Learn how to paint

Like most creative pursuits, painting has many benefits: it can help to sharpen motor skills, improve memory and concentration, and foster emotional growth. Using some of our extra time at home to learn a new craft can be very rewarding – and because painting is so meditative, it can help alleviate stress and anxiety too. 

You don’t need any special kind of talent to paint, and you don’t even need to be able to draw. All you need to paint is enthusiasm and a bit of patience. With that in mind, here are five tips for anyone looking to start their painting journey.

1. Pick your paint

The first step is deciding what type of paint you want to use. There are three main types of paint, watercolours, oils and acrylics. The type you want to paint with is entirely up to you, and you might already know that you like the specific texture of oil painting, or the gentle qualities that are common in watercolours. You may want to play around with all three to see which one you like best – but in general, because it’s quite easy to use and dries quickly, acrylic paint is usually recommended for beginners. But let’s look at the main differences between each type of paint.

Oil paint

Oil paint is the most traditional paint to use – the paint beloved by the ‘Old Masters’. It’s very durable and finished paintings have a glossy-look, and the rich, deep colours maintain their intensity once dry. Because oil paints dry slowly, you can develop paintings gradually and give yourself plenty of time to blend colours. It’s also easy to paint over oils without disturbing the layers below. However, oil paints are considered quite high maintenance. The paints can be expensive, and they require additional solvents for clean-up. Because the paint itself also contains solvents, you’d need to ensure you always paint in a well-ventilated room, and keep paints out of reach of children or pets.

To find out more about oil painting, and see whether it’s right for you, have a watch of this video:

Watercolour paints

Watercolours are another traditional paint. You can use diluted paint (a ‘wash’) to create translucent layers of colour, which can give the painting a hazy, dream-like quality. Watercolours come in liquid forms in tubes, or set in blocks, and dry pretty quickly – and you can also reactivate dried watercolour paints by rewetting them, meaning you can work on a painting years after you’ve finished it. Because watercolour paints are cheap, convenient and easy to clean up, they’re popular with beginners. However, because they’re quite transparent, it’s hard to hide any mistakes, and some new painters struggle with adding the right amount of water, ending up with soggy paintings.

Have a look at this watercolour painting come to life to see if the technique looks like something you might enjoy.

Acrylic paint

Acrylic paint only became available in the 1950s, so it’s considered the most modern choice. Acrylic paints are very versatile; you can paint with them thickly (impasto) like oil paints, or use them thinly and sparingly like watercolours. Acrylics are recommended for beginners because they dry quickly, are flexible, can be cleaned with water and soap, and can be easily painted over once dry. Acrylic paint is water-resistant, so it works well for murals. And because it works as a glue, it’s also good for creating collages – although it can be used on almost any surface.

Check out some acrylic painting techniques in the video below to see if it appeals to you.

2. Buy your art supplies

Once you’ve decided which type of paint to use, the next step is purchasing your supplies. It’s always a good idea to go to your local art store, if you can, and have a chat with an advisor there. Cass Art is the UK’s leading art supplier and has shops throughout the UK. If you can’t get to a physical Cass Art store, you can purchase from the online store and ask any questions over the phone.

There are two types of quality (and price) when it comes to paints and other art supplies: ‘student’ and ‘professional/artist’. The differences in quality are significant, and while you may think that student paint will be fine while you’re learning, do bear in mind that the lower quality and pigment make it harder to achieve vivid, clean colours – and you might feel disheartened if your paintings look dark or gloomy. If you’re conscious of budget, however, it’s fine to begin with student products while you see if painting is for you. Cass Art sells both student and professional products, and Amazon also have a good selection of art supplies at varying prices.

The type of paint you choose will affect which products you buy, but in general, the only things you need to have at the start of your painting journey are:

● An easel to hold your panting; this should be adjustable by height and angle. Painting at an easel allows you to stand upright, which helps to keep perspective accurate and gives you more space to move your arms, shoulders and hands. Easels also remove the need to keep looking up, as you’d have to do if you painted at a desk or table. An easel should be compact and lightweight if you want to be able to carry it around, but if it will be staying put, a sturdier easel might be more suitable.

Canvas, if you’re using acrylic or oil paints – these are usually made from cotton, linen or canvas. If you’re using watercolours, it’s best to purchase some watercolour paper: normal printing paper is thin and will soon go soggy.

● A palette, to mix up colours easily and cleanly. There are lots of different types of palettes – safety glass, plexiglass, wood, plastic etc. and which you prefer is simply down to personal preference.

Brushes that are suitable for your chosen paint. Most beginners use synthetic brushes as they’re cheaper and easier to use. It’s advisable to get a selection of brushes – e.g small, large, flat, round, etc. You can find out more about brush types here.

Paints. Beginners often find buying a painting set, rather than individual paints, can be more cost effective. Have a look at some watercolour paint sets, acrylic paint sets and oil paint sets.

Solvents (for cleaning oil paints). Soap and water will do for watercolours and acrylics.

● Paper towels, for cleaning your brush in between strokes.

3. Gain an understanding of painting fundamentals

Before you set up your easel and paints , it can be helpful to get an understanding of the fundamentals of art and painting. Without knowledge of different painting techniques , you might not improve as quickly as you’d like, so it’s worth putting in some time to ensure you’re learning efficiently. The pillars of painting that can benefit all beginners are colour, composition, brushwork and technique.

Colour

In painting, colour is more than just red, blue or green – colour encompasses hue, saturation and value. Hue relates to where a colour is placed on the colour wheel: yellow, orange and pink are hues. Saturation means how deep or intense a colour is, and value relates to how dark or light the colour is. Many beginners are reluctant to get stuck into colour mixing (also called “colour theory”, but this is something you should ideally try to embrace early on. Being able to create different variations in hue will provide you with endless painting possibilities. You might also find that you particularly enjoy painting with certain colours, which will help you discover your personal painting style. You can find out more about colour theory here.

Composition

Composition is about what you want your painting to say, and how you’re going to say it. You can view it as the message behind your painting – and bear in mind that this message doesn’t have to be at all profound. Your message could be you showing the way that the light falls into your garden, or how vivid the colours are in your fruit bowl. Before you start to paint, you might want to think about how your strokes, shades, colours and lines will come alive – and it might be helpful to look at how other artists start and develop their paintings.

Composition techniques vary from artist to artist, and you may find one works especially well for you. Some artists begin the painting process by lightly sketching out the composition on canvas first, then filling it in with colour, starting with the main areas and working out towards the smaller ones. Other artists prefer starting from flat patches of colour, or working in layers and building it up. There’s no right or wrong – it’s all about trial and error and seeing what works for you. You can find out more about painting composition here.

Brushwork

Brushwork refers to the physical marks left by your brush on your painting. Though it’s often an unobserved part of painting, brushwork is very important – it’s what makes a painting look like a painting, rather than a drawing, photograph or a digital image. Once you master the art of brushwork you can use it as a key component of your paintings, just as it is in the work of artists like Van Gogh. When brushwork is skilled, people will admire the way the paint has been moved around, rather than just how the colours are mixed, or the details created. You can find out more about different types of brushwork here.

Technique

Technique relates to how well you’re able to paint, and how you do it. Good technique will come with time and experience, but it’s always beneficial to pick up good habits from the start. Bad habits can be hard to shake once you’ve got used to them. To develop a good technique, it’s advisable to watch artists paint. YouTube has lots of tutorial videos on painting technique, so simply search “technique” alongside your chosen paint medium and see what comes up. It can help to pay careful attention to how the artist holds their brush, how they mix paints, how they apply the paint, etc.

 

4. Painting best practice

Now you’re more familiar with the fundamentals of painting, it’s time to get practicing. But what are the best ways to start out? Have a read of some of the most important tips for painting best practice.

Paint from life. You might think painting from a photo makes more sense, as the image you’re looking at is unchangeable. But painting from life is a much better way to learn. Firstly, it enables you to translate the three-dimensional reality of what you’re seeing onto a two-dimensional canvas or piece of paper, rather than simply copying from an already-flat photo. Secondly, painting from life allows you to refine your observational skills and become aware of nuances in colour, shade and shape – just like a true artist.

Work on your drawing. You don’t actually have to be able to draw in order to paint well – particularly if you’re interested in abstract art, or paintings where colour or brushwork are the focus, not the objects or subjects in the painting. However, working on your drawing skills can be helpful for boosting your confidence and helping you understand some fundamentals of art, like composition. If you want to paint with a degree of realism, you may find it helps to practice drawing first, and learn how to first convey things like light and shadows with a pencil before moving onto paint. If you’d like to find out how to improve your drawing, you might want to read our drawing guide.

Find inspiration. You’ve set up your easel and got out your paints – now what? Fear of a blank canvas can seem overwhelming, which is why finding your inspiration before you start is always a good idea for new painters. Nature is often the best source of inspiration, but if getting out into nature isn’t a possibility, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found in your own home: a vase of flowers on your kitchen table, your cat sleeping up on the sofa, a tall tree in your garden. For beginners, it’s a good idea to choose something simple, but also not to shy away from colour. If you’re not inspired by objects or scenes in your home, you might find looking through old photos inspiring.

Experiment with different styles. When you first start out, you may not have any idea of what you want to paint, which colours you like best or which brushstrokes you want to try. This is why playing around is such an important part of the painting process – because if you don’t have an ‘artistic voice’ you might find your paintings lack meaning. A good way to discover what you enjoy is to try painting a simple still-life in a few different ways. You might want to try a brushstroke you learned about in a YouTube video, or try to create the composition of the painting based on the style of another painter. Once you know which style of painting is your favourite, you can start personalising your learning.

Set specific goals. Once you’re confident with mixing and applying your paint, try to set goals for specific elements of painting, like composition or colour mixing. If you’re unhappy with how a colour turned out in a painting, aim to improve the hue in the next; if you find your brush strokes are uninspiring, try some more dramatic brushwork in your next painting. By breaking up the complexity of painting into bite size chunks, you can make the whole process seem more manageable.

Celebrate your achievements. Many beginners are their own worst critics, focusing on perceived faults, or comparing their work to other artists. But remember that most artists don’t display their early paintings, and the work that is shared is almost always the best work of artists who have practiced for years. Whenever you start to criticise your artwork, try to find something you like – a strong brushstroke perhaps, or a vibrant colour. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Remember the Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted in a day!

5. Don’t stop learning

When you’re starting out, painting can seem much harder than it looks. The good news is that the more you play around with paints and painting techniques, the quicker you’ll improve. However, if you want to delve deeper into the learning process, there are plenty of ways to do so. Social distancing restrictions mean that actually attending art classes or courses may be more difficult than usual  right now, but there are plenty of ways you can receive expert guidance from home.

Skillshare offers free painting classes for watercolour painters: you can learn to paint watercolour flowers, or learn to paint with layered washes. YouTube also has hundreds of free videos that help you get to grips with different painting techniques and allow you to become more confident with your brush. You can learn the basics of oil painting with artist Lena Danya, brush up (pun intended!) on your watercolour techniques with Mr. Otter Art Studio, or learn how to mix acrylic paints with Will Kemp Art School.

For more in-depth, structured teaching, you might want to consider paying for a painting course. We offer a selection of painting classes and courses on our own site that are ideal for beginners. You can learn acrylic painting techniques for landscape art, get a comprehensive introduction to watercolour painting, or learn how to layer up oil paints like a pro. There’s something for every artist.

Final thoughts…

Painting can be a challenging skill to develop and takes a while to master, but remember it’s not about perfection – it’s about creativity. In many ways, the finished painting isn’t what matters; what matters is how you feel as you paint. If you enjoy the process and learn from it, then it’s a success – no matter how the painting itself looks. If you’re not happy with a painting, just consider it a first draft, and part of the learning process. Because painting is about self-expression, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, and like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you’ll become.

Have you recently taken up painting? We’d love to see your creations! Please send images of your paintings to [email protected] or leave us a comment below.

Links with an * by them are affiliate links which help Rest Less stay free to use as they can result in a payment or benefit to us. You can read more on how we make money here.

2 thoughts on “Learn how to paint

  1. Avatar
    Alice on Reply

    I am going to my first individual art class this morning. Your article has been interesting and informative. Do you have an Instagram art share option? May be fun to see what people are doing. Thankyou

  2. Avatar
    Linda on Reply

    Hi im Linda. My husband and myself love to draw and paint. We are not very good and hope to learn soon from a class of some sort.

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