During my painting lessons in Amsterdam, I take an approach that may be a bit longer, but more sure-footed than that of others.
Most of the time when we go to painting classes in Amsterdam or elsewhere, we expect to be given a canvas, a bunch of oil paint or acrylics, a few brushes and to start merrily painting away at some flowers, or a photograph of our choice. I have seen it time and again, and I have even fallen pray to such courses. There's nothing wrong or evil about this, but to the more serious student, or someone who is aiming high, going this route is full of disappointment.
If I would compare this approach of painting lessons, to learning to play the guitar, I would say this is 'playing by ear'. You're able to play songs you hear on the radio, as long as they're not too complex, and perhaps make some simple songs of your own. However, your style is likely to lack the clean characteristics of a learned musician. In their playing you can distinguish the knowledge of the instrument, and in the songs they make, you will recognize deep knowledge of tone, theory and harmony.
Playing by ear, is easier, often nicer and more relaxed. It never gave anyone a headache, and it will actually make you progress quicker at first. But in my opinion it handicaps you ever after, as I can attest by my mediocre guitar playing skills.
If we go back to the painting lessons, a more structured and academic approach, is to learn drawing first. This is to a musician like learning the scales, and becoming good at going up and down the instrument without making a blunder.
Learning to draw before you embark on a full on painting education works on many levels. First you get to master form and proportion, without which you will struggle endlessly in your painting attempts. Secondly you get to learn how to turn form with the use of value (tones). You will also learn to achieve a good use of edges, which is usually underrated, and most importantly, you will start to develop an understanding of composition, and how to use it to create a visual hierarchy in your work.
While all these points can be learned while painting, it proves a bit too much to handle if on top of that list, you have to deal with color mixing, chroma, hue, color temperature, color harmony and manipulation of the medium on the canvas. With these many plates in the air, one is likely to fall, and it usually is the most basic one: form.
Therefore, during my Amsterdam painting lessons, we don't start by painting, we start with drawing. The student needs to be comfortable being able to render any image with a pencil, convey it's proportions, turn form using values, achieve a mood or light situation, depict surfaces and do it all to a high degree of quality.
This is not to say that once you've done this, it will be smooth sailing as you start to paint, but it means you will be able to see if something is wrong, and correct it before you carry on forward, which is the sign of a good artist.
As you progress from drawing to painting lessons, you will have to unlearn some of the things you took for granted. Your approach will have to be almost completely tonal, and you will be able to turn form without having to change values, by using only color temperature. This will confuse the hell out of you at first and some artists choose not to do it, and to stick to the dramatic approach. However, the really good ones learn that conservation of values has a real impact on the quality of their work, and will push this when possible.
So the main point of today's entry, is that your drawing skills are the foundation of your artistic education, fail to take this seriously and your painting skills will miss the key element!