artist. Looking forward to ironing out wobbles stopping me from enjoying the ease of phase 4

  3. Patricia Kenny
    Patricia Kenny says:

    Great article! I have been “stuck” for some years following the death of my only daughter, I really want to, at least get back to the end of phase 2 when I was producing some fairly good work but had not developed a style! I am lost!

  4. Janice Booth
    Janice Booth says:

    Have just bought your course Rod after watching your first video. I have been ‘dabbling’ with art for about 5 years but have given up in the past year as I felt unhappy with what I produced. My partner is a talented marine artist but is not a teacher, and I have attended a group once per week but didn’t get tuition – all very hit and miss. So I am going to give your system a try as I was most impressed by the first introduction. As yet I haven’t had time to start but once I have the whole course I will set aside time, especially with the winter coming on. I am 72 so though it’s a bit late in life, but I have no inclination to be famous, just to be happy with what I produce. My partner and I started a community gallery here in NZ two years ago and it is doing quite well but I don’t feel comfortable about displaying my work as I compare them to the other very able artists. Thank you for your time. Janice


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *