How to Decide What to Paint and How to Do It
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.
Things To Decide Before Starting a Painting
Before any paint even touches the surface of your painting, you need to make some decisions that will be your guidance 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.
These decisions answer the following questions:
- What am I going to paint?
- What mood and feelings am I going to convey?
- What kind of shapes and lines will I use in my composition?
- What size will my painting support, my brushstrokes, and my color areas be?
- What paint medium(s) will I use?
- What techniques and textures will I incorporate?
- What color scheme will I follow?
Finding Inspiration for a Painting
There are all sorts of ways to start painting, but the most important requirement is the desire to paint.
The best way to get started in the painting process is by having a collection of resources and references, like photos and other artists’ work that you admire. This can be really inspirational when looking for ideas on what and how to paint.
Also keeping a sketchbook is really useful, for jotting down ideas about future paintings, taking notes about what you see, and use it as reference once back in your studio, and 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 reference when hungry for painting ideas.
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.
Start from simple subject matter, focusing on learning the basic skills of painting. Learn by doing, experimenting 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 your own choice 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
Planning Your Painting Before You Start
The first step of a painting for most artists is making studies and sketches of the painting. There is not right or wrong way to do this.
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.
As I mentioned there are no fixed rules in painting, in fact many artists jump right in and start putting color on the canvas with no prior sketch.
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 minimum or no planning, then jump right in and then follow your instinct.
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.
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 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?
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.
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 coor 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
The Color Wheel Tool
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 4
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 3