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From Blank Canvas to Finished Work: How to Start a Painting

First, establish the composition. As it’s extremely helpful to place the most important shapes of the composition before commencing to paint, “drawing” will normally be your first step. The drawing is the basic plan for where to put those luscious colours. Your drawing/shape-making tools will include a charcoal pencil, brushes, paint and an old rag–all of which to use as needed. The drawing need not be detailed. Depending on the subject matter, however, accuracy of placement is important.

Once you have your composition established, you can begin the painting process. There are several different methods I use to begin my oil paintings. I often choose one over the other based on a gut feeling of what will work best for that painting at that particular point in time.

There are many painters who follow the same process for every painting, and you may well find that one method suits you best to use as a standard approach (see three more ways to begin an oil painting in my book, Discover Oil Painting). My advice to you however, especially if you’re fairly new to oil painting, is to paint the same basic composition several times using a different method each time. Then you can see the benefits and drawbacks of each for yourself. Tip: Use the same type, brand and size of canvas so that you can make apples-to-apples comparisons.

How to Start a Painting for Beginners: Standard Colour Block-In

Follow these steps to block in a painting with transparent colours following a loose sketch.

Materials for this oil painting demonstration:
Surface: canvas
Bristle brushes: flats, rounds, filberts and fans in a variety of sizes
Oil paints: transparent and opaque oil paints of your choosing
Other: lean medium, old rag, odourless mineral spirits (OMS), palette, palette knife.

1. Sketch the Composition
Create a quick, loose brush sketch.

2. Begin Blocking In the Transparent Colors
Use transparent colours to help keep from over- diluting the paint with OMS. Too much OMS in relation to paint produces a weak paint film. Either Chroma Archival Oils Odourless Lean Medium or Gamblin’s Galkyd Lite will be useful for increasing the flow and transparency of the paint in this stage. (Or you can prepare your own with a mixture of 1 part alkyd medium to 2 parts OMS.)

3. Define the Shapes and Paint the Sky
With opaque paint, begin to define the shapes. Paint a pale sky around the trees.

4. Add a Figure, Define the Shadows and Flesh Out the Foliage and Reflections
Add a figure on the bridge. Define the bridge stones and shadows falling over the bridge. Begin to flesh out the foliage and add reflections on the right side of the water area.

5. Continue Building and Modelling the Shapes
Expand on the foliage in the two large trees, adding thicker paint and modelling of the canopy shape. Finish the shoreline on both sides of the canvas. Paint the reflections, making sure the shapes of the reflections loosely but accurately reflect the proper shapes of the shoreline, foliage and flowering trees above the water.

6. Add Final Details

Splash some sunlight on the bridge stones and suggest the vine growing out of its crevices. Add a few well-placed zigzag ripples in the water and a small understated duck with a ripple trail behind her.

Bonus: Advantages and disadvantages of this oil painting method:

Advantage: Where particular colours are desired, this method can make it easier as the base colours are blocked in within a few minutes.

Disadvantage: Tends to lead you to paint the colours you see rather than to be adventurous and creative with colour.

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