Lesson 5 – Deciding What To Paint

Welcome to the fifth and final lesson of the Free Painting Course. I hope you have enjoyed it so far! In this lesson, we will go over what to paint and setting up your perfect art studio.

Deciding What To Paint

Finding painting inspiration and determining what to paint is often overlooked but is one of the most fundamental aspects of painting. You can be one of the most technically gifted painters, but if you are not painting interesting compositions then your paintings will be lacking no matter how skillfully you paint. The painting process starts much before picking up a paintbrush. If you put the effort into finding great scenes to paint, then your paintings will benefit greatly. You will be more inspired and the composition will appear much more appealing. If you paint a boring scene, you will probably not be satisfied with the end result no matter how well you paint it. When deciding what to paint, there are some important factors you need to consider. Here are the questions I ask myself when assessing a scene to determine if it would make for a suitable painting reference:

  • Is the composition interesting?
  • What is the focal point?
  • What style will I paint?
  • How will I go about painting it and is it within my ability?
  • Is there harmony?
  • Is there a dominant color scheme?
  • What mood will I be creating in the painting?
  • What is the color temperature of the scene?

All of these questions help me determine if a scene will make a suitable painting reference. I say reference because that is all it should be. We are not trying to perfectly recreate the scene (you should take up photography if that were the case). Obviously, the hyper-realists may disagree with me here.

Where To Find Inspiration?

Painting inspiration can be found in many places. My best advice would be to stay active and always be on the lookout for interesting compositions (and always keep a camera on you). Just the other day in fact, I was driving home when I was smacked in the face with painting inspiration. It was a beautiful scene where light was hitting the water in a very ‘Monet’ fashion. I had to get a reference photo but there was no parking. So I drove home, parked my car and run about 2 miles back to the scene to take photos. But by the time I got there, the lighting had changed and the scene was not as I first pictured it…. But I got some decent reference photos nonetheless. The point is, you never know when inspiration will hit you. It will just come from time to time so you need to be aware and ready.

Is It Ok To Paint From A Photo?

Some artists will say you should not paint from a photo. I personally disagree and I believe photography can really compliment you as a painter. There are times when you just are not able to paint from life. Photography allows you to capture elusive scenes so can you paint in your own time. With that being said, painting from life is widely considered to be one of the best ways to learn painting so you should consider incorporating it into your training. An interesting point to note is that great photos do not necessarily make great painting references. It is not the quality or skill of the photo that counts but rather the composition of the photo and the inspiration it provides you.

Additional Resources: How To Choose The Perfect Reference Photo To Paint From

Setting Up Your Perfect Art Studio

Claude Monet In The Studio
Claude Monet, In The Studio

Your studio will vary depending on your personal preferences, but there are a few elements I would consider essential:

  1. Proper lighting. This is number one for an obvious reason. Poor lighting can distort your vision and decision-making whilst painting. You want to be able to see all your colors and strokes in full light.
  2. Space to move. If you were a fly on the wall watching me paint, you would see me walking around all over the place viewing my painting from different angles and distances.
  3. An easel. As discussed earlier, painting on an easel gives you much greater freedom to move around your painting (see the point above). It also stops you from focusing on a particular element for too long (when you paint on a desk, you tend to hunch over and hyper-focus certain elements).
  4. Storage. If you are limited in space, then you should consider an easel with built-in storage.
  5. Drying area for your work in progress. You could buy a drying rack, but I have been unable to find one at a reasonable price.

End Of The Free Painting Course

Awesome! You have finished the Free Painting Course. Hopefully, you have a better idea where how to paint. It is no secret that painting is difficult. But anyone can take it up and it is an extremely rewarding craft, so I truly hope you continue from here. Happy painting!

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Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.

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31 comments on “Lesson 5 – Deciding What To Paint”

  1. Another excellent blog, Dan, thank you so much for sharing! One thing I continue to have problems with is finding a dominant focal point. I’ve learned to take some really nice reference photos that I predominately paint from – although I’m trying to plein air a bit here and there – winter is coming and I’m not an outdoorsy gal. LOL!

    Anyway, my trouble is, I fall in love with the whole scene, so still trying to train myself to just pick something, already!!! Anyway, your suggested exercise is terrific, so I’m going to definitely try it out! I love the way you teach and what you’ve shared. I recently left another group because I’m not selling as many paintings as I would like, so I’m interested in the rest of the discussion, but am not able to make a commitment at this time.

  2. I have appreciated these lessons-have painted in oils since I was ten, only maybe one a year from age 21 to now. Am 68 .Have always drawn during all school classes.Teachers let me to keep me occupied! These lessons have enthused my resolve, so to speak. I gave away most of the paintings to family and friends. So now want to produce a body of work that I don’t lose track of.No website but several of my psychotherapy clients are artist or art students and will recommend these to them.

  3. Thank you for this very comprehensive series of 5 lessons Dan. Really excellent. Hope you will enjoy A Very Happy Christmas

  4. Congratulations on a most informative series of lessons, cleverly so adaptable for oils, pastels and acrylics. All very encouraging ,enlightening and easy to read. Have enjoyed them all, together with pictures by various artistic works illustrating the subjects of your the essays, thank you so much , kind regards,

  5. Thank you so much for the valuable information with your lessons. I just decided to try painting a couple of months ago, and really enjoy it. I’m left handed and have a tremor in that hand, so I wasn’t even sure I should try. I’ve only done one picture, but I was pleased, and will try another when I find the right picture I want to paint.

  6. Thank for all the advice. Not much experience with color I have learned so much. As I approach my 2nd phase in life my retirement I am excited to begin this new adventure. Karen

  7. Thank you very much for all the lessons you sent to me, they all are very useful. From my point of view the color theory is the greatest importance for me. I am not able to paint from nature. My paintings are copies of Pinterest drawings or photos.
    But your lesson about color persuade me to go deeply in this issue. And it’s a so beautiful modality to enjoy myself.

    Sincerely yours,

  8. So pleased to find someone else who uses Pinterest to copy from. Like Valentina Mihaila I cannot go out to sketch or take photographs because of health issues. I don’t enjoy painting still lifes of objects around me although I have painted flowers in my garden. I find painting very therapeutic but when I read things by people who say that you must use your own reference material and ideas I wonder at the value (not monetary) of my work. I tell myself that even copying needs a degree of skill and understanding of the medium and that I am not just wasting my time. I enjoy the process of painting and still want to learn and understand more about it. You can still put your own take on someone else’s portrayal and make it more your own – a different medium can make a considerable difference. I understand copyright but have absolutely no intention of trying to sell a painting so that is not a problem. I do like to see my own paintings on my own walls though. Not being able to get out and about or go on holiday, painting is a way of “travelling” to different places as well as painting animals I could never see. I do have one goal to paint something which is truly personal – I have a much loved tuxedo cat, but I don’t have the skill to paint her yet. She is predominantly black with some white – not an easy colour to get right. I’m trawling the free videos online to try and learn to paint and draw fur, so I’ll get there one day. I get immense pleasure from learning about art and painting and I feel the end does justify the means. I wonder what others think?

    • go for it Julie. creativeness is a personal thing, comes from within. Sounds very cliche, but after all the technical info and input from all other resources your work of creative art is still your very own and that all comes from your inner most being , nowhere else.

    • Co-creating with what exists is the fun part. The manifestation is just the final result. Enjoy your research and your work!

  9. Thanks for sharing all the wonderful lessons with everyone Dan. They’re so incredibly helpful – Color theory and composition are absolutely wonderful! I’m a beginner working with acrylics. I started painting on a whim, and have become totally addicted. Your instructions and guidance really help me to kick it up a notch! Thanks Again for sharing.

  10. That was an absolutely brilliant, concise, informative and inspiring mini course.
    You touched on the basics and gave enough information for a newbie to feel informed and aware of what to look into. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  11. Than you very much ..thoroughly enjoyed all you tips and advice.
    I have become more confident in my approach towards art…I think you have
    to have an ability in yourself to achieve… I will definitely try painting
    on an easel too!

  12. I just want to say thank you for the free courses. I took a lot of notes for future reference and I gotta say, there was some stuff I completely forgot from high school or some things my art class didnt touch face on with us. This definitely helped me recognize some of the things I was doing wrong in the past, I can now learn from what I was doing wrong and do better next time. Thank you again ?

  13. You know (well maybe not you) but us ,when we have no idea of how to solve a paint problem , or stuck with a painting and dont know what or how to tackle it ,then all the sudden you see the light, this is exactly what happened to me , i dont even know how i found this site ,but it answered all my questions and then some , Thanks

  14. Thanks for the lessons. Indeed they are a concise knowledge needed someone who wants to paint, in an excellent presentation.
    Best regards.

  15. Thank you so much for these valuable instruction ! I’m going to try painting a wildlife landscape with simple composition : a few animals (one or two) a tree and a skyline. What should I use as lead-in ?

    • Hi Anh, my pleasure 🙂 You could use anything really. I would use something simple like suggestive brushwork in the grass leading into the scene. Just try and think about how your eyes follow through the painting and try to make sure there is some kind of visible path.

      Hope this helps!


  16. Thank you for the wonderful free informative lessons. I have just recently finished my first acrylic painting of a wolf and am happy with the outcome. I will be rereading the lessons for a while to help me with my painting journey.

  17. Thank you so much Dan for these free lessons….love your paintings….you are now my favorite portrayer of what is possible.
    Tip picked up from Pinterest for ways to dry wet paintings…..go to a thrift store….dish drying racks and different configurations of cd holders…..put wet canvas in a dish rack, then put rack in the trunk of your car….heat will speed up the process….I prefer the tower cd racks which allow paintings to lay flat….dish racks can be spray painted whatever color for your decor…. (if that matters….lol).
    Fingers crossed to hit a lottery so can buy your paintings….seriously….am watching all your videos again….to paraphrase; ‘ keep calm and carry on painting’.

  18. Dan, thank you very much for the free lessons, I found every single one absorbing. I started painting at an advanced age,(read 80 years) having done all the other hobbies, gardening, metalwork, carpentry, pottery, candle making, etc. Now in my nineties I love painting and spend my time learning new techniques and absorb every tip I read about. Of course I will never be a good painter, but being able to produce something nice to look at is all I need to fulfill my days.( My children humor me by telling me it is good, haha). Greetings from South Africa

  19. One tends to forget the basics when absorbed in a painting. Your lessons have refreshed my painters brain. Greetings from a very cold and wet Paarl RSA.

  20. I have really enjoyed this mini course. I have been painting for ever and still learn new things everyday, this course added aome theories and ideas i did not know. I particularly enjoyex the last lesson in what to paint. I collect references all the rime i will now choose with a different mibd set. Actually all the lessons were of benefit and i will be applying some new ideas to my work.
    Thankyou so much. I would love to keep going, unfortunately currently i am unemployed with no spare cash to participate in your other course.


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