Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
10 Things You Need to Learn to Be a Better Painter
This article provides several tips that I wish someone had told me when I first started painting. Instead, I had to figure them out on my own—often the hard way.
These tips are true especially for opaque painting mediums, like oils or acrylics, which allow you to paint over and change things.
Keep reading to find out the 10 main things you need to learn and practice to continually improve your painting skills.
- Choose a Subject That Intrigues You
- Lose Your Fear of Starting a Painting
- Be Bold and Loose in Your Painting
- Step Back Often
- Learn to Consider the Importance of Value
- Learn to See Shapes, Not Objects
- Try Mixing Color on the Palette and Right on the Painting Surface
- Try to Use Alternative Tools
- Painting Thick vs. with Transparent Glazes
- Control Edges
1. The Subject: Choose a Subject That Intrigues You
The painting process gets much easier when you pick a subject to paint that you really care about, something that intrigues you, and makes you want to dig in and give it a try.
For example, I love color, and if I have to pick between a sunny or a cloudy landscape, with no doubt I’d pick the sunny one. I’m excited by the challenge of rendering those shadows and those lights and see how that effects forms.
Painting things you love makes it more exciting. Start by picking a subject you really connect to, and often meas it's something you have seen in person, not from some pretty photo.
Avoid Painting From Copyrighted Photos
The best reference photos to use for a painting are ones you take yourself.
If you find a picture on the internet, you can safely assume that it is copyrighted unless it's expressly specified otherwise. The same concept goes for calendars, magazines, books, and all publications: they are all copyrighted.
If you really like a photo and want to use it, consider approaching the author directly for permission to use it as a reference. To be safe, look for photos that explicitly carry a public domain license that allows derivative work.
2. The Initial Hurdle: Lose Your Fear of Starting a Painting
The first thing you need to find in order to start a painting is the courage to tackle a blank surface and start putting some color on it.
Similar to what happens to a writer in front of the blank page, a painter may be intimidated by the white canvas. If that’s your case, get over it quickly by painting the whole surface with a ground tone.
Make it orange. Make it blue. Make it a rainbow. It does not matter what bold move you take, just do it. You can always paint over and change it into something totally different.
3. Fighting Tightness: Being Bold and Loose in Your Painting
Once you have your idea of what you want to paint, you may draw on your canvas with a pencil or with paint, somehow getting the main outlines on the surface.
Avoid being super-detailed from the start.
When you start painting, avoid coloring within the lines of your drawing, that usually ends up looking more amateurish than a painting done with bold brushstrokes that go outside the lines. You can always come back later and make the edges straighter and the shapes more defined, don’t worry too much about those things until the end.
Start quickly and careless. Put down paint as you feel appropriate, with the reassurance that if it’s wrong you can come back and paint over. Think big shapes, not details.
As you get closer to the end of the painting, slow down. This is the time to make sure the color you mix for each stroke is the most appropriate one. Apply each stroke with determination.
Gather Up Your Courage and Do Your Best
4. The Point of View: Step Back Often
Step back often and observe the changes caused by your latest strokes from a distance. This is especially important during the final stages of the painting.
Looking at a painting from a few feet away provides you with a bigger picture, a better point of view. Observe your work with fresh eyes, examine the overall color balance, contrast, and shape relationships.
Look for any “problem”, something that sticks out to you as odd. There might be several. Pick the most important one and step up to fix it, then step back. Keep in mind that each little change towards the end of the process has effects on a lot of visual relationships. It’s important to step back often and look at the whole thing after each “problem” is fixed because sometimes, what might have seemed like a problem before the latest fix, might look fine now.
Keep stepping back and looking for the next problem, fix it, and continue like that until you are satisfied with your work.
If you paint sitting down, make it a point to stand up and walk back, or prop your painting up against a wall somewhere in the room and look at it from a distance, with fresh eyes.
5. The Structure: Learn to Consider the Importance of Value
The relationship between masses is not only in color, but most importantly in tone, or value. It’s crucial to continually compare how lighter or darker one element is compared to the ones around.
Masses of different darkness or lightness create a structure. Think of it like an abstract skeleton image that is kind of camouflaged within the scene. At first glance, you see things or people, but if you squint and filter off all colors, only looking at darks and lights, then you can clearly see the abstract structure.
Sometimes it's hard to correctly evaluate the value shifts with the naked eye. Using a red, or sometimes green, filter in front of your eyes will help to filter off colors and only seeing their tone. You can make your own filter or you can buy one ready-to-go. Here is an example of a great quality filter.
Below is an image with 13 different examples of strong compositional structures. Plan your painting trying to create at least one of them; it’s fine to include more than one.
6. Seeing Like an Artist: Learn to See Shapes and Not Objects
It’s important that both when you draw and when you paint, you pay attention to what you are really seeing, not what you believe you are seeing.
In order to do this, you’ve got to learn how to see as an artist. Stop identifying objects and instead see scenes as collections of lines, shadows, shapes, and contours.
Forget what the object is, and focus on the relationships between shapes and values. Almost instantly, your sketches will look more realistic and three-dimensional.
When faced with an apple, for instance, most people sketch an archetypal side view of an apple, rather than the bumps, colors, and shadows that make one particular fruit so unique.
Think in matters of shapes, not of objects. Look at the shapes within the objects, and the negative spaces in between objects.
Still Life by Cezanne
7. Mixing Colors: Mixing Both on the Palette and on the Painting Surface
When using the direct method (see #9 below), the best and safest way to mix color is on the palette before you apply it on the painting.
However, you may want to experiment also mixing on the canvas, by scumbling or blending. Washes are also a way to mix on the surface.
Try the two different methods and experiment. It’s ok to combine them within one painting.
8. Creative Applicators: Use Alternative Tools
Don’t limit yourself to using brushes. Almost anything can be used as an alternative way to apply paint, from the most obvious painting knife or fingers to old credit cards, rags, silicon shapers, sponges, q-tips, old combs, etc.
Using different applicators will keep the painting looser and less predictable, also several creative applications have the perk of creating very interesting textures and edges.
9. Direct or Indirect Painting: Painting Thick vs. With Transparent Glazes
There are two primary methods of painting: the direct method, and the indirect method. Either technique can be applied to both oil and acrylic paints.
I would say direct painting is the most intuitive, where you mix a color exactly as you like it to see, apply it on the painting surface, and let it be.
The indirect method is the more Classical approach, where you start with an underpainting which may be grisaille, monochromatic, or multi-colored. Then you apply subsequent layers of transparent glazes, in a way that the layers modify the opaque layers below. The glazing colors will mix optically with those below and create new colors and a translucent effect not easily achieved by using opaque paint.
Make sure you allow drying time between each layer.
For example, to paint a green pepper, you can mix exactly the green that you want to achieve and apply it with the direct method, or you can proceed with the indirect painting, starting with a blue color and then applying yellow glazes, letting the colors mix optically in order to obtain green.
Neither method is better than the other. It is worth trying the two different approaches to see what works best for you. They may also be combined within one painting.
I enjoy sharing some of the painting wisdom and tricks that I’ve learned in years of painting, hoping that beginner painters will find some useful advice.
— Robie Benve
10. Edge Control: What Is Controlling Edges?
An edge forms when one shape is contiguous with another. When one color ends and another starts, there is an edge. In nature, there are very few hard and straight edges.
A hard or sharp edge is when there is a strong line between the two colors. Sharp edges attract attention and should be allowed only or especially around the focal point.
Soft or lost edges are kind of harder to see, it’s when two colors gradually transition into each other with low contrast.
The masterful painter learns how to control edges and make them sharp or soft as it works best for each painting.
Learn how to control edges and place them in a way that makes the most sense. Use them to lead the viewer’s eye where you want it to go, making sharper the most important elements or the points of interest.
Paint as the Eye Sees
When we are looking at something with the naked eye, the area of focus becomes sharp, while everything else outside of the center field of vision is out of focus and kind of fuzzy.
As a rule of thumb, keep your edges sharper around your focal point, and keep them loose and soft away from the point of interest.
11. Extra Tip
Be ready to face your worst critic. Yourself.
Most of the times, artists look at the final painting and see all kind of things that went wrong, not matching the great ideas in our head at the beginning of the painting.
It takes many square miles of painted canvas to become good at rendering what you envision, and sometimes you don’t get even close to it, but it’s ok.
Just look at each painting as a great practice, a learning step. Each new painting brings the opportunity to get better, with the final product more in line with the image in your head.
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: I paint in a small painting space with no room to step back and look at my painting from a few meters away, as it's recommended in the article, do you have any tips for me?
Answer: Stepping back and looking at your painting in progress from a distance is very helpful, it makes you see with fresh eyes. The different point of view lets you see the big picture and the main shapes, without getting caught in the details.
As an alternative to stepping back, you can look at your painting in a mirror. The reversed image reflected in the mirror lets you see things that you may not notice looking straight into the painting.
Another thing that helps is taking a photo of your painting and then looking at it on the screen. Many times I take a photo to post saying it's done, and when I go to post I see things that jump out at me as still needing attention.
Question: An artist friend once told me that when I paint at a table, without an easel, it is better to keep the painting flat on the table and stand while I paint. Is that right?
Answer: The recommendation is to have the painting surface perpendicular to your line of sight - or imagine it parallel to the axis of your head.
The inclination helps to evaluate the perspective and the proportions in the painting, hence avoiding distortions.
If you are painting at a table, you can achieve that by propping up your painting with a table easel.
I know several watercolorists that keep their paper flat on the table and paint standing up.
© 2019 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 10, 2019:
Hi Mary, yes! The "Courage to Be" applies to many aspects of our lives, and definitely to artistic expression. Glad to hear you are starting to pint again. Approach the canvas with courage and no fear. There is always the option to paint over and change things. Happy painting.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 06, 2019:
I learned so much from your article. I am starting to paint again and am learning as I go. I use direct painting and just trust my intuition to carry me through. One of the first articles I wrote in my blog of my journey was entitled The Courage to Be. I needed to prop myself up.
Mek Hepela Kamongmenan on May 11, 2019:
A good article of painting. It can inspire many.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 21, 2019:
Hi Linda, that's great that you draw, I wish I drew more, drawing is awesome! It could be very exciting to try painting again; there is much fun in color! I bet all the things you've learned while drawing will translate into making painting easier for you. It's just the matter of getting the hang of color mixing. : ) Thanks for your comment!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 20, 2019:
This is an inspiring article, Robie. I draw but have done only a little painting. I'd love to do more now that I've read your article.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 20, 2019:
Thanks a lot Liz, that's the spirit in which I wrote it, hoping that the article provides some advice and some encouragement to beginner painters. :)
Liz Westwood from UK on February 19, 2019:
This article gives great tips for anyone setting out on painting. Thanks for sharing the benefits of your experience.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 19, 2019:
My pleasure, Sanjay, I love sharing tips.
Sanjay Sharma from Mandi (HP) India on February 18, 2019:
Thanks for sharing the tips.