How to start a painting

with five easy steps



Learn how to start a painting by following the five steps I use for painting my artwork.

Painting takes practice. You learn the scale – composition, values, color, etc.  Then you use these notes to share what you see in the world around you.

It takes practice just like learning to play the piano. But there is great joy, when you see the beauty growing as you work on your painting.

#1 choose your subject

First I get an idea of what I want to paint.

Most times I will think about it for a while to get the idea clear in my head before I start painting.

I was busy getting ready to move to a new home.

I saw a Road-runner years ago when we were driving into New Mexico. There was one standing on the state sign.

I had never seen one since.

I knew they lived where I would be moving, so I thought it would be fun to paint one.

Five steps of how to  start a painting by artist Carol MayGet An Idea Of What You Want To Paint

landscapes are a good place to start

When I began to learn painting I painted landscapes.

We are familiar with our surroundings, so landscapes are a good place for anyone to start painting.

We can do a better job of painting things we know and understand.

I have spent most of my life living in the country, so I have seen plenty of barns.

After I learned how to paint landscapes, I took moved on to other nature subjects.

Start painting with something familiar to you. artist Carol MayLandscape paintings are a good place to start.

#2 select the painting size and support

After you select your painting subject decide what size the finished piece will be. 

When I do small things like hummingbirds or butterflies I put them into small-scale paintings.

I put most of my landscapes and critters into larger sized artwork.

Choose your painting support.

ask yourself

  • What size will your painting be?
  • Will you be painting on - paper, canvas or a panel?

#3 drawing

do some thumbnail sketches

After you get the idea of what you want to paint, do some thumbnail sketches of your subject.

Small sketches about the size of a postcard are fine for how to start a painting. There is no detail here.

Sketch the large portions of the painting. You want to get the composition and value of the main components of the painting.

You may also want to do a small color sketch to work out the colors before you do the main painting. It's much easier to change color on a sketch, than on a full size painting.

I rarely do a color sketch. But, if I am using new colors or a new color combination, a small color sketch would be a good idea.

Do a scale drawing, if your subject has more intricate detail.

how to start a painting with watercolors

First I do a drawing on a separate piece of paper.

Alternately, if you are good at drawing, you may lightly sketch the drawing onto the watercolor painting surface.

Use a graphite pencil and do it without erasures, so you don't damage the surface of watercolor paper.

Erasures on the watercolor support may damage the painting surface.


how to start a painting with oils

If there is a lot of detail, I do the drawing on paper first.

If there is not much detail, sketch directly on the canvas.

I often do this when I am painting a picture of landscapes or seascapes. I thin yellow ochre paint for an outline sketch.

If you don't like a line you made with the thinned yellow ochre paint, rub it out with a rag or paper towel.

The yellow ochre lines are easy to paint over with other colors. They will not show in your finished painting.

God's Lighthouse oil painting by artist Carol MayI did this drawing directly on the canvas.

transfer the drawing

I transfer the detail drawing to the painting surface with graphite paper.

If the painting does not have much detail, you may already have it on your painting surface.


#4 select your colors

Select your colors for the painting. I normally use only three to five different colors in a single painting. The painting will hold together better that way.

We don't have to use all the beautiful colors on our palette.

When there are too many colors the painting is disconcerting and the viewer's eye doesn't know where to go.

Here is how I select the color schemes for my paintings.


Choose Your Painting Color Schemes

#5 start your painting

The groundwork is laid. Now comes the fun part - the joy of painting a picture!

how to start a painting of landscapes

I normally do the background of landscapes first. This would include such things as the sky and distant hills or water.

Then I paint forward into the painting, to the middle ground and lastly the foreground.

how to start a painting of a portrait

When I am painting the portrait of anything close up like birds, flowers, etc., I paint the main subject first.

Then I paint the background around the main subject.

How to start a painting in five easy steps

  • Select your subject.
  • Decide on the painting size and paint support.
  • Do your drawings
  • Select your painting colors
  • THEN PAINT - AND ENJOY!

I paint and lay in color after color, until it looks good to me. I totally enjoy the process.

For more detail about laying in the colors with oils check out Painting Daisies.

I show you step by step, my thinking and painting process in Painting Butterflies with watercolors.

How long does it take to learn how to paint a picture? Actually for me, it has taken a lifetime. I have been painting artwork and winning awards for many years.

I sign my paintings with my first and middle names - Carol May.

See more of my paintings on the other pages. Please inquire about anything you see that interests you.

I have original paintings in both watercolor and oils in my Art Store.

Now you know how to start a painting.

I wish you great success in painting a picture of your own!

Koi painting in oils - art by Carol MayKoi Feeding - They just ate Jimmy the Cricket and the one with the white head is the ring leader.
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