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Learning to Paint 101

Learning to Paint 101 main article image
Posted on August 23, 2021 by Julie Richards

There are two things that bring people together like almost nothing else: music and art. There is something magical about putting paint on canvas and turning it into a work of art. Learning to paint is also extremely relaxing and therapeutic.

 What is your reason for painting?

Have you always wanted to be the next Picasso? Or another Rembrandt? Maybe you are a sketch artist and want to start dabbling in paint. No matter what your reason for learning to paint, there is no time like the present to grab some paint, a canvas, and brushes and start the journey.

I grew up smelling turpentine and mineral spirits instead of warm cookies and baking bread. My mother was a professional artist and always had one, two and sometimes three canvases going at the same time. Her work was amazing! She taught her daughters, all four of us, what it meant to be an artist. Her works still hang in many homes and public buildings to this day.

What paint do you want to use?

For the beginning artist who is just learning to paint, choosing paints is an important decision. If you are going to sell your masterpieces, you need quality paints that withstand the test of time. If you want to dabble a little bit to see if you enjoy painting, then a lower grade paint might be a better choice due to cost.

There are many different types of paint: acrylics, oils, watercolors, encaustic, or gouache. Some of them, such as encaustics, can be expensive when you are first learning to paint with them. Acrylics and watercolors require less upfront investment.

Drying times for the paint you choose is also important. Oil paints can take days to dry. This means you cannot go over the existing paint with another color until the original paint dries unless you want the colors to blend. Oil paints are opaque and dry with a glossy finish.

Acrylic paints are also opaque and can dry in an hour or two. Drying times can vary depending on the temperature and moisture in the air. However, you do not have to wait days to add the finishing touches to your painting. Acrylics dry with a matte finish.

Watercolor paints dry as soon as the water dries. Watercolors are also much more transparent than oils and acrylics. A benefit to using watercolors when you are learning to paint is that they can be reconstituted with water. If you forget and leave your pallet uncovered, simply spritz some water onto the paint or use a wet brush to make it fluid again.

Student Grade and Artist Quality

You should also know the difference between “Artist Quality” and “Student Grade” paints. Artist-quality paints are made for professional artists who sell their art pieces as works for hire, in galleries, or in art shows. Student-grade paints are made for kids and people who are just learning to paint.

Student-grade paints often come in one type of viscosity. The paint is fluid but doesn’t run off the edge of the canvas unless you water it down. It dries quickly so another layer can be applied over the first one. However, it does not work well if you want to add texture to your painting. The paint is just too loose.

Student-grade paints do blend well with each other. This means you can mix yellow and blue to get green. A mixture of red and blue paint will produce a shade of purple. So even if you can only get a few colors, you have the ability to create a complete color pallet for your artwork.

 Many artist-quality paints come in a variety of viscosities. This means that the paint is available in many different thicknesses.  A heavy body stays where you put it. You will see every brush stroke. You can make peaks and valleys. You can even mix a heavy body paint with beads, sand, and other things to create even more texture. At the other end of the viscosity chart is the high flow acrylic. It does exactly what the words imply, flows easily and quickly, almost like a light syrup across the canvas. There are two other viscosities in between.

What supplies do you need?

Before you decide what type of painting you want to do, decide how much money you want to spend on the supplies you need when learning to paint. As a beginner, you do not want to invest a lot of money only to find out you don’t like the type of paint you chose. For example, encaustic paints should only be used with a mask and eye goggles. You also need a heat source.

You also don’t want to get halfway through a beautiful painting and realize your art store is out of your supplies, or worse yet, your favorite brand or color has been discontinued. You may find out that you prefer something besides painting like pottery or sculpting.

When learning to paint, you need two or three good brushes to get you through the learning stage. Oil paints are best used with natural bristle brushes. Acrylics work with natural and synthetic bristle brushes. Watercolor brushes are designed to hold more water than the other types of paintbrushes. A good quality brush, no matter what paint medium you choose, is worth its weight in gold. The higher quality brushes don’t shed the bristles, they hold the paint better, and they give you a more of a predictive stroke.

Acrylic and watercolor paints clean up with soap and water. You need solvents like mineral oil and turpentine to clean the oil brushes. Encaustic paint brushes cannot be synthetic because the heat melts the bristles. They also must be cleaned with a solvent.

What do you need to know about painting?

Lighting is everything when you are learning to paint. The best lighting is natural sunlight. If that is not available, then bright lights that highlight your canvas or paper are best. You can set up an easel by a window or take the shade off a lamp to give you better lighting.

The substrate you use depends on which paint you are using when you are learning to paint. Acrylic paints can be used on just about anything from cardboard to wood. You can even paint on fabric. Oil paints should be used on a pre-stretched canvas. If your canvas is not pre-stretched, you run the risk of having the painting sag as it ages. As the canvas sags, it stresses the paint, and it could chip off the canvas. For watercolor, the best substrate is actual watercolor paper. The higher the quality of paper, the better. A low-quality paper can tear or bleed through and cause your painting to be ruined.

What do you want to paint?

Every person who is learning to paint asks themselves that question. Do you want to paint animals, nature, people, or abstract designs? The best advice I can give you is the same advice my mother gave to me: paint something that you love. It will show in the work you do.

No matter what you choose to paint, always use a reference. It can be a picture, a still-life display you set up, or the setting outside your back door. Before you even make your first brushstroke, look at the lighting. Find out where the shadows fall. Look at the basic shapes of the objects you want to paint.

When you are learning to paint, each object is either a circle, square, triangle, or rectangle. The details are what is inside those basic shapes. This view of your subject gives you a better perspective of the way your painting will unfold.

One last bit of information I want to impart to you as you begin your journey of learning to paint. Practice, practice, practice. Practice with your brushes to see the different strokes each one makes. Practice with your paints to see how they flow and blend with each other. Practice with your subjects to see which ones you prefer painting. The art of painting is a skill that is wonderful to have. I hope it brings you enjoyment on your journey.

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