I think painting is both relaxing and rewarding, but if you’ve never painted before, the process can seem overwhelming. In this article, I’ve discussed how to make a painting as a step-by-step tutorial, including which painting materials to use. I’ve also written a list of 9 pro tips at the end that will take your painting to the next level.
Everyone paints differently, and each medium is different. The steps you might take to make a watercolor painting are different from the steps you might take to make an oil painting. I’ll try to acknowledge those differences in this article. I also have a related article Painting Techniques for Beginners which I recommend you read after.
Jump ahead to..
- Step 1: Gather painting materials to use.
- Step 2: Sketch the image.
- Step 3: Paint a thin first layer.
- Step 4: Add details, smooth rough patches.
- 9 Pro Tips – How to make a painting
- How To Make a Painting – Supporting Video
- Wrap Up
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Step 1: Gather painting materials to use.
Gather the materials you’ll need to make your painting. You’ll want a palette, a painting surface, a pencil and an easel. In addition:
Paint. Gather primary colors red, yellow and blue. I also keep brown and white on hand. I don’t use black paint personally – I like to mix blue and brown together to create a rich, deep shade.
When you’re buying paints from an art store, you’ll see tubes labelled things like “pthalo blue” and “burnt sienna.” There’s a lot to pick from! If you’re not sure which colors to purchase, you might benefit from buying a paint set that includes a variety of colors. Over time, using the set, you’ll get a sense for the colors you like most.
Brushes. Buy a variety of brushes – big and small, round-tip and flat. You’ll want big brushes for roughing in large shapes, and smaller brushes for painting details.
Buy quality paint brushes. Painting isn’t the cheapest hobby, and many painting materials are expensive. It may be tempting to buy inexpensive paintbrushes to save money, but inexpensive brushes can shed bristles or soak up paint without spreading color the way you like. You’ll find painting is more frustrating than fun if you’re working with cheap brushes.
Step 2: Sketch the image.
Sketch an outline of the image on the painting surface. Leave out the details but sketch the rough shapes of figures, structures and elements of the landscape.
Unless you’re very comfortable making accurate drawings on the first try, I suggest sketching the image on paper first. This will make drawing the image on your painting surface much easier.
If you’re painting with watercolor, you may want to skip this step – or draw very lightly. Watercolor is transparent and sketch marks may show up on the finished product.
Step 3: Paint a thin first layer.
Use one of your larger, thicker brushes to quickly apply a first, messy layer of paint on the painting surface. If you’re working with oils or acrylic, don’t hesitate to make mistakes with this process. You can cover up any mistakes you make later.
If you’re painting with watercolor, keep in mind that you can’t subtract color from the paper. Once you’ve applied paint, you won’t be able to erase it – although you may be able to cover or change it with more paint.
Step 4: Add details, smooth rough patches.
Once you’ve applied the first thin layer of paint to your painting, switch to smaller paintbrushes. Add details, shadows and highlights. Correct errors. In some ways, this process is easier with oil paints and acrylics, because you can always paint over your work as many times as possible until you’ve got it right.
Watercolor is trickier because you can only paint so many layers on a watercolor image. You’ll probably add fewer details and apply fewer layers of paint, if you’re using watercolor. Watercolor paintings tend to be less detailed and more whimsical – with details that are implied rather than fully acknowledged.
You may need to wait for the paint to dry between step 3 and step 4, especially if you’re using watercolor. Watercolor paint applied to wet paper tends to run, which can lead to frustration.
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9 Pro Tips – How to make a painting
Something doesn’t look right?
Try turning the painting upside down. If something looks wrong with your painting, but you can’t quite put your finger on what, turn the painting upside down. This is an especially useful trick if you’re painting from photographs.
Turn the painting and the photograph upside down, then flick your eyes back and forth between the picture and the painting. If something is wrong on the painting, the error may become apparent in this process. This is one of my favorite tricks when painting portraits.
Choose your subject wisely
Wondering what should a beginner paint? I recommend subjects that don’t require precision or accuracy to right. Trees, flowers, rivers and gardens all make great subjects for beginners. Buildings and faces are more challenging, because they require an accurate portrayal.
Let the painting sit
Don’t finish a painting in one sitting; let it sit for several days or even weeks, then come back to it. The longer the painting sits, the easier it will be for you to identify problems that need to be solved.
Mix your colors
You can buy paint colors in just about every shade imaginable, but one of the great joys of painting is in mixing and blending colors on the palette and on the canvas. I recommend mixing colors whenever possible. Try mixing colors as you apply them on the canvas, allowing some shades to remain only partially mixed, showing how they were blended.
Experiment, and find what works
As you’re creating your first paintings, try different styles. Switch paint colors and experiment with different paint brushes. Over time, you’ll develop a style all your own, and you’ll find paintbrushes and colors you love.
Switch mediums from time to time. Each type of paint creates its own effect. Watercolor is flexible, fluid and imprecise. It creates a watery impression of your subject, while its transparency brings lightness to your image.
Oil paint takes a long time to dry, so paints mingle together on the canvas as you apply each new layer of paint. Oil paintings have a soft, blended quality.
Finally, acrylic paint is opaque and fast-drying. Blending colors with acrylic can be challenging. As a result, edges in acrylic paintings have a way of being clearer, sharper.
Go with the flow. If you’re not getting the effect that you seek from the paint you’re using, switch to a type of paint that is more likely to serve your purposes.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Don’t expect your paintings to be perfect. Be open to the experience of making errors. I find delight in the accidents that happen on canvas – when I can see an artist’s struggle with the paint, I feel as if I am there with the artist. Mistakes on canvas are beautiful – and they’re good learning moments.
Use black paint sparingly
Many beginning painters naturally turn to black to create shadows. I find that black quickly mixes with paint colors and makes a muddy, gray-ish mess on the canvas. I prefer to use other colors to create shadows.
Deep browns, blues, greens and reds are just as effective at creating shadows, and when mixed with other colors, these hues add depth and visual interest to the picture plane.
Experiment with paint mixing before making your first painting
Don’t dive into the painting process without first mixing the colors on a practice piece of paper or canvas.
Get feedback from someone who is honest with you
You can only improve so much without feedback from someone else. Find someone who will give you honest feedback about your paintings. Start an open dialogue with that person, and seek their feedback on a regular basis.
How To Make a Painting – Supporting Video
I have found a great video that visualizes many of the points I just discussed in How to Make a Painting.
I will warn you it’s a little long at 40 minutes but if you are a real beginner it’s a good way to spend 40 minutes.
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