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Whatever you do, don’t paint from the heart

Occa­sion­ally you see books, arti­cles, or work­shops ded­i­cated to help­ing artists “paint from the heart,” loosen up their style, whack them­selves on the side of the head, dis­cover the light of Tus­cany, or some other damn thing.

It’s crap. Your heart will never have any idea how to paint.

Of course, there are a few artists out there who could ben­e­fit from some loos­en­ing up. For every one of them, there are a hun­dred oth­ers who need to learn how to actu­ally paint. This entails the acqui­si­tion of dif­fi­cult skills and the mind­set to use those skills to achieve spe­cific goals. Some of those skills are:

  • How to draw
  • How to draw exactly what you see
  • How to draw the figure
  • How to draw the portrait
  • Pro­por­tion
  • Per­spec­tive
  • Fore­short­en­ing
  • Color the­ory
  • Color mix­ing
  • Com­po­si­tion
  • Brush han­dling
  • Ren­der­ing
  • Art his­tory
  • And lots more

That is the case even if you want to paint loosely. Read Richard Schmid’s book on paint­ing (he paints in a loose alla prima style that is won­drous to behold) and you’ll see how hard it is to learn how to paint that way, too.

Heck, it’s a lot of work learn­ing to paint abstractly, if you want to do it well.

Paint­ing from the heart is for lazy peo­ple who just want to schmear paint around, feel artis­tic, and find peo­ple to tell them how won­der­ful it must be to paint.

Instead, learn to paint with your mind and your soul. That’s a lot harder, but will take you much fur­ther toward mak­ing paint­ings that belong on a stranger’s wall.

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39 Responses

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  1. jeff says

    Hey Dave, I can’t agree more with your com­ments. Any­one who has stud­ied a Sar­gent or a Hals can see that these two artist used all of what you men­tioned and more. I men­tion these two as Sar­gent spent a lot of time study­ing Hals. He also made some full size copies of Velasquez’.

  2. Frank Miscione says

    So you paint for strangers walls?

    • David Rourke says


      I sure do.

      Almost any­one can make a paint­ing their mom will put up on her wall. It’s harder to make one that a stranger will pay you money for the priv­i­lege of hanging.

      • frank miscione says

        Picasso once said, “paint with what­ever you can” The fact is that 99% of paint­ings made are con­fined to the dark recesses of stor­age, be it their moms garage or other. The next time I hap­pen to go to a fast food place, I will pay respect to the for­tu­nate one who’s stud­ies are so rightly displayed.

  3. frank miscione says

    Where is my prior forth com­ment Mr. Rourke? If you edited it, your still miss­ing the point. Unless you are an renowned artist, you have no busi­ness advis­ing peo­ple how to paint. By doing so, you only accom­plished to triv­i­al­ize the art form.

    • Seymour says

      Frank, in four lines, you made four errors in spelling and gram­mar. My advice is to use a spelling and gram­mar checker. Whether you want to fol­low it is up to you. My point is that it cer­tainly doesn’t take a renowned artist to rec­og­nize mis­takes and offer use­ful advice. Peo­ple learn dif­fer­ently: some artists learn from musi­cians, some from actors, some from writ­ers, and vice versa.

      • Frank Miscione says

        I’m not sit­ting here at my com­puter advis­ing you on how to spell.

    • Seymour says

      Frank, in four lines, you made four errors in spelling and gram­mar. My advice is to use a spelling and gram­mar checker. Whether you want to fol­low it is up to you. My point is that it cer­tainly doesn’t take a renowned artist to rec­og­nize mis­takes and offer use­ful advice. Peo­ple learn dif­fer­ently: some artists learn from musi­cians, some from actors, some from writ­ers, and vice versa.

    • Dan Carr says

      I guess I’m also miss­ing the point… There are, unfor­tu­nately, many peo­ple of lit­tle renown who make a liv­ing advis­ing oth­ers how to paint, yet shouldn’t. I wouldn’t cat­e­go­rize David as one of those.

      How exactly does it “triv­i­al­ize” to invite peo­ple who are inter­ested in paint­ing to think more about the very things that go into mak­ing a good paint­ing (e.g., the skills listed above)?

      • Frank Miscione says

        Then con­sider your­self a David Rourke enlight­ened one. What­ever you do.

        • Dan says

          Hey, I appre­ci­ate some­one shar­ing things he learns about the process of mak­ing art. I still don’t under­stand how say­ing that one paints with the head and not the heart is triv­i­al­iz­ing the art form, since with­out acquir­ing needed skills we can only hope to make a form­less sort of art. If that’s what you like, ok then.

          I sup­pose one could learn about paint­ing by read­ing what the late Bob Ross had to say, as he was very well-renowned — or bet­ter yet, The Painter Of Light.

  4. Frank Miscione says

    I believe Thomas Kinkade triv­i­al­ized that title or may even trade­marked it.
    I sup­pose one could learn about paint­ing by what Picasso had to say,
    “You paint with what­ever you can” By your deduc­tion, one who paints from the heart has no skill or the capac­ity to acquire such. As such, your argu­ment has no logic. Who’s using their head now?

    For the indi­vid­ual who feels the need to pro­vide edi­fi­ca­tion, bite me.

    • Dan says

      Indeed paint with what­ever you can. I wasn’t imply­ing that paint­ing “from the heart” means being unable to acquire skills, etc. But the heart doesn’t care about skills because it would rather do what feels good. In Picasso’s case he learned his skills as kid.

      Ross and Kinkade had/have skill (Kinkade espe­cially, with an illus­tra­tion back­ground), but sadly they market(ed) their stunted, “happy” art not really to spread joy or inspi­ra­tion but to make them­selves rich. They have become, because of their for­mu­laic work, par­o­dies of oil paint­ing. (My point in men­tion­ing them was that you can learn from peo­ple who are less famous.)

      Sure, when you said that one has to be well-renowned before advis­ing oth­ers, you were prob­a­bly refer­ring to peo­ple who earned that renown by their skills, such as Richard Schmid. If that is what you meant, then you’re only val­i­dat­ing the points the host was mak­ing — unless you meant his points are invalid because he is telling us about peo­ple like Richard Schmid, with­out actu­ally being Richard Schmid? I sug­gest stop read­ing art blogs then, as not everyone’s as famous as you require them to be.

  5. frank miscone says

    oh my god I’m frank miscone:

    waaaaaaaaaah­h­h­h­h­h­h­waaaaaaaaaaaah­hhh but Ive got so much heart!

    grow a pair and learn the tech­nique instead of wast­ing every­ones time think­ing every­thing you touch turns to f***ing gold

  6. butterfly tattoos says

    I totally agree with you! Paint­ing from the heart is so lame…

  7. Rebekah says

    Dave, Thank you. I am try­ing to become a painter. I’m in my thir­ties, have two small chil­dren and have been try­ing to fig­ure out my cre­ative path for years. I’ve finally stopped mak­ing excuses and turned my din­ing room into a stu­dio, I’m tak­ing a fig­ure draw­ing class and try­ing to give myself assign­ments that I can learn from. Tonight I am try­ing to paint a white ceramic tureen AGGGHHH! I truly believe that if I can learn to do the dif­fi­cult, the exact­ing, that some­day I’ll be able to tran­scend and do the mag­nif­i­cent. p.s.Any tips for paint­ing white ceramic?

  8. Graham Hanks says

    Picasso was a very skilled and tal­ented artist long before he turned to abstrac­tion, look at his early draw­ings if you don’t believe me.

    abstrac­tion from a base level of skill is one thing, sim­ply splash­ing paint on a can­vas and call­ing it abstract art because you are inca­pable of any­thing else is just delud­ing your­self, a great abstract painter does so with the knowl­edge that he has the skill to con­trol what hap­pens on his canvas!

    its this delu­sional aspi­ra­tion to paint from the heart instead of from a foun­da­tion of solid skills that has reduced much of mod­ern art to a joke (there was a time when even ama­teur artists took pride in learn­ing their skills properly)

  9. cool tattoo ideas says

    I have been paint­ing since I was 8 years old (actu­ally, it was 30 years ago…) From my expe­ri­ence you need to learn how to paint (from your brain) and to learn how to loosen up and let it rip (from your heart)

  10. Angela says

    Sens­ing some anger in your words… maybe you should lis­ten more to your heart and you will find peace within… much love x

  11. Frank Miscione says

    In response to Dan, very few peo­ple have become renown in their art. In David’s opin­ion, I’m some 15 year old kid lis­ten­ing to heavy metal music, flam­ing on the inter­net. What David does not under­stand is that paint­ing goes beyond heart and the skill. What I see in the art form today is an atti­tude that com­mands con­trol when in fact that is the very thing that poi­sons the water. Very few have had the gift of sur­ren­der­ing their tal­ents and par­tic­i­pated as direc­tor to an arrange­ment of color before them, if not by acci­dent, then by patience, great­ness and ulti­mately by genius.

    This might not sit well with some, unfor­tu­nately I do not have the time and energy to keep up on this topic but its has been a one wor­thy of addressing.

  12. Tintoretto says

    Theres something few people know & thanks to the internet it has to be said, Picasso NEVER learned to draw or paint in a classical/academic accepted manner, the paintings you see in books attributed to him were made by his father! & lots of other paintings (some that looks like Lautrec arent from him as well). The most “aca­d­e­mic” art you‘re going to get from him is his blue period.

    Hav­ing said that, he had a vision that few had in his time & was a good artist, sadly he never got the tech­ni­cal tools & vir­tu­os­ity to put it on canvas.

    A good mix­ture of mind, soul & heart + incred­i­ble effort will give you a nice mas­ter­piece ;P

    • David says


      I’ve heard that, too. Not sure how well proven it is.

      I just don’t see the attrac­tion with most of his work, myself.

      • CKinast says

        When I was younger I didn’t care for Picasso, until I real­ized that he was a leader in many Mod­ernistic move­ments. This didn’t hap­pen by chance, but by dar­ing and obsession.

        I appre­ci­ate his influ­ence in breathe, but also in his illu­mi­na­tion of a multi-culture iden­tity dur­ing a “white-man’s world”. As for his arro­gance and wom­an­iz­ing habits, it makes me take a few steps back. In the end, it’s under­stand­able how some­one might like or not like his work, as it is very raw.

  13. Tintoretto says

    i agree, in order to truly appre­ci­ate cubism one has to see the 4th dimen­sion one­self (then is even pos­si­ble to see its flaws, because it has rules, just like renais­sance art). For me he an aver­age painter, in fact most of a guy who saw some­thing & a com­mu­ni­ca­tor than a good painter. Good painer = ver­meer, velazquez, etc..

    Like with most mod­ern painters i got like 3 ones i like from him, the rest i don‘t really mind.

    Like most things peo­ple “feel attracted to” is a mat­ter of how we lived life, our val­ues, etc.. Another VERY impor­tant issue about geo­met­ri­cal art, even before the con­quest of amer­ica, is the use of psy­che­delic drugs, EVERY SINGLE artis­tic move­ment from the impres­sion­ists on, was based on such (absinthe allowed to under­stand more the (impres­sion­is­tic) view of real­ity for exam­ple) which is in another words, to be aware of time in a visual way. Of course thou­sands of years before them, Abo­rig­ines were aware of that.

    Sorry about the unproven fact with picasso, but for me is beyond easy to truly assert that this 2 paint­ings (attrib­uted to him) were not by his hand, i mean, i am 100% sure, noth­ing less.

    Truly got lots of ques­tions regard­ing art, (rem­brandt impasto, flem­ish tech­nique etc) but regard­ing mat­ter is just obvious.



    Check the russ­ian ana­lyt­i­cal art, much bet­ter stuff, more ori­ented in find­ing hid­den truths than expos­ing per­son­al­ity or indi­vid­ual flaws.

    Is absolutely pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile aca­d­e­mic art with cubism/geometrical art as well, but for that we will need some good time before some­one achieves it. (escher was as good exam­ple of some­one not lazy enough to put him­self to that hard labo­ri­ous task).

    Nice site.

  14. HarmonyC says

    I guess I have been an artist long enough to see the ben­e­fits of both paint­ing from skill gained by prac­tice and by just let­ting my “heart” squish some paint around. A lot can be learned by both processes. While I was still in art school I did some research on the artis­tic “genius” moment that many peo­ple think is nec­es­sary to make great art. It just isn’t there most of the time even in what we con­sider to be mas­ter­pieces. Most times even the most tal­ented artists are push­ing their skill for­ward bit by bit. Has any­one read the book Art & Fear? One of my favorite lines is, “The func­tion of the over­whelm­ing major­ity of your art­work is sim­ply to teach you how to make the small frac­tion of your art­work that soars.”

    • CKinast says

      But when you “squish” you have a plan in mind… right? I’m a high school art teacher and it’s frus­trat­ing when a stu­dent says, “I just want to paint what comes to my mind”. When they are given this free­dom I can see they are unful­filled because it lacks the under­stand­ing of the prin­ci­ples and ele­ments. It is clear, that with oppor­tu­nity and knowl­edge, their painting/drawing would improve. So yes, I feel heart is where the magic is, and it’s what draws us in, but with­out under­stand­ing the foun­da­tions an artist will not truly achieve what he/she feels and will wind up disappointed.

  15. Sukie says

    Thank you, Har­monyC, for your more nuanced and thought­ful approach. I was going to speak for the “out­sider” art com­mu­nity, not all of which art I per­son­ally enjoy, as opposed to art that passes the tra­di­tional gate­keep­ers who decide what makes good art. I often find myself more moved by and more inclined to pur­chase for my own enjoy­ment art made by indi­vid­u­als with lit­tle or no for­mal train­ing (like the quil­ters of Gee’s Bend, for instance), includ­ing those those with devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties who cre­ate for the deep human joy of cre­at­ing. There is a qual­ity of art with­out pre­tense, with a kind of pure pres­ence and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, that speaks to me more than art of unar­guably much greater skill and training.

    • CKinast says

      Whole dif­fer­ent mind-set there… true pas­sion with­out appre­hen­sion. One which many artists have tried to mimic. It’s a great point…

  16. Jill hamilton says

    I am a begin­ning acrylic painter who finds draw­ing dif­fi­cult. I agree that it is impor­tant to learn some basic skills or techniques…but what is the best way to do that? I take classes from a suc­cess­ful artist in my city and I like that fact that she does NOT show us “how to paint “trees or the ocean etc. We paint what we want to paint and she cir­cu­lates to advise us about what seems to be work­ing — or not. What else should I be doing? I don’t seem to be get­ting much bet­ter at this !

    • David says


      Classes in paint­ing with a good teacher are cer­tainly a good idea.

      If your draw­ing skills are weak, then my sug­ges­tion is to spend a lot of time draw­ing. Is there a fig­ure draw­ing group in your area? If so, reg­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion would prob­a­bly help a lot. Per­son­ally, I find that fig­ure draw­ing ses­sions with a small num­ber of long poses (or one pose for the whole ses­sion) are best, although those can be hard to find.

      Oth­er­wise, the thing to do is prac­tice draw­ing. One way is to com­mit to spend­ing at least 20 min­utes every day draw­ing. Draw spoons, crum­pled pieces of paper, any­one you can con­vince to sit for you, or any­thing else available.

      There are plenty of good books out there on draw­ing to help you along. This is def­i­nitely a skill that you can learn.

  17. Mark says

    Ya gotta suf­fer if you wanna sing the blues.”

  18. KHart says

    Not sure if this will ever even be read. The last post was in 2009.. How­ever, I do feel that too many who would love to be “artists” just can’t deal with the dis­ci­pline required. Regard­less of style, or medium or sub­ject mat­ter, it is impor­tant to learn to draw what you see before you can even claim to draw what it makes you feel. A teacher of mine way back when said that if a per­son could dis­ci­pline them­selves to draw and paint, etc. four hours every day then they pos­si­bly would not need to go to art school. There is truth in that because nobody can teach another to draw well or paint well… they can only share tech­niques and nur­ture. This helps, yes, but in art, unlike law or med­i­cine, the real learn­ing comes in the doing. I look at older works of mine… even just a few months on… and there are things I find hor­rid in these and see how I can do bet­ter… and so on and so on, etc. Most of art is an abil­ity to see and in the see­ing con­nect the mind heart and spirit. In the town where I live, there are quite a few indi­vid­u­als who enjoy cre­at­ing art but there is one lady in par­tic­u­lar who absolutely puz­zles me. She describes her work as being “impres­sion­is­tic” and that it is the result of both inten­tional and acci­den­tal effects of just mov­ing paint and other sub­stances around. The end paint­ings def­i­nitely look just what they are, a real mess. But because she jus­ti­fies the result by describ­ing it in art terms, there are those who buy these things… never real­iz­ing that she is just a really bad artist who can’t paint or draw any­thing with any skill. If her paint­ings were hung upside down, no one would ever know. As far as Picasso, he did show that he under­stood and had an above aver­age level of basic skills … I don’t love his work but can under­stand what he was up to given the era he was liv­ing in. We have cam­eras now so, unlike early painters, we do not need to cre­ate a pho­to­graphic like­ness but that doesn’t jus­tify cre­at­ing bad art.

    • David says


      I’m not post­ing very actively right now, but I do read comments

      I’m entirely in sym­pa­thy with your feel­ings about painters who only know how to smear paint clum­sily around—and the peo­ple who like their stuff.

  19. HarmonyC says

    I have to agree with the com­ments about dis­ci­plin­ing your­self to draw­ing for a cer­tain num­ber of min­utes a day. Start­ing to draw say 10 or 20 min­utes a day will not only change your art­work it will trans­form your life. I believe this is because draw­ing helps you to really see things. No mat­ter what style of painter you think you are, draw­ing well is the first step in the trans­la­tion between what is in your mind to what will be on the page. Draw­ing is as essen­tial to art of all kinds as basic biol­ogy to a physi­cian or the alpha­bet to a writer.

  20. Emgee says

    I agree with your opin­ion on learn­ing skills and hon­ing tal­ent by work­ing at it — even if it doesn’t feel like its work. I think the same can be said for design, I see a lot of junk out there made by peo­ple who got their start because they were ‘edgy’ and now make a bet­ter than com­fort­able liv­ing cre­at­ing designs that fol­low no com­po­si­tional form or func­tion. Mis­takes that, if they were work­ing under an art direc­tor instead of a yes man, would send them back to their draw­ing board with their heads hung in shame.

    • David says


      As the writer Theodore Stur­geon once said (in response to some­one telling him that 90% of his work was crap), “90% of every­thing is crap.”

      I try to focus on the other 10%.

  21. KEH says

    I com­pletely agree with this post and the impor­tance of the fun­da­men­tals to advance art­work to the next level. Peo­ple tend to lump art into that cat­e­gory of things that “tal­ent” gen­er­ates, not some­thing that comes from dili­gence and practice.

  22. Zoe Leach says

    This is totally how I thought in highschool.

  23. Zoe Leach says

    Also, I’d really like to see David make an abstract paint­ing and post the photo of it here.

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