Painting

When I’m on my own I like to paint.

I’ve recommended it to a few people, but the response is often “I’d love to, but don’t know how”. So here’s some advice.

I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, but at the age of 18 became a professional designer. When you do it all day every day, it stops being fun. Over the years I’ve moved away from designing every day, and into technical management.

So art hasn’t been part of my life for 25 years, and I was never any good at painting. These paintings are the first things I’ve done for quarter of a century. If I can do it, you can do it. Just start!

What you need:

Go to your local hobby shop and buy a starter-kit of acrylic paints. It costs about £18, and includes a dozen tubes of acrylic paint, brushes, palette knife, palette, pencil and brushes.

Buy an extra tube of mixing white, because you’ll definitely need it. It costs about £6.

Buy a canvas. A 12 or 15 inch square is a good way to start, but smaller doesn’t necessarily mean easier – it depends on the subject and style!

And you’ll need some sheets, a glass of water, old clothes, and a table near to natural light. Don’t try to do it by artificial light, because the next day all your colours will look wrong.

Abstract painting 1 (100cm x 100cm)

This was the first thing I did, and it was surprisingly simple to do. It’s figurative, but doesn’t have to be accurate – it’s not intended to be a photographic record. So it’s an easy way to get used to using paints.

Sketch out your idea on a scrap of paper, and think about the colours you want to use. I wanted something warm, so chose oranges and reds for the figures. But I wanted it to feel outdoors, so the background shades are sky blues, grass greens, tree greens etc.

Next, use a brown/orange tone, like burnt umber. Make a thin wash of it by mixing about 1:3 ration of paint-to-water. Use this to very roughly mark out the main shapes on the canvas. Don’t use pencil – it shows through the paint unless you’re using very dark, strong colours.

And don’t try to be extremely accurate. You’re not drawing it for final viewing, you’re just marking out rough areas as a guide. And don’t try to copy your drawing exactly – you can be creative throughout the process, you don’t stop being creative when the sketch is finalised. If you think of something better, or different – just do it!

Keep stepping well back, and looking at the overall composition. Does it (more or less) match your original sketch? Don’t be afraid to use a slightly less “thin” wash of the burnt umber to correct lines.

Remember the rule: thick over thin. Use thin paint, and then use thicker paint to correct, improve, and eventually to add the final paint to the canvas.

Then start painting in colours you like. There is no right or wrong, and the great thing about acrylics is that (once they’re dry, which is about an hour) you can paint over any mistakes. My painting used to have lots more green, and the blues were much darker. But it didn’t work, so the next day I went over it until I was happy.

And listen to your favourite music as you paint. I loved listening to Sigur Ros, because it made me think of nothing at all. But whatever works for you!


Abstract expressionism (40cm x 40 cm)

This is the painting style used by Monet and other very popular artists. It’s a great way to start using paints. This painting is based on a photo of a candle that I found online. I just kept the painting open on my phone by the side of me, so I could see it. And then I started in the centre with light colours, and worked my way out.

There is no white and no black used, in spite of what the photo suggests. Black and white look weird when you see them on a canvas, because they don’t really exist in nature. Instead the flame is a very pale yellow, with pale blue to indicate the hotter flame near the wick. Browns and oranges indicate the glow around the flame, and then it works into a series of dark blues, reds, greens and purples.

Don’t try to keep all your colours separate on the palette. I prefer to use a big white plate, with black and white at the edges (for mixing only, never to go straight onto the canvas), and the rest of the colours just mixed around. Keep intermixing them until you get the colours you want to use. Acrylics look almost identical wet on the palette to how they look dry on the canvas, so they’re easy to use. And if it looks wrong on the canvas, re-mix the colour and paint over it.

I did that, just adding splats of colour with a wide, flat brush. Then I stepped back and squinted. Squinting is a great way to evaluate the tone – you lose all the detail of your view, but you get a greater sense of the tonal values. And in this case, that’s what matters.

Up-close it’s a mess, but that’s expressionism for ya! Stand 10 feet away and it starts to look like a candle. It took maybe 30 minutes, and another 5 minutes the next evening to tweak a couple of splots which didn’t seem to work right.


Painting a face (40cm x 40 cm)

It’s a bit harder to paint a face. But the preparation uses my recommendations from the first two. Sketch it out on paper, and try to understand the elements that make up the face – the shadows, the highlights, the structure of a face.

Use a light wash of burnt umber to mark out the key areas – the cheeks, the eyes, the position of the mouth and nose, etc.

Then go one step further. Don’t attempt to get an accurate painting done on the first day, just use very approximate colours to indicate the light and dark areas. You don’t need to be accurate about the skin tones, just get the shapes down roughly.

Don’t make any attempt at detail. And ignore things you don’t need to worry about, like (in the final drawing) the highlights on the nose and cheek. Just shove the paint into the canvas, stepping back every so often to squint and assess it.

Then go away. Stop painting as soon as all the canvas is covered. Leave it to dry, and come back another day to work on the detail. Start with the light colours, and work your way towards the dark – it’s much easier than beginning with (for example) the man’s eyes or the dark shade under his cheek, and then working towards the dot of light on his nose.

Finally, when you’re almost complete, and more-or-less happy, try this little tip: mix a dark blue, and use it as a small splot or rough stroke of the brush on the darkest areas of shadow, such as under his chin or in his moustache. And then mix a deep red, and use that for areas which are warm – such as where light hits but doesn’t cause a highlight, or places where the skin is thinner and the blood is closer to the surface. It’ll add a mix of warmth and cool to your painting, even if it seems like a weird colour to add to a face!