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How to Start a Painting

by | Jan 3, 2023 | Art Lessons | 0 comments

One of the most common questions I get from art students is, “How do I start a painting?” A blank paper or canvas can be exciting, but also stirs up a bit of fear in us. “I haven’t screwed it up yet,” was a common a thought that ran through my head. If you ever felt unsure on how to begin, this post is for you. And, you my dear, have a lot of company on this topic.

There is No “Right Way”

There are many ways to start. But, there is no “right way.” Because a “right way” requires an almighty authority on art and how to produce it. We love art for possibilities and creativity. No right way. However, lots of awesome ways. Lots of ways that are better in some circumstances than others. So, let’s explore a few of them!

Toning a Canvas

Toning a canvas is where a neutral layer of paint is applied very thinly over the stark white canvas. You can tone your canvases in advance so you have a dry surface to work on, or you can work wet-on-wet. You can tone with any color you want. However, if you are a beginner painter, work with something neutral like an earth pigment. Any intense colors will be hard to work with color-reaction wise as you precede. This layer is meant to be thin. If you are using oil paint, a common technique is to use a rag to wipe off excess paint.


A Basic Road Map & Composition

Often starting after the canvas is toned, a simple outline of the basic shapes of the composition can be applied. You can also do this without toning the canvas. Creating a few basic paint strokes is a fantastic way to work out the composition of the artwork before you are knee-deep in details. You can use the same color that you used to tone the canvas. Using simple strokes, outline basic shapes. 

Blocking in Mid-Darker Values (Opaque Mediums) 

When using opaque mediums (not watercolor), we often build up the darker values first. The darker values lay under the light. The lighter paint can sit on top of the darker paint – just the same way that light behaves in the real world – bouncing and reflecting off of objects. (In watercolor, the light of the page is preserved and painters work their way darker as they go.)

The Top-Down Way

Neil Welliver is the most extreme example of this method that comes to my mind. 

Painting en plein air, Welliver made small, roughly two-foot-square studies that he would later blow up into large-scale oil paintings in his barn studio. There, Welliver employed a modified Renaissance technique that involves making a large color-by-numbers style drawing of the study on a sheet of thin brown paper, painstakingly pricking each line of the drawing with thousands of tiny holes, and then pouncing the drawing’s surface with a soft bag of charcoal so as to leave its impression upon a primed canvas. Once the lines were there, he would lay down the oil paint—all mixed to one precise “Welliver” consistency—and methodically fill in the empty graphic sprawl of the canvas, inch by inch, wet on wet, from the top left corner to the bottom right, almost as if he were a human laser printer. –  Art Seen, Neil Welliver: The Absent Painter, by Jeremy Sigler https://brooklynrail.org/2006/12/artseen/neil-welliver

What we learn by this, is that Welliver created a way of working that worked for him. His inspiration with the plein air painting out in nature – in three hour time blocks per piece to accommodate the light – that would be the source for the larger work. If you would like to learn more about Neil Welliver see this earlier post I wrote: https://kristenoneillart.com/influence-neil-welliver/

Neil Welliver, Lower Ducktrap, 1978, 96″ x 96″


Things to Do Before the Paint Touches the Canvas

  1. Pick out your medium. If you are painting with oil, you will not be able to switch to acrylic after (won’t adhere properly and will cause cracking). 
  2. Know the basic composition and size of appropriate for this artwork.
  3. If you aren’t doing 100% intuitive painting, then make sure you have your source images with you. (Photos, real life, sketches, etc.)
  4. Pick out your palette of colors
  5. Get your supplies together

Then you get to start! Remember, the pressure of the blank canvas can be immense. If it is getting to you, just make a small mark on it, and leave it there while you get started. This prevents you from the pressure of perfection. You got this.