Painting for Beginners: How to Get Started

No matter what type or style of art it is you’re interested in making, it’s hard to know where to start. You have all this excitement pent up from wanting to create, and it can be frustrating that your skills don’t line up with that excitement. This guide to painting for beginners will help you curb your expectations and outline the important things that you should focus on to get a head start with your painting career.

Beginner Painting Hurdles

A lot of people quit at this point, because there seems to be an overwhelming amount of information out there, and it’s hard to know which information will help you, and which won’t. The main reason some information won’t help you is because it’s on another level. There’s the knowledge you need at every stage of development, but usually, no way to know what that is. I mean, if you knew what you didn’t know, you wouldn’t need to learn it right? 

Well, my aim here is to set the beginner on the fast track and give you some shortcuts to advancing at a satisfying pace. Because the beginner’s main hurdle is sticking with it long enough to see themselves show some gratifying progress.


From Beginner to Intermediate Skill Level in Painting

Learning how to paint can leave you stuck in one stage of skill, if you let it. Learning to paint takes challenging yourself with something fresh, from time to time. Normally, if you were involved in some art institution, the structure of the painting instruction would involve the proper amount of repetition and refocusing of even the little things like how you’re holding your paintbrush, your pencil, the subject and the atmosphere would all be explored in your artwork as part of your learning process.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of painting something different every time you paint. It’s fun, but doesn’t let you bring out your own style. Studying an object, almost any object, over a series of pieces is how you discover your own style in the first place. Too many people trying to discover their own art style end up bouncing from thing to thing, never realizing that what they’re longing to create can only come by refining each attempt at a single subject. Do ten paintings of the same subject, and one of them, not all of them, will have something that is truly a work of art to behold. 

Here’s an outline of the painting concepts for beginners we’re going to talk about that will take you almost immediately to an intermediate level of whatever medium you’re working with:

  • Find the Right Aspect Ratio – How to make sure everything fits on the canvas like you want it to
  • Make Drawing Easier – You don’t actually have to learn to draw, to be able to draw
  • How to Skip Drawing – Hate drawing and wanna go straight to painting? Here’s how.
  • From Life 101 – Nature is the fastest teacher
  • From Photographs 101 – Why photos suck, but your painting doesn’t have to
  • What to Practice – Make practice sexy again
  • Final Exam – Your study guide for the beginner’s advancement exam

This post will lean heavily in the direction of drawing as a design tool leading into a finished oil painting because that’s my medium of choice, but these same concepts will help you craft a finished piece of art in acrylic, watercolor, gouache, or even digital media. Keep these concepts and practices as a foundation as you apply them in the medium of your choice. We can talk about what medium you should focus on in another post perhaps.

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Creating art is often most interesting when we’re bending or breaking the rules, but before you can use rebellious techniques that catch attention, you’ve got to learn how to color inside of the lines, in a manner of speaking. When beginners are trying to learn painting, there are a few key things:

Avoid Art Gimmicks When Painting As a Beginner

This is just a little side note about finding your own style. There are a lot of gimmicks running around in trends, and a lot of beginners try to ride the wave of what’s popular. I just want to point out that trying to learn by hopping between shifting trends is a distraction. And while you’ll still learn, the pace you advance at will be so much slower by imitating art, rather than finding interest and beauty in the things you see, and using them to create your own original work.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have people imitating my style than imitate someone else’s. Don’t you agree? Other artists’ work should inspire you to create something unique of your own. If that’s truly your goal, you see why the most valuable thing you can do is study another artist’s process, rather than mimic their finished work. 

Learning the Process of Creating a Work of Art

Every artist’s process is going to be a little (or a lot) different, depending on their influences, subject matter, medium, philosophy, training, and any number of things. Part of the reason we love art is that a good artist can put all of those pieces of their identity into an image, causing the subject, setting, and technique to work as both a point of view, and a reflection of the painter. And hopefully, if you the viewer are anything like the artist, perhaps the painting will incidentally show you a reflection of yourself as well.


That sounds complicated and tells you nothing about what to do with that pencil and paintbrush in your hands, but you need an idea of what you’re reaching for ideally, when you begin to learn. You can take art anywhere, but in the end, the basic concept remains the same.

What you need to know to get started drawing or painting

I’m officially giving you permission to change things if it makes them look better. If you’ve already got a vision of what kind of artist you want to be, you probably don’t need to hear this, but if you’re just getting started, I’m telling you: It’s your job: not to paint everything exactly the way you see it. Paint it so that it looks good, or so that it better represents the atmosphere, emotional vibe, and spirit of the subject that inspires you about what you’re observing. 

Find the Right Aspect Ratio

Have you ever started a picture, only to realize that you don’t have enough room to paint without the objects running off the edge? Maybe you started too large for the space, or started too far over to one side. Sometimes you paint things too wide, and end up having to figure out what to do with all that extra space, and you struggle to get the details in when things are so small. You can certainly study theories of composition when you feel you need to, but for now, let’s talk about Aspect Ratio in a way that helps plan out how to get things arranged on the canvas in a way that makes everything look good. 


Aspect Ratio is the measurement of the horizontal edge of your canvas or page, divided by the vertical edge. You need to know this because it tells you how to frame your drawing or painting subject. You can understand aspect ratio by imagining a 10” x  30” canvas sitting next to a 24” x 30” canvas. As you can imagine, the 10×30 will seem much wider, compared to the 24×30, even though the longest edges of each canvas share one measurement.

Using Aspect Ratio To Your Advantage

Knowing a little bit about aspect ratio does one important thing; it helps you find where the edges of your painting are going to be, so you know how big to make all of the objects. This is rather easy to get the hang of by going to your sketch pad, and drawing a bunch of squares with the same aspect ratio as your canvas. If you’re using an 8” x 10” canvas, which is a good size to start with, you can draw a bunch of 4” x 5” squares. If you’re using a 24” x 30” canvas, which is really big and fun to paint on, you still can draw a bunch of 4” x 5” squares, because the aspect ratio for both of these canvas sizes is the same.

Turning Your Canvas Space Into Helpful Thumbnails

This is how you use thumbnails intelligently, because now on your sketch pad, you can practice drawing your scene, making sure all the cool things you want to paint will fit together on the canvas the way you like. They don’t even have to be good drawings, just make sure that after drawing a few thumbnails, you’re pretty confident of how much space the objects and their surroundings need, in order to look right, and not run off the edge. 

Turning Thumbnails Into the Base Drawing For Your Painting

You can give the thumbnails as much detail as you like. In fact, just the act of observing closely will help your painting look better later, so take your time, and if your thumbnails don’t look right, erase the distracting lines, and reinforce the lines you think look right. The more you examine what you’re going to be painting, the easier it will be to actually paint it later. The easiest way to examine your subject is by drawing as you observe.


There’s just something magical about it, the way you don’t really see the thing until you’re trying to make sense of it with visual reproduction. When you’ve got a tight drawing that fits well in your thumbnail space, pick your best one, and do the same thing you did in the thumbnail, just slightly bigger. Keep in mind that your drawing is going to be completely covered up with paint later, so don’t worry too much about how it looks, just put as many things in the right general location as you see them in relationship with each other.

How To Make Drawing Easier

Because painting is my primary medium, drawing isn’t such a struggle, not the way I use it. Drawing is a design tool, it helps me establish general placement and relationships, but at no point are the drawing lines used as some sort of concrete boundary where one form must be separated from the next. Drawing in a sketchbook is an exploratory tool, but the drawing I lay on my canvas is just meant to be an idea of how my scene breaks down into general shapes.

I may draw the outline of a figure’s shadow, for example, being cast across the floor, but when it comes to the painting, what matters is that the shadow helps describe where the subject stands, including the plane of the floor the shadow is cast on. You can see as your painting evolves how that exact shadow’s edge you drew underneath doesn’t really matter, if the shadow doesn’t feel right within the context of the painting. 

Bending the rules by knowing the Rules

Your duty is to change the painting if it better supports the sensation that the subject exists in 3-dimensional space, despite the limitations of a 2-dimensional plane(your canvas). That being said, careful observation of the way a subject’s shadow normally behaves in that exact lighting situation, should give you the clues you need to alter the painted shadow’s behavior. 

How to Skip Drawing Altogether

The pencil’s limitations are intentional, so I can understand people not wanting to give graphite much attention. And too, why draw when you can paint? Didn’t we just talk about how the sketch underneath was going to be covered up entirely by paint later? It’s true, you can skip straight to the paintbrush if you want. I mean, you can learn to draw with the paintbrush too, without ever picking up a stupid light-gray pencil. And if you don’t even want to draw that much, you don’t have to, you can just get a big brush and go to town with color if you go about it the right way. Painting for beginners means doing what you have to do to stay interested.


If you decide to paint a bunch of oranges gathered on your dining room table, there’s no reason you shouldn’t set your coffee mug on the canvas and trace three perfectly round circles so your oranges at least can’t fail in that particular aspect. Again, your duty is to the painting at the end. You can worry about developing the ability to draw perfect circles freehand later, after you’re famous enough that you can just sit around impressing your friends with parlor tricks, right? Til then, make sure your oranges are round, and worry about how to make them look like spheres instead. It’s already hard enough, isn’t it?

Don’t Ditch Drawing Completely

If you decide that drawing doesn’t fulfill you enough to waste any time on it, or if you have too much difficulty with it, it’s ok. In one sense, you’re at a disadvantage. Your ability to design from imagination, your ability to quickly lay down the skeleton of a vision you have for a painting, both things will be slightly impaired. But don’t get discouraged. If you break down all of the visual art forms, you find they have one basic principle in common: Observation. Drawing, Painting, Sculpting, sometimes even Writing, are all based on getting better at observing something, while getting better at describing it.

If you think of it from this point of view, all of these media are simple derivatives of the basic act of looking at a subject until you’re familiar enough with it that you can reproduce a recognizable likeness of one or more facets of its identity. So what we’re implying here, is that drawing is neither necessary nor irrelevant. Here’s a secret though, the more you practice at observing, the better you’ll get at all of those media. So, even if you skip the pencil and go straight to paint, eventually you’ll be able to pick up a pencil and do an acceptable, if obviously unpracticed, job of it.

So, hopefully you’ll take this advice to some extent, and keep your pencil sharpened, and use it with the awareness that it’s all part of developing your observation skills. And if drawing doesn’t seem useful to you at this stage, get used to looking at how you paint, and decide if you can’t use drawing after all, to create an almost paint-by-numbers situation for yourself in advance, so that you can spend more time and effort on artful touches, and less time trying to figure out where everything goes. That’s really what drawing is for, to simplify what you see into something you can more easily bring to life by having done preliminary observing(drawing).

As a Beginner Painting From Life – 101

Nature really is the fastest teacher. Artist James Gurney, creator of Dinotopia, illustrated a world in which dinosaurs and humans live together in adaptive harmony. Obviously Gurney couldn’t go to this fantastical land to see how dinosaurs and humans look together as living subjects. So what Gurney did was study reptiles, their forms and textures, while simultaneously studying museum fossils. The point is, even if you intend to create something from your imagination that is out of this world, the study of life, the way light moves, and the way distance appears to our eye in nature, will teach you how to bring your imaginary creations to life in a believable way.

After all, isn’t that what most artists are trying to do? Bring their visions to life? Just imagine how dull The Matrix movie would be if all the action was illustrated through stick figures, instead of CG-assisted, realistic figures in realistic settings. The reason the characters are able to perform miraculous feats is in part due to the fact that everything else appears to be a familiar reality, in which we’re all perfectly aware that gravity cannot be defied simply by force of will. 

As a Beginner Painting From Photos 101

It’s perfectly reasonable to work from photos, as long as you’re working from photos, emphasis on the plural. So, photos have pros and cons. 


-EVERYTHING sits still for a change

-sometimes the ability to zoom in can help you make sense of detail

-you can crop an image down to exactly the way you like it, conveniently building in the precise edges of your canvas space


-The camera has no idea what you want it to focus on, most of the time

-the camera adjusts the exposure based on the available light, sapping the color and compressing values of the image

-because a single image doesn’t move, and because it uses a single aperture, a photo can’t display but one image, or 1/120th of the information your two eyes are capable of seeing in a single second. Because of this handicap, a photo can actually misrepresent the shapes and forms and play of light on the photographed subject. The more complex the forms being captured, the greater the likelihood that something will seem to break the illusion of the completed painting.


How to Deal with the Camera’s Inherent Flaws

It’s actually pretty simple. Get a bunch of images from different angles, of your subject. If you do several studies of your subject in preparation for your strongest attempt, you’ll already have an idea of the colors, the spatial relationships, and especially, what it is that you find worth looking at about your subject. It doesn’t matter if your initial attempts are embarrassing failures. It’s the act of study and observation that will advance your ability to control a successful painting. 

Expressing Motion in Motionless Subjects

My advice about multiple studies would apply if you were painting a still life, or a photograph, but to take advantage of the camera’s ability to record a moment of motion, you’ve got to be clever about expressing it. If you’ve ever tried to doodle something that was leaping or falling, then you’re probably familiar with some version of the classically comic “whoosh lines.” Well, we’d like to be more clever than that, and that’s part of the reason you get multiple photos. What we’re talking about is a concept called gesture, but it doesn’t just apply to comic book characters. 

Why Awareness of Gesture Is Important to the Process

Gesture can apply to lots of things, but what we’re talking about is intentionally capturing the subject in a mid-action pose that clearly implies, at the very least, direction of motion. Imagine an illustrated figure in an empty space. How would you pose that figure to show that they are falling? Well if you drew them in straight up and down, smiling, with hands on hips, feet spread confidently apart, then I’m not convinced this guy is moments from being on an IHOP menu. You can apply this concept of gesture to inanimate objects as well. Just think of reaching shadows, warm sun falling on a blanket, a tree seeming to protect a cottage by shielding it from above with its branches. 


Getting Photos From Multiple Angles

By looking at your subject from different angles, you get to discover what it is that captivated you about the scene to begin with. You might not realize it until some time later, after your subconscious has had time to mull it over. By then, if it’s too late to reshoot (and it usually is, in life), you’ve got to pull that focus of your interest to the foreground of all those varying angles, and decide how best to communicate with a single point of view. As you gain more mastery, you may need less reference, but from what i’ve seen, the pros take a lot more reference photos for their paintings than beginners.

Painting from Photos 101 – Take Away

Here’s the important thing about using photographs, if none of these examples help. If you find yourself studying the photograph, that’s the trap that still images present. Remember that what you’re painting isn’t the photograph, but the subject in the photograph. If you study the subject, your painting will have a much better chance at being successful and satisfying to your creative voice.

What Should I Practice?

Well, the straightforward answer is, you should practice what interests you, because for the first few years, maintaining your creative drive, and creating habits that enable you to spend time working and learning, is the only thing you should be focused on. And we’ve talked about a few pitfalls, like art gimmicks, or mimicry misplaced. When you start out painting as a beginner, you want to stay focused.

Literally Just Practice

But if you don’t have any particular interests, and just want to learn, you need to test yourself in a few areas, and see where your interests lie. Again, the observation learning process we’ve talked about won’t confine you to that one area forever, but it’s good to pick one thing to start with, and at some point you’ll realize that your landscape painting skills have prepared you to adapt to portrait or figure painting, with some adjustment. Think of being an artist as climbing a cylindrical tower. You can climb up from many starting points, but once you’re at the top, it’s much easier to step between disciplines, than it is to climb sideways to refocus your efforts while maintaining your primary goal. If you use this philosophy, you realize the shortest path to mastery is a straight line. 




A Few Broad Topics to Start 

Still Life scenes are the easiest for most people, because it’s a self-reliant kind of learning process. Portraits rely on either live models, or photographs, and all the pitfalls that tool possesses. Figure study can be easier, as there are places where figures acting naturally can be captured from multiple angles. The nude figure is more difficult to reference, depending on the individual artist’s situation. Finally, the landscape, which is probably the most popular subject for various reasons. 

Play the Long Game

What area you decide to focus on, and what medium or media you decide to use, is a purely personal choice. However, I suppose it must be said that it’s more difficult at the beginning to sell paintings from certain genres, and between that and wisely focusing on what you have access to, don’t get too twisted up about it. But as I said, try a little bit of everything, and go back to what resonates with the most possibility for you. Painting for beginners should be an exploratory journey.

If you need that extra push, focus on still life at the start, because it’s the easiest to access, and you don’t need nice views to create nice still life setups. In another post we’re going to talk about the brainstorming and setup process of an elaborate still life, but for now, look around your environment for objects that you can begin to study. Think of every object you study as a tool on your belt for an amazing painting later, and choose your subjects according to coolness, more or less. Jewelry is also an excellent choice for a still life, because even costume jewelry can be painted to look like priceless heirlooms.


A Little History of Still Life Painting For Beginners

You see a trend of paintings featuring antiques, or expensive cloth and household objects, heirlooms, gold. Still life paintings traditionally depict wealth, in part because a painting of wealth lets you view wealth without actually having any. If you think of this concept as the actual foundation for still life paintings in general, you begin to understand that the choices you make regarding your still life setup should be designed to represent something of value. Now, people place value upon different things, of course, that can’t be represented by money. As a beginner learning painting, try to keep this in mind when trying to set up a painting with the intention of selling it.

So as you set up your still life, or your next still life, or the one after that, see if you can’t imagine a kind of person, and assemble items they might value. For instance, a painting for an avid gardener might include gardening tools, pots, and soil. You might also try giving the gardener a painting of gold coins and crystal wine goblets, but I think we can be honest about which painting a gardener would find most delightful, and which painting Scrooge McDuck would choose. Just think about the ratio of gardeners to wealthy fictional ducks.

The Beginners Painting Final Exam

Sorry, mate, this is a blog post, there’s no final exam except the one you give yourself. If you want to advance from beginner to intermediate status, you’ve just got to do the work. But trust me, it’s not really work, if you love it. And I’m being honest with you, it kind of doesn’t matter where you start, what medium you choose, or what you choose to make the subject of your work. A few things i recommend you focusing on are experimenting with different media to find one that speaks to you. Focus on mastering shading, layering. Memorize the color wheel. Learn to you your paint brush in a simplified way. Learn how abstraction can compliment how to mix your colors to achieve realism. Learn drawing and painting side by side, as they are part of the same process. Learn to distinguish slight variations in hues, so that your color mixing efforts help create the vision you are trying to sculpt. Learn the value of the underpainting as a building block, and treat every layer as essential to the structure of the painting. Come to your own understanding of color theory, but use the work of other artists to help inspire you to do something unique.

The skills will come with practice, and the success will come when you figure out what you love, what someone else loves, and how you as an artist can bring those two worlds together, creating something miraculous in an everyday world, and making a meaningful connection with people by putting yourself in their place, and painting your view of one alien world after another. Hopefully this post has made painting for beginners and learning how to paint a lot easier, and will allow your painting skills to transition from beginner to intermediate quickly.