Absolute Beginners to Painting: 16 Commonly Asked Questions

By Marion Boddy-Evans

Looking at a great painting it can be hard to remember that every artist was an absolute beginner at some stage. But it’s true, no-one is born with a paint brush in their hand, everyone learned from scratch at some stage. This list of commonly asked questions will help you get started on your creative journey as an artist.

1. Do I Have to Know How to Draw Before I can Paint?

Traditionally if you were training as an artist you’d spend a year or two learning to draw before you touched paint. The thinking is that you’re not distracted by color while still mastering techniques such as perspective. But I believe that if you don’t like drawing, for whatever reason, there’s no reason not to jump straight into painting. Ultimately, it’s the creation of art that’s important, not the road you take to get there.

2. What Kind of Paint Should I Use?

The most common types of paint used are acrylic, oils, water-mixable oils, watercolor, and pastel. None is better or significantly easier to master than the other. Which one is right for you depends to a large extent on your personality (take the Paint Personality Quiz), whether you’re allergic to solvents, and how long you’re prepared to wait for paint to dry.

My personal recommendation is to start with acrylics because they dry quickly, mix and clean up with water, and it’s easy to paint out and hide mistakes. Acrylics can also be used on just about any surface, so you can paint on paper, canvas, or board.

3. What Brand of Paint Should I Buy?

It depends on what your budget is. I’m a great believer in buying the best quality paint you can for a price that you still feel able to experiment and ‘waste’ it. Try various brands and see which you like using. You’ll find differences in consistency for example, as well as the smell of the paint.

Color mixing with very cheap paints can be frustrating as the results turn out dull. This is because there is less pigment in such paints and more extender or filler.

4. Can I Mix Different Brands of Paint?

Yes, you can mix different brands of paint and artist’s quality and student’s quality paints. Be more cautious mixing different types of paint or using them in the same painting. For instance, you can use oil paints on top of dried acrylic paint, but not acrylic paint on top of oil paint.

5. What Paint Colors Should I Get?

For acrylics, watercolors, and oils, if you want to mix colors, start with two reds, two blues, two yellows, and a white. You want two of eachprimary color, one a warm version and one a cool. This will give you a larger range of colors when mixing than just one version of each primary.

If you don’t want to mix all your colors, also get an earth brown (burnt sienna or burnt umber), a golden earth brown (golden ocher), and a green (phthalo green).

6. Do I Really Have to Learn Color Theory?

Color is one of the fundamentals of painting and the more you know about the colors you’re using, the more you can get from it. Don’t let the word “theory” intimidate you. The fundamentals of color mixing aren’t particularly tricky to understand.

7. Should I Paint on Paper or Canvas or What?

You can paint on practically anything provided the paint will stick and provided the paint won’t rot the surface (or to use art-speak, thesupport).

Acrylic paint can be painted on paper, card, wood, or canvas, with or without a primer being used first. Watercolor can be painted on paper, card, or special watercolor canvas.

A support for oil paint needs to be primed first, otherwise the oil in the paint will eventually rot the paper or threads of the canvas. You can buy pads of paper primed for oil paper, which are perfect for doing studiesor if your storage space if limited.

8. How Many Paint Brushes Do I Need?

As few or as many as you like. if you’re painting with oils, you can have a different brush for each color as the paint won’t dry in the brush in a hurry.

I mostly use just one brush, a specifically a No.10 size Filbert with bristle hairs, rinsing it clean regularly as I’m painting. I’ve used the same shape and size for years now, replacing it as it wears down. I’ve become very familiar with exactly what it’ll do that I don’t have to think about it.

9. Where Do I Put the Paint I Intend to Use?

If you’re going to be mixing colors before you use them, you need some surface for squeezing out your paints and mixing them. The traditional choice is a palette made from a dark wood with a hole for your thumb in it that makes it easy to hold. Other options include glass and disposable paper palettes, some designed to hold and some to be on on a tabletop.

As acrylic paints dry rapidly, you can’t squeeze out a whole row of colors on a traditional wooden palette and expect them still to be usable an hour later. You’ll need to use a water-retaining palette, or only squeeze out paint as you need it.

10. How Thick Should the Paint Be?

As thick or thin as your heart desires. You can change the consistency of paint with a medium to make it thinner or thicker.

11. How Often Should I Clean a Paint Brush?

If you want your brushes to last, clean them thoroughly and completely every time you finish painting for the day. If you’re happy to replace them at regular intervals, don’t fuss over it.

12. Is It Acceptable for Brushstrokes to be Visible in a Painting?

Whether or not you leave brushstrokes visible in a painting depends entirely on whether you like it as a style of painting or not. If you don’t like visible brushstrokes, then you can use blending and glazing to eliminate all trace of them. Alternately, embrace brushstrokes as an integral part of the painting.

13. Where Should I Put the First Paint on the Canvas/Paper?

I’m afraid this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. But the good news is it doesn’t really matter because you can always paint over it or wipe it off. There are various ways to start a painting, from blocking in rough areas of color to doing a detailed underpainting in a single color. No one approach is more right than another. It’s a matter of personal preference.

As with all painting techniques, don’t assume a particular approach won’t work for you without having tried it. Neither do you have to use only one in a painting, you’re free to mix ‘n match approaches if you wish.

14. How Long Does it Take to Finish a Painting?

“Nothing can be rushed. It must grow, it should grow of itself, and if the time ever comes for that work — then so much the better!”

These words come from the artist Paul Klee, writing in his On Modern Artin 1948, but true no matter what era you’re painting in. A painting takes as long as it takes. It’s a bit like the proverbial piece of string… it depends on what you’re doing and longer is generally better than shorter, but not always.

15. How Do I Know If a Painting is Really Finished?

Rather stop too soon than too late. It’s easier to later do something extra to a painting than to undo something if you overwork it. When I find myself “just quickly” fixing a little thing here and a little thing there, I know it’s past time to stop.

Put the painting to one side and don’t do anything to it for a week. Leave it somewhere you can see it regularly, sit and stare at it critically, but resist the urge to fiddle until you’re sure what you’re going to do will be beneficial.

16. May I Paint a Photograph?

It depends on whose photograph it is. If it’s one of your own, no problem obviously. If the photographer has expressly given permission for it to be used, fine. But simply taking any old photograph and creating a painting from it without checking the copyright of the photo isn’t fine. Like paintings, all photos are automatically copyrighted.

There’s also a difference between using a photo for reference (e.g. to see how a bird arranges its toes as it sits on a branch) and copying a photo (i.e. whole elements of the photo are reproduced such as the branch the bird is sitting on, the clouds in the photo, and the angle of the light).






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