Oil Painting Basics: Part 2 | Getting Started & Setting Up

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Every artist has their own routine when it comes to getting started. My personal routine has evolved over the years and includes cleaning up my space before I get started and finding a great playlist, audio book, or movie to listen to while I work. Whatever yours is, or whatever yours evolves into as you start your artistic journey with oil painting, do what works for you. To get you started, however, here are some basic guidelines:

Getting Started

1. Have A Check List
Before you even think of “getting started,” start with making sure you have everything you need. If you’ve missed it, Part 1 is all about supplies and things you will need. Click here to check it out. If you’ve “been there, read that,” below is a list for you to double check. One of the saddest things you can experience with oil painting is being so excited to get started all to find out--you forgot to buy a canvas! Click here for a free printable version of this checklist!

2. Know Your Subject  
Next to having all your supplies, knowing what you will paint is important, so I’m going to break this second point into a few points in itself. (Of course, this subject is much more complex than just a few points.) Additionally, I find that once I get one idea of something to paint--I get 10 more ideas! So I always keep a list of "To Paint." That way, when inspiration is lacking--I can turn to this list and not be lost.

2.1 Know Your Subject & Keep It Simple . . .  Simple Enough  
While you’re just beginning, and even if you’re not beginning and it’s just what you like, you don’t need elaborate subject matter full of meaning and intrigue. Don’t be shy of painting something simple. If a single object such as a lemon or apple is what you wish to paint--paint away! You can make it beautiful no matter what. Be clever. However, if super simple subject matter, like a single apple, isn’t your thing, maybe try a basket of apples. Simple can mean a few objects or one face. Don’t start with something overly ambitious like a multi-figure painting, a huge still life with every fruit imaginable in it, or a city scene next to a creek with a million trees and a few little fishermen waving to their wives and children who are flying kites. Keep it simple. Simple enough.

2.2 Know Your Subject and Don’t Fear
Most importantly, start with something that you’re drawn to. If that be a portrait or still life, go for it! Try a landscape if that intrigues you. My grandma, an artist herself, taught me a great lesson when I was a little girl about painting. She told me to draw her night lamp across the room. “Draw it as perfectly as you can” she said. I probably sat there for far longer than you’d expect someone of that age to, but I did, I drew it as perfectly as I could. My grandma then told me if I could draw that lamp “perfectly” then I could draw anything perfectly if I just looked at it the same as I had just looked at the lamp. The lesson here isn’t, “if you can draw a night lamp perfectly, you can draw anything,” but instead, it is, if you can draw or paint one thing perfectly that you see in front of you, there is no stopping you from drawing or painting something else perfectly in front of you. All of the sudden, nothing you draw or paint is easy, and nothing is hard. Drawing is drawing . . . is drawing. Painting is painting . . . It was one of the best lessons I learned. Don’t fear a subject matter just because it is “hard.” Let’s remember this great quote from Van Gogh “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

3. Know What To Paint From
Once you know your subject, decide whether it will be best to work from life or from a photograph:

Paint From Life
Painting from life is invaluable. (Painting from life means simply painting from objects or a subject in front of you, not painting from your imagination or from a photograph.)  Nothing is a better teacher than your own eye observing objects or a subject in front of you and painting it from life. At any time you can, paint from life. Especially if you’re really trying to mature your skills. Take your paints outdoors to paint a landscape. Set up a still life in your studio to work from. Have a family member or friend sit for you while you paint. Though it may seem more difficult than working from a photograph, your eye will show colors (as well as hard and soft edges and patterns) infinitely better than any camera. Any time spent painting from life is time well spent. I cannot stress it enough.

Paint From A Photograph
Painting from a photograph is far more convenient than painting from life. Not to diminish the importance of painting from life in any way (it will always be number 1,) but if you don’t have anyone to sit and model for hours, you have a vase of wildflowers that will die in a day and you need longer, or even if you see a beautiful landscape while out on a drive--this is when photography is a wonderful resource. I love the article from NY Daily News on Norman Rockwell and his experience with painting from photographs. Also, if you need a guide to photographing great images to paint--check out this post from yours truly!

Setting Up

1. Your Work Space

Whenever possible, set up near a window with natural lighting. If you are right handed, the window should be on your left so that the shadow your hand casts doesn’t cover the very spot you’re working on, and visa-versa for those who are left handed. If you don’t have natural lighting, a couple of 100W “day-light” bulbs will suffice. Just avoid any yellow light.

Make sure you are comfortable. This seems like a no-brainer, but there are still many times when I walk away from my easel after a couple hours stiff as a board, not wanting to return.  

Don’t forget to position your palette, subject, and supplies well. For me, I will always have my handheld palette in my left hand (as I am right-handed) or to my right if it is sitting on a table so I don’t have to reach across my painting and body. I position my easel directly in front of me, and my model or subject to the right of my easel so that I can mix colors on my palette as close (in eyesight) to what it is I am painting. (If I am working from photos, I usually tape them to a board immediately left of my canvas so that I don’t cover them with my arm as I am painting.) Additionally, I keep all my supplies to my right. My brush will be in my right hand, and I want to access my “medium,” “brush cleaner,” or anything else quickly and easily.

2. Laying Out Your Colors

I will be the first to agree that, yes, paints are expensive! But don’t shy away from putting enough out on your palette to save a buck! I would say a good rule of thumb for knowing how much is enough is “nickel size or larger.” If you’re nearing dime size or less--keep squeezing! In the moment when you’re 45 minutes into your painting, completely in another world, you won’t even notice that you’re fresh out of bright red. It’ll just so happen to be in that moment that you need to rosey up the cheeks of the little lady you are painting, instead of stopping, stepping out of your zone, and restocking your bright red, you’ll reach for that “darker red” which is actually the wrong color, and that’s when mistakes happen. So put out enough paint. If you don’t use it all, that’s ok. There are many ways to save it for another day. 

As you lay out your colors, be aware that the order in which you lay them is also important. Not only does it help you logically remember the attributes of each color, but over time, it helps you reach quickly for colors so you can focus on mixing them rather than finding them. It becomes habitual.

My palette habit reaches for this order of color from left to right.
Titanium White
Cadmium Yellow (Cool Yellow)
Cadmium Yellow Medium (Warm Yellow)
Cad Red Light (Warm Red)
Alizarin Crimson Permanent (“Cool” Red)
Dioxazine Purple (Warm Purple)
Ultramarine Blue (Cool Blue)
Cobalt Blue (“Warm” Blue)
Sap Green (Warm Green)
Viridian (Cool Green)
Burnt Sienna (Warm Toner)
Burnt Umber (“Cool” and “Warm” Toner)
Ivory Black (“Cool” Toner)

3. Canvas Prep
You will love the painting process if you have great surface to work on. You can read more about what canvas or surface you select on Part 1.

Before you begin your painting, it’s helpful that your canvas or surface is “toned”, or, in other words, that it isn’t white. A quick way to tone a white canvas is a light, transparent wash of burnt sienna or ivory black over the entire canvas. Mixing some paint thinner into a little bit of paint on your palette will do just the trick. Apply it with a brush, and use a paper towel to spread it out so that it covers the whole canvas. (A transparent sheet of Duralar will already be “toned” as it is not white.) You should be able to leave finger prints, but it shouldn’t be dripping. I like to set mine out in the sun for about 10 minutes and let it dry a bit--or I prepare my canvas the night before. Note: When toning with black--it should be a light charcoal and not a rich deep black.

You’re ready to start painting now! I can’t wait for you to get started! Good luck! Be bold! Check back for Project #1 soon, or follow along on Instagram @SarahCNightingale for updates. If you've learned from my posts and want to share your work, hashtag #PaintingWithSCN. We would all LOVE to see!

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  1. This is great information! I have been reading through your series and I am excited to get painting. Thank you for being so thorough, and for the beautiful visuals which are just as informative. I have stepped away from painting for ten years and this is a great resource to refresh my memory as well as a lot of new insights. You do beautiful work!

  2. Oh Aubrey! What a kind note! Thank you very much. I am so glad to read that you are benefitting from this series. I would love to see your work some time! I've been working on a new post for this series, but of course they take a great chunk of time so it'll be a while more until it is posted. Happy painting to you!! :)


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