Painting 101 - Part 2 The Beginning

Posted on by Wess Foreman

Canvas ready? Brushes? Paint? Here we go. First we should select our subject matter [nothing worse than staring at a stark white canvas without anything to paint]. My suggestion would be a still life arrangement - you know, fruit, bottles, vases, drapery, whatever - or maybe a landscape. Anything would work for a first painting, but I would suggest against starting with a portrait (people, pet, or otherwise) unless you have some skill at drawing already. The only problem with starting with people is that we all think we know what people look like - I mean, you draw a circle for the head, two small circles for the eyes, nose, mouth, maybe some hair on top, viola! Right? Problem is, when you paint something that is familiar to you, such as faces, you tend not to really study the thing you are painting, and without studying, you will end up with little more than a lifeless stick-figure face. It is very hard to break this tendency - even for myself.

Some artists might argue against using photographs, but I say go for it. Photographs only make things easier. First of all, the subject matter is already in two-dimensional form which is the same as the painting - sometimes I will even get out a ruler to measure certain key objects in the photo [the painting generally won't be as small as the reference photo, but the proportions should all be the same]. Whether you choose to paint from a reference photo or from real life, you definitely need to be looking at something [that is sort of the point, I think].

Once you have your subject matter decided upon, you will want to lay out your paint. Go ahead and squeeze out all the colors you have or think you are going to use - if you would rather, there is a technique called grisaille where the painting is first painted in shades of gray, the color added after everything is in its place [in which case, just lay out your black and white paint for now; it's up to you]. Either way, you want to start with plenty of paint - better to throw away some paint later than to be interrupted by having to squeeze more paint every few minutes.

Step One: Start.

One of the hardest parts of a painting is getting past that giant expanse of pristine canvas. It is a psychological barrier, those first few brush strokes, but one that can be overcome with the help of a few techniques. First, you could give the canvas a colored background - I have started many canvases by brushing on a layer of watered-down Raw Sienna, for example, to give the painting a warm, non-white starting point. Another option is to start in with a large brush, blocking in the major "shapes" that make up the scene you are depicting. You are also free to pencil in the scene ahead of time - though I wouldn't recommend spending too much time and effort on this step since it's all going to get painted over anyway. Just get the main shapes down and start in with the big guns [the paint]. The main thing to remember at the outset is that everything you are doing now is just the first step in a process, the end of which will in no way resemble this meager beginning. Once you get that in your head, it should help relieve any anxiety you may be experiencing. Most of my paintings look horrible up until the very end; it is the confidence of eventual success that keeps me going. Keep that in mind and don't give up!

Different people will have different painting styles: some will start with a detailed drawing and every step of the way will present yet another iteration of a tight, precise composition until every detail is accounted for; others will muck around with an unrecognizable blur of color and shape until, eventually, and ever so slowly, the details will present themselves at the very end; as for myself, I fall somewhere in between - I tend to get some sort of detail on the canvas rather early and then struggle for the rest of the time with the business of correcting my own mistakes at every turn. Once I get enough mistakes corrected, what's left is, hopefully, a finished painting.

That should get you started - keep going! I'll write another installment next Wednesday. Post your comments below if anyone is reading this.