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Painting 101 Alan Nel (BA Art)

Everyone loves painting as a child. Art is usually everyone’s favourite school subject, unless you had a bad teacher. Sometimes it gets dropped along the way because your high school didn’t offer art, or your parents told you that maths and science are more important … but somehow it got lost, and there’s a part of you that misses that feeling of being creative and playing with colour … even if you didn’t think you were very good at it back then. Hopefully this will be your first step to rediscovering the JOY OF ART!

So, what is a painting? What definition will cover ALL the many things that are done under the broad heading of a ‘Painting?’ Does a painting need to be on canvas, does it need to be beautiful? What if you can’t recog-nize anything in front of you … is that still a painting? Here is a definition that covers all aspects of a painting:


  •  ‘Meaningful’ means that there was purpose (an idea) motivating the production.
  • ‘Marks’ means anything from seemingly random squiggles or dabs, to accurate images.
  • An ‘Artmaker’ is not necessarily an ‘artist,’ but anyone who sets out to create an image, even a child.
  • 2-Dimensional means flat, as a 3-d image (even if painted) is considered to be a sculpture.

There are people who say that “painting is just drawing with messy things” (like a brush or a sponge) – hence ‘marks’ instead of lines. A famous artist named Magritte (a Belgian Surrealist) once painted a very accurate looking tobacco pipe, and called his painting “This is not a pipe!” He is correct of course. It is merely a 2-D surface with meaningful paint marks on it, produced so as to remind the viewer of what a pipe looks like, from one particular viewpoint, but it is not a pipe! A painting need not be recognizable though. The marks could be so arranged as to stimulate an emotion, a mood, or to express the artist’s state of mind. The ‘meaning’ may not be obvious to everyone, and it need not be beautiful, but the artist created it for a purpose. It may not be effective (poor skills or message) or it may be effective, even if it is not something you would want to hang on a wall and see it every day.


Representational This means that it is recognizable, either very accurate, or vague.

Photo Realist Very accurate, mimicking the sort of image you would get in photography

Abstract Anything which has been DISTORTED in some way, but is still recognizable, is an abstract painting (eg. stylized, elongated, simplified, symbolic, made angular, etc.)

Impressionist When only the vague colour details and shapes visible to the eye form a distance are rendered, then the artist’s first impression is said to have been produced.

Non-Representational When only the language of art has been used to create a painting (eg. colour, shape, line, etc.) with no recognizable image, then this work is not abstract, but non-representational.


Just like a book is made up of words, sentences and paragraphs, and a piece of music has notes, a melody, rhythm, etc. a painting has elements (or MARKS) which when brought together (arranged) on a flat surface, make the composition. Below are the marks and techniques one can use:
Lines are usually associated with drawing, but they are used in painting as well, either as outlines or contours to enclose shapes, or as decorative marks for their own sake.
Shapes are broader areas of colour that are evenly coloured and appear flat or 2-D. This is often used in cartoon or ‘Disney’ types of illustrations, either with or without outlines.
When a shape has been shaded or highlighted to appear more 3-D, it becomes a form. Forms usually do not have outlines, which confuse the viewer, as objects in nature do not have outlines.
When highlights (TINTS) or darker areas (TONES) are added to forms, this process is known as shading.
Colour is a HUGE tool for artists in creating the effect they are seeking. We all respond to colour, with some colours having ‘universal meaning,’ while others create more personal responses. Colours may be bright, muted, dirty, pastel, earthy, neon … It is not easy to bring harmony or UNITY (an important goal) to a painting when some areas of colour clash too violently with others used in the painting.
If shapes or lines are repeated in an ordered fashion, they create pattern, which usually adds to the 2-D effect of a work or painting.
When forms or areas in the work have lines or marks that suggest an uneven surface, then we refer to that as a rough texture. They may even be in slight relief (slightly 3-D) and there are mediums one can use to produce this. But ‘smooth’ is a texture as well, so the word texture actually refers to the area’s TACTILE nature, how it ‘feels’ (either literally, or to the eye.)

These elements must be brought into a COMPOSITION, or meaningfully arranged by the art maker, using the tools they chose.


This refers to the surface one works on. It has become traditional to work on canvas (panel, stretched, or box) but hard card or wood or any suitable surface is possible. It is also an option to work directly onto a wall or a piece of furniture. A canvas must be primed for oils, but it is useful to do the same for acrylics, as this provides a clean smooth surface for the paints to attach to. Most store-bought canvases come ready-primed for immediate use. Try to get 380gm canvas as thinner ones can cause problems. If the paint slides around on the canvases or gets what is known as fish-eye (paint separating or gathering) it is usually the case that it has not been properly primed with a decent primer. One can also add a little ‘whiting’ (available from pottery shops) to add to Canvas Primer for a rougher surface (with a bit more ‘tooth’) This makes it easier for texture paste to grip.
Old fashioned palettes are traditionally made from wood, but this is actually impractical, as then the paints are selected from a dark background, unlike the white canvas on which they will be placed. It makes more sense then to get a white plastic, a Perspex, or even a glass palette, so that the transparencies of the paints can be more effectively seen before applying them. A flat palette is better than one with separate holes for the paints, as it is easier to shift them when mixing new colours on the palette. Try to work out a regular layout for arranging your colours on your palette, as this speeds up the whole process of instinctively reaching for the colours you want to use next.
A brush is the most common, but certainly not the only applicator, that works for arranging paint on the sub-strates. Rollers, cloths, sponges, sprayers, syringes, bits of cardboard, one’s hand, etc. have all been effectively employed. Brushes can be hard bristled (usually hog hair) for rougher painting where the brushmarks may show, or soft bristled (previously natural animal hairs – now mainly synthetic, like nylons) to blend smooth areas.
For thicker paints, pastes or texture mediums, it is more effective to use a Painting (angled) or a Palette Knife (like a butter knife – usually reserved for mixing to protect wear and tear on brushes.) These can be used to lift and then spread the mediums, using the under part of the blade. It is important to learn all the subtleties of manipulating a painting knife, as it is not just like hastily icing a cake! Texture painting is still very much ‘in fashion’ (worldwide) at the moment.
Acrylic paints have been around since the 1950s, and have become more and more popular, as they are very versatile, more economical, and easier to use than oils. They dry quicker and require less mediums than oils. It is fine to start with a decent quality entry level paint, as imported top quality acrylics can be quite pricey. They are manufactured so as to be fairly transparent in the tube, so as to obtain luminous translucent effects if so desired, but can be made more opaque by using them in thicker amounts, or by applying more than one layer. In the tube they have a gel-like consistency.
See notes on COLOUR before choosing a starter range, as many colours can be effectively mixed.
A Paint Medium is any substance that can be added TO the paint to change its nature, or the way it behaves. The most common for acrylics are:
RETARDER This colourless medium slows down or retards the drying time, and is especially necessary in summer, or when you need to carefully blend colours, or for shading. One can also create a subtle trans-parent scumble glaze by adding Retarder to your paint.
(MIXED MEDIA) GEL MEDIUM This is like paint without any pigment, so it is an extender. It appears milky but will dry clear, and can be added to any colour to thin down the coverage, making the paint more transparent. So when you need a transparent turquoise to imitate the appearance of water, add Gel Medium. Adding white will give you the pastel shade of the colour, rather than lightening it, eg. Red + White = Pink, whereas Red + Gel Medium = Light Red. It is also the best glue for adding collage items to your work, and the catalyst for creating your own texture pastes. (See separate notes on versatility of Gel Medium)
TEXTURE PASTE Should you wish to make your paint thicker instead of thinner, you can add, or paint on top of, texture paste, an already thickened toothpaste-like white paste. It is available in smooth or rough (sandy.) Use painting knives for this type of work, as a brush will get clogged and damaged.
GLAZES & VARNISHES Glazes are available in matt or gloss, and can be tinted to create colour washes. Var-nishes are not strictly mediums as they are used ON TOP rather than IN the paint. It is not really necessary to varnish an acrylic painting as the paint dries waterproof and washable, but there are water based acrylic MATT, SATIN (semi-gloss) and GLOSS varnishes available, which can alter the final look of your painting.

It is also a good idea to have an EASEL, which allows you to look at your work vertically, and step back every now and then for a different perspective; and also prevent ‘foreshortened’ views, which can occur when working on a horizontal surface. A transportable PAINT BOX is handy – for classes or vacations.

A CAMERA is always a good thing to capture and record subjects and objects which excite you as a painter, even if you do not use the photos immediately. A VISUAL DIARY is a very handy companion for sketches, pho-tos, collected pictures, writing down ideas, insights and inspirations, and should always go with you, as you never know when some image or sight or thing will strike a creative chord with you.


One sees COLOURS when certain light waves reflect/refract off an object. No light – no colour! To see red means that all the white light waves are absorbed by the object, except the ones that reflect red, which are redirected to the eyes. When all the waves are reflected, we see white.

One of your school teachers probably told you some time ago that ALL the colours can be mixed from just 3 PRIMARY colours, namely RED, YELLOW, and BLUE. That’s not true. Red isn’t even a primary colour!! (Think of printer cartridges.) There is no RED paint perfect enough to make a great ORANGE, and a great PURPLE, and no amount of mixing a warm YELLOW with BLUE will give you LIME. It is necessary to have TWO of every primary colour! One needs a WARM and a COOL shade of each to create all the rainbow colours.

So, you need a cool LEMON YELLOW, and a warm PRIMARY OR DEEP YELLOW

A cool Red like a MAGENTA or a PERMANENT ROSE, or ALIZARIN CRIMSON, together with a

For the Blues select an ULTRAMARINE or a PTHALO BLUE (Red shade) along with a
cool Blue like a CERULEAN BLUE or a PTHALO BLUE (Green shade)

These 6 shades or hues (colours) will allow you to mix ALL the SECONDARY (Oranges, Greens and Purple / Violets) and TERTIARY colours (more of one Primary than another (eg Lime Green, Dark Orange, Blue Violet) in the bright colours range. Adding WHITE (use Titanium White, which is more opaque than others) would give you all the pastel shades, and MIXED MEDIA GEL MEDIUM, all the lighter more transparent shades.

Additional colours that would be most useful are the EARTHY COLOURS, like
YELLOW OCHRE (a yellow based light brown) BURNT SIENNA (a red based medium brown) and
BURNT UMBER (a dark blue based brown, which will substitute for black when added to dark blue) as black is not a true colour in the strict sense of the word, and often makes colours dirty, particularly in the hands of beginners, as it is so strong. For the darkest substitute for Black, add Prussian Blue to Burnt Umber.
If you intend to concentrate on portraits, a ‘FLESH TINT’ or ‘SKINTONE’ (now usually branded under other names) would prove useful, and if landscapes are your thing, then a SAP GREEN (a complicated blend of at least 5 colours) and some of the other Siennas and Umbers, would help. It is not necessary to buy all 50 colours in a starting range, as mixing them yourself gives you a more subtle and personal range of colours. There are books of artist’s colour recipes available in good art shops, or at the library (and on Google!)
If you have time on your hands, start a tinting and toning chart. Record the colours you used, and keep these results in your Visual Diary for reference whenever you need a particular shade of colour) It may seem like a mountain of a task, but it is very relaxing and therapeutic if you take it step by step (and incredibly useful!)


The most important aspect of a painting is not that it is ‘beautiful,’ but that it is EFFECTIVE!

It is very important that the end product is UNIFIED, that certain parts do not clash unpleasantly with each other or the whole. Elements of the painting must be balanced.

Usually it helps to paint the background first, eg. The sky before the tree in front of it. Try not to paint the background around elements in the foreground.

Try and let the direction of your brushstrokes ‘describe’ the form you are painting.

Pastel or lighter shades appear further away – in the distance, while brighter or strong colours ‘come forward’ – seem nearer. It is a way to depict ‘distance’ in a painting.

When selecting adjacent colours, decide whether you want contrast (vibrant , lively, bold) or harmony (peaceful, quiet.) This applies to tones as well as colours.

When doing faces or fabric, paint the general shape first before ‘drawing’/painting the detail (eg. eyes, mouth or patterns on the cloth.)

With trees or bushes (foliage) paint the shadows between the leaves before adding highlights or details.

Try to work over the whole surface in rough (no detail) before bringing any one area to completion. Mistakes can be rectified by allowing a section to dry, and then repainting it.

Try to mix your own colours (for subtle original colours) rather than using them all straight out of the tube, otherwise your colours will look the same as everyone elses.

When drawing for a painting, map out only the broad general areas, as it is easier to draw finer details over already painted areas.

What happens between the 4 sides of your painting is up to you, and your personal choices. It is not wrong or right, it is effective or not effective, but it is your own creation, the world of your own imagination and inter-pretation, so add your unique individual style.

Let the size of your work surface dictate what size brushes to use. Working with a large brush on a small canvas makes the images look ‘awkward.’ Working with too small a brush takes ages, and makes the images look ‘over pampered.’

Try to use more than one brush when you are blending, as blending paint is easier and more spontaneous when the paint is still wet.

Drybrushing’ is when you only apply a small amount of paint on a brush, and scratch it texturally over an already dried paint surface.

Try and keep your contours (outlines or edges) consistent – either sharp / hard edged, or painterly (rough / textured)

Avoid letting little bits of the unpainted canvas show between the forms, as this can be annoying when the work is finished. (unless you are using it as a consistent technique in the painting.) Shapes and colours generally look better when they are touching or overlapping the areas they are juxtaposed with.

Throw out the dirty water you clean your brushes with regularly while working, as it could affect the next colour you use.

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