This weekend, we went to some close friends' home for a house-warming party. Our hostess is a phenomenal Indian chef. There are dozens if not hundreds of Indian restaurants in the Boston/Cambridge area, and I used to ask friends from India to recommend a good one. This would be met with something like an aggrieved sniff and a response along the lines of "We don't eat at those places; it's never as good as what we can make at home". If Sandhya is any indication of the norm, then I know this to be true.
In addition to being a wonderful chef, she is rediscovering a latent talent for painting, and has been quite busy at it lately -- she's doing a great job so far. When I wasn't busy eating, we had a conversation about learning to paint, and she brought out the book she's currently using. It's a fairly standard format -- essentially a step-by-step guide, walking the student through the construction of a painting, and as such it seems to be as good as any I've seen.
Now, learning from these instruction manuals is very good practice. I started this way, and I think it's extremely valuable to have the stages of a painting laid out before the student. It demystifies the process, and provides a roadmap to completion. Furthermore, I can't emphasize enough the importance of finishing paintings. Lots of them. It gives the beginner many new challenges and opportunities to grow technically, and it also builds confidence.
HOWEVER (and this is a big however)... I believe it's critical that the student leave these instruction manuals behind, as soon as possible. After their first steps with these books, the true education begins by looking at paintings by masters, and by closely observing nature.
Looking at masterpieces can take the "how-to" approach to the next level. How is that shadow constructed? Why are the clouds so convincing? Why is this light so life-like? More importantly, it gives the student the chance to be exposed to real artistic considerations, like composition, color harmonies, movement, line, etc. Even if we are not considering these at the level of thought-out analysis, I'm a great believer that we absorb A LOT subconsciously. When I was in grad school studying composition, I asked my advisor how to study... "Read as much music as possible, and simply notice and absorb everything you can". It turned out to be great advice, and I think it's every bit as applicable to painting. Who to look at? In a sense it doesn't matter... Find the art you love and look, look, look. Even if it isn't the greatest there is, you will certainly be learning, and you will eventually find your way to the really good stuff.
Closely observing nature and painting directly from life is probably the most important thing a prospective artist can begin to do. By this of course I mean working plein aire for landscapes, but I also mean working directly from the model of any kind, be it the landscape, a still-life arrangement, or a human figure. Working directly from life provides the truest template of that which we're painting. Photographs, reproductions, and so on suffer from the "copy of a copy" syndrome: Information is progressively distorted and lost. Right in front of the artist's eyes, however, the model is crisp and vivid. Granted, this is an intimidating way to paint -- nature is a jumble of information. However, there is only ONE way to learn, and that is to do it. As the student tackles direct work like this, they are forced to hone their observation, selection, and analysis. In other words, work the muscles that will make them an artist.
I don't know at what point the beginner should leave behind the security blanket of learning from manuals: one month? Three months? I suppose it varies. It probably even makes sense to very quickly begin alternating approaches. Finish one painting from the steps in a book, and then immediately after do a small still life from a real arrangement, and then back to the book, and then a small landscape outside. That way the student eases into it. And chances are very, very good that they will quickly learn just how addictive it is to work from life.