I had a mentor who once soothed my fevered beginner’s brow with these magic words: Keep looking, thinking, and painting, he told me.

“Meh. That’ll happen, anyway,” I thought to myself – but his words kept coming back to me with deepening meaning, and they help me still.

I mean, education aside (of course some formal learning is essential), what else is there? There are many meanings for these three words, so here are just a few:

  • Looking can mean seeing like a painter, but also just looking at paintings both contemporary and historical, all the time,
  • Thinking (about painting but also about your subject and your painting, before, during, and after), and
  • Painting, because moving that brush is the only way you’ll synthesize what you’ve learned, seen, and discovered.

I believe with Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864-1940) that “a picture is a thought or feeling expressed in terms of Nature.” The rest of that sentence reads: “The method is a matter of the moment …. Clear sight, clear thought, clear expression; the thought should depend on the sight, and the expression on the thought.” Sight, thought, and expression = looking, thinking, and painting.

Fellow ocean painter and close contemporary to Woodbury, Frederick Waugh (1861-1940), said something similar in his analysis of the process: “observations, concentration then application.”

‘Paint It the Way it Seems’

Woodbury ran a super popular outdoor painting school in Ogunquit, Maine for the first 40 years of the twentieth century. He taught literally thousands of painters what was then a radical idea: don’t paint it the way it looks, paint it the way it seems. He was perhaps the first teacher to formalize a practical method of emphasizing feeling as well as teaching academic skills in plain-air painting.

There are several very thorough instructional videos out there on painting the ocean, by the way. Painting is just a wild and surprising adventure. Whatever, you do, keep looking, thinking, and painting.