3 stages of artistic development. Discover my proven prescriptions to breakthrough to mastery.

In a recent meeting with my Mastermind Mentee group, a topic came up about development. I mentioned the three stages of development as an artist: beginner, intermediate, mastery. 

A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a still life of white hydrangeas by Kelli Folsom
White Hydrangeas

The students were wondering…

How do you know what stage of development you’re at? 

Great question! Being at mastery level now, I can look back on my own development and identify the key points of all three stages. It’s so clear to me because a.) It hasn’t been that long ago that I was a beginner thirteen years ago so it’s still fresh in my mind and b.) I work with a large group of students on a daily basis so I can observe these stage identifiers in others as well.

Disclaimer: This is only for artists who want to improve their skill,not artists who are only interested in selling or finding a style. 

So let’s break these three stages down with the key identifiers. 


This stage is like being a newborn baby. You don’t understand anything yet. It’s all confusing and a mystery. Yet the good news is that you’re also like a sponge-like a newborn observing and soaking up all the information like a sponge. So this can lead you to have eventual BIG LEAPS in your progress. The excitement of the surprising big leaps makes all the confusion and pain of failed paintings able to bear. Otherwise, this stage can be both the most exciting, but also the most painful. Disappointment haunts us at every turn. Most of the time you might find yourself wondering, “Why on earth am I putting myself through this? Or When will it ever get better? You feel as if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Prescription at this stage to get to the next level

  1. Be a student. Find a good teacher or two, but make sure the instructors align in their process and methods enough to avoid even more confusion. You need someone who can explain everything well and as possible. Avoid too many teachers and styles. 
  2. Focus on the fundamentals. Value, form, light and shadow, color mixing, understanding the materials better. DON’T dive into composition, convoluted color theory, a ton of colors on the palette, or a million different brushes or mediums. 
  3. Emulate. Don’t try to do much independent work at this stage. Don’t try to express yourself or find your own style yet. Focus on emulating your instructor. This master and apprentice relationship has worked for centuries. 
  4. Summon Grit. This stage is full of melodramatic pain and disappointment. So you’re going to have to summon grit to get through it. As the old saying goes, no pain no gain. That’s the name of the game at this stage. 
  5. Brush Mileage. You should be painting at least 80% of your time and only studying and analyzing 20% of the time. Most students consume way too much information which makes this stage even more difficult to bear. So PAINT, PAINT, PAINT. Don’t try to be great, paint. Don’t get into analysis paralysis. You need to do 10 paintings before you even begin to critique yourself or analyze. You’re trying to get comfortable with paint and learning how to make something believable on the canvas. 


Stopping short, prolonged periods of time not painting, copping out and seeking a trendy style, egotistical or lazy teachers, the pride of being self-taught


At this stage, you finally feel like you’re getting somewhere. Paintings start actually looking kind of good….sometimes. You’re starting to understand higher-level concepts like temperature, composition, and edges- but it’s touch and go and still a mystery. You’ve got a pretty firm grasp of the fundamentals listed in the beginners’ stage. This stage is full of as much resistance if not more than the beginner stage because you can plateau for long periods of time without those addicting big leaps forward. 

Prescription at this stage to get to the next level

  1. Fill in the gaps of your understanding. You still need a teacher. Make sure you find one at mastery level that can explain the higher-level concepts you’re grappling with. 
  2. Independent Work. This stage should be 80% independent work and 20% studying from other artists or doing copies. 
  3. Self Critique. You should be learning how to self critique your own work at this stage to deepen your understanding. 
  4. Teach beginners. You can teach beginners at this stage which will help to strengthen your own skills and understanding. 

Get in the arena. At the intermediate level, you need to get into the competitive arena. Put your work up against others who are at your level or better than you. You can start to enter competitions, sell your work, and compete. 


Thinking you’ve arrived and stopped learning from master-level artists, not balancing your painting time with your learning time, getting bored and jumping around to style after style and teacher after teacher because you’re in a plateau, not thinking for yourself and self-critiquing to push yourself, not challenging yourself and staying safe.


A photo of an original oil painting on panel of an Italian urn with lemons and grapes by Kelli Folsom
Italian Urn with Lemons and Grapes

Mastery level doesn’t mean that every painting you create is perfect or is better than everyone else’s. Nor does it mean that you’re not open to learning, challenging yourself, and growing further. It also doesn’t mean that you never face resistance. It does mean that you’re a well-seasoned veteran of resistance and you see it for what it is.

The indicator here is that you understand the higher-level concepts you were grappling with in the intermediate stage with ease. Insight and understanding seem to appear out of nowhere without instruction. You’re no longer afraid of painting. You no longer get so emotional over an off day of painting. Yes, you’ll still have those. You have confidence that you can solve any problem. You can move between genres (and even different mediums). 

You can teach beginners and intermediate students. You can go for much longer periods of time not painting and not lose your skillset. Now you study with other masters and sages to get new ideas, fresh perspectives, and inspiration…not so much to build a skill set. No one is too good to learn from their peers. 


Cranking out the same painting again and again, not experimenting, not setting enough goals, not sharing your knowledge with others, focusing on external success and status, having a lack of vision, not leaving a legacy of art for future generations, not seeking other masters or sages to inspire you more. 

Is there a level beyond mastery? I don’t know since I’m not there yet, but my suspicion is that you become a SAGE. We’re talking 20-50 years of professional experience in my observation.

P.S. I am hosting a wonderful 5 Day Still Life Painting Workshop Online, February 8th – 12th, 2021. Let’s paint together for 5 days straight and make some beautiful work! If you’d like to take an in-depth look at oil painting, take a painting from start to finish and get personal one on one help – this is for you! The workshop includes five demonstrations in the private Facebook group and three Q&A Critique Calls with me via Zoom. You will receive the recordings from all the demonstrations. Click here for more information and to sign up. The deadline to register is Feb 5th.

Love in Light, Kelli

6 thoughts on “3 stages of artistic development. Discover my proven prescriptions to breakthrough to mastery.

  1. Thank you so much, Sheila! It’s great to hear that you can identify exactly where you are in your journey. Keep pushing forward and I am sure you will achieve your goals. You’re absolutely on the right path!

  2. Thank you so much, Marita! It’s so wonderful to hear that you can identify where you are and especially where you want to go in your art career. I will always try my best to share my experiences and knowledge with you. Thank you for your kind words!

  3. Love this Kelli on the stages. I can tell where I am now in my art career from reading this and more importantly…where I am to go and what to avoid.
    Kelli, you have a way of “hitting the nail on the head”, from your experience I guess and your sharing your knowledge and journey is both invaluable and always generous.

  4. What a great article! I totally recognize the stages in myself and others. I love the discussion of the challenges and especially of the ways to progress beyond that step. Thank you for the inspiration!

  5. Kelli, This analysis is spot on! It described the journey I’m on. At this point I identify with the “intermediate” stage. I have tasked myself with creating only original work. I’m have some success with still life, but, I’m really in a struggle with the landscape subjects I tackle! It’s good to see the process you describe, I feel encouraged that I’m still on a good path! Thanks, Sheila

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