Painting is a wonderfully relaxing way to spend time. It’s the perfect escape.
If you feel inspired to paint, but not sure where to start, this tutorial will guide you through everything you need to know to get started. From how to choose a medium, to how to get set up and start a painting. Plus find some painting ideas to inspire you.
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Choose your painting medium
Oil, watercolour and acrylic are the three most popular types of painting mediums. They have their own unique working properties. By choosing either oil, acrylic or watercolour, you could achieve hugely different results in your artworks.
Read through the pros and cons of each medium to decide which would suit you best.
Oil painting pros and cons
Oil paint is made from pigment and a drying oil binder. The drying oil is usually linseed, poppy, walnut or safflower.
- Paint is luminous, luxurious and vibrant.
- It is an archival medium—many brands of paint use pigments with excellent lightfast ratings. This means that paintings will last hundreds of years under gallery conditions.
- Oil is a slow drying medium. It can take between 1-3 days to dry depending on how thickly it has been applied and whether the paint mix includes extra additives. This acts as a benefit for artists who like to work slowly on each layer of paint, blending for hours on end. It also gives flexibility to the kinds of techniques you can use.
- Create endless layers of glaze, for depth and realism.
- It is versatile, add a thickening medium to oil to create texture, or make paint runnier with extra linseed oil.
- Oil painting is easy to learn because it is a forgiving medium. Because it dries slowly, you can simply wipe any mistakes you make away with something absorbent like a cotton ball. Cover up dry areas with an opaque pigment like titanium white.
- Oil paint materials are more expensive than acrylic and watercolour. You also need more supplies to get started. It’s possible to paint on a budget by cutting down on the amount of materials you use, but if you’re on a super tight budget, it may be a better idea to practise painting with another medium first.
- Certain oil painting materials can be bad for your health. Solvent is harmful when breathed in, so if you choose to use solvent to thin oil paint or clean it from materials, make sure to properly ventilate your space. It’s possible to paint solvent free, however. If you like the sound of oil painting, read our studio safety guide before embarking on your oil painting journey to understand how to create a safe working space.
Get oil painting supplies in this guide.
Watercolour painting pros and cons
Watercolour paint is made from pigment and a water soluble binder like gum arabic. Paint is resoluble when dry.
- Watercolour is a wonderful type of paint that has a unique appearance. Colours are transparent so they appear muted on the paper. Achieve delicate effects with this medium.
- Supplies are relatively inexpensive and you don’t need many different materials to get started.
- Paint is easy to clean from materials as it’s resoluble when dry. Just wash supplies with water.
- Due to the low viscosity of the paint, colours flow across the paper in a way that’s more unpredictable than oil and acrylic. Harness this to make colours swirl together.
- Mistakes are more difficult to correct than other mediums due to the transparency of the paint. Some pigments have staining properties, making them difficult to lift from the paper.
- Watercolour isn’t a versatile medium compared to oil and acrylic. The paint is runny and there are fewer mediums and additives available to alter the consistency and handling properties.
- There are fewer types of surface and brushes available, due to the paint being low viscosity and water based. This means that the range of effects you can achieve with watercolour is less than oil and acrylic.
Get watercolour painting supplies for beginners in this guide.
Acrylic painting pros and cons
Acrylic paint is a water based medium that is soluble when wet, but not soluble once dry. It’s made from a mixture of pigment and polymer resin. The drying time is around 30 minutes.
- It is a water based medium, so it is easy to clean from materials when the paint is still wet.
- Acrylic paint is fast drying—this is a positive thing for some artists who like to work fast in layers.
- Paint is versatile. You can buy heavy body paint, which is thick and perfect for texture paintings. Or you can get soft body paint, which is runnier and can be used for painting details.
- Achieve similar traditional styles to oil painting, or use acrylic for more novel techniques like pour painting and airbrush.
- It’s generally cheaper than oil paint.
- The fast drying nature can be a challenge for some artists who want to blend on the canvas for longer. Luckily, you can increase the open working time of acrylic paint with a medium, or by using Open Acrylics (which can take up to a day to dry).
- When paint is dry, it’s difficult to remove from materials. Luckily, it’s not impossible. Read our tutorial on how to remove dry acrylic from brushes.
- Because of the fast drying time, paints can start to feel sticky on the brush quite quickly. It doesn’t have the same luxuriously smooth feel that oil paints do. That said, a high quality brand of acrylic paint with a slow drying medium added will feel buttery.
Get acrylic painting supplies for beginners in this guide.
Which painting medium is best for beginners?
Now you have an idea of what your paint is made from and an idea of how to use each medium, you can start to make a decision about which you will enjoy using the most. Of course, you can experiment with all three! Find a medium that ticks your boxes in terms of the effects you want to achieve, the money you want to spend and the overall experience you want to have painting.
Is watercolour painting good for beginners?
Watercolour is perhaps the cheapest to get started with. If you’re on a budget, the only supplies you need are a few colours, a watercolour sketchbook and a brush. This makes it suitable for working in a small space and easier to travel with. Plus, if you’ve had some practice drawing, you can get watercolour pencils, draw on paper then wet with a brush. Watercolour pencils are a great introduction to the medium for beginners. Materials are non-toxic and safe to use compared to oil.
However, watercolour is a difficult medium to master. It’s harder to control the paint, due to its runny nature and the fact that it is resoluble when dry. Mistakes are difficult to correct.
Should I choose oil painting as a beginner?
Oil paint is more expensive. More supplies and space is required to get started. But don’t let all that put you off. So compared to watercolour, oil painting can feel more difficult to pick up from the offset, but it is arguably easier to master.
If you’re attracted to oil painting, give it a go. There are economical ways to go about starting. Plus, you don’t have to use solvent to thin paint, meaning that you can paint in a fume free space.
Oil painting is such a rewarding experience, the results you can achieve are unbeatable. For a more in depth guide, read our oil painting tutorial for beginners.
Acrylic painting for beginners
Acrylic paint is a wonderful choice for beginners. It’s relatively inexpensive to get supplies to get set up. Materials are non-toxic and you don’t need a large ventilated space to work with the paint. Acrylics are easy to use, and you can achieve vibrant, archival results using this medium.
If you’re still struggling to choose which painting medium to start with, read our guide: oil vs acrylic vs watercolour painting.
Choose your favourite painting style
Finding your painting style can take time to develop. Consider what kinds of art styles you are drawn to and once you start practising, which techniques you most enjoy using.
If you’re a complete beginner, it can pay off to experiment. If you paint with oil or acrylic, try creating some textured artworks or try painting different subject matter.
Read our guide on how to find your art style for a deep dive on how to find your voice as an artist.
How to start painting
To start painting, you need all the right supplies and to set up your workspace. After all the essential preparation is done, there are a few different options for how to start putting paint onto canvas.
- Paint: Oil, watercolour or acrylic paint. The best brands of paint have high pigment loads and use minimal fillers to bulk paint out. Our acrylic brand review, oil paint brand review and watercolour paint brand review will point you in the right direction if you’re not sure which brand of paint to go with.
- Surfaces: Watercolour paper works best for watercolour painting, for oil and acrylic, choose canvas, wooden panel or Gessobord.
- Brushes: Choose a soft brush for watercolour painting (either sable or synthetic sable). Synthetic brushes are best suited for acrylic paint, in either stiff or medium soft fibres. Use the same brushes for oil as you do for acrylic paint. A good tip is to use soft fibres with runny paint and stiff fibres with more viscous paint.
- Palette: For oil and acrylic paints, I recommend getting a large, smooth, flat palette like this one made from tempered glass. Clean it by scraping paint with a razor scraper. Ceramic palettes work best with watercolour paint, especially for studio work. You’ll also need palette knives to mix oil and acrylic paint if you want to keep your brushes and mixing tools separate.
- Clean up: This brush soap will clean oil, acrylic and watercolour from bristles at the end of the session. When oil painting, dip your brush in some safflower oil to remove pigment from bristles throughout the painting session, this is a solvent free way of painting. Get jars of water and paper towels for cleaning acrylic and watercolour.
Prepare your surface
When working with oil and acrylic paint, you will have to seal raw wood and unprimed canvas before painting. If you buy surfaces that come primed and ready to paint onto, that will have been labelled ‘Universal Primed’ then you don’t need to do any further preparation. When painting on raw wood or canvas, apply a few coats of sealant, followed by a few coats of gesso. Learn how to prime a canvas yourself.
Mix your colours
By mixing colours before you start painting, you can save yourself the interruption of having to go back and forth to mix paint while you’re working. It can help to analyse your reference, its tones, values and colours before you paint to become more familiar with it. This tactic works perfectly with oil painting as colours dry so slowly. If you’re painting with acrylic, get some slow drying medium to add to the colours to stop them from drying out.
Start with a drawing
Start with a drawing if you want to create a more accurate or detailed looking piece. Not all artists start with a drawing, but it’s useful for rendering more complex subject matter, or just to use as a guide for a piece you know you’ll spend a lot of time and effort on.
If you’re not confident in creating an accurate drawing, there are techniques you can use to help you increase that precision. Learn how to draw with a grid in this guide.
Choose how you apply paint
With watercolour, the technique is pretty straightforward when getting started. Start by painting the light colours then slowly work in the darker shades. Choose if you want to paint in layers, or by applying colour directly as you see it from your reference. Consecutive layers of paint will alter the colours of the previous layers, getting gradually darker.
When painting in oil and acrylic, you can choose a number of different approaches. You could start by blocking in the abstract shapes and colours that will form the large background areas. For example, blocking in a sky gradient—with a deep blue at the top blending into a light blue near the horizon. With the blocking in technique, you could wait for this to dry, then paint clouds on top.
Another approach for oil and acrylic painting is to apply the colour as you perceive it in your reference in the exact spot on your artwork you intend it to go. This is a direct approach to painting that requires a lot of practice and accurate colour mixing.
One final approach is to create a tonal underpainting, then apply coloured glazes and highlights on top. This is an example of an indirect painting approach.
The blocking in technique is perhaps the easiest way to start a painting for most people, but some people prefer a more direct approach to painting. Creating an underpainting with glazes on top requires skill and practice—it’s the technique that many of the Old Masters used, including Rembandt and Vermeer.
Find some painting ideas
The next step in figuring out how to start your painting is deciding what to paint. Paint what inspires you. Whether that’s landscapes, portraits, seascapes or still life setups.
If watercolour is your chosen medium, check out these easy watercolour painting ideas. Learn how to paint galaxies, portraits, flowers and sunsets.
For artists who’ve chosen acrylic paint as their primary medium, these 8 easy acrylic painting tutorials will show you how to paint two different kinds of landscapes, an abstract artwork and tips on how to improve your portrait painting skills.
Oil painters can find these 11 easy oil painting tutorials—learn how to create landscape oil sketches, a misty forest scene, clouds, sunsets, portraits and much more.
How to paint: The basics
A large part of learning to paint is about learning how your materials work and how it will affect the finished outcome. There are multiple other aspects to learning to paint—like colour mixing and composition.
Think about your composition
Before starting your painting, you’ll need to think about how all the elements come together to make an aesthetically pleasing piece. Even if you’re painting from a photo, there are ways that you can edit and improve the composition, to create a painting that appears striking.
Get a sketchbook or piece of paper and pencil and make multiple thumbnail sketches of the scene. Think about which elements you want to bring to the foreground and which will merge into the background. Elements that take centre stage in a composition are often brought forwards with detail and their positioning.
People’s eyes are drawn to the following:
- Contrasting values and colours arranged next to one another
- Elements positioned in accordance with the rule of thirds. Imagine your canvas is divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically. Place elements at the intersections of where these three parts are divided.
Now you know where people look towards in an image, you can use this to plan where you will place your focal point.
Other compositional tips:
- Try not to split your painting directly in half for your horizon line
- For elements in the background: light and dark tones will be closer in value, there should be less visible detail and texture
- Variety creates interest: overlapping elements, variety of shapes, sizes and colours
How to mix colours
Mixing colour realistically is one of the biggest challenges in learning to paint. If you get a primary palette, you can mix any colour from six pigments. Here’s a great primary palette for oil painters. For acrylic painters this set by Golden includes all the colours you need. The set of 12 half pans by Schmincke includes a perfect primary palette for watercolour painters. Use white and a darker colour like Burnt Umber or black to create values.
To neutralise a colour mix, add in a little Burnt Umber, or mix in the complementary colour. So for example, if you wanted to neutralise a turquoise blue, the complementary colour is the one that sits on the opposite side of the colour wheel. So in this case, the complementary colour would be a reddish orange. Mix the two together and create neutral blue shades or grey.
Read our guide on how to mix colour for a more comprehensive look at how different pigments combine. There’s also a step-by-step mixing process you can follow along with to help you improve your mixing skills quickly.
Leave details to last
If you want to paint loosely, there’s no need to include details. But if you choose to include details in your painting, leave them to last. For oil and acrylic painting, details and highlights are usually added in the final layer of the painting, once all the larger elements are in place. If you want to create a painting with lots of intricate details, make your paint runny with extra linseed oil or if you’re using acrylic, make it runny with a glazing medium.
Tips to improve your painting skills quickly
You don’t need to be talented to be a good painter. For many painters, artistic talent is a concoction of practice and learned skills paired with the motivation and desire to create. So if you feel inspired to get stuck in and you think that the painting process is something you will enjoy, then you’re already part way there!
Like any new skill, painting takes a little bit of time to master. It takes experimentation, trial and error. It’s really a circle of learning, practising and analysing the results.
A great tip to improve fast, is to make time for a regular painting practice. If you don’t have much time to fit this in, you could start by painting on a small scale. By creating multiple smaller works, it’ll teach you how to paint fast and paint a variety of subjects.
Another good tip is to start a drawing practice. Drawing forces you to pay attention to structure, form and values. You’ll find that your paintings become more accurate in their proportions and values if you spend more time drawing.
Common mistakes beginners make
Not getting the right materials
Although you don’t need lots of materials to start painting and you certainly don’t need to buy the most expensive materials from the offset, using the wrong types of materials can make the whole painting process feel like a struggle.
For example, if you use paper that isn’t specifically designed for watercolour painting, it wouldn’t have been primed properly and it won’t be absorbent enough to take washes of colour.
Instead of blending two completely different shades, try to mix a gradation of shades in between the two colours on the palette first. This way, colours will appear less muddy.
Incorporating too much Titanium White into the mix
If you’re oil or acrylic painting, you will likely want to get a large tube of Titanium White. You will be using this colour a lot to create highlights and high key tones.
Titanium White is an opaque pigment so when transparent colours are mixed with it, they will appear opaque. However, it can also make colours look chalky if too much is added. A remedy for this is to mix a combination of Zinc White and Titanium White together. Zinc is a more transparent pigment, so it helps transparent colours retain this quality and does not sap them of their saturation.
Another thing to avoid is using pure titanium white in highlights. Highlights in a painting will be a tint of another colour and are rarely if ever pure white. If you look at the brightest fluffy white clouds in the sky, they’re not actually pure white. They may be ever so slightly yellow, blue or grey in tone.
Incorporating too much Ivory Black into the mix
On the flip side, by incorporating too much Ivory Black into paint mixtures, paint can start to look muddy and lacking in colour. Ivory Black is a low chroma blue that is cool in tone. So it can not only darken colours, but sap colours of their hues if too much is mixed in.
If you’re mixing warmer tones, I would recommend using Burnt Umber instead of black. It’s a transparent earth pigment that can harmoniously deepen shadows and darken colours. When mixed with Ultramarine Blue, you can create a pure black colour with Burnt Umber.
Over saturating colours
A lot of beginners tend towards over saturating their colour mixes. However, colours in real life settings often appear muted. Learn to tone colours down by neutralising them, to create more realistic, subtle and elegant colour mixes.
Take an online painting class
Check out Skillshare for online painting classes in your chosen medium. There are thousands of creators on Skillshare who create quality, comprehensive courses, so you can put everything you’ve learned to practice.
Painting for beginners: FAQs
How much time do you need to spend painting to improve?
Start a regular painting practice to improve your skills quickly. Try the challenge of doing a daily painting for a month. Artists who do this often find that not only do their skills improve, but they become much faster at painting too. Of course, not everyone has time to dedicate to daily practice, but the more you paint, the more improvements you will see.
To accelerate your skills even further, spend time not only on the action of painting, but also on learning by reading or taking courses and reviewing your work. Creating variation in your painting can lead to faster improvements, for example, practising realism for a number of weeks to master accurate colour mixing and rendering of detail. Then switching it up to try and create looser, more expressive brush strokes to add personality and style to your artworks.
Do you need to learn how to draw before painting?
Learning to draw is not a necessity for some painting styles. Abstract artists often omit details and instead focus on colour and composition. The most important skills are mastering your materials, learning colour mixing, how to use values in your work and compositional techniques. If you’re attracted to the idea of painting realism or want to include accurate proportions in your work, dedicate some time to starting a drawing practice. For portrait painters, read up on anatomy.
What’s the most budget friendly way to learn how to paint?
To paint on a budget, get fewer supplies. It’s not always the best idea to buy the cheapest supplies available, as these are often lower quality and won’t last as long. Instead, buy artist grade supplies sparingly and take care of them so that they last longer.
Start with a limited palette of colours and learn how to mix your paint, so you can match any shade from your reference using just six pigments. You don’t need many different types of brushes. For watercolour painting, you only really need one medium sized round brush, then optionally a larger brush if you want to create lots of large background washes. For oil and acrylic painting, get a few brushes in different shapes. Round brushes are best for detail, flat for filling in large areas of the canvas.
Another way to cut costs, especially for oil and acrylic painters, is to start painting small. Small sized canvases and panels are much cheaper than larger ones.
Oil paint is the most expensive of the mediums as materials themselves cost more and you often need more supplies. I’ve written a tutorial on how to get started with oil painting on a budget for beginners.
How do I make my work saleable?
If you’re thinking about selling your work, make sure to use archival materials. For watercolour painting, this means painting on thick, acid-free paper. For oil and acrylic, I’d recommend painting on linen canvas, or archival wooden panel.
Choose paint with excellent lightfast ratings. An ASTM lightfast rating of I means that the pigment has excellent permanency and won’t fade over time under gallery conditions. This means storing paintings in moderate temperatures, humidity and light settings.
Another way to increase the archivability and therefore saleability of artwork is to varnish it. This protects it from UV and normal wear and tear. If you’re working with watercolour, frame it behind museum glass.
To get more eyes over your work, share your progress on social media. Create an online portfolio to link to on your social profiles so people can see all your latest works.
Painting for beginners: Pin it!
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