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Learning to paint at home

Updated on April 22, 2011

Vital keys to success

As mentioned in my previous article (So you don't have a creative bone in your body?), painting is a skill and there are some fundamental requirements to learning any new skill. Fear not, you already have these basic probably learned them from your all that is required now is to develop and refine them.

These requirements I speak of are patience, a passion for learning (or more specifically a passion for all things creative) and a little instruction from somebody wiser or more experienced than yourself. These three qualities form a lethal combination when when they are applied to learning any new skill and are especially important for aspiring artists.

Does this mean that you should go and enroll yourself in local art classes or at the nearest art college?

Not at all. Well, not unless they are free lessons! I would like to share my experiences with you as I myself a "self-taught" artist who has gone on to develop my own business from painting without ever setting foot in an art class. It is achievable. Allow me to clarify one thing before we get started - when I say that I am "self-taught" what I really mean is that I taught myself using the information I gleaned from books, magazines etc. You will still require instruction - but know that you can find a wealth of free instruction from online tutorials to your local library.

Let me explain first of all why you should learn to paint and the benefits you will reap before I give you some practical advice about learning to paint at home. If you are already convinced, by all means pass over the next section and skip straight to the nitty gritty.

Swiss Mountains

This was on of my earliest paintings from which I began to develop a number of new skills. I found the scene (Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland) in an atlas.
This was on of my earliest paintings from which I began to develop a number of new skills. I found the scene (Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland) in an atlas. | Source

The benefits of learning to paint...

Have you ever watched a young toddler, perhaps parked in a pram, positively hypnotised at the sight of a tree blowing in the wind? What's the fascination? As adults we are to concerned with our work, the mortgage and money and our marriages to even notice. We drive past that tree everyday on the way to work or to run an errand. It's green. It has a brown trunk. Right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The baby see's it. An artist can see. And you can learn to see it too.

The baby is hypnotised by the tree because she see's it as it truly is...a mixture of hundreds of colours (as the light hits each leaf differently), each twisting and swirling with every gust of wind. The trunk is not brown...see how the sunset turns the bark gold and then pink?

Learning to paint will teach you see the world literally in a whole new light. An artist captures light in the form of colour and so must learn to pick up on these subtle differences. Every time I step outdoors I marvel at the shape and colour of the clouds...when was the last time you looked up? It's something that is taken for granted everyday and yet clouds are vital to life on earth.

Convinced yet? Then lets get you started.

Practical advice for getting started - STEP 1

Now that you are thoroughly convinced, lets get you started.

You're already well on your way. By researching and reading articles like these you are expanding your knowledge about painting. Continue to do this. Truly I say to you, the day you stop asking questions is the day you stop learning.

Visit your library. Google "how to paint" (or how to paint with oils/with acrylics/with watercolour, painting for dummies/for beginners/ for children, painting tutorials, free painting lessons online etc). Visit your local newsagent and purchase a painting mag (my local store sells a fine art mag which includes traceable templates, a list of equipment/colours that you'll need and detailed step-by-step instructions, fully illustrated of course). See if you can find any painting books at your local Sunday markets. Talk to other artists, in person or in forums. There is a wealth of free or cheap advice out there, but be warned; every artist has their own way of doing things and what works for them may not work for you.

STEP 2 - Research Tools and Terminology

Familiarize yourself with painting terms and tools of the trade. Floating, impasto, tinting, toning, glazing, washing, learning what these terms mean you will also learn how to do them. A good tutorial (either a video or written) will tell you to "float" one colour on top of another and them show you exactly how to thin the paint and apply it the your shadows.

There are many sites that have a glossary or dictionary of painting terms.

You should google "dictionary..." or "glossary of painting terms" and find you own favourite, some are very descriptive whilst other simply summarise technical terms. I suggest because it is relatively balanced and very easy to navigate through.

Tools of the trade...there are hundreds.They all cost money not all of them will benefit you. Be careful when adding things to your paint - not everything is durable and it may cause the colour to change or fade in time. I specialise in acrylics so I will give you my list of essentials (you still need to do your own homework and find out what's right for you) but this will differ from oil and watercolour.

STEP 3 The bare minimum tools of the trade and how to use them

STAY-WET-PALETTE Make your own with a large flat tupperware lid, polystyrene tray (like the ones buy my donuts on!) or a plate. Layer with paper towels (or ask your butcher for some of the absorbent sponges that they put on the trays when packaging meat, clean ones of course) and then with some greaseproof paper. I find that some brands are better than others, I've learned to avoid baking paper. Black and Gold greaseproof paper works best for me. Why do you need a stay-wet-palette? Acrylic paint reacts with the air and begins to dry the moment it leaves the tube. This palette allows the paint to absorb the water from underneath and stay moist. Simply add upturn the base of the tupperware when you're finished and attach it to the lid - it's ready for next time. Do not allow the paper towels to dry out, continue to top-up on demand (I have kept the same paint on my palette wet for days doing this).

A SUPPORT OF YOUR CHOICE - Stretched canvas is considered more professional, canvas boards are the cheaper alternative. I recommend starting with the boards, you can learn to stretch your own canvas later down the road.

PAINT - Acrylic paint comes in both student and professional quality and you really do get what you pay. Base your decision on how serious you are about learning to paint. A higher quality paint has better coverage, is hardier and is easier to manipulate. You can thicken thin paint with impasto ( a special medium designed to thicken the paint whilst retaining the quality). Some paints like Mattise Structure come with impasto like texture. You can also thin paint with mediums such as "Flow" by Jo Sonja's. Using water to thin the paint is acceptable but water breaks down the structures between the particles of paint thereby weakening it. Use with caution.

They say that you can mix any and every colour from the three primary colours, black and white. True. However colour mixing and manipulation has a very steep learning curve and coupled with trying to learn basic painting techniques it can be overwhelming and discouraging - I wouldn't want you to quit before you even begin. I think a beginner will have better results with buying many more colours. There are hundreds, thousands of tube colours available, I suggest that you look for natural shade and a vibrant shade of each main colour (blue, green, yellow, red, orange, purple), a few shades of brown (I use a lot of burnt sienna and burnt umber), black and a huge bottle of white!

A book such as Colour Mixing Recipe's by William Powell will be invaluable. Some basic principles to remember are lighten colours by adding white, brighten with yellow and very importantly darken with a speck (pin head sized) of the opposite colour - that is, the colour that is opposite on the colour wheel. Adding black to darken yellow for example makes an ugly shade of green. Adding a speck of purple darkens the yellow naturally. Begin with the main colour and add others a little at a time. For example, to mix pink, start with white and slowly add red. To start with red and add white will leave you with a huge puddle of pink by the time you get the shade you desire.

BRUSHES - once again, you get what you pay for, if you want to buy the cheapest ones on the market you can also invest in some tweezers because you'll spend much of your time picking stray hairs from your canvas. Buy the most expensive brushes that your budget will permit. Sable bushes are the most desirable by professionals but the quality of synthetic brushes has come a long way.

Familiarise yourself with different brushes and what they are used for. You need both flat and round brushes (Numbers 2,4,6,8,10) and some small linear brushes (they are long and thin) for line work and details. There are many more brushes in every shape and size you can imagine, you can invest in them later on. A fan shaped brush is good for blending the edges of colours into each other creating nice shadows and soft edges (soft means that there is no definite "hard" edge where one colour stops and another starts).

TIP: The biggest mistake many beginners make is starting a painting with the fine details. Block in the colours (cover the canvas roughly) with the biggest brush suitable then slowly build up the shadows and highlights on top of that first base colour with your smaller brushes.. Little highlights in a painting capture our attention first but that doesn't mean that they were painted first. In fact, they are usually always the artists finishing touches.

EXTRA'S - I haven't used a palette knife since my first month of painting (I use the top or side of my paintbrush to mix paint) and I have already showed you how to make your own palette. There's a lot to be said about having the right tool for the job but not every tool on the market is going to be neccesary - the master painters of old got by just fine, didn't they?

Having said that there is a variety of other tools that I can't live without and I suggest that you purchase them at your own pace:

Retarder - slows the drying time of acrylics and also thins the paint making it easy to blend. It can be stirred into the paint on your palette or applied directly to the canvas. (You would use this to blend shadows or blend yellow, red and purple sunsets)

Flow - for thinning thick acrylic paint. You can add a few drops the your paint to make it easy to spread or add heaps making a watery paint. For example, a very thin reddish brown can be used to deepen the shadows on yellow area's. This technique is called floating or glazing in the oil world. This is the better alternative to water as it has been designed to thin the painr without damaging the molecules that binds it both together and to your canvas.

Colour Mixing Recipe's by William F. Powell - this book comes with a list of three to seven colours at the top of the page and about 15 samples of the colours you can mix from them. Each sample has a recipe (mix 2 part yellow, one part white) and a comprehensive list of subjects at the back of the book. For example, you can look up the word onion and it will direct you to the recipe you need to paint an onion. is one of the many websites that has recipe's available online. They require a membership (it's free) and also have a colour learning centre where you can learn more about how we see colour and colour theory.

Start with simple paintings before you set your sights higher.

Be realistic and start small. You may like to start with a familiar image from your home such as the simple paintings found on tea cups, quilt panels, greeting cards, books, tissue boxes and other household items like this embroided motiff.
Be realistic and start small. You may like to start with a familiar image from your home such as the simple paintings found on tea cups, quilt panels, greeting cards, books, tissue boxes and other household items like this embroided motiff.


As an artist you will soon learn that you have the ability to move mountains. You have the ability block out the sun - so when you are staring at a blank canvas, why is it so difficult to get started?

You will find inspiration everywhere from birthday cards to painting magazines and tutorials. Copying another artists work can teach you valuable lesson as you teach yourself to paint but be warned - you must never sell your copy as an original and there are very hefty penalties for doing so. If you do indeed chose to learn this way, you should always sign the back of the canvas with "by [your name] - Styled in the fashion of [original artist]."

It's just the right thing to do - you would hate to see your own work being passed of as mine.

There are those who thoroughly object to "copying" another artists work. In my opinion, many master painters of old learned to paint this way.

When you feel confident enough to design your own original work of art, it's best to sketch some thumbnails on a piece of paper and test different layouts. Compare a landscape view to portrait view. Move objects closer and further away. I then like to lightly sketch my draft on transfer paper. It's easy to move around the canvas to find the best position and it's easy to rub out a faint pencil line. Other artists use thinned paint to mark the canvas, others like to draw directly onto the canvas. It's your opinion that matters here, there's no right or wrong way.

It's best to block in large area's with midtones first then darken the shadows and lighten the highlights. The time tested method is to start with the largest brush and work you way down to the smallest. You'll figure this out as you go. It may seem awkward at first but it's the fastest way to work.

There's a lot more to planning a painting than just coming up with a nice picture. Consider a bedroom full of the most stylish décor. Now imagine that the colours and patterns of that décor clash terribly. Kind of detracts from the overall picture doesn't it?

Once you have found a subject that is worth your time, you need to consider a colour scheme that will compliment it. You need to do this before you begin. Only lay out the colours that you presume you will need on your palette - if you put every colour on your palette you will be tempted to use them all. Very few people ever even realise that Rembrandt rarely ever used blue!


STEP 5 - Trial & Error

There is no substitute for practise. Start small: small canvas, simple designs. I say this because I don't want you to dream big, fall short and quit. There's room to dream big later...after you have experienced that satisfaction of mastering some simple paintings.

Colour theory, mixing and manipulation is an art in it's own right and the more you learn about it the faster you will learn to paint high quality art.

Teaching yourself to paint has the benefits of learning at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home or garden. There is nobody to judge you, nobody to compare to. Nobody to criticize your work. This may be appealing to some but at times I wished I had somebody to share notes with and troubleshoot with. Having said that there are hundreds of painting forums where you can seek specific instruction from somebody more experienced from yourself.

In summary...

So you now own a basic understanding of what is required as an artist. I won't lie, there is an incredible amount of trial and error involved with learning to paint, even under the guidance of a tutor. Teaching yourself to paint has the benefits of allowing you to grow your own unique techniques and styles without being influenced by a tutor and at the end of the day you will have a better understanding of what to avoid and why.

Some will take to painting more readily than others but it is a skill than anyone can learn and it soon becomes second nature.

My strongest advice to you is to continue asking questions and you will continue to find answers, you will continue to learn new techniques, new tricks and continue to reap the benefits of painting.

If you care discuss a problem you are facing please don't hesitate to add your comments or contact me, I will be happy to point you in the right direction  .


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Posts like this make the inenertt such a treasure trove

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Fantastic hub, looking forward to come back and see your new posts. Thank you.

      My art gallery

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      You definitely know your niche! Great Hub! You are very talented.



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