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How to Start a Painting

October 20, 2010

I recently began teaching a beginner’s painting class. I started with the intention of teaching the very basics, colour theory, colour mixing, etc. After demonstrating some techniques, I had my students get started on a painting to practice their new skills.

I soon realized my mistake! Most people didn’t know where to start.

Starting a painting is a lot less daunting than it looks. The most important thing to remember is to start general and get more specific; don’t rush into the details!

To start a painting, I use a monochromatic under painting. This is a thin wash that blocks out the major shapes and values. I would recommend using a neutral colour like sienna or umber.

Here I am working with a simple still life composition with a single light source. This gives me a good range of values to paint.


Using a pencil, I draw the simplest and most basic shapes that I see in my reference.


Next, I use a wide, flat brush to apply paint to only the darkest areas. I’m looking for the parts of my image that are in dark shadow. I am using burnt sienna, slightly watered to create a bit of a wash. At this point, I’m not paying too much attention to the particulars of the fabric or the squash. You might find it helpful to squint at your reference to identify the large areas of shadow.


Now I’ve added some more water to my wash to thin it out even more and make it lighter. Still using a wide, flat brush, I can start to block in the midtones. Here I am looking for everything that isn’t a highlight. At this point, you are ready to apply colour.


This is my basic under painting. It identifies the shapes in my composition and provides me a map of the shadows, midtones and highlights. It provides the foundation for your painting, onto which you can apply colour. It is also intentionally simple. One of the biggest mistakes a new painter can make is trying to get too detailed too quickly.

Always start a painting with a large brush, which will help curb any temptation to do detailed work. A rule of thumb is to use one size bigger a brush than you think you need. As you progress through the painting, you can switch to smaller brushes.

Starting with a monochromatic underpainting is a great way to get past that first step of getting paint on the canvas. Often, the first brushstroke is the hardest.

In Summary:

– use a large, flat brush

– do an under painting

– use a neutral wash

– block in the basic shapes

– look for shadows, midtones and highlights


From → Creativity, Painting

One Comment
  1. Mashi permalink

    In my class we’re painting some portraits with gouche right now. And when I watched one of my friends working with one, I realized that she used the same method as this.

    But I like to work with small parts and doing details so I took a very small brush and painted everything bit by bit. Maybe it’s not so good because it takes more time… but that’s how I work 🙂

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