Improving Your Speed When Painting From Life

Isn't it easy to run out of time when working from life? You're happily painting along, immersed in your craft while enjoying some nice music and refreshments. Slowly and unwittingly, you drift off to Artsyland, a realm that knows no time. Every now and then, you sense something is wrong when a break comes way too soon. But then the model resumes her pose, and you quickly fall again under Artsyland's hypnotic spell.

…Suddenly, someone announces "last 5 minutes!"

You blink. "What?! This can't be!" You look at your canvas. You have a rough outline of the head and a half-finished eye. Breathlessly, you slap down a few shapes that vaguely resemble the rest of the face, and you vignette everything else.

I want to assure you that you're not alone. Working within the time constraints of a life session is a challenge for any artist, myself included!

You may be surprised to hear this…

The reason you run out of time isn't that you don't have enough time. You don't have a time problem. You have a goal problem.

To help you with your goal problem, I'll ask you a question:

When you attended your last life painting session,
what was your goal?

Don't just say, "I didn't have a goal." You didn't show up by accident. Something made you want to be there. So what was it? Why did you go? Was it for one of the following reasons?

  • Creating a good piece 
  • Getting better at figure painting 
  • Having fun

These might seem like good goals. However, by themselves, each of these is likely to send you straight to Artsyland. Goals like these will continually leave you feeling as though you didn't have enough time.

Creating a Good Piece
Is Not a Good Goal

I'll let you in on a secret of mine. For every decent head study I share on Facebook, I've got one zillion "turkeys." If my goal for each of those head studies had been "creating a good piece," I would have been disappointed one zillion times.

We all want to create masterpieces. And every now and then, a life session will yield a great result. But most of the time, it doesn't. My recommendation is this: when you attend a life session, always strive to do your very best, but treat it as practice. When you do this, the pressure of creating a masterpiece is lifted. Now you are free to learn and actually improve your skills.

Getting Better at Figure Painting
Is Not a Good Goal

At first glance, this might seem like the correct answer. But this goal is likely to slow your improvement for one reason—it lacks focus.

A runner's arm muscles are usually not as large as a body builder's. You would think that running—an exercise involving the whole body—would result in large muscles over the whole body. But it's obvious why that isn't so. building large arm muscles simply isn't the focus of running. If you want large arm muscles, you need to choose exercises that focus specifically on arm muscles.

Just like running involves the whole body, life sessions involve every fundamental art discipline. Just like you wouldn't hope to build huge arms from running, you shouldn't hope to improve at any one art discipline unless you set a specific goal.

Instead of your goal being "getting better at figure painting," choose one of the fundamental art disciplines to exercise (drawing, value, edge, temperature or color). Now you've got some real focus!

Now, I know you're thinking, "How does this help me improve my speed?"

Well, like this: When you focus on just one discipline, you say "no" to all the other concerns that vie for your time ("No details, I'm working on value tonight!"). The more you focus on that one discipline, the quicker you'll get at accomplishing it well the next time. Eventually, it will become second nature. When that happens, it's time to focus on the next discipline.

Having Fun
Is Not a Good Goal

Actually, "having fun" is not a bad goal. If that's your goal, I'd like to encourage you to never stop having fun! But while "having fun" isn't a bad goal, it's also not a particularly good goal by itself.

If you often experience disappointment when your painting doesn't turn out as well as you had hoped, it may be an indication that, deep down, your goal wasn't really just "to have fun." If that sounds familiar, do what I recommended earlier—pick just one discipline to work on. Not a lot of pressure. Just one thing. If you learned something about that one thing by the end of the session, you've succeeded. And I'll bet you had fun, too.

Dig Deeper in the
Online Video Course!

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If you found this Free Art Lesson valuable, you'll enjoy digging even deeper in the online video course, Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil. Access to the course will become available for purchase on October 7, 2019, but you can start the course today for FREE! For more information, please click the button below.

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In the next Free Art Lesson, Improving Your Speed When Painting From Life: Part 2, I'll take this concept to the next level and share why you need different goals depending on what type of painting session it is.



  1. Great blog Adam. Your writing reflects your kind demeanor.

  2. I'd think after all my years of painting, I'd know this. It seems so obvious, but it's so elusive.

    "Focus, Daniel-son! FOCUS!" (Mr. Miyagi, from "The Karate Kid").


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