Skill vs. Technique: Know the Difference!

Watercolor sketch from direct observation, old spoons, 9x12 in.

Watercolor sketch from direct observation, old spoons, 9×12 in.

I get concerned when new students tell me they want to learn “techniques”, this usually implies that they want to skip the basics–drawing in particular–and move right into how to create specific effects with a given medium. In my view, technique is secondary to skill. If you have the right skills, you can work successfully in any medium. Techniques are easy to learn and fun to develop on your own, but they will never replace or compensate for skill, particularly when it comes to drawing.

For example, in the little study above, I used watercolor to create a monochrome study of some old silver spoons. The spoons in and of themselves are not all that interesting, but I’ve used them to create a dynamic composition by placing them at angles to move the eye in a variety of directions–to effectively do this with any subject, you must have developed skill in composition. I find the shapes (forms) of the spoons particularly interesting. If you’ve ever drawn a spoon, you will understand that getting the proportions and angles of the stems and bowls just right is key to making them look like they could actually function as eating utensils. In order to do this, you must use drawing skills–the ability to see form, value, proportion and perspective. It is the values that create the illusion of dimension, as well as suggest surface texture, they tell you whether you are looking at the inside or the outside of the spoon’s bowl. The shadows create some of the forms from the negative space–if all of this sounds foreign to you, you are not ready to be learning technique, you need to go back to basics and focus on building skill.

So, where does technique fit in? Once you have built your skills and developed confidence using basic media such as charcoal, pencil or monochromatic pastel, you are ready to start exploring how different techniques can enhance the work you create using those skills. In the example above, I used my knowledge of drawing and composition (form, value, proportion, perspective) to create the structure of the painting. I used the technique of very loosely applied brush strokes in a variety of tones of Prussian blue watercolor to create the effect of the spoons melding with the background in some places and coming forward off the page in others. If I couldn’t draw the spoons (have the skills), I would not be able to create this effect (use the technique).

Until you become highly proficient in drawing, don’t rush into learning a whole host of techniques in different media. Focus on the basics, build confidence and skill. When you feel you can create something good with the most basic of materials, you are ready to start learning about techniques in specific media.

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3 Responses to Skill vs. Technique: Know the Difference!

  1. Ken in NJ says:

    Excellent post. Point well taking – when I started painting nothing came out like the examples I saw from “real” painters. After a year or so of frustration I realized I was attempting to build something without a foundation. I put the paints away and picked up some charcoal, conte’ crayons and news print paper. Learning to draw and gesture sketch is an ongoing process, but an absolute most.

  2. I love the composition. The positive and negative shape is great.

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