How to Decide What to Paint and How to Do It
How to Plan a Painting and Paint it Successfully
From finding a subject to paint, to deciding what to focus on, what colors to mix, and where to place the focal point, the painting process presents a lot of decisions to make and problems to solve.
Let's talk about the 12 main decisions that you'll have to make as you get ready to start a painting.
Artists Have a Lot of Decisions to Make
Before any paint even touches the surface of your painting, you need to make some decisions that will be your guide throughout the creative process.
Your creative process will be smoother if you plan your painting in advance, deciding the wanted outcomes before you get started.
Look at the following table to get some useful ideas of things to consider during the planning stage.
12 Things To Plan Before Starting a Painting
On Each Topic
Why am I painting?
2. Subject Matter
What am I going to paint?
3. Star of the Show
What will my focal point be?
What mood and feelings am I going to convey?
What kind of shapes and lines will I use in my composition?
What are the main shapes of the painting?
7. Value Structure
Which value distribution looks best?
What size will my painting be?
What paint medium(s) will I use?
How am I going to apply the paint? (Brushes, knives, bryer, etc.)
11. Color Scheme
What colors will I include?
What techniques and textures will I incorporate?
Keep reading for more information on each topic.
Finding Inspiration for a Painting
There are all sorts of reasons to start painting, one of the most important elements is the desire to paint.
You may have lots of ideas about what to paint and not enough time, or you may struggle to find inspiration.
Wherever you are in the spectrum between lots of ideas and stuck with no cretivity, here are some tips that may help you finding inspiration for a painting.
- Have a collection of reference images, like photos you like or other artists’ work that you admire. Some people create folders on their computer, others use Pinterest folders. Following artists you like on Instagram is also a great way to be constantly tickled with inspiration.
- Keep a sketchbook handy and use it for jotting down ideas about future paintings and taking notes about what you see. Then, use it as a reference for your new work. Keeping a sketchbook also makes you draw and experiment with subjects, color schemes, and compositions. A sketchbook is a very precious tool that keeps your artistic skills trained and serves as a reference when hungry for painting ideas.
- Don’t worry about the final result, it does not matter if it's going to be a masterpiece or just a practice piece. Get to work, be creative, take chances, make mistakes. Enjoy the process.
You May Find Inspiration in a Group Painting Challenge
2. Subject Matter
Deciding the Subject of a Painting
When choosing a subject to paint, the majority of artists turn to the classic themes: still life, landscape, interiors, wildlife, portraits, and figure painting.
Avoid setting yourself up for disappointment: choose a subject and a medium that you feel comfortable with, one that you feel you can handle.
If you are a beginner, start from a simple subject matter, focusing on learning the basic skills of painting. Learn by doing, experiment with colors, techniques, and composition. Most of all have fun. Even if your painting does not come out as you expected, even if you need to wipe it off and start again, I assure you it was not in vain. Every brushstroke teaches you something.
Whatever you decide to paint let it be something that excites you and make sure to express your personal interpretation of the subject.
Painting is an opportunity for you to be yourself, using paint and color to express feelings and passion. Find your fun and gratification in the journey, not the destination.
There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another.— Edouard Manet
3. Star of the Show
Every Painting Needs at Least a Focal Point
The focal point of a painting is the area of major interest, where the eye of the viewer is naturally led.
Decide what the painting is about and set that as the star of the show. In addition to the main focal point, it is often a good idea to have a couple of secondary elements of interest, to allow the eye of the viewer to move around. These could be elements, strong value contrasts, of splashes of color.
Avoid placing the focal point in the middle of the canvas, both horizontally and vertically, or too close to the edges.
The ideal positions for the focal points are on the lines of thirds – obtained dividing the canvas into thirds horizontally and vertically. Often artists place the focal point on a sweet spot, identified by the points where the lines of thirds intersect.
The focal point is where you should have your
- Highest value contrast (between the darkest dark and the lightest light)
- Sharpest edges - think of it as the area of focus, everything else gets blurrier as you move away.
Conveying Moods and Feelings
You can infuse your artwork with a very specific feeling or perception.
Think about how you can manipulate temperature, shapes, and lines in order to trigger certain emotions associated with your painting.
What Shapes and Lines Will I Use in My Composition?
A good structural arrangement is essential for a successful painting.
This is strongly affected by how you use lines, shapes, colors, and values.
Click here for an article that allows you to learn more about the elements of a strong composition.
Shapes in a Painting
Anything you paint is ultimately just a shape.
Shapes can be realistic, abstract, or non-objective. Each shape will have edges, whose lines can be angular, curved, or rectangular.
Use your shapes to make the composition. The most interesting shapes have dimensions that vary or are oblique. For example, a house that fits in a square, or a tree that fits in an equilateral triangle or a circle are boring in the composition.
To have interesting shapes make sure the edges are not linear but rather have parts that stick in and out.
The edges of the shapes are lines and make the composition. The background, or negative space, is a shape too. Make sure all your shapes work together in a balance.
7. Value Structure
Planning Your Painting by Making Studies or Sketches
The first step for most artists is making studies and sketches of the painting. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
I like to make a few simplified drawings that show the positioning of light and dark masses and how they relate to each other. These are called value studies.
Some artists make accurate drawings, some other just draw simple and basic lines, or a wash drawing, to sketch a general idea of how the composition will look.
It all depends on your personality, if you like to be careful and precise you may want to spend a good amount of time planning your painting so you know exactly how it will look, if you are more instinctual and bubbly, you may just need a quick sketch before you jump right in.
Many Sizes in a Painting
Before you start painting you need to choose the size of your artwork.
What is the best size to emphasize what you are trying to accomplish? Are you painting for a specific commission, or need, or can you choose the size following just your instinct?
What size brushes are you going to use?
Having the support the correct size is not all. Every element of your painting can be made in a variety of sizes: shapes, lines, areas of color, value, and texture.
Size can be used to produce drama, or emphasize the importance of a certain element in the painting.
As a rule of thumb for a successful painting keep all sizes varied. No two of anything should be the same size.
Choosing Your Painting Medium
When choosing a painting medium, go for the one that suits you and can produce the effect you are trying to attain.
One way to go is choosing the medium used in pictures you like. It’s about the way you feel about a picture when you look at it, and how it makes you want to paint your own pictures using a similar medium.
Whatever medium you decide to use, make sure you buy the best quality. Usually, you find student or artist quality, go for the latter, it well worth the money.
Examples of Painting Mediums:
- Water Soluble Oils
- Oil Sticks
- Colored Pencils
- Water Soluble Pencils and Crayons
How Do You Like to Paint?
What is tour favorite art medium?
Many materials, tools, and techniques can be used to obtain the most creative textures, your imagination is the limit for what you can use.
Some of the things I like to use are brushes, painting knives, stencils, stamps. You can also use sandpaper or other abrasive tools to distress the paint. You can create interesting textures by using a cloth or plastic wraps or including embedded objects in the paint, and much more.
11. Color Scheme
Decide on the Color Scheme for a Painting
Color is the painter’s most versatile tool; it can be used to great effect, both expressively and realistically.
Mixing colors and trying to match what you see is a subtle process. You will need to observe your subject carefully and make small adjustments to represent the local color accurately. You’ll have to learn how to mix colors that are tonally lighter or darker, warmer or cooler, more intense or softer to create a well-balanced painting that represents areas of light and shades.
If you are painting in oils or acrylics, it is best to start with the darker colors and gradually work up to the lighter ones, ending with the lightest highlights.
If you are using watercolors, the lightest areas are created preserving the white of the paper, and you work gradually towards the darkest tones.
When deciding on a color scheme to follow you can choose a subject that already has certain color characteristics, or change the color of what you see to stick to your color scheme.
For example, for a complementary color scheme, you can set up a blue and orange still life, or you can choose to paint blue trees in an orange grass field.
Use of Complementary Colors
Using Different Painting Techniques
The use of different techniques allows the artist to achieve special effects, transmit a specific feeling to the viewer, and make the composition very interesting.
Painting techniques are a means to make a painting represent the artist’s interpretation of a subject. You’ll have to rely on your vision to make them work for you in the context of your painting.
How to Approach a New Painting and Plan it Successfully
Whether painting from a photograph, from imagination, or plain air, artists are faced with the same dilemma: "how do I create a painting that fully represents my interpretation of the subject and carries the emotions that I’m trying to deliver?"
When it comes to the creative process of art making one thing is sure: there are no fixed rules and there isn't one perfect way to approach the painting.
There are methods that can be learned, and materials to experiment with, but during the actual painting process every artist relies only on his or her imagination, working alone, and free to do as you wish.
This freedom and solitude can be very liberating, and also quite intimidating, especially when faced with a technical problem or lack of inspiration.
Look at the table above and go through each item.
Jot down each answer to all the questions, make your value studies, and you'll be on the road toward a successful painting or, worst-case scenario, a great learning experience. :)
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
An art tutor told me that I'm material-driven. I do love the paint, but I never know what to paint! Why can't establish my own painting style?
A material-driven artist, what an interesting thing! However, I don't see anything wrong with being described like that. Anything that triggers your creativity and makes you paint is good, in my book. If the actual materials used intrigue you more than the final product, it's ok, the results are still some kind of original artifacts.
Being fascinated by the materials, you probably like to experiment and find out what paint can do, especially used in different ways, with different mediums, and applications. This might make it a little harder to see a cohesive body of work, but it's still you in the end.
After years of painting, I still haven't found a signature style that is me all the way and it's easily recognizable.
The only way to establish your own personal style is to create, create, and create. Some artists get there sooner than others, but most people keep learning and growing for all of their creative life, and evolve, even slightly with each art piece.
To find your own voice and style, and to create a nice cohesive body of work that is easily recognizable as yours, you usually need to paint many square miles of canvas and learn from your own errors for years. Only by painting a lot and by continuously educating yourself, you can develop a strong feeling for what you like or don't like, and for what excites you about your own work and also about others' work.Helpful 12
How do you use the colour wheel in painting?
I use the color wheel a lot, especially to pick color schemes before I start painting. In fact, I wrote a whole article about that. You may want to check it out:Helpful 4
What is the best way to think of ideas to paint? Sometimes my mind just goes blank and I can't think of anything to paint, or even draw.
Everybody is different, we all have different ways to find inspiration, but here is the link to an article that provides some tips to get over those blank periods.Helpful 1
© 2012 Robie Benve