Learn to Paint: Your First Ever Painting

What you need to do and know to learn to paint for the very first time.

Learn to Paint -- Your First Ever Painting
© Marion Boddy-Evans / Licensed to About.com, Inc.

When you decide you would like to paint, you will likely encounter the art myth that it takes talent. Don't believe it. The desire to learn to paint and enthusiasm are what you need more than anything else. You can even learn to paint without being able to draw realistically. 

Having decided you would like to learn to paint, you need to determine what paint you are going to use. The four main choices are: oils (traditional or water soluble), acrylics, watercolors, and pastel.

It is a very personal choice, and if one type of paint doesn't suit you, be sure to try another so you can see for yourself the pros and cons of different types of paint

Selecting Paints: Student Grade or Artist Grade?

It is best to buy the highest quality paint you can afford that still lets you feel that you can experiment and play around with the paint. You want to have the freedom to go where your creativity takes you and need to feel that you can paint over a part of your piece that is not working, or scrape off paint if you’re using oils, rather than desperately trying to keep it because the paint is too expensive to waste. 

Paints come in two qualities, student grade and artist grade.  Generally, student grade paint has a lower pigment concentration, so is, consequently, less expensive.  It gives you less color intensity and coverage (how effectively a color covers another color) and, in the case of acrylic, greater color shift when the paint dries.

(Acrylic dries darker than when wet because the binder, which is white when wet, dries clear, darkening the color.)

You can save money by using student grade paints for underpainting and for painting large areas, but if you can afford the artist grade paints, they are better. There are more color choices available in artist grade paints, the colors tend to be richer,  and, in the case of acrylic, there is less color shift when the paints dry due to to the smaller percentage of binder used.

Selecting Paints: Oil, Watercolor, or Acrylic? 

Oil paint is a traditional artist's medium. It is pigment mixed with such oils as linseed, safflower, or poppy, and thinned with turpentine. It should be used on supports that have been primed with gesso to protect the surface from the acid in the oil. Oil paint is slow-drying, so paint can stay wet on the palette and workable on the painting for many days, making it easy to blend. Cleanup requires solvents such as turpentine or mineral spirits. Water-soluble oils have been introduced in recent years, requiring only water to thin the paints and clean the brushes. Read Top 10 Tips for Beginning Oil Painting.

Watercolor paint is another traditional medium. It is primarily pigment mixed with a binder made of gum arabic and additives to improve solubility and flow. It is a water-soluble transparent medium that comes in tube, pan, and liquid form. The paint can be reactivated with water when dry and reworked. The characteristics of watercolor - its convenience, portability, and easy clean-up - make it a very popular medium, for both finished works and sketchbooks and visual journals.

Acrylic paint is a more modern paint, becoming commercially available for artists in the 1950s.

It is pigment suspended in a plastic polymer and is most notable for its fast drying time. It can be used on almost any surface without priming. It is water-soluble, making clean-up much easier, requiring only soap and water. Acrylic dries into a durable, flexible, water-resistant surface. It is very versatile and can be used thinly like watercolors or more thickly like oil paints, depending on the desired effect.

Learning to Mix Colors

Trying to understand color and color mixing is something beginners often shy away from (especially when it’s labeled “Color Theory”).

Don’t, the basics of color mixing aren’t particularly complicated. Embrace the challenge (and fun) and get color mixing. At worst you’ll produce mud colors, and if you don’t want to waste the paint by throwing it away, use it with some white to do a monochrome painting or value exercise.

Essential Decisions Before Starting a Painting

Ultimately the degree to which you plan out a painting depends on your personality, some people find it essential and others a hindrance. But regardless of how detailed you like to plan (or not), there are several decisions that have to be made before you to start to paint, including what you’re going to paint (the subject), what format, size and scale the painting will be, what you’re going to paint on (called a support), what technique you’re going to use, and what color palette you will use.


The Steps in Making a Painting

The steps in the creation of a painting vary from artist to artist, and develop over time. Many artists lightly sketch out the composition on a canvas, then block in the main areas of color across the canvas. They start with the larger shapes and work towards the smaller shapes, gradually working on the detail. Some artists work in layers, other artists work alla prima, (all at once), with the painting completed in a single session. Artists often do studies (small versions) or multiple sketches for a painting. There is no right or wrong approach; ultimately you must find what works best for you. 

Finding Ideas for Paintings

Some weeks you will have more ideas than you can get down; others you may find yourself hunting around for inspiration. This is why a creativity journal can be very useful. Never despair though, it’s ‘normal’ to have ups and down, or creative blocks. And don't despair if you make a "mistake" in your painting - those can be what artists call "happy accidents," resulting in something beautiful.


Finding Answers to Your Painting Questions

If you’re got any specific painting-related questions, the starting point for finding answers are the various Painting FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions). 

Safety Tips for Using Art Materials

Most of the safety issues with art materials and in your art studio ought to be common sense, but of course what is sensible to one person is overly cautious or careless to another.  Always keep food and art supplies separate. The number one rule regarding safety and art materials should be obvious - that art materials were not made for eating - but sloppy work habits can sometimes override that, i.e., eating a sandwich with paint on your hands or dipping your brush in your coffee.  Know what you’re using and what precautions you need or want to take, and where to find non-toxic art materials if you only want to use those.


Updated by Lisa Marder 7/10/16