Today, I wanted to share some of the practical tips I have found most helpful on my painting journey. Having taken lessons and workshops with many different teachers, I came to realize that almost all of them tell variations of the same things, so this here is not revolutionary news. However, I noticed that each one of my instructors had a special knack on explaining one particular thing that didn’t come across as clearly with the other ones. So maybe, it is worth repeating some of the basics that might hopefully be useful to somebody else.
When you squint, you loose all of the details and value families tend to merge, thus making a rather dark + a quite dark + a very dark ONE large dark family. This, in turn, makes it easier to identify the shapes of your object. If you are very short sighted, you could as well take your glasses of…
Close one eye
If you close one eye, the image in front of you will stop being 3-dimensional and this makes it easier to identify the actual form and translate it onto paper or canvas. Make sure to always close the same eye – at least while working on the same picture.
Upside down or in the mirror
Turning your painting upside down or viewing it in a mirror makes it way easier to identify the parts that do not work. In a workshop I attended, one day all the students, many of them complete beginners, painted copies from reproductions upside-down and the outcome was just amazing! One strange variation of this method that works for me, is to take a picture of the painting and look at the photograph instead of the original. I have not the slightest clue as to why this is so, but I guess the photograph creates a sort of distance to the original painting.
Isn’t it enough to worry about the forms in front of you without having to worry about what is not even there? Well, no… The negative space (i.e. the “space” or “air” around your subject) can have very distinct forms that might help you a lot. Imagine a young lady resting with her head leaning on her hand – her arm will probably bend around a pretty distinct negative shape of a rather longish triangle. If you get this form right first, then it will be much easier to position the arm + hand.
Where to start?
If not all, at least many roads lead to Rome… So here are just some options:
Start a rough outline, then put marks on the darkest dark, the lightest light and the most vibrant color*. From there, you can compare all the other values and colors.
*This tip applies for oil or acrylic paintings and might not work for watercolor, where you work from light to dark.
For figure paintings:
Find the middle line first and see where the weight of your model is resting. Draw or paint a light line across this middle line and construct from there.
Imagine your model in a bag and draw… the bag! From this overall form, construct your painting.
Push backward, pull forward
If you want to create a sense of space, push the background… backward. You can do so by using cooler colors and by loosening the edges of your painting there. Reversely, warm colors, strong color contrasts and sharp edges tend to jump forwards. Keep your strongest contrast for your focal point (point of interest).
Forget me not – the background’s complaint
Having spoilt countless pictures that might have been less bad without this mistake, I really recommend this: do not forget the background and start painting it right from the start. Even if you make changes later, everything will grow together nicely if you work on the whole picture all the time. This applies to the “hair problem”, too: when painting portraits, start to paint the hair right away, otherwise it ends up looking like a wig.
Less is more
This was a hard one to swallow for a rather baroque personality like me… but unfortunately, it is true: a limited palette makes for an overall more harmonious painting. This does not necessarily mean you have to paint with only five or six colors, but once you have decided on what to use, stick to it. I have noticed that every time I added a new color when my painting was well on its way, it sort of “jumped out of the picture” and added a disturbing element to it. Then again, this could of course be done in purpose…
As said before, these tips are not an invention of mine – I just put down those that have helped me. (A special thank-you here goes to all of my teachers at Munich’s Akthof).
If you have other tips that have worked for you or if you have questions, I’d love to hear from you!