Many people in search of pandemic pastimes picked up paint- brushes or sketch pads for the first time since high school art class. But lots of them put those art supplies back down when their early efforts looked less impressive than they had hoped. That’s a shame. Learning art is like learning a foreign language—you can learn bits and pieces right from the outset, but it’s likely to take months to truly communicate your thoughts. In the meantime, enjoy the process as you progress.

How to take the initial steps with three engaging art forms…

Drawing 

Drawing is a wonderful way to learn art—it helps you learn basic elements that you’ll use in painting, too. Drawing is very forgiving of missteps—just use an eraser. To get started…

Learn the basics of perspective. Translating three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional page is the single greatest challenge for a novice. This has been a crucial component of Western art ever since the Renaissance—it’s why modern art conveys a sense of depth that Medieval art lacks. 

Start by imagining that you’re driving down a long, straight highway—the road seems wide around you, but far ahead it disappears into a single point, as do the power lines along the side of the highway. Now try drawing this highway. Your picture will seem to have depth—your drawing has “one-point perspective.” Instructional videos are a good way to learn more on the subject. Example: Circle Line Art School’s videos about one-point, two-point and three-point perspectives are available for free on YouTube. 

Try to see in shades of gray. In the real world, lit objects tend to feature shaded transitions from dark to light. Your drawings will look more realistic if they include these transitions. As an exercise, create a row of 10 boxes on a white sheet of paper. Leave the box at one end completely white…shade the one at the other end as dark as you can with a pencil…then fill in the boxes in between from 10% dark to 90% dark. Next, place an apple on a table, sketch its outline, then draw lines to define the sections that are brightly lit, less brightly lit and so forth all the way down to those that are very shadowy. Use your 10 shaded boxes for reference. Pay close attention—are there areas on the apple that are surprisingly well lit, perhaps from light reflecting off the table beneath it? 

Vary line thickness. Beginners often give all the lines in their drawings the same thickness, or “weight.” That leads to drawings that look uninteresting, like blueprints. Instead use thicker lines for the shaded side of an object and thinner lines for the brightly lit side, for example…or thicker lines for objects in the foreground and thinner for objects in the background. 

Play with perspective and scale. You can make your drawings more interesting by encouraging viewers to see your subjects in new ways. Draw things from unfamiliar angles…or draw them in unfamiliar sizes. Example: Comic book artists often show cityscapes from unfamiliar angles as superheroes soar through the sky. Do a Google image search for “comic book cityscape” to see examples.

What you’ll need… 

  • A “4B” graphite pencil, such as a Blick Studio Drawing Pencil 4B, which has softer graphite than a standard writing pencil, making it easier to draw lines that are dark and of varied thickness. $1.50. Plus a pencil sharpener if you don’t already own one.
  • A sketchbook with a hardback cover and unlined paper, available at any art-supply store for less than $10.
  • An eraser that doesn’t leave much residue, such as a Koh-I-Noor White Oblong Plastic Eraser. $0.89. 

Watercolor 

Watercolor is the best painting option for beginners—it’s simple, portable, inexpensive and easy to clean up. ­Watercolors aren’t just for impressionistic landscapes and seascapes. They can be used to paint any subject and in a wide range of styles—even photorealism. To get started…

Sketch first. If you draw in a sketchbook, begin by using watercolors to add a bit of color to these sketches, no pricey canvases required. If you’re not a fan of drawing, still use a pencil to make an extremely light sketch on your paper before applying any watercolors—it’s easier to change these lines than to correct paint. 

Paint in stages. Applying lots of colors all at once is what leads to ­watercolor paintings that look like muddy puddles. Instead, paint the lightest parts of the image first, then let these sections dry before applying additional paint. You can use a hair dryer to speed this drying process—lay the painting flat, and hold the hair dryer far enough away that it doesn’t make the paint run…or bring it closer if you want to experiment with the interesting results created by intentionally moving wet paint with blowing air. Be patient! Take as many drying breaks as necessary to avoid applying additional colors or layers of paint to a still-wet painting. Wait until the earlier paint is completely dry. 

Most watercolors are translucent, so applying one color over another can combine them as if laying one color of cellophane on top of another. If you add Chinese white, an opaque white, to the watercolor it will make your colors opaque and you can paint a light over a dark.

Try watercolor pencils, too. With these, you apply colored pigment by drawing, then dip a paintbrush in water and brush over the pencil lines to transform your drawing into a watercolor painting. It’s a great option if you feel more comfortable drawing than painting.

What you’ll need… 

  • A small “travel” watercolor set, such as Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colour Sketchers’ Pocket Box, $16.99. It includes 12 colors and a brush in a 2.6-x-5.1-x-0.9-inch plastic kit plus a mixing palette inside the lid. 
  • Watercolor pencils, such as Derwent Watercolour Pencils, set of 12, $17.45. 
  • A pad of watercolor paper. You can apply watercolors to any sketchbook, but watercolor paper is unlikely to fall apart because of the water. Any brand will do. Prices start at about $10.

Collage 

Collage is an art form where flat items such as photos, illustrations and text clipped from magazines are combined on a surface to create something new. It’s a way for novice artists to achieve visually appealing results without drawing or painting skills. There’s an aspect of collage that’s very modern—similar to the way people use computers to manipulate digital images. But part of this art form is quite traditional because you manipulate tactile, real-world pieces with your hands. Explore the works of collage greats such as Romare Bearden, Max Ernst, Hanna Höch and Kurt Schwitters online for inspiration, or enter “collages” into a Google image search to explore the many possibilities. To get started…

Collect printed images and other relatively flat items that you find compelling. Cut images and words that interest you out of magazines and catalogs. Dig through photos or ephemera gathering dust in ­boxes in your attic. You could even print images you find online using Google image search. 

Experiment with combinations, styles and themes. Some collage artists select or trim component pieces so that their colors and shapes together form a larger pattern or picture. Others strive for surrealistic juxtapositions—a small image of an elephant could ride inside a larger image of a compact car…or a large parakeet could hold a small human in a cage. If you’re moved by words more than images, you could combine printed words into original poems. Or combine related items to tell a personal story—an old map, ticket stubs, vacation photos and vintage tourist brochures could be combined into a collage about a meaningful journey you took years ago, for example. 

When creating collages, I work with colored rice paper, or you could use colored tissue paper, as a way to add color quickly to a creation.

Affix the materials to a backing once you have an arrangement you like. Some artists like to arrange loose pieces on a table before affixing anything to the backing…others head straight for the adhesive. Any piece of cardboard will work for the backing, though canvas boards—canvas-­covered pieces of stiff backing board—are a good choice if the backing material won’t be entirely covered…and/or if you intend to include some original painting. 

“Matte medium” is a good choice for holding items in place—it’s essentially clear acrylic paint, painted on with a brush, and serves as both adhesive behind items and as a clear protective layer above them. If collage items overlap each other, apply a layer of matte medium over each. Be sure to clean the paint brush you use to apply it with soap and warm water as soon as you’re done.

What you’ll need: In addition to a collection of compelling flat items to use in your collages, you’ll need…

  • Pieces of cardboard or canvas board for backing. Canvas board is $1 to $2 apiece for 8-x-10-inch boards.  
  • A paintbrush, such as a one-inch or one-half-inch flat brush or #30 round brush. You don’t even need to get these from art-supply stores—the paintbrushes available in home centers or hardware stores will do the trick. 
  • A bottle of matte medium, such as Liquitex Matte Medium, $25 for 32 ounces.