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How To Start a Painting - Tips for Intermediate Artists

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Dragon Lady  The base layer for this painting was handprinted tissue papers collaged onto a canvas board.

Dragon Lady The base layer for this painting was handprinted tissue papers collaged onto a canvas board.

Getting Started

No matter where you are on your art journey at times it will always be daunting to stare at a blank white substrate. It is especially difficult if you are in the artist block, a stalled uninspired place, where you just can't seem to get started. Usually once you get started and you get into the painting flow the painting will just paint itself.

Suggestions to get started:

1) Paint the first layer a complementary color.

2) Just scrape excess paint off your palette, then smear on another paper or canvas

3) Utilize and collage bits and pieces

4) Repaint over your old paintings

This copy of Vermeer's Girl with the Red Hat was started with a wash of burnt umber

This copy of Vermeer's Girl with the Red Hat was started with a wash of burnt umber

Start with a complementary under/base layer

Starting with a base layer eliminates all that white staring back at you. When we talk of a base layer it can be either opaque or translucent. Many base layers are very washy, more like a glaze and often will be a mid tone range rather than very light or dramatic dark (but that is not a rule). This mid tone often helps you judge values as you continue through the painting process.

Starting with a base layer has many advantages in that many of the types of media look better the more layers you add. It doesn't have to be a smooth even tone across the entire substrate, but can be hastily applied and have random coloration across the paper or canvas. The base layer just gets you off and running.

Use these base layer advantages to enhance your paintings:

1) creates depth

2) makes the painting more cohesive

3) establishes complementary color

4) adds to temperature of the painting

5) Adds energy with another color peeking through your brushwork

Base layers can be the traditional colors of: raw or burnt umber, yellow ochre, reds, greens or mid/light toned grays. However, if you want to add pops of color peeking through, go bold with cad red, cad yellow or burnt sienna. You will be surprised at how much color can seep through your brushwork and add extra dimension to your paintings.

You can be bold or timid with your base layers, always remember in almost every media, except maybe watercolor, you can always paint a new color on the next layer. Experiment and play until you find the color look that speaks to you or helps tell the story of your painting.

See the random paint color and strokes in the background?

See the random paint color and strokes in the background?

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Haphazard Start

Paint is expensive and I like to use every bit of it. You can either use your old piece of palette paper or clean off any remaining paint onto tissue, paper, board or canvas. I use a glass palette, so for easy cleaning I just use a palette knife to scrape off the old paint and smear it on. I have to admit that many times I do have an idea of where I want to place the portrait, so I am careful where I add my smears. But you don't have to be!!! No rules!!

I work in acrylics and even if the piles have dried a bit on the palette, I rewet, scrape and smear.

Yes it looks to be a pretty big mess, but it is a fun challenge to figure out how to use it. Try turning your paper around, looking from all four sides. Look hard, can you see a figure, landscape, still life or abstract beginning? Maybe it is just a paler or white space that a portrait could easily peek from. Your subconscious will find something if you give it a try.

Charcoal/pastels on handprinted tissue paper background.

Charcoal/pastels on handprinted tissue paper background.

Collage - use those bits and pieces of paper

We all usually have magazines, junk mail, photos, old paintings, tickets, receipts, old books, etc. bits of paper stashed around our homes. Backgrounds for me have always been a nemesis, until I started collaging. I don't do traditional paper art collage for my paintings, but either handprint paper or utilize all of the above to create a solid, gradated, and/or textured background.

Some times it is a big solid piece of paper that creates my mid tone layer, other times I work the collage pieces around the face area and then paint over the seams to make it more cohesive and less obvious paper has been glued on.

It is important if you collage over the face area to try to keep it smooth - we don't want to give our subject any undeserved wrinkles. However, there are times when having the texture is an advantage, even in a facial area. Again you might have to experiment and play, but isn't that why you are creating?

We live in a creative world that is just full of options. It isn't necessary any longer to paint traditionally or realistically. Normal skin tones just aren't the norm any longer. So let yourself be free and try whatever strikes your fancy. Remember, in so much of this it is a piece of paper and can either be turned over, or, just add a layer of gesso and go at it again.

Here you can see an example of a base layer plus started with an old painting

Here you can see an example of a base layer plus started with an old painting

Use your old paintings

We all have a huge pile of paintings in our art space that are going nowhere. We painted, we conquered, we learned and are moving on. They will make an excellent starting point for your next project.

Use either white or clear gesso to paint a new clean layer. Yes, there may be some color bleed through, some bumps and globs of paint, but that texture is priceless. If texture is in the wrong place, like a big bump in the middle of her smooth cheek, scrape or sand it off, repaint with gesso and you are good to go.

There is something about the new painting result that feeds off of the old underneath. It just has more character. Also, you usually work freer than normal, with less pressure, because what do you have to lose, just a failed or unloved painting underneath - what is to ruin?

Go on, just get started!!


Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on November 06, 2020:

Thanks so much Robie, hoping things nationally get situated and the brain cells get refocused again. I am so glad you did inspire me to get writing as am finding I really enjoy it.

Robie Benve from Ohio on November 02, 2020:

Ahah, Nelvia, you are too funny. The unsuspecting world is very happy that the Jewel Nelvia has started sparkling in plain view. :) It's wonderful to know that I was the one that inspired you to start writing on Hubpages. :)

Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on October 29, 2020:

Thanks Robbie Benve, finally graduated from boot camp - what did you let loose on the unsuspecting world? So glad you mentioned this.

Robie Benve from Ohio on October 29, 2020:

There is some really awesome information here Nelvia, I love the suggestions you give. Thanks a lot for sharing your artistic expertise!

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