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Starting Out

Many painters cannot remember how they acquired their skills, which were seemingly absorbed through the skin, as one learns a foreign language in childhood. Coming to painting as an adult is a very different matter, however: the white canvas can seem intimidating, the paints quickly mix into an unexpected and often muddy hue, and still that elementary exercise on the third page of the painting guide seems beyond their powers. What can be done? A few suggestions:

Jan Verkolje

1. Painting is taxing, mentally and physically. Techniques have to be learnt, requiring months or years of constant application to produce something of even modest competence. Don't despair, therefore, but do be realistic. Take it easy, proceed in stages, and set yourself targets for each stage.

2. Decide what you want to do, i.e. how much time, effort and money you can devote to the craft, setting or adjusting your sights accordingly. You'll get an idea of what's open to you within a few months of starting out, i.e. how well or otherwise you are covering the essential ground.

3. You must actually enjoy the exercise of painting. No doubt 'appetite grows with eating', but painting should be something you yearn to do every day of your life. If it's just the 'Wednesday class' at the local leisure center, then you'll get a lot of enjoyment out of working with like-minded people, but the results will probably be similar, neither particularly good nor bad.

4. You're very largely on your own. Classes, books and videos are a help — an enormous help — but painting in the end is a solitary activity, and not all aspirants have the personalities or determination needed for the long haul. You should know yourself by now.

5. We are all individuals, with different gifts and ambitions. Set yourself something that's within your capabilities, therefore, and don't worry overmuch when others seem to be streaking ahead. It's not a competition, and you will learn more from carefully working at failures than from dashing off paintings that came right first time.

Getting Down To It

Find a painting class when you've acquired the basics by working through the exercises listed in the references below. (You'll find many others through the Internet.) These not only teach the basic approaches and techniques, but help build that elusive painter's sensibility, the vague feeling that requires you to shift the apple a fraction to the right, tone its color down or add a little blue, etc.

Get everything prepared beforehand and find a slot of some hours in the day when you won't be disturbed. Like writers, you need the discipline of regular hours.

Don't push on regardless when things go wrong. Take a break, brew some coffee or whatever, relax and take a fresh look at what you've done. If necessary, scrape the work back and start again. Most painters have to do this, at least occasionally.

Start with a small number of pigments and get to know their handling and mixing properties. An amazing variety is available today, but the great masters often performed marvels with very limited palettes.

Consider mixing your own colors and preparing your own canvases. You'll save money and, more particularly, find them easier to work with.

Intersperse painting sessions with other exercises:

     charcoal or pastel sketches to appreciate tone.

     compositional ideas in your sketchpad.

     experiments in color mixing of pigments.

     study details of paintings by the great masters, contemporaries that take your eye, people that paint as you'd like to.

Read art history, particularly books with detailed analysis of individual paintings and illustrated details.

Follow blogs on and by painters. They have their bad days too, but persevere.

Further Reading

1. 'Free Oil Painting for Beginners — Introduction'. Andrew Whyte. Articles and videos. Very basic.

2. 'Oil Painting for the Absolute Beginner A Clear and Easy Guide to Successful Oil Painting' by Mark & Mary Willenbrink.

3. 'The Complete Oil Painter The Essential Reference for Beginners to Professionals' by Brian Gorst. Northern Light.

4. 'Oil Painting for the Serious Beginner: Basic Lessons in Becoming a Good Painter' by Steve Allrich. Watson-Guptill. 1996.

5. 'The Oil Painting Course You've Always Wanted: Guided Lessons for Beginners and Experienced Artists' by Kathleen Lochen Staiger. Watson-Guptill. 2006.

6. 'Oil Painting for Beginners' by Koorosh Angali. eHow Video.


Oil Painting Basics- Video 1- Choosing Art Supplies

What you need to start Oil Painting

Supplies for Beginning Oil Painting Class

How to start an oil painting How to Oil Paint

Oil & Acrylic Painting Tips : Oil Painting for Beginners

How to Paint: Top 10 Mistakes Beginner Artists Make

How to Oil Paint, Free Oil Painting lesson 1 With Michael Thompson


Oil Painting 2 (Beginning the drawing)

Oil painting for beginners: #1 "Field'



31a. 'Nature Morte aux Bocaux' by Nicolas de Stael. 1955. Detail: tones of high and equal intensity strikingly set off by absence of color.