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Things to Consider Before Starting a Painting

Updated on March 6, 2019
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Don't start painting until you have made these decisions. Things to consider as you get ready to paint.
Don't start painting until you have made these decisions. Things to consider as you get ready to paint. | Source

Having a Subject to Paint Is Only the Beginning

Planning your painting is not as easy as it may seem.

There are so many variables and decisions in the process of mixing colors and applying paint to the canvas, that it's really a great idea to do some prior problem solving and make things a little simpler through planning.

If you jump into a painting with no prep work, you may find yourself stuck with a bad composition, wrong colors, or wrong values and spend much time fighting to make it better.

Furthermore, you have to deal with what I call head-hand disconnection. Most of us have a "vision" of the final result in our head, but somehow, going from the mind, through the arm, the hand and the brush, and finally to the canvas, the outcome gets distorted and we end up with a painting very different from the initial idea.

Taking the time to draw thumbnails and planning colors and values of your composition will make a huge difference on how your painting turns out.

Good Results Require Prep Work

From drawing thumbnails to planning colors and values of your composition, the prep work will make a huge difference on how your painting turns out.

What Do You Want Your Painting to Look Like?

How your painting will look depends on what brings you to start this particular painting.

In fact no matter what the subject of your painting is, you can make it look the way you want.

Before embarking in a new painting, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I painting?
  • Am I trying to express my creativity experimenting new techniques or a new style?
  • Do I want to represent a place or objects that I love?
  • What kind of mood am I trying to convey?
  • What style paintings do I love to look at: realistic, impressionistic, cubist, abstract, or other?
  • What kind of colors do I want to use?

Depending on the answers to these and more questions that you may have, your painting will look a lot different.

Questions to Ask Yourself as You Are Planning Your Design

There are so many decision to be made throughout the painting process. You are better off if you are able to start with a clear plan in mind.

Below are some of the things you should think about before you even touch any paint.

From the most obvious:

  • What will your subject be?

To the more specific:

  1. How are you cropping the scene?
  2. What is your focal point?
  3. What will be the value structure, or armature of the painting?
  4. What color scheme will work the best?
  5. Are you starting from white canvas or a ground color? What ground color works best for the chosen subject and color scheme?
  6. Are there elements you want to move around or eliminate from the picture to improve the composition?

1. How to Crop?

Look at your subject and try to figure out the best way to frame it, what to include, and where to place the various elements.

Cropping allows you to re-frame your subject and obtain a picture that is much more visually pleasing.

The most common way to look for different options is using an adjustable viewfinder makes it easy to isolate various portions of an image. You can buy one, or you may use two L-shaped pieces of cardboard, about 2” wide, you can overlap them to frame various parts of the image, in different proportions, until you find what really speaks to you about that particular subject.

You can overlap them to form different sizes and shapes of openings.

Quick Thumbnail Drawings Help Planning Values and Composition

To help you make cropping and placement decisions, draw several thumbnails with possible options of different compositional crops. Draw the thumbnails on paper, keep them small, 1 or 2 square inches per side, in the same proportions of your support.

Pay special attention to where you place dark and light masses in the composition of your drawings.

For more info on how to create thumbnail studies, see this article about how to make thumbnail value studies of your paintings.

2. What Is the Focal Point?

The focal point is the center of interest of an artwork.

Despite the name, it's recommended to keep it away from the actual center of the painting, and it is always the most important part.

Contrast, structure and color are three things that help define the focal point.

Plan the strongest contrast, with the darkest dark and lightest light to be on your focal point.

In some paintings there are more than one focal point, often one main star and two minor centers of interest. This helps holding the viewer's interest and allowing the eye to bounce around and move throughout the scene.

3. What Value Structure Will the Painting Have?

Value is more important than color when it comes to visual artwork.

Make your values guide the eyes of the viewer moving around the painting.

Arrange darks and lights so that they don’t compete with your focal point.

Some thumbnail drawings on my sketchbook
Some thumbnail drawings on my sketchbook | Source

Planning Tip:

Don't start painting until your composition and value masses are planned.

However, if you have the tendency to be very detailed, planning your painting might take a long time. Try to simplify and avoid too much detail.

4. What Color Scheme Will Be Best?

Your painting needs a color scheme. Decide the one you want to use.

If you don’t start a painting with a specific color scheme in mind, you may end up using colors that fight with each other, instead of working together for a successful picture.

When in doubt, paint from a limited palette and mix all the colors you need from those you have available. At the end you'll have a painting with a more harmonious look than using a different tube for each color.

Here is the link to my article about painting with oils from a limited palette.

Beautiful color palette and composition in this painting by Monet.
Beautiful color palette and composition in this painting by Monet. | Source

5. Ground Color or White Canvas?

When you are ready to start painting, I recommend toning your surface first. Pick a color that complements your color scheme. When in doubt, you can use burnt sienna or yellow ochre. Once the ground paint is dry, draw your composition on that colored base.

I like to leave bits of the ground color being seen here and there throughout the painting, it will unify the whole painting.

You can tone your canvas with acrylics and then paint with oils on top.

Why toning?

Painting on white canvas is more challenging than on colored ground.

The white of the canvas is the lightest value you can possibly have in your painting. At each brushstroke the value of your paint is competing with that initial white, potentially throwing off your value composition because the comparison scale is off.

Also, a colored ground will make your painting feel finished sooner. You'll avoid the problem of having blank canvas peak through between brush strokes, telling you that you are not done yet. You can stop when you please.

Painting Is an Expression of Your Inner Self

If you are able to relax and fully enjoy the process, it is already a success, no matter how the artwork turns out.

6. Are There Elements That are Best Left Out or Moved?

Your main goal is to create a painting with a strong composition that carries the eyes all around the picture plane.

Sometimes this requires eliminating or editing certain elements in order to improve the composition.

Other times you need to add things in or change proportions, in order to balance out the composition.

Feel free to make any changes that are good for the painting. Don't be a slave of the reference photo.

Happy Painting!

Most of all, don't forget to have fun! Enjoy your process, the beauty of painting is all about having a fun trip, no matter what the destination might be.

Even if you end up a very disappointing final painting, if the process was fun and maybe you learned something on the way, it is all worth it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Robie Benve


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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Neinahpets, Thanks a lot for your awesome feedback and your support. :)

    • Neinahpets profile image


      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi Robie, thank you for this great article. There isn't anything else I would add to it, and there are great things to take from it. I'm saving it for future reference and sharing it with others when I begin putting up articles about art (I am an illustrator). Thank you for sharing with everyone. Voted awesome ,useful, beautiful and up! :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Thank you Dbro for reaching out with an email and letting me know this hub did not have a comment box. You're awesome! :)


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