The Basics of Painting

Painting is the art of using a brush to apply pigment to a support, often canvas or paper. The practice can be as simple or complex as the artist chooses. Painters may use a wide variety of brushes to create the desired effects, but the most important element is skill. Practice and review of the fundamentals—color, value, composition and edge control—will compound your level of progress over time.

The early cultural traditions of tribes, religions, guilds and royal courts controlled the craft and subject matter of paintings, but over time the painter gained a greater freedom to develop an internal language of visual symbols and ideas. This evolution eventually led to the rise of the fine artist—a skilled craftsman who also decides the style, form and subject matter of his or her work.

There are many different painting mediums, and each one offers something unique to the artist. Acrylics are a great starter medium because they can be used on nearly any surface and dry quickly. Oil paint is a traditional artists’ medium consisting of pigment mixed with oils like linseed, safflower or poppy and thinned with turpentine. The thick consistency allows for rich color and textural effects. However, it can be messy and requires special care to clean up with solvents like turpentine. Many newer oils are solvent-free and can be cleaned with water or walnut oil.

Watercolors and gouache have a similarity to oils in that they cover well, but they are not as quick-drying. Pastel is a wonderful medium because it is easy to handle and provides beautiful colors. Many artists work in more than one medium because each one has its own unique qualities.

When painting, it is important to prepare the surface before applying the paint. Using an easel is recommended, but any flat surface that will allow the paint to stick will do. An absorbent ground such as gesso is good to start with, but some artists prefer to use an oil-based primer. It is also necessary to protect the floor, furniture and hardware with drop cloths or plastic sandwiches bags secured with tape.

Another vital aspect of painting is understanding how to mix the correct tints, tones and shades of a color. This can be a daunting task at first, but once the basics are mastered it is very rewarding. Often, when a painting is not working it is because the values are off—the lightness or darkness of the color.

Composition is the arranging of the elements in a picture plane to achieve an aesthetic effect that pleases the eye. There is a certain knack to this, and it can be learned through trial and error and studying the masters. The best way to improve your composition skills is to study the works of other painters and to experiment with different design methods. This will help you understand the principles of design and how they can be applied to any subject.