Painting for Beginners

by Marcia Burtt

Painting for Beginners

Great news! If you’ve never made a painting before you won’t be hampered by all the “dos and don’ts” that confuse and constrict people who have studied art.


  1. No one but you can make a painting just like yours.
  2. Don’t worry about what anyone else would say or do.
  3. If something bothers you about your painting, change it.

Art is the one activity in which you make the rules. Because they are quick drying and opaque, acrylic paints do not demand planning. Changing your mind constantly is not a problem and in fact can add to the spontaneity and freshness of the end product.

If, however, you prefer to plan you may draw out your design first in pencil, charcoal, or with thin lines of paint. Just remember that what you liked in linear form may not look as good to you when painted, so feel free to paint outside the lines or completely obliterate them as you go.

If you like the idea of painting from your imagination, simply mix a color you love on the palette and put it on the canvas. Or use any color at all! You can paint over it any time. There is no right or wrong way to apply paint. Adding a bit of water makes the paint smooth and thin and it will dry faster. Putting the paint on thickly means it will take longer to dry. This could be an advantage as you moosh it around, add a tiny bit of another color, or just enjoy the texture. One patch of color can inspire you to use the same color elsewhere on the canvas or to add another color nearby.

Simply keep going, adding a tiny bit of one or both other colors, or white, until you are happy with a section of your canvas. Then work on another part until the whole canvas is covered. Let it dry while you set it on a shelf to take a good look; turn it upside-down to see it with fresh eyes. (One professional trick: turn your back on your painting and look at it from five or six feet away in a hand mirror to get a new view.)

Continue working on it or call it done!

If you want to paint from a photograph, turn the photo upside down and paint your canvas that way. You’ll see the actual shapes, angles, and colors much more clearly this way. Avoid trying to paint details; if you get large shapes fairly accurate in color and size you will be amazed when you turn your painting over. Turning the photo over periodically will let you know if there are parts you want to emphasize – then turn it upside down again and continue painting until you’re satisfied.

To paint from life, try to keep from thinking what things are. Try to see them as simple shapes and colors. This isn’t easy, as we have spent our lives “knowing” what we’re looking at. Pick a simple subject, but look for the colors, subtleties, and elegances of line in it. Try to overlook details.

When it comes to color, work bravely and trust yourself to believe what’s in front of you. Don’t think “green” and put down green when you see a tree. Try to mix a color that truly matches the color you see. It might be a brownish-grey color, with barely any green in it. Here in California most of our trees are not actually very green. In any case, there are thousands of greens out there, each with its admixture of blue, yellow, magenta, and white. As you create your painting, you may get a momentary sense of a color that you don’t see on extended looking. Trust that moment and put in the color. Your painting will become more exciting. Gaugin said, “If you see blue in a tree trunk, make it as blue as possible.”

The relative lightness or darkness of the scene in front of you is what painters refer to as “value.” As long as the values in your painting are close to what you observe, you can use any color at all and the painting will still be readable. Matisse did a famous portrait of his wife that had a shadow running down her forehead, nose, and chin caused by light coming from two sides. The painting was called “Green Stripe” because he painted her skin green in the linear shadow. This painting is a perfectly recognizable portrait as well as a great piece of 20th century art.

It’s not necessary to be able to draw accurately to make a wonderful painting. The best painter I know has limited drawing abilities. But if you want to accurately represent what’s in front of you, try this: imagine a horizon line and a line perpendicular to it. When you look at what you want to paint, estimate the approximate angle from the vertical or the horizontal, and reproduce that on your canvas. As you go, compare the sizes of objects with each other so they are relatively correct too.

Negative shapes
Another simple drawing habit that works because acrylic dries so quickly is this: it’s always easier to draw the shape around what you are interested in. You can see the shape next to a tree or fence post much more easily than the tree or post itself. That’s because we are human and tend to see objects as ideas or concepts rather than as individual, particular shapes.

Painting whatever is behind or next to something is called painting the negative shape. Using acrylic paints allows you to re-see an object or shape dozens of times until you get it the way you want by repainting the negative shapes.

When I paint a tree, for example,I sometimes think of the blobby mass I first put down as somewhat like making a model out of clay. When I paint the negative shape around it to more correctly define the tree, I imagine I am cutting away the clay. If I cut away too much, I paint on more paint, or “clay,” and do it again.

Technical matters
Keep a spray bottle full of water nearby to keep paints damp while you’re painting. Acrylics dry quickly so let your brush stand in water when you’re not using it; rinse well if you’re going to take a break longer than a couple of hours.

Squeeze a small amount of each color into your paint box or palette.

The palette is simply a convenient surface for mixing colors before you put them on your painting. It is fine to mix colors directly on the canvas or even to squeeze them out of the tube right onto the canvas. The only down side to this would be that you could get so much paint on the canvas it would take too long to dry or leave thick blobs you’d later regret.

You can make any color you choose from magenta, blue, yellow, and white. Most interesting colors are a mix of all of the primary colors in differing proportions. It’s fun and challenging to make colors you cannot name. Try to avoid thinking “green, red, blue” when painting. Keep in mind that white dulls the intensity of any color – but perhaps you want your colors less intense.

You can achieve subtle effects by thinning the paint and “scumbling” over what you’ve already done so that some or most of the previous surface shows through. You can also mix a color you like, wipe most of it off the brush onto your rag, and drag the dry brush over an area of your painting to get a richer color.

Use a coat of thick new paint to revise or cover something you want to change completely.

To avoid contaminating a new color with the last one you used, wipe your brush on your rag (an old washrag is perfect), dipping the brush in water between wipes. If you want a pale clear color, you may need to rinse your brush out in water, but normally it’s not necessary.

Note: if paint dries in the brush (or on your clothes), alcohol will dissolve the paint if you soak and scrub.