What are your favorite painting hacks?
People often send me photos of their recent works and ask me how to improve on the painting. My answer is more often than not a simple adjustment that takes very little effort (i.e. a slight change in composition, addition of a color or simply using better art materials).
However, whilst the solution is often simple, it is certainly not easy to identify. There are just so many variables to a painting and it takes years of experience to pick up issues.
If I am stuck on a painting, I often spend hours in my bed before I go to sleep running through the painting process in my head, including different color options, what brush strokes to use, any subjects I should include, etc. I also do not hesitate to put a painting to the side if I am having issues with it.
For me, the actual painting process forms only a small part of the overall process of creating a painting. My painting sessions are often quick and decisive, with long breaks in between.
Claude Monet was widely thought to rush his paintings with bold and decisive strokes, but he himself said there was a deep thought process for all of his paintings.
Now whilst the best way to learn painting is just to get out and actually paint, there is no harm in taking a shortcut by learning from some of the common mistakes or pitfalls others have found whilst learning art.
Here are my top 10 painting hacks:
Painting Hack 1 - Never paint on a white canvas
If you are just starting out, I would suggest you stain your canvas in a dull tone to give you a more balanced ground to paint on, rather than trying to paint on a glaring white canvas. White is an extreme value to paint directly onto and it can make it difficult to judge your values and tones.
If you are more advanced, your judgment may be accurate enough that staining the canvas is not necessary.
[Bonus] Need painting inspiration? Download the Reference Photo Sample Pack.
Painting Hack 2 - Invest in high quality paint brushes
When I started painting, I was of the belief the quality of your paint brush does not matter, but rather how you use it.
But I was wrong...
There is a massive difference between poor and high quality paint brushes in relation to the handling of paint. Poor quality paint brushes will not hold much paint or efficiently apply paint to canvas. The bristles will also be weak and deteriorate easily.
On the other hand, high quality brushes will be responsive and apply your paint very efficiently and fluently to your canvas.
If you are on a limited budget, then rather than buying a heap of poor quality brushes (which you will need to replace very often), invest in a few high quality brushes and learn how to take care of them. These brushes will last for a very long time with good care (tip - use The Masters Brush Cleaner).
Painting Hack 3 - Take a step back from your painting from time to time, walk around it, view it from different angles, hang it in a different light
If you stay in one position whilst painting, you may overlook issues which can only be picked up from a different perspective.
Your fans will be viewing your painting from many angles, not just one. So keep active whilst painting.
Painting Hack 4 - Take progressive photographs of your painting
This will not only give you an interesting record of your painting, but will also provide valuable insights on where you may be able to improve your painting.
Also, you can look at the progress photos during the day when you are not painting (i.e. when you are at work or on the train) to work out what the next steps will be with your painting.
Painting Hack 5 - Use a color checker to assist your mixing
The mind is a powerful thing and can play many devious tricks on you in relation to your perception of color. The colors you think you see are not always the colors which are actually there.
Our perception of a color can be heavily influenced by the surrounding environment. Say for example you place a bright orange next to a red color. That bright orange may not seem nearly as brilliant as if you placed that same color next to a dull blue (which is a complementary color to orange).
We also have preconceived ideas of what certain objects are meant to look like which can alter how we perceive a color. For example, our idea of the sky is that it is blue. A common problem in beginner painters is they paint the sky with too much blue than what is actually there.
They are painting what they think is there not what they see.
A short term solution to this is to use a photo editing program (I strongly recommend all artists have Photoshop - affiliate link) to clearly identify the colors in your reference photo.
You may be surprised at what the color checker picks up. Try and guess certain colors in the photo and then assess yourself with the color checker. This is not a long term solution though.
The long term solution is to train your own judgment so that a color checker is not necessary.
Painting Hack 6 - If you are stuck on a painting, start a new painting and come back to the one you are stuck on at a later time
The solution to your problem can often be as simple as a single brush stroke, but it takes time to realise that. If you rush through a problem, you will more often than not overwork the painting.
Painting Hack 7 - Look at your painting in a mirror
This will give you a completely different perspective of your painting. You will often be able to see issues which you may not pick up when standing in front of your painting.
Painting Hack 8 - Make your reference photo black and white
Value (how light or dark something is) is widely considered one of the most important elements of a painting.
If you are painting from a photo, then you can use photo editing software (Photoshop - affiliate link) to view your reference photo in black and white. This will give you an idea of the value range of the scene, without having to worry about color.
If you understand the dominant values in your scene, then the painting process will be much smoother.
I also recommend you purchase some kind of value finder which you can carry around with you. These are perfect for determining values in your reference whilst you paint (rather than having to analyse your painting in black and white after you have finished).
Painting Hack 9 - Use a grid to assist your proportions
You can place a grid over your reference photo and sketch a proportional grid onto your canvas. The idea is to try and match each respective portion of the grid on your reference to that of your painting.
However, this is just meant to be a guide. You will not learn anything if you just try and copy each segment without considering the painting as a whole. Use the grid to help you with the major structures in your painting but try not to rely on it.
Painting Hack 10 - Stop tracing and buy a proportional divider
You will not learn anything from tracing, so if you are doing this then I suggest you progress out of it. Whilst tracing may give you perfectly accurate perspective and proportions, it will not actually improve your painting abilities.
If you need some assistance with getting the right proportions in your painting, then you should purchase a proportional divider. Using a proportional divider is in no way 'cheating'. In fact, it will help you identify where your judgement is lacking and will over time improve your judgement to the extent you may not even need it.
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PS. If you have not already, be sure to join the Free Online Painting Course. You can also find more advanced tips in my ebook, 21 Easy Ways To Improve Your Paintings and reference photos in my Reference Photo Library.