Monday, May 12, 2014


My plein air students often ask how to begin a painting. I tell them to start by getting clear idea of what grabbed you about the subject in the first place.

It could be colors, values, shapes, textures, mood, an implied story or many other things. Before you pick up your brush you need to be very clear about the idea you want to express. This will guide you as you paint.

One of the things I liked here was the white speed limit sign framed by dark trees. That contrast of light and dark values made it pop nicely.

I really liked that and decided to make it a key point of my painting. Many artists would have left something like this man made element out of the painting but I felt it added something special. And it also added a sense of scale to the scene.

There were more things about this scene that grabbed me but that’s a good example of the sort of thing to clarify before you begin painting. If necessary, jot down a few words to remind yourself of the ideas you want to express so you don’t get side tracked as you paint.

When you’re ready to begin panting, start with the big shapes of color and value. Make sure they work well together. This is what gives a picture something I call “wall power.” Wall power is what grabs the eye from across the room and draws the viewer to your painting. (This is one of two viewing distances to be concerned with, but I’ll get into that another time.)

I also tell students to ignore fussy little details until you’re satisfied with the overall composition. Take what Nature offers the way many drivers regard a red light; they view it as a suggestion. So if something works, use it. If something doesn’t enhance the overall idea of the picture, ignore it.

Beyond that, look for nuances of color and enhance them slightly to add some artistic flair to the picture. A camera can’t do this, but it’s one of the things painting is all about. In this case I enhanced the colors in the distant mountains, the sky, even the road itself. Look for ways to add artistic life to the painting while remaining true to the subject.

Another time I’ll get into other aspects of painting on location as well as in the studio. But this should give you a good idea of how I often recommend getting started. Try this yourself and watch how easily things come together as you work.

And if you want more of my tips, tricks, techniques and methods, check out the videos listed in the right-hand column of my blog.

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Thanks for stopping to look,
Tom Brown

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