The Secret of the Painting Process

The more or less standard process used to paint realistically with opaque media.
With the process broken down into logical steps the beginner can see the secret of painting.
Often beginners go directly to step six forget what the concept was or never had one and end up with not very much to show.
The experienced painter with a strong concept can start at step four, Drawing, and do very well.
Many artist are only vaguely aware that the first three steps have been done if only in the head.
Many teachers begin with step four leaving students mystified.
The plein air painter does step one, might do step two, skips three and does the rest all within an hour or two.
To learn and improve picture making skills, practice steps one, two and three using charcoal on paper,
     black and white paint or other single color and white on canvas for step three.
This is one way to end up where you want to be, but is not the only way to paint.
Try starting at step six with no concept applying paint as the spirit moves you. See what happens.


(An instant)

What is the painting about? What mood, emotion, atmosphere do you want to evoke? What inspired you to paint this picture? You may want to write this down so you can check if you're on track. What do you want the viewer to see? It may change as you paint, you need a starting point.

(Five or ten mins.)

Make a number of small, quick sketches in which you explore ways to best depict your concept, at least three. Only a few large shapes and values. Simplify to just six to eight major shapes. Mass together until you have only four or five value masses. Try horizontal, vertical, square formats. No detail. Try out compositions and imagine how you would paint the final. Decide high key, mid key or low key. Called Thumbnail Sketches. Notan can be included in this catagory.

(Mins. to hours)

Work up your best sketch into a larger format. Maintain the simplified design of shapes and values. Could be in charcoal at full size. Could be a quarter of full size in color. Could be in pencil, etc. The purpose is to finalize key, composition, values, edges hard and soft and color scheme. Become familiar with the picture you plan to create. Work out problems ahead of time. Will it be photographic, painterly or nearly abstract?


On the canvas or panel using pencil, charcoal or paint layout the major shapes of your composition. Can be very casual lines. No details. Drawing skill is used in painting when ever you carefully place your next mark in the correct relationship of angle and distance to previous marks. The first two marks are the most critical because they establish location and size of your subject. You may draw a dark line with paint much as you would with a pencil. These lines are often obscured in the end, possibly reestablished. Squaring up may be helpful.

Back to Top

(20 mins to days)

Using one or at most two colors and white and referring to your sketches and/or  studies, paint in the shapes and values, edges, model the forms. Black, Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber are often used. You could use Vermilion or blue, it's up to you. No details. Paint thinly so it will dry fast. Sometimes called the wash-in. For on location work you may want to approximate the final colors in this step. Hold not paint your lightest lights or your darkest darks, the high lights and accents come later.

(mins. to days)

Add the final colors. Indicate the darkest dark, lightest light, most intense hue and most dynamic edge; just enough to allow you to judge other colors and values. Match the values established in the under painting.  Sometimes called the block-in.

(Mins. to days)

When all the value relationships and color relationships are working, and and you have nailed your concept, then you can add details, but only in areas like the focal point. Add  high lights and accents. Consider spots of accent color. These final touches can activate and pull together the painting. The experienced painter works with this in mind.

More Painting Secrets:

The Secret of Values New
The Secret of Emotion

The Secret of Critiquing
The Secret of Composition

The Secret of Visual Idea
The Secret of Borrowing
The Secret of Tonalism 
The Secret of Style
The Secret of Maxfield Parrish

The Secret of Plein Air
The Secret of No Solvents
The Secret of Water Mixable Oils

The Secret of Thumbnails
The Secret of the Process
The Secret of Knife Painting


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