Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting Off on the Right Start

"Sweet Reds" onion oil painting on canvas 9x12
As a painting teacher, I’m often asked: What’s the best way to start a painting? I bet if you asked 10 advanced oil painters who’ve honed their craft they give slightly different answers. But as an almost daily painter, I’m always trying to make the craft of painting as easy and predictable as possible.

So I thought I’d share my "no fail" process for starting a simple oil daily still life painting, such as a 12x12 or smaller since these typically are not a huge time commitment.

By the way, I have nothing against working from my own photos references. I do this all the time, particularly when I work in watercolor. That being said, I think painting from life improves my overall observation skills and for me at least, there’s no substitute for it.

Step One: Organize your shapes.
Trust me, I’m all for an enthusiastic, fearless painting approach. I pour, splatter, smush (that's a technical term), etc. all the time as a starting point. But if you haven’t had your morning mocha (that’s me) or your drawing skills are a tad rusty, I recommend you take a few minutes to plan your still life composition OFF the canvas.

The key is to plan on same ratio as your selected canvas size. For example here’s my sketch of the baby sweet red onions on a Compose It Grid (3:4 proportions to match my 9x12 canvas choice) with a dry erase pen which wipes off easily. If your canvas is a square, plan in a square, etc. Seems obvious, but I see other artists plan in different shapes all the time.  

If you don’t have a Compose it Grid (or similar tool), you can also easily trace the outline of your canvas onto a big sketchpad or make a smaller (but same ratio) sketch often called a thumbnail. For example, a 9x12 canvas thumbnail sketch could be 4.5 x 6, 2.75 x 3, etc.

Keep your sketch (and composition) relatively simple. No value or details yet, just shapes. I prefer a black marker rather than a pencil or charcoal.  We don’t need any shading. Look for big positive shapes. Try a few different compositions before moving over to the canvas. Personally, I prefer a still life that takes up at least 75 percent of the canvas so keep your subjects close at hand. Remember, backgrounds, foregrounds, and shadows are shapes. This is also the time to consider a variety of vertical and horizontal layout options.

In my next post I’ll talk about the next steps such how we get the sketch on the canvas and what I always do before I sketch on the canvas to make judging values much easier. Thanks for stopping by and happy summer painting!

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