So You Wanna Learn How To Paint.

This afternoon I received a text message that got the wheels in my head turning. “I have a painting related question: I want to start painting, I have no clue where to begin! Can you help/guide me?”

My first question: “What medium do you want to paint with?”

My second question: “What kind of stuff do you want to paint?”

There’s a reason I asked those questions in that order. I don’t care why anyone wants to paint or, really, do any art. Art has its own value. But from a practical standpoint, you need to know where you’re starting.

There are, in my head, a couple different approaches to painting. They all have value, but different results.

1) The recipe. you want to paint and maybe you have an image. Like a sunset. Yeah, sunsets are awesome! You decide you want to do a painting of a sunset. You decide whether you want a very soft and dreamy watercolor, or a bolder acrylic, or a slickly vibrant oil, and you take your things to a place where you can paint and you paint what you see (or you Google a picture you like and use it as a reference from the comfort of your own living room). Maybe you have over 1500 pictures on your phone that are just waiting for this moment, when you pull one up and began mixing colors to move that moment in time from the ephemerally digital to canvas. This process is a valid form of creation. It’s work, and it’s often hard work, even if you’re taking a class or you have the best Pinterest guide you can find. You’re putting effort into making something beautiful.

Down To The Point. July 2013. 11×14, acrylic.

Ultimately, though, you’re starting with the end result and working to create what you see. In the case of the above painting, I was teaching a 2-week clay and paint session at the camp I was working at. One of the projects I planned was to go down to a particularly beautiful place in camp with canvases and to do some landscape painting.

2) The experiment. You want to paint and maybe you have an idea. Maybe some lovely turn of phrase has caught your attention, or some remembered dream or thought. The one that’s been stuck in my head lately is remember what you saw when you closed your eyes. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet, but man, I like it. Maybe you like the idea of a dancer suspended in a pool of light, or maybe you like the idea of a trio of frogs. Maybe you don’t have a concrete image at all, but you feel something when you listen to a particular song and you want to translate that into something visual. Many of my paintings have been inspired by a particular song or playlist.

"The Tears Froze As She Walked In The Winter Night". February 2013. 24x36, acrylic.
“The Tears Froze As She Walked In The Winter Night”. February 2013. 24×36, acrylic.

In this, you’re starting with your materials and working to create with what you’ve got. In the painting featured here, there was a particular experience that inspired it. I was walking home from work on one bitterly cold night in January. It had been a long, crappy day, and a long, crappy shift at work, and I was going home to an empty apartment with no one but an indifferent rabbit for company. I took a shortcut to my apartment that involved navigating a really iffy path through the snowpack, and naturally, I stepped in the wrong spot and fell into snow halfway up to my thighs. As I lay there in the bitter cold, stars sparkling overhead, it was both a profoundly lonely moment, and a profoundly lovely one. Winter in the Upper Peninsula is just so beautiful. It’s bleak, and it’s harsh, and the cold slithers in between your clothing and your tender skin, and it gets down into your marrow and your mind so that all you can do is focus on putting one foot in front of the other, which is just beautifully meditative in a stark sort of way. It’s just beautiful in its own unforgiving, alien sort of way. And I was hurting, in a tired, sad, lonely sort of way, the kind where you cry almost without realizing it–except on this night, it was so cold beneath that clear dark sky that the tears froze on my face. From that profoundly beautiful yet lonely moment…this painting was born.

3) The technique. You want to paint and maybe you don’t have an image or an idea, but you have a skill. Different aspects of painting involve developing skill sets. For instance, mixing colors is a skill. You need to know that if you’re mixing green, you need far less blue than you do yellow, because blue pigment is darker than yellow. You also need to know that you need different shades of blue and yellow for different shades of green. Another skill would be knowing what brush to use and when. Fan brushes do different things than flats, filberts serve a different purpose than liners. So maybe you don’t necessarily have an idea in mind, but you want to play with color. That is also a valid form of creation.

“The Sun In The Sargasso.” January 2015. 16×20, acrylic.

Like the second kind of painting, this is really about starting with your materials and working backward. In the painting above, I started with 3 shades of paint: that bright blue, the golden yellow and the lighter lemony yellow you can see a pure form of in the lower left corner. This was an exercise in color restriction: what happens if you only use 3 colors in a painting? Can you still get depth, get an interesting product? The answer is of course-if you know your techniques. There were a couple of techniques I used in this painting–one was in color mixing. Blue and yellow produce green, right? Well, what kind of green? It all depends on the amount of each color you use. There were also brushwork techniques involved–I don’t actually know if there’s a word for it, but I really enjoy letting the paint mix as I go, which produces a kinda streaky blending effect. Similarly, I like to do a thing where I put paint of different colors onto my palette all next to each other, then dip my brush into them so that they come out in layered splotches, colors kinda swirling and mixing as I go.

It’s important, to me, to know what medium you want to paint with first and foremost, because the results on all 3 of these particular approaches to painting depends on what you start with. All 3 of these paintings are acrylic, because that’s usually my preferred medium. But what if I had tried to paint them in watercolor? (I have in fact done a landscape or two in watercolor). The colors mix differently and behave differently on canvas–for example, acrylic typically stays where you put it, while watercolor…likes to travel if there’s water elsewhere on your canvas. Some of my watercolor projects have depended on water traveling, in fact. There is an exactness and precision to acrylic that watercolor simply doesn’t do. However, watercolor blends far better than acrylic. Getting a gradient effect with acrylic is hard, whereas it’s one of the first things people typically learn how to do when learning watercolor.

So you decide you want to paint with acrylics because you like the bold colors and the ability to just paint over your mistakes. Great! Now what?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

This is what you’ll need:

$4.99 on

1) Paint. (Duh). But what kind of paint? If you go to Michaels’ or any other arts and crafts store, the selection is typically large and overwhelming. If you’re just starting out, I’m a big fan of the kits that were designed just for this purpose, like this one from Michaels’: it’s got a good selection of colors plus white and black and they’re all of the same consistency and opacity, so you can get an idea on how acrylics blend and layer. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can start branching out into other kinds of acrylics. You can play with glossy, matte, metallic, even…even!…nail polish. What? Don’t look at me that way. It’s technically a kind of acrylic too, and you can use it to really cool effect–it dries faster than regular acrylic paint, and comes in different textures. I wouldn’t recommend using it often or in large quantities because of the fumes, but you can do cool stuff with it.

2) Brushes. (Again, duh.) But what kind of brushes? I have a collection of brushes, some cheap, some expensive, acquired at different points over the last several years. I don’t have a particular preference for natural hairs for the bristles over synthetic, though I think in general I prefer synthetic–there seems to be less shedding of the bristles. It’s annoying having to pick bristles out of your painting, and acrylic often acts almost like a glue if they fall in and you don’t catch them till after the paint has dried. Like the paint, you can find multipacks of brushes of either natural fibers or synthetic at Michaels’ or other craft stories for $5 or less. In general, you want at least one flat brush and maybe a slimmer liner or round brush for detailing, no matter what you intend to paint. I’ve done entire paintings just using one or two brushes.

3) Canvas. Yes, canvas. Yes, canvas just for screwing around with paints to see what they do. Why? Because it’s just so satisfying. You can get the really fancy paper, sure, but I’m telling you–as much as I loved painting growing up, it didn’t click for me that it was what I was meant to do until the first time I painted on canvas. The texture of canvas is different than paper, and it takes up paint better–you can layer paint and make mistakes on canvas in a way that you cannot on paper. Even if you buy the expensive watercolor paper that’s meant to take a beating, it’s just not the same. I think that painting on canvas gives a certain different kind of dignity.

What size of canvas, though? That’s up to you. In general I recommend not doing anything bigger than 11×14 (inches) to start with. Painting on a big canvas is a skill, and it takes time, patience (and sometimes really sore shoulders) to develop it. Again, you can buy multipacks of canvases too. Michaels’ (or your craft store of choice) typically sell framed canvases (which is what you want–you can learn how to stretch and frame canvases later, if you want) in packs of 2, 5, 7 or even 10, depending on the size of the canvas. You can get a 10-pack of 8x10in canvases for $20, or less, if you have a coupon.

$0.99 at

4) A palette. This is actually entirely optional. I used one particular old plastic plate I inherited from a roommate for my palette for a long time until I finally bought an actual palette. If you’re working with watercolors, I recommend getting one of the palettes that has individual wells like this one to the left. These keep your watery watercolors from running together. Otherwise, you can use damn near anything including just a sheet of wax paper or aluminum foil, and with acrylics, you can just dump new paint on top of dried paint and it’ll be fine–when it dries, it turns into this stretchy plastic stuff. Which is what it is–acrylic is basically a colored liquid plastic you can smear around on stuff to make pretty things with.

5) A jar, a bottle, a bucket, a cup: something to rinse your brushes in. This is pretty self-explanatory. You don’t need anything fancy, and unless you’re working with oils, you really don’t need a fancy brush cleaner unless you do something stupid like leaving your good flat brush to dry in a puddle of Mediterranean blue. You just need to get them clean when you’re done with them. I currently have a fancy jar with a lid I use for my brush water because I can throw it in my “traveling paint box” when I’m done, but I’ve used red Solo cups and paper bowls and coffee mugs before.

So, you’ve got all your stuff now. Now what?

Well, you paint.

But what do I paint?

Whatever you want.

I don’t know what I want to paint.

Just start painting. Don’t wait for an invitation. Just squirt out some of whatever color of paint appeals to you and put your brush in that paint and then put your brush on the canvas and move it.

But what if I don’t actually paint anything?

You mean, what if it’s just some weird abstract gobbledygook?


…So? The majority of my paintings are weird abstract gobbledygooks. Many, many artists have been all about the weird abstract gobbledygooks, and many of them have gotten paid for it or are currently getting paid for it. I’ve been commissioned to do a series of four paintings that are basically just sexy swirly lines to the tune of nearly $300.

But what if it’s ugly?

Sometimes art is ugly. Sometimes emotions are ugly.

What if people talk shit about it?

I’m sorry, are we caring about what people think about our art when they themselves probably aren’t doing anything more than pinning shit on Pinterest (that they’ll never do?) Is that a thing we’re doing now?

…Well, maybe not.


But what should I paint?

Seriously, whatever the fuck you want. Art doesn’t have to be a nice polite sunset painting. Sometimes it’s notebook doodles turned into something larger. Sometimes it’s Jackson Pollock literally flinging paint at a canvas.

I need ideas.

Okay okay okay OKAY. Fine. I’ll give you five ideas, go play.

1) Pick a color, plus black and white. Use that ONE color to do a still life, or a portrait, or even in abstract–it can be very soothing to just do lines, streaks, swirls, splotches, whatever you want. Use black and white to get different tints, tones and shades (tints are color + white, tones are color + gray, shades are color + black). I did a painting of a young Sean Connery this way in high school.

2) Find something mundane, like the stuffed giraffe you had when you were five that you loved beyond measure. Paint it so that it is magical.

3) Throw all your painting shit in a box and walk out somewhere where you can sit and be alone. When you feel calm and safe, begin painting what you see. Don’t worry about the accuracy. Don’t worry, period. Just focus on the many shades of snow, or trees, or water, or the endlessness of the sky. Focus.

4) Find a poem you like. Find words in that poem, or whole lines. Twist and manipulate the text itself into shapes, swirls, lines, whatever. Paint the poem. Paint what it makes you feel. I do this all the time, including in the painting I posted up above, “The Tears Froze As She Walked In The Winter Night.” Yeah, there are words buried in there. Go look for them.

5) Find a song. Instrumental works best for this, because lyrics can be distracting and will make you try to think literally rather than abstractly. Or if you need vocals, find songs in another language, or weird songs that are kinda warped and have really abstract vocals. Listen to this song with your eyes closed. How does it make you feel? Figure out what it makes you feel, and then translate that into colors. Then put those colors together on canvas in a way that makes them move like the music does.

But how…?

You just listen to it. What, you want specific songs?


Okay. That I can do.

Eluvium – “Indoor Swimming In The International Space Station”

Zola Jesus – “Ixode”

Mythos – “Requiem”

BT – “Good Morning Kaia”

Way Out West – “Northern Lights”

Medieval Baebes – “Isabella”

Martin Tillman – “Trans Mojave”

Zoe Keating – “Sun Will Set”

Secret Garden – “The Reel”

Now go paint, dammit.


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