The following lesson aims to help you learn the basic principles and techniques behind competent oil painting. It is based on my experience and studies over the past years since I began painting in 1990, and as such is by no means the final word on the subject, more of a guide to what I have found to work well. If you find other ways of painting which are better suited to you, don't hesitate to follow your nose as far as it will take you - this is all I have done in my own studies to come to where I am today - a little further along the path of learning and discovery. If I can offer one piece of advice on your journey, let it be to love what you are doing, because all good things come from this. If you love the colour and power of your paints, love how they mix together, love the feel of the brush on canvas, love the fact that you are creating something entirely unique, your painting experience will be transformed from doubt and frustration to one of confidence and satisfaction.
Some things to think about:
Everything gets better with practice. You might do one painting and think it's really good. But, if you did 5 paintings, trying to get better, then by the time you'd finished the 5th one, it would be that good, that you would think you're first one was rubbish. It's the only way to get really good at something is to do it again and again and again and again and again ...
To do a good painting you need to concentrate a lot. You need to be constantly thinking about what you're doing. If you feel yourself losing concentration, and start just going splat splat splat with the brush, it pays to stop and refocus your attention.
When you're looking at a scene or a photo that you want to paint, it's very easy to be confused by all the detail. You think, 'How on earth can I paint all of THAT!?' Well, there is a trick that makes things easier for you. You have to simplify the scene in front of you. There are 2 easy ways to do this. First, you can squint your eyes so you're looking through your eyelashes. This is okay but it's not very nice to be squinting all the time. The second way, which I use, is to make your eyes go very slightly cross-eyed so that everything goes out of focus. If this isn't easy for you, put your hand in front of your face and look at your fingers. Then, move your hand away, but keep looking at where your hand was. You'll see that everything in front of you is now blurred. When everything is blurred like that, it's easier to see the shapes and colours in front of you. After all, that's what painting is - making shapes and colours. The better you can see these things, the easier they will be to copy and put on canvas.
When you're painting with oil paints, you put the dark colours in first, and then the mid valued colours, and then the lightest colours to finish with. Also, the dark colours should be applied thinly (with more painting medium) and the lighter colours more thickly (with less painting medium).
Step by Step Instructions
It is good to begin your painting by first doing a quick pencil sketch of the scene. This is so you can arrange the objects in the scene in an interesting way that makes a nice composition (layout).
A few tips about composition - decide where your "focal point" will be first, then arrange things around that. For example, if a tree is going to be your focal point, put that in first, deciding where it goes in the painting and how big it will be, then draw the hill that the tree sits on, the horizon, and so on. Also, make sure the page or box that your drawing is in is the same proportion as your canvas.
When you're making your pencil sketch it doesn't need to show any detail, only the big shapes and lines of things. When you're happy with your idea, paint it on the canvas with a big brush and a very very thin mixture of painting medium and a tiny bit of burnt sienna. You can copy your drawing more accurately by lightly drawing horizontal and vertical centre lines through your sketch, then making small marks at the edges of your canvas to mark the centre points, and using these points as guides.
When you are drawing your sketch on your canvas don't just draw the lines around things. If something is going to be dark in your finished painting, (like a shadow or a dark hill) paint inside the shape of that thing now.
Establish where the light is coming from in your scene. This is important to know because a landscape is usually lit by one light source (the sun), which means that all the shadows will be cast in the same direction and all the highlights on all the objects will be on the same side as each other.
2. Strengthening your Sketch
Once you have finished sketching where the major shapes will go it's time to strengthen your sketch by mixing a slightly thicker mixture of burnt sienna and painting medium. (Add more paint to the mixture and less medium). Still using a big brush, paint over where the darkest areas of your panting will be, also putting in a few little dabs here and there where some detail might go in the lighter areas.
3. Putting in the Darks
The darkest areas in your scene will be where no light is getting to it, or where there is a dark object that does not reflect much light. Now it's time to paint these areas using the same large brush and a mixture of burnt sienna and paynes grey or black. Use less medium in this mixture so that the paint is slightly thicker and covers the canvas without showing many light bits through. Start thinking about how you can use the brush to make interesting, artistic marks that resemble the texture of the object you are painting. Eg. If it is smooth sand use long fluid strokes. If it is a tree use short rough brush strokes following the direction of the leaves.
4. Putting in the Mid-values
All colours have values. A value is the darkness or lightness of a colour. Imagine a colour photograph is made into a black and white photograph. The colours are changed into different percentages of black. 0% black is white. 50% black is mid-gray, and 100% black is black. These are values. A dark blue ocean might have a value of 80%, which is quite a dark value. Grass with sunlight on it might have a value of 50%, which is a medium value. A bright yellow lemon may have a value of 5%, which is a light value. A big part of making a good realistic painting is getting the values right. To do this you need to keep comparing one value against another. Say to yourself, "if the darkest part is this value, what value is this new part compared to that?"
At this point change to a medium size brush and mix up the colour of the largest area of mid-value in your scene. At first, it's very difficult to mix colours to match a new colour perfectly. Only with practice does it become easier. Here are some tips to help you get started:
don't mix more than 3 colours - it gets too confusing and the colour usually becomes muddy looking.
look at the colour you're trying to match and decide what is the main colour in it.
If you can't tell what the main colour is, it may be a grey (mixed with black and white or with 2 complementary colours - colours which are opposite each other on the colour wheel.)
If you can see the main colour, then ask yourself what other colour you can see in it. Eg. If it's a blue sea, is it a greeny blue or a purpley blue.
Locate your main colour on the colour wheel and then look to either side of that colour to understand which way the colour can move. If it's a greeny blue, add a little yellow to your blue. If it's a purpley blue, add a little red.
With your 3 primary colours (red, yellow, blue) and black and white it is possible to make most of the colours you will need in a painting.
Now decide what value the colour is. If it needs to be darker, add a little black. If it needs to be lighter, add a little white. If the colour needs to be a little less vibrant (more gray), add a little black and white.
When you've mixed the right colour, mix it with a little medium to make it smoother, then apply a little bit onto the canvas to see if it still looks like the right colour on the canvas. If it doesn't, compare the colour on the canvas to the colour you are trying to match and see what needs to be done to change your colour. If you think the colour is right, apply it boldly, remembering to make you brush strokes interesting, artistic, and resembling the texture of your subject.
After rinsing your brush and wiping it clean, repeat this process with the other mid-valued colours in your scene.
5. Putting in the Light values
Once you are happy with the placement and colour of your mid-values you can begin to look at the light values. These are often found where light is directly hitting a light coloured object. These colours will often contain a lot of white, and should be painted slightly more thickly than the previous layer. You may at this point want to use a smaller brush as well as your middle-sized brush to add little dabs of interest in the mid-valued and dark-valued areas. Save your lightest values to the very last, and apply these more thickly than any other layer, using very little medium. When it comes to painting the light spaces between branches when the sky is behind a tree, use the sky colour and paint these in using your small brush, remembering that when you paint these "skyholes" you are actually painting the branches at the same time.
6. Finishing Touches
If there are any details now that need working on that will enhance the centre of interest or will make the painting look more finished, do that now using your smaller brush. Little touches like shadows under rocks or trees, defining branches, birds in the sky, little touches of light close to the centre of interest.
When you've finished that, take your little sable signing brush and choose a spot in either the bottom left or bottom right corner and sign your name using a colour which doesn't stand out too much from the other colours around it. Preferably use a colour that you've already used in your painting.
After a few weeks, when the painting is dry, give it a very light coat of medium or varnish to seal the surface and even out the finish.
Note: This lesson was created in 2004 so it doesn't accurately represent my current painting methods.
For more recent landscape painting lessons go here: landscape painting lessons >