The Art of Self Teaching Art


The art of learning art
Self-teaching can be a viable alternative to art school, if you get it right

Some people are born with natural talent or so it seems, and this natural talent usually shines from an early age. They establish careers out of their talent and they go on to have a steady stream of income. Others have dreams that they develop in to careers sometimes over a period of many years.

For most artists there are many routes that are taken in order to turn a natural talent or a burning desire in to reality. Some will do just fine without any help, others may choose a formal arts education, and others will develop their skills and teach themselves. Some because they simply cannot afford the costs of a formal arts education, some because they have so many competing commitments, and others because they prefer a non-formal approach to learning.

Whichever route an artist takes is a difficult one. It is just the degree of difficult that differs between each route. Ultimately it is about the passion, and although I often hear that an artist should have attended a school of fine arts in order to be accepted in the industry, I haven’t found this to be necessarily true. It can help, but is it absolutely necessary? Can you achieve any success without going down that particular route?


I originally self-taught and it wasn’t until much later in life that I enrolled on numerous courses in the arts that I received any type of formal teaching. I had always had a passion for the arts, I loved drawing as a child, and I really wanted to follow a career in the arts. My parents has other ideas. You need a proper job they would say, you can be a doctor or a lawyer, or you could work at your dad’s factory.

I had no intention of pursuing any of those career choices, and so I ended up working too many hours in orthopaedics, before a career change in to the Justice sector. Neither of these career changes got me anywhere in the arts. I couldn’t afford the time to go to a full time school of art, and I certainly couldn’t afford the financial cost. So I enrolled in college courses. It still wasn’t enough to get me through the door of the arts world, so for around 10-years I learnt everything I could about the arts that college couldn’t teach me. I say 10-years, but the reality is that I continue to learn something completely new every day.

But whichever way you chase the dream of becoming an artist there are just some things that you cannot learn easily prior to going down any of the paths. Firstly I wish I had known that becoming a published artist would be so difficult in the years ahead. The reality is that for many artists they need to ensure that they have a consistent income. If my art was a consistent income that I could rely on, I would be in the studio 18-hours a day.

Only a minority of successful artists are able to support themselves from the sale of their art alone. For the majority, they will need to find supplemental income and often work for below any minimum wage.

It’s not always about the money. The hours needed to be creative and to promote yourself, are high. Promoting your art can take more time than you spend creating it, and whilst I went to my college classes, promotion was only ever mentioned a few times in the two-years. When it was mentioned it was all about face to face meetings with galleries and clients, all very useful, but then the internet happened and the way marketing works took on a different approach. Suddenly you were marketing your work right next to experienced artists who had become successful years ago.

Believe in you
Believe in you!


Constantly changing and evolving is something that we did cover though, and it is one of the most useful lessons I ever received. My group were taught that talent alone will only get you so far. When artists produce art, it is essential that they grow as artists, learn new skills, develop new techniques, and continue to enhance their creative skills. In fact it is not only essential, it is expected.


Somewhere along my travelled road I also picked up a qualification or two in further education teaching. I’m not too sure how or why that happened any more, but it certainly helped me to plan my own continued self-taught education in the arts. It is so important to recognise who you are as an individual before you begin to start learning, then you are able to work out which approach to learning you should take. There really is little point in reading everything from a book if you actually only learn from listening or talking, or doing. For self-taught learning, figuring this out early on will help you even more.

Self-teaching can be a wonderful thing. However, it depends on your own learning style. People learn in different ways so self-teaching isn’t always the right way to go. But if you identify your own learning style, then it becomes a possibility and you will certainly be able to start the process on firmer ground.

If we look at the pedagogy of teaching we historically know that learners will learn in different ways, and that other factors play a part in how we learn. Learning styles were developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, based upon the work of Kolb, and they identified four distinct learning styles or preferences: Activist, Theorist; Pragmatist and Reflector.

When you were in school, college, university, or learning on your own you may have experienced a clash of learning styles and particularly if you were being taught as a group. Many learners will have different styles of learning where a number of people are for example reflective learners, others are theoretical, and yet you may have a learning preference that was or is very different to the majority of your peers. It may be that your teacher may favour delivery of a single learning style and your own learning style is not aligned. When this happens it can be frustrating and the learner will feel a sense of failure, but it’s not necessarily that they cannot grasp the subject, more that they couldn’t grasp the way the subject was delivered. This is where learning can fail.

If we look at Dunn and Dunn’s model of learning style preferences we see that the concept is similar to Honey and Mumford’s model. Dunn and Dunn however cite the styles as verbal learning, auditory learning, tactile or kinaesthetic learning, and visual learning.

I mentioned that other factors can influence the way people learn too, some of these factors could be environmental, and some could be predicated on the time of day, some could be based on an individual’s food and drink intake during the day. There are a myriad of other possibilities that will also play a factor in how we learn.

It is also important to recognise that there is no single one size fits all approach to learning styles, equally there is no best way to teach. Sometimes teachers may fall in to the temptation to categorise or confine individual pupils to a single learning style, when in fact age, educational attainment, and motivation play a huge part in the way we learn, and this can and does change. My learning style was once very theoretical, but as I get older I find that my own style has changed significantly and I much prefer a hands on, let’s do this thing approach. I also now find myself in a place I never expected to be, nowadays I need to learn something new as often as possible. I think my brain needs nourishment of the academic variety.

Reading books
Read books, go online, watch every video!



Whether we collectively feel attending a formal arts education is the right thing to do or not, there is no doubt that there are many successful artists who have never been anywhere near a classroom to go through a formal arts education. Did my time at college help? Yes, but there is still so much more even after all these years that I still need to learn. It’s a process that never ends. So even a formal arts education doesn’t mean that you just stop learning on completion, it is an introduction to the learning that you will need to do in the future too.

For those who decide that self-taught learning is the way to go, it is possible. It’s also possible to make sure that the learning you receive during this time is the right learning for you. There is of course a downside, if you plan poorly you will see your experience turn in to a stressful experience.

I have self-taught a range of subjects and I have achieved learning outcomes in many subjects through a formal academic route. Which one is better is difficult to say. Some of what I have learnt over the last decade simply isn’t available as formal education, some of what I have learnt I think would have been impossible to self-teach.

If you are intending to go down the self-teaching route you need to firstly identify your own unique learning style. You will most likely know how you like to learn almost immediately, but do think about this.

Knowing what the end play is going to be is something you need to think about before you begin on this road, what is it that you want to learn, what is it that you want to ultimately gain from the experience, and the more precise you can be about this, the better.

If you want to teach yourself another language the process is a standard one. You pick a language and you either download an app, go to classes, or you read and listen. Maybe you visit the country of your chosen language in the hope that you’ll pick up some of the dialect. You need to consider if you want to be able to order a coffee or a glass of wine, or hold a full on conversation, but ultimately it’s quite a simple process to figure out the learning pathway. With art it is different.

With art you really do need to figure out the end play and add the detail. Do you just want to paint and create, do you want to become a published commercial artist, do you want to display your work in galleries, do you want to sell through print on demand, do you want to learn to draw, paint, use charcoal, the list is endless.

If you are planning on selling your own work for example you might want to consider learning the art of self-promotion and marketing. If you are planning on exhibiting in a gallery then you will be interested in the artistic process and experimenting with new techniques and styles. If you plan on entering the art world as a broker, best thing to do is sign up on the dotted line for a formal education.

Still want to go down the self-taught route? Well luckily there are more resources on every subject available than ever before. Universities across the world offer free access to massive online communities of people, and you can sign up at any time of the day. There is no waiting for a course to start in the autumn, you can do it right now. So here is a list of handy resources and some advice that will get you started.

YouTube: The massive online world of YouTube seems to fit self-learning like a glove. In fact a lot of academic institutions will be using YouTube videos as well to support delivery of their curriculum. It’s free, and you can learn pretty much anything you want.

Vimeo: similar to YouTube but I find that the YouTube offering offers a little more in the way of quantity.

Facebook Live Streams: These are becoming popular as artists start to use the platform to show different techniques, for speed painting demonstrations, and to hold Q&A’s with their followers. Live Stream if done right is a great way to engage with those who are experienced. The fact that it can be streamed from anywhere with a decent internet connection will eventually mean that the traditional walls of classrooms will be broken down. I really do envy the younger population because I can see a time where they will never know the struggle of dial-up internet access.

How to guides. The Dummies guide series has really propelled self-help and teaching and brought it to the masses. There are now so many publications that the difficult choice is simply about choosing the right publication. I constantly refer to some of these self-help guides when I am looking at new strategies, techniques, and best of all, I can keep them all on my smartphone and tablet. It amazes me that I can now sit on the toilet and learn new things about pretty much anything. Bite sized chunks of learning anytime, anywhere.

The end play: These are the prerequisites of learning. If you want to become an artist you need to know how to create, draw, paint, model, craft, whatever it is. If you want to learn to program a computer you need to have a reasonable understanding of math’s, if you want to blog, then you need to understand a little HTML and you need to get to grips with search engine optimisation, and you will want to understand how to market your blog. Think through what it is that you will need to turn your interest in to something that can be usefully used in any given circumstance.

Learning something quickly means that you will need to make some decisions around how much time you will spend on learning. If you have 30-minutes each week then you need to understand that it will take you much longer to learn everything that you need to know. If you plan on spending 10-hours a week, obviously you will get more time, but I would say that you need to work backwards. Decide what you need to learn and by when. That will determine how long you will need.

Patience: If they sold patience on Amazon Prime it would be a best-seller. Unfortunately for any learning be it formal or self-taught, you need to be patient. Self-learning doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be as easy or as difficult as a formal education. With self-learning there will be times when you might feel isolated and you will want to give up, but there were times when I attended college and university over the years where I wanted to give up. It’s not exclusively a self-learning thing, it happens in formal academia too.

The basics: Learning the basics is the best place to start. If you are building a house you will need to lay good solid foundations before you even lay a brick. Any learning formal or self-taught is no different. You need to understand the basics before you move on to the more advanced and often more interesting stuff. If the foundations are solid, you will find the advanced skills become much easier.

• Try it before you commit: Before I started even considering self-teaching I was skeptical that I would be able to teach myself anything that I didn’t already know. I mean it just didn’t make sense. Here I was wanting to learn a new skill-set, yet I had not even got the first clue as to how to go about it. So I set myself a challenge or two. First off I wanted to teach myself to spin a plastic plate on a stick, just like they do in the circus.

Self teaching or formal education
Self teaching or a formal education?

Would this even be possible? I knew that I didn’t know how to spin a plate, for one thing I didn’t even own a plastic plate that was capable of spinning and I didn’t own a pointed stick. I knew that I needed to buy a starter set though.

It literally took me weeks. I watched video’s, I even visited a gentleman who had been an entertainer and had experience of spinning plates as part of his act. Somehow eventually I could position the plate and make it spin.

Test out the water with something simple. By doing this you will figure out your learning style too. Then take on the bigger challenge, but do it bit by bit. Once a month I try to set myself some time aside from everything and learn something new. Currently I am learning how to make latte art. To date and after seven months, I am failing. My milk is too fluffy, it turns out like a white blob rather than a rose or a heart. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse I figured barista’s would still be needed. I think I may have to join a real class because no matter how many YouTube videos I watch I consistently end up with a white blog of foamed milk on the top, but boy it tastes real good.

Take a break: Taking breaks when you can’t work out a problem puts some much needed space between you and the problem. The joy of self-learning is that you can do this, but it only works if you go straight back to it after you have taken a break. Again, if discipline was available on Amazon Prime, they would sell out.

Push your own barriers out of the way: When I learnt Orthopaedics it was out of necessity. I needed to know so that I could earn money and I wanted to help others. It becomes much more difficult when you are learning something such as my need to create the perfect latte art. Learning how to create latte art isn’t exactly a necessity for me, it would be if I was to become a barista. So I have less of a frustration barrier to break through than if it were necessary, but still I cannot begin to tell you just how many times I have literally thrown a milk jug across the kitchen out of frustration.

With my art my passion forced me to drive myself, there was a necessity of learning about marketing, and how to use the various software packages to be able to create digital works. If there is no necessity it is so much easier to stop when you hit a certain point of frustration.

• Isolation: I mentioned that self-taught learners can feel isolated at times. Today there is no need. I pick up Facebook and my friends in every time zone on earth are usually online, or at least a few of them are doing the exact same thing.

Communicating through forums, Facebook Groups, even Snap Chat, can take away the feeling of isolation.

Forums and discussion groups are hubs of like-minded people. There are so many discussion groups online for almost anything. Generally the well run and active ones are the places you need to engage. If you notice a post hasn't had a reply for three years, it's doubtful anyone will bother reading your post. But there are active groups and they are full of people who will offer free advice.

Joining online groups is great if you want to be flexible when you post but there is nothing quite like local community groups. Meeting people face to face is so much better than communicating online. Very often the members of these groups will provide mentorship and will have experience. Often the members of community groups will organise guest speakers, and many members might be learning similar things to you. It's certainly worth checking out any local groups that you can go along to.

Structure your learning: Well structured learning is essential whether you are self-teaching or attending a formal class. Teachers will tell you it is vital that you have a lesson plan in place. Actually more so if you are self-teaching.

A lesson plan and scheme of work almost seem like the same thing except they're not. The scheme of work is akin to an engineers blueprint. It sets out everything you are planning to cover over however long you plan on learning. It's something that can be refined, but essentially getting this right will make it easier to break your lessons down.

The lesson plan covers exactly what you will be doing within each lesson, it can include timings which education inspectors love to see, but in reality you might decide to spend a little more time on a particular area and your timing goes out of the window. For self-learning though I would recommend applying some timings so that you can better manage your own time. The joy of self-learning is that you can create another lesson plan to cover the things you missed. In formal education there is a time limit on everything to ensure the whole curriculum is covered. With self-learning you have to be disciplined, but you do have the flexibility to change things.

Whilst this might sound like a lot of hard work to watch a couple of YouTube videos, ultimately it will pay off because you will be able to formulate a living to do list and check your own progress against the overall aims of what you are trying to learn. Even if you're self-teaching, the best results come from having a structure and doing it right.

I will at some point get around to writing a self-teaching scheme of work and lesson plan with links to all of the content for a couple of art related subjects, so if you would be interested, please do let me know and also what art related subject you plan on learning.


For seven years I have tried to perfect latte art, and I'm no closer now than I was before I started. I nearly achieved it once with a rosette, but I got so excited mid-pour I tipped the milk too fast and it turned in to my signature white blob. But yet every time I make a coffee, and I make a fair few every day, I have a go. I'm not expecting to become the worlds best latte artist anytime soon, but one day I will be able to achieve a basic design that will impress friends who I think come to visit to savour my coffee. Like I said, the coffee tastes pretty great. Maybe the spout on my pouring jug is too wide.


As I said earlier, choosing what you need to learn is paramount to success. Even if you want to teach yourself to become an abstract artist, a foundation in learning to precisely draw is just as important as learning texture and colour.

There are thousands of online videos available on the internet that will teach you specific techniques. Many have been produced in the last couple of years but I find some of the older material is still some of the best.

Bob Ross was an American artist who sadly died in 1995. Bob was also an art instructor who also happened to create and host the Joy of Painting, an instructional television program that aired from 1983 to 1984 on PBS in the United States and it also aired in Canada, Latin America, and Europe.

Many of the episodes can now be found on YouTube and are available free, his Mystic Mountain video is available in HD from and just like the many other episodes in his channel, it's well worth a watch. The official Bob Ross page can be found at

It really is worth seeking out some of the older material as well as the modern content because some of the techniques used in the past too often get forgotten about today.

Being able to look at something and putting it down on paper with a pencil can be learned with books and practice, and no matter how bad you think you are at drawing, it is a skill that can be learnt. I had always loved drawing as a child and I never really lost my passion for it. One of the greatest things I ever learnt was to break everything down in to shapes within a grid.

When I look at objects now, I look at the shapes that make up the object, shapes are much easier to draw, and when you put all of the shapes together, art begins to form. Of course there are many techniques applied by artists, but you also need to consider that art is not just about being able to draw. I mentioned mentioned marketing and the numerous other subjects you'll need to become anywhere near successful, but you also need to do two other things..

Firstly you need to remember to take a break. A lot of artists will suggest that you keep going when you're feeling the pressure and you're essentially burnt out. If I feel like this is happening I stop and take a break. It might be fifteen minutes, it might be a week, it might even be a month.

During this break I don't go near anything related to art. Well, I try not to go near anything to do with art but usually by the next day I'm itching to get back to sing creative. But knowing that you can take a break and it's ok, is refreshing in itself.

Secondly as you learn to be an artist or learn to be something else, don't ever think you are being unfaithful to your goals by taking an interest I something else. Pursuing other hobbies and interests is something that will benefit you in the long run. If you love to travel, go and travel. You'll eventually be able to pull down on your life experiences and these will enhance your art. You will be able to express yourself in many more different ways.


Give up for an hour but don't ever give up forever. No matter how you wish to learn to become an artist you will eventually get to a point where you feel you are ready. Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime, if you sell two, you're doing better than Vincent did. Admittedly Van Gogh is one of the masters, but he probably didn't think so at the time. I often wonder what it would be like if Van Gogh could have had access to the Internet. Would he have participated in discussion forums, would his life have turned out differently, and would he have sold anything on Print on Demand?

As artists we now have tools that could never have been dreamed of during Van Gogh's days, and whilst competition is high, the tools are there to be used. Every artist selling on a print on demand site stands some chance of one day becoming a discovered artist. We just need to learn how to use the tools that we have been blessed with to make it happen.

My next post will be looking at what the perfect print on demand website and service would look like. Is it possible that print on demand could be changed to something that artists can rely on to earn a living?

If you have any experience with print on demand I would love to hear from you. Any experiences good or bad, anything you would like too see them do to support artists, or are they doing everything you need already?



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