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How to Plan a Painting (Tips for Beginner Artists)

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Discover the things an artist needs to decide before starting to paint with acrylics, oils, watercolors, or any other media. How to plan the subject matter, composition, value masses, cropping of the subject, focal point, color, edges, and more.

Discover the things an artist needs to decide before starting to paint with acrylics, oils, watercolors, or any other media. How to plan the subject matter, composition, value masses, cropping of the subject, focal point, color, edges, and more.

What Goes Into Planning a Painting?

Before you pick up the brush, you need to take time to examine your subject. Observe the scene in front of you or your reference photo and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What appeals to me the most about this subject?
  2. What would be the best compositional structure on which to place my subject?
  3. Where are the dark and light masses going to be throughout the painting?
  4. What crop is best suited for the subject?
  5. What part of the subject should I emphasize to maximize the impression I want to achieve?
  6. What colors best fit the mood I want to convey?
  7. What would I like to be the star of the show and where will it be placed?
  8. Where will be my sharpest edges and my softest edges located?

We’ll talk about each of these questions and the possible answers below. Keep reading.

What Appeals to Me the Most About This Subject?

What made you consider painting this particular scene? Sometimes is the beauty of it, other times is the way the light and shadows play on the elements.

I love the bright sunset light shining on trees. Every time I see it, I feel like I need to take a photo and try to pant it.

When you are in the middle of your painting, struggling with color mixing, brush marks, and more, remind yourself of the primary reason why you were attracted to this subject and focus on rendering that.

What Would Be the Best Compositional Structure on Which to Place my Subject?

Look at any painting by famous masters, and you’ll see that they subdivided the surface into interesting shapes.

Train your eye to see abstract shapes, not objects.

Both positive and negative spaces come together to form major areas of color or value that are the under-structure of the painting, serving as supporting skeleton.

Aim to include at least one of the classical structures in your skeleton. Examples of structures are in the image below.

Composition structure examples.

Composition structure examples.

The Importance of Composition

Remember: a good painting it’s not only a representation of a good looking subject. Thinking of your paintings as an arrangement of shapes is a good way to begin. The lines and distribution of shapes must be pleasing and interesting.

Study paintings of artists you admire and observe how they grouped things together to create areas of similar value, and which lines they pushed darker or lighter, or where they placed their focal point.

When you compose your scene, look for the abstract quality in the subject that attracts you.

Here you can find more information about planning your painting's composition.

Where Are the Dark and Light Masses Going to Be Throughout the Painting?

The most critical elements in a painting are shape and value.

Value is merely how dark or light something is.

Shape is the element that defines what something is.

The trick to a successful composition is to learn to see lights and darks, not just colors.

Get in the habit of squinting at your painting filters out the color and allows you to see in a simplified form of value masses. Small, simple shapes of the same value combine to create a bigger mass or shape.

Use this visual information to make some value studies and use them to explore different variations in possible compositions.

Here is an article where you can learn more about how to use value studies to improve painting skills.

What Crop is Best Suited for the Subject?

Make a few simple pencil thumbnails of the scene to test out different cropping options and where the focal point works best.

Make sure the proportions of the support you are going to use reflect the sizes of your thumbnail sketches.

Some thumbnail drawings on my sketchbook

Some thumbnail drawings on my sketchbook

I know that the design works when the eye moves around the format instead of becoming focused in one place.

— Robert Bateman, painter

What Parts of the Subject Should I Emphasize to Maximize the Impression I Want to Achieve?

Keep in mind what appeals to you the most about the subject you are going to paint. Make a plan on how you are going to make that apparent to the viewer. What do you need to push and emphasize? What potentially distracting elements need to be toned down?

Before you start painting, take note of the light sources, the resulting shadows, and the colors that you want to dominate.

You should also identify your focal point, the really exciting part of the painting, before you begin.

You may want to write down some quick notes next to the thumbnail sketch as a reminder. Chances are that once you start painting things will not look as you imagined, and having a vision and a strategy of reference will help you troubleshoot.

What Colors Best Fit the Mood I Want to Convey?

The mood of your work can be set by the values and hues you choose. Be selective with the colors that you squeeze out to use.

If the work has too many colors, it will pull the artwork in too many directions.

Choose your colors and then mix large quantities to carry you through the painting. If using acrylics, make sure you spray them with water often and store them in a sealed palette to prevent the paint from drying.

Here you can find more information about color schemes and how to create color harmony.

Beautiful color palette and composition in this painting by Monet.

Beautiful color palette and composition in this painting by Monet.

The best tool to learn how to paint is paint. The more you practice, the more mistakes you will make and correct, and soon your confidence will grow.

— Hashim Akib, painter

What Should Be the Star of the Show and Where Will It Be Placed?

Naturally, the eye is drawn to the area of greatest contrast.

So, when creating your focal points, keep in mind these two simple rules:

  1. The most contrast gets the most attention from the viewer.
  2. The least contrast gets the least attention or emotional response.

Use these concepts to design your paintings. By merely increasing or decreasing the amount of contrast in any area, we can move the eye of the observer around the picture plane.

How Many Focal Points Do I Need?

Most painters focus on one focal point, but it is a great strategy to have different points of interest in order of importance, with a primary, a secondary, and a tertiary area of interest, and so on.

Create points of interest using contrast, define your main characters, with the primary one having the highest contrast and level of detail of all.

Every time there is a person or an animal in a painting they will attract the eyes of the viewer. Secondary focal points and connecting lines in this painting ensure the eyes keep moving

Every time there is a person or an animal in a painting they will attract the eyes of the viewer. Secondary focal points and connecting lines in this painting ensure the eyes keep moving

Where Will Be My Sharpest Edges and My Softest Edges Located?

Every time you transition from one color to another, you create an edge.

These edges, or changes, can be sharp as a knife or so gradual as to be almost imperceptible.

Sharp edges create more contrast; therefore, they attract more attention. Hence, you should plan carefully where you’ll allow sharp transitions and where you want the transition do be unnoticeable, usually achieved by blending the two adjacent colors together.

What an Artist Can Expect From His/Her First Paintings as a Beginner

As you get ready to start as a beginner artist, keep in mind that most probably you’ll have to face the following challenges:

  • Embrace the disappointment. Almost certainly your first paintings are not going to be great. That’s ok, keep painting.
  • Expect the unexpected. Even if you start with a specific idea in mind, once you begin applying paint, you are entering uncharted territory. Mistakes are going to happen; things will look different than planned. Accept that you are going to be in unknown territory and at times you’ll have no idea of how it’s going to look at the end.
  • It’s gonna get ugly. There is always an ugly stage in every painting, usually towards mid-phase, push through it, don’t let it discourage you. One problem-solving brushstroke at the time, it gets better.
  • You better give up on the idea of having total control. You start painting with a plan, but new ideas will come, the painting itself will morph in front of your eyes. Keep in mind your initial purpose, but also trust the painting, let it tell you what it needs next.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Robie Benve


Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 21, 2020:

Hi Nelvia, I know right? It seems like when I knew less about painting I had less self-doubt while creating. The more I learn, the more my inner critic seems to get louder. Ah!

Nelvia from Atlanta on August 12, 2020:

Robbie just another excellent article. So much info packed into this and it takes years to be able to apply it all. Sadly many of those challenges never go away but do pop up to keep us on our toes

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 04, 2013:

Hi Neinahpets, Thanks a lot for your awesome feedback and your support. :)

Stephanie from Canada on February 02, 2013:

Hi Robie, thank you for this great article. There isn't anything else I would add to it, and there are great things to take from it. I'm saving it for future reference and sharing it with others when I begin putting up articles about art (I am an illustrator). Thank you for sharing with everyone. Voted awesome ,useful, beautiful and up! :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 01, 2013:

Thank you Dbro for reaching out with an email and letting me know this hub did not have a comment box. You're awesome! :)