Arts & Crafts, Tips

Learn to Paint: Basics, Colors and Techniques

Painting is still one of the cornerstones of fine art. Hardly anything offers your creativity as much creative freedom as painting – provided you master the basics.

If you want to learn to paint and look for many essential tips to get you started on this creative passion, then you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we will discuss the specific colors and their advantages and disadvantages. Then we look at other fundamental principles that bring us from the primer of the canvas to brushwork. Lastly, you will find instructions and ideas on how to proceed first to help you get started quickly.

Which colors for painting

Luckily, the picture is so diverse that you can never be bored. The choice of colors is so vast that you can always learn and try something new. For example, some colors are better suited for specific subjects and image effects than others. Also, the combination of several colors within a picture is a common practice that will bring you accurate results.

Unfortunately, the broad spectrum of color schemes is also the reason why many artists lose their overview, especially at the beginning. The resulting frustration can then be decisive in order not to pursue painting more intensively.

If you want to learn to paint, we should, therefore, first clarify which colors are suitable for painting and where each of their strengths and weaknesses.

Oil paint

The oil paint has been a true classic in painting for many centuries. Many of humanity’s most impressive paintings have been painted with them, so you can quickly be fascinated by their possibilities.

If you want to paint with oil paint, you should remember that there are more comfortable to learn colors.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of the oil color:

Advantages

  • Extremely paste paint application is just as possible as a translucent application
  • High color intensity
  • Slow drying time allows accurate working and image corrections
  • A classic in art history

Disadvantage

  • The completion of an image with multiple layers requires a lot of time
  • Your studio must be well ventilated because of the solvents and oils in the paint
  • Elaborate color preparations to influence the color properties

Acrylic paint

Acrylic paint is an easier alternative to oil paint. And in terms of versatility, acrylic paint is hard to beat for many artists. By adding a structure paste, it can be mixed as thick as oil paint, by adding a flow medium, it can be very fluidly stirred, that it flows only over the ground and reminds of watercolor.

Let’s summarize the advantages and disadvantages of acrylic paint:

Advantages

  • Extremely high versatility: mixes with water and other media
  • Fast drying time ensures fast progress
  • Hardens waterproof
  • Easy to use: Brushes can be washed out with water

Disadvantage

  • Once dried, the color can no longer be mixed with water
  • Dries usually a little darker than the wet color suggests
  • Fast drying time requires fast processing and troubleshooting

Watercolor

The watercolor paint is mainly used to help young students find their way into the painting. That does not mean that only children should use them. The strongly water-based Pencil for Watercolor Sketching is ideal for a translucent application of color, flowing movements and delicate colors.

Here are the pros and cons of watercolor paint summarized:

Advantages

  • Easy to use: Brushes can be washed out with water
  • Color can be dissolved in water
  • Delicate colors and the flowing result (glazing color application)

Disadvantage

  • Dries brighter than the wet color suggests
  • Very transparent and low impact

Pastels

It can be painted not only with saturated colors but also with colored designs. In search of the right color for painting, they are a welcome change that requires a fundamentally different painting technique and equipment.

The strengths and weaknesses of pastel chalk in a nutshell:

Advantages

  • Easy to use: No brushes, no additional media
  • No drying time
  • Mix the colors on the paper by overlaying the chalks
  • Easy to use outside: in the park, on the street or a river

Disadvantage

  • Unusual color mixture directly on the painting ground (a lot of chalk dust)
  • More individual shades are needed compared to other color schemes
  • Partly large differences in the hardness of the chalk

The right painting ground

After we have clarified where the strengths and weaknesses of each color lie, we should look at the background of which you can paint them. Not every color is compatible with every painting background, as the colors have different ingredients and different viscosities.

oil paint

acrylic

watercolor

Pastel

Primed canvas

Yes

Yes

Yes/ No

No

Unprimed canvas

No

Yes

No
No

Primed wood

Yes

Yes

No
No

Primed sketch paper

Yes

Yes

No
No

Rough, unprimed sketch paper

NO

Yes

Yes/No

Yes/NO

Fotokarton

No
Yes

Yes

Yes

The table should show you which color reasons the colors can be applied and on which they should be avoided. These are personal experiences that may not be exactly the same for you.

Explanation of the painting grounds

In general, oil paint works best on substrates primed with Gesso, as the paint adheres to it and does not attack the underlying material. Thin paper without primer should be avoided if you want to achieve a good result.

Acrylic paint is so versatile that it can be used on almost any surface. Even on unprimed canvas, the acrylic paint can be used to seal the surface of the linen. Nevertheless, she feels most comfortable on primed surfaces that withstand the weight of a thickly applied acrylic paint.

Watercolors, on the other hand, are more special. They work best on rough, unprimed watercolor or sketch paper, in whose fibers the water mixture can penetrate deeply. Too smooth surfaces without weight and structure will not allow the paint to penetrate and cause the watercolor to be pushed back and forth on the surface instead of mating with the ground.

Pastel crayons call for a roughened surface, which rubs the chalk while painting. Rough sketch paper or heavy, colored photo carton are recommended because they are much finer textured than, for example, a canvas or a wooden board. Depending on the primer of the sketch paper, this surface may also be suitable for learning to paint with pastel chalk on it.

The primer with Gesso

Since an unprimed canvas directly absorbs the first layer of paint, it would be prone to decay without a primer if you painted it with oil paint. For this reason, canvases are often primed several times already with Gesso.

Gesso lets the linen harden and makes the fabric receptive to more colors. Gesso is traditionally made from white pigment and chalk powder, which are stirred together in warm glue. Therefore, Gesso is usually associated with the color white, which is now offered in a different color Gesso, which is based on different, non-white pigments.

Prime a surface

The primer with Gesso becomes important whenever you want to paint on unpainted painting grounds. 

On the one hand, this could be self-covered stretcher frames, but wooden substrates should be brushed with Gesso to protect them and to adhere to the surface. You prime the painting surface with several layers of Gesso applied in opposite directions. Before applying another layer, you should wait until the underlying gesso has dried.

For a very fine painting surface, after applying each layer, use sandpaper to sand the brushstrokes. So you get after the order of the final situation Gesso the smoothest and most even result.

Can you paint on unprimed canvases?

That depends on the color. Acrylic paints react differently than oil paints.

It is possible to the prime unprimed canvas with acrylic paint.

How so? Because the acrylic paint has no decaying properties that would attack the canvas by itself. Once the paint has dried, it hardens waterproof and therefore acts as a kind of primer.

However, be aware that you must dilute the acrylic paint with a flow medium, a binder for improved flow properties, to evenly coat the unprimed canvas with acrylic paint. An unprimed canvas has water-repellent properties that are overcome only by the addition of a fluid medium.

Oil paints, on the other hand, attack the tissue so that after a few years, your image will show severe signs of disintegration.

Basics of spatial design

If you want to learn to paint, you should become aware of the spatial effect of objects. In general, the closer the object is to the viewer, the sharper it works. The further away from the object, the more blurred and inaccurate it is perceived.

Of course, this concept of the depth of the field of objects is also used in the painting technique. When you paint on a primed painting ground, you usually start with the background of the subject and slowly work your way forward. Objects that lie in the background are therefore often presented with more diluted colors, which are only laid very thinly on the surface.

The further you work your way, the more accurate and powerful your color strokes should be. The juxtaposition of viscous and diluted colors creates a spatial effect in your image.

In this context, you should also deal with the composition of your works and understand why certain compositions work as they work.

Subtleties of elaboration

Of course, there are different approaches to how you can work out a picture. Much also depends on the type of color and the subject.

The easiest way, however, is to work your way through individual layers. As you apply individual layers of color, you can more easily understand the color effects of the entire image and make possible adjustments.

By working your way out of the background into the foreground and from the inexact into the exact, the image achieves a high radiance and an impressive effect.

Nevertheless, you should not simply more put layers of paint thickly over each other. Too many layers rob the image of the radiance and darken the colors. If you want to apply the layering technique, you should start with a translucent background and apply layer-by-layer more opaque colors. 

To understand what is meant, the following video can help you:

The better you get to paint, the more likely you are to dare the rather fragmented approach of some artists who complete individual elements before moving on to another part of their image. We are talking about the so-called Alla-Prima painting technique, also called prima painting.

The aim of the technique is the fast and skillful application of opaque colors. Often, except a drawn original, it is not necessary to overlay several layers of glaze and to start directly with a paste application of paint. 

One of the most impressive artists who has perfected this approach is Robert Xavier Burden. The American paints several-meter-high images in thousands of hours of high-precision work. 

For this approach to work, a meticulous elaboration of the image planning is required.

Here you see the painter next to one of his works. The bluish areas are pre-painted, but still, have to be colored.

Variants of the color mixture

Most colors are mixed before the paint job. Another approach is to mix directly on the surface, which you will forcibly do in pastel chalk painting but also choose to use other colors on your own.

If you place the colors on the surface over and next to each other, you can either mix them together or leave them untouched to achieve a powerfully applied color. 

If you mix the individual colors on the surface with each other, a smooth surface with soft transitions will be created.

Especially in naturalistic painting, the smoothing of color transitions is enormously important.

Take a look at how this artist paints a realistic-looking face by deliberately blending the individual colors and incorporating similar shades:

Make corrections

Especially at the beginning, you will often have to make corrections. Whenever you’ve made a mistake, you should thank yourself, because as you know, the best way to learn is from mistakes.

The beauty of painting is that you can correct most mistakes with a little extra effort. On your way to learning painting, these experiences are very important.

Do not be discouraged and look at how you can make corrections for different colors:

Oil paints

Oil paints are probably the easiest to correct colors. Since they dry so slowly and have such a paste-like consistency, you can usually scrape them with a paint knife from the surface.

If you have painted with the oil paints extremely impasto, such troubleshooting could be a little harder. The affected area is nevertheless processed with a paint knife and refilled with another color if necessary.

Acrylics

You can also correct acrylic paints quite quickly. Paint over the affected area and blend in with the surrounding colors. 

If you have chosen a paste paint application, you should use a paint knife to remove the paint before putting another coat of paint over it.

Acrylic paints dry very quickly, so you should paint attentively and fix bugs as soon as possible.

Watercolors

Watercolors, on the other hand, are not that easy to correct. As they dry very fast and run so fast, mistakes or discrepancies creep unnoticed.

If your picture is still in its infancy and even painting on one of the first layers, you can wipe the wrong spot with a wet cloth.

If your image is more beautiful, you can no longer apply this technique. Then it is better to carefully paint the affected area with a transparent white and let it dry. So you can then repaint the place.

Pastels

Pastel crayons are challenging to correct, especially if it is an advanced image with dark colors. The chalk dust collects deep in the structure of the paper and it can hardly be dissolved out.

Matching brush and brushwork

If you want to learn to paint, perfecting the brushwork is one of the most important tasks you can devote to. Perfection in this context does not mean that one particular brush is better than another, but that some types are better suited to certain motives than others.

By choosing brushes that match your subject, you can make it more detailed and realistic. Together with a deliberately controlled application of paint, you can thus emphasize individual aspects of your image and direct the view of the observers.

Learn to paint through exercise

You can only learn to paint if you practice it. Nobody has yet become a good painter without having made the necessary effort.

You have now gained sufficient knowledge of four important color grades, the most compelling painting grounds, primers, and the elaboration of your image to get started with your first works.

At this point, the article on composition and perspective is recommended, which gives you even more information on individual image and motif effects. If you’ve never thought about it before, you should not neglect this topic.

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Learn to Paint: Basics, Colors and Techniques
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Learn to Paint: Basics, Colors and Techniques
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In this article, we will discuss the specific colors and their advantages and disadvantages. Then we look at other fundamental principles that bring us from the primer of the canvas to brushwork. Lastly, you will find instructions and ideas on how to proceed first to help you get started quickly.
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