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12 Things to Plan Before Starting a Painting and How to Do It

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

Learn the 12 things you need to plan before starting a painting. What to paint? How? With what techniques and styles? Learn how to take the most important decisions before and during the painting process.

Learn the 12 things you need to plan before starting a painting. What to paint? How? With what techniques and styles? Learn how to take the most important decisions before and during the painting process.

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

Your creative process will be smoother if you plan your painting, deciding the wanted outcomes before you get started.

On Each TopicAsk Yourself...

1. Inspiration

Why do I want to paint this?

2. Subject Matter

What am I going to paint?

3. Star of the Show

What will my focal point be?

4. Mood

What mood and feelings am I going to convey?

5. Structure

What kind of shapes and lines will I use in my composition?

6. Shapes

What are the main shapes of the painting?

7. Value Structure

Which value distribution looks best?

8. Size

What size will my painting be?

9. Medium

What paint medium(s) will I use?

10. Tools

How am I going to apply the paint? (brushes, knives, bryer, etc.)

11. Color Scheme

What colors will I include?

12. Techniques

What techniques and textures will I incorporate?

Keep reading for more information on each topic.

1. 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 creativity, here are some tips that may help you find 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 computers, while 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, and make mistakes. Enjoy the process.
I painted this from a photo reference provided by an online painting challenge. "Rich Peonies" (acrylic on canvas by Robie Benve)

I painted this from a photo reference provided by an online painting challenge. "Rich Peonies" (acrylic on canvas by Robie Benve)

2. Deciding the Subject of a Painting

When choosing a subject to paint, the majority of artists turn to classic themes:

  • still life
  • landscape
  • interiors
  • wildlife
  • portraits
  • 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 and 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. 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, or 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 by 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), and
  • sharpest edges—think of it as the area of focus, everything else gets blurrier as you move away.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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. 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 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.

These are two studies that I did before starting the painting "Hopes and Smiles" below. Planning the light and the dark shapes really helped me.

These are two studies that I did before starting the painting "Hopes and Smiles" below. Planning the light and the dark shapes really helped me.

8. 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 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.

There are no fixed rules and there isn't one perfect way to approach the painting.

There are no fixed rules and there isn't one perfect way to approach the painting.

9. 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.

You may choose 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, if you find student or artist quality, go for the latter; it is well worth the money.

Examples of Painting Mediums:

  • Watercolor
  • Acrylics
  • Gouache
  • Oils
  • Water Soluble Oils
  • Oil Sticks
  • Encaustics
  • Pastels
  • Colored Pencils
  • Water Soluble Pencils and Crayons

10. Paint Application

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, and stamps. You can also use sandpaper or other abrasive tools to distress the paint. You can create interesting textures by using cloth or plastic wraps or including embedded objects in the paint, and much more.

When choosing a painting medium, go for the one that suits you and can produce the effect you are trying to attain.

When choosing a painting medium, go for the one that suits you and can produce the effect you are trying to attain.

11. 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.

"Daffodils" (acrylic on canvas by Robie Benve) This is an example of the use of complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel) like yellow and violet (the source link is to my blog).

"Daffodils" (acrylic on canvas by Robie Benve) This is an example of the use of complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel) like yellow and violet (the source link is to my blog).

12. 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 en plein 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 their imagination, working alone, and is free to do as they 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

Question: 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.

Answer: 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.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: How do you use the colour wheel in painting?

Answer: 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:

© 2012 Robie Benve


Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 10, 2020:

Hi Nelvia, thanks so much for your comment, so glad to hear you found some useful tips in my writing. Happy Painting!

Nelvia from Atlanta on August 10, 2020:

Am trying to up my game on picture composition and more complex story telling, so this article really hit home. Thanks Robbie

kato gonza Uganda on September 09, 2019:

Thanks for that highlites. I like it

Jenish patel on August 10, 2019:

Thank you for very useful information.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 16, 2016:

will do, lianuzi7, thanks! on September 16, 2016:

Please add me to your email list.

Thank you.

stoneyy from USA Pacific Northwest on September 03, 2012:

Almost forgot. About two years ago when St. Marks square was under a little more than four feet of water a German gentleman wake-boarded the length of the square. No, he didn't get caught. The video can be seen on youtube and I don't know the link. Cheers

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 03, 2012:

wow stoneyy, I'm flattered for all the time you took to write you comments, really, I think it's wonderful.

The "perfect painting" wording was more an interpretation of what many people think while starting a painting, surely not tied to the actual result. - I agree that perfection is rarely of this life, even less of art.

Since it's bugging you, and it might bug someone else too, I'll look into the wordings and try to make it sound more like what I meant.


stoneyy from USA Pacific Northwest on September 03, 2012:

WHEW! Just looked at your profile. You're one busy lady. :) The University of Venice! Years ago, while in the USN, I spent a month in Venice. Loved it.

Some time after while going through the Detroit Institute of Art I saw a painting far away which I just 'knew'. Such is impossible! Turns out I had seen the main part of the painting from the same angle but not at the same distance.

I did write more in a hub, but as of about a year ago I know who the artist was and the title of the painting. Venice was 1978 and I saw the work probably 1980.

While in Venice (off-season) we didn't have much time to sight-see, but several of us made it to the army base some sixty miles away. I came back with a box full of books to read.

stoneyy from USA Pacific Northwest on September 03, 2012:

You're welcome, Robie. I've heard the 'talent lament' so often I decided to make a more detailed and formal reply which I just posted.

Painting conventions are general guidelines meant to assist a painter. As you've stated, there are times when its best to ignore the conventions.

I started out in acrylics and they drove me nuts (I know. Short trip or How can one tell? (big grin)). Being in the high desert, acrylics swiftly dries, and when one's metaphorically trying to figure out which way is up, that's a problem-especially with edges.

Oils gives me the time to ponder and make adjustments to edges later.

One tip an acrylics instructor gave me was to work one small section at a time. Good tip, but not much help when one isn't sure 'which way is up'.

Worse when one doesn't know what questions to ask.

Don't know if you know this, but I learned recently acrylics paintings should be varnished. Acrylic paints are relatively soft and a person cleaning dirt from the surface can sink it into the paint surface.

I've got some varnishing to do.

Your term 'perfect painting' bugs me, and I'm not being trite. I think the term can be seen as 'setting folks up for a fall'.

First off, nothing is perfect. Nothing. In all cases the level of error is brought to the point where it isn't a problem.

The machining of the valves and pistons in your car or motorcycle are + or - a certain tolerance. Things could be machined to a more precise tolerance, but that's more expensive and wouldn't make it run any better.

Same thing with painting and not all paintings are successes. There are times where enough is off where its better to stop and start again from scratch. The botched painting isn't a failure. Valuable lessons can be learned from it. You could have learned at what point its best to stop and restart on a new canvas.

I kept the one where I learned this around as a reminder. I kept on far past the point where it could be salvaged. I got much much much too stubborn.

As Robie said; "Things learned from a current canvas can be utilized in those thereafter."

Other times things can be brought to the best you can do with the overall current subject. Again, varying levels of success come into play. It may even be you've managed to salvage a work.

Not all master works are successful, either. Most end up being destroyed, but there's rumour of one particular Degas work which survived.

All a person can do is the best they can at a given point in time. One's best does vary.

Ribbons are given out for entries in county fairs. Personally, I consider every person who enters a winner. Any work that places is a little extra.

I've done all that work and I'd like people to see the results of said work.

County fairs are great places to see various types of works. Perhaps one will pique your curiosity and you'll try your hand on the same subject.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 03, 2012:

Stoneyy, thanks for the great comment. You are so right, in art the best way to to work hard while enjoying what you do. And every painting is truly the preparation for the next one. :)

stoneyy from USA Pacific Northwest on September 03, 2012:

Mmargie1966 wrote, in part: " I would love to believe I have the talent to paint,..."

Margie; art isn't a talent. Its no different than riding a bicycle. With a bicycle one doesn't start out competing in the tour-de-France. One starts with a tricycle and as things are learned a person progresses from there.

Art painting is no different. One learns the fundamentals and progresses from there.

A person sees things through 'art glasses' rather than the 'general purpose' ones used during a day. As you work with these 'glasses' on you see more and that aids in painting.

Michelangelo, on his deathbed, is said to have protested saying; "But I have just begun to see".

Robie's right when he says to 'have fun'. At times when I had an idea (using artistic license) and took a work in an entirely different direction-it would drive my instructor nuts. Why? Because he couldn't help much as he couldn't see the idea in my head.

Bob Ross, for one, made things look easy due to years of hard work and he had a lot of fun painting.

You might grab a pencil and a piece of scrap paper and sketch simple things like a can of peaches. Or sketch a single item from an advertisement. That gets you used to capturing forms.

Check out a step-by-step book from the library or record a person painting a picture that intrigues you. Mirror the steps the person uses. You're not going to produce a masterpiece but date it on the back and look back on it later and you'll see how much you've learned since then.

Every painting is preparation for the following one. :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 27, 2012:

Now that summer vacations are officially over with the start of the school year, I hope I can get back to painting too. I had no take a break from the easel for a couple of months, not I need to get back on track.

Thanks a lot for your nice comment, and happy painting.

carol stanley from Arizona on August 26, 2012:

I love your hubs on art. I have been staring at my paints for weeks..and I need to get back into painting. Actually have been writing a lot for Hubpages..and with other life obligations hard to find time for all. Thanks for beautiful pictures and great advice.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 23, 2012:

GarnetBird, that sound like fun! What a great way to learn and experiment. :)

Thanks a lot for reading and your nice comment.

Gloria Siess from Wrightwood, California on August 23, 2012:

Gorgeous Hub. My art professor let us dabble water colors on white paper, while listening to Bach. No pressure, no stress. What emerged from that art class was amazing and delicate work with no plan or purpose.

Lightshare on August 22, 2012:

Thanks for good lessons robie..

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 20, 2012:

Hi kittyjj, thanks a lot for all the compliments! I'm always shy, for some reason, including photos of my paintings, but I have to say it's a quick resource for photos, so there are good chances I'll post more in future painting hubs. Thanks. :)

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on August 20, 2012:

WOW, Robie! Your paintings are soooo beautiful! I love them all. Are you going to share more of your paintings with us? You are such a great artist. Voted up and beautiful!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 19, 2012:

@ whonunuwho, Scribenet, and Mmargie1966: thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. It makes me really happy to see that what I write can be useful to artists, or even inspire someone to start painting!


Mmargie1966 from Gainesville, GA on August 18, 2012:

Nice hub, Robie! I would love to believe I have the talent to paint, but you are convincing me to try it! I love the way you brought out the artistry in the hub.

I also used to watch Bob Ross for hours...he always made it look so easy!

Great job, and I voted up and useful!

Maggie Griess from Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2012:

Next winter, I plan to take up my art as a winter project...I have neglected it for too long.

I appreciate your good advice; I will be back to go over this Hub as I break out the new watercolour set I was just gifted with. Thank you!

whonunuwho from United States on August 18, 2012:

What beautiful work, and you write so well. I am awed by your paintings. I too write and love painting, working mostly in acrylic. I paint wild life and landscapes most of the time and some of my work may be seen under "Art of the Wild", by whonunuwho. on hub pages. Thank you for sharing these wonderful tips and suggestions on art.