How to Teach Yourself to Paint

Ingrid Christensen
May 21, 2019 5:05PM
Jamie Perry
Organized Chaos, 2017
CK Contemporary

The desire to paint is widely held among people of all ages and professions, but many never act on the urge. Some people avoid painting because of insecurity or misguided notions about what the art form entails. Some think that painting requires innate talent or expensive instruction, and worry that they aren’t creative enough to paint something beautiful. Other people simply don’t know how to begin. Daunted by the vast selection of brushes, paints, and media on the shelves of art stores, they retreat, feeling that painting is too complicated to grasp on their own.

Yet learning to paint doesn’t need to be intimidating, and it doesn’t require talent, in-person lessons, or great expense. All you need to teach yourself to paint is a few materials, targeted practice, and the right frame of mind.

Buy a few quality supplies

Paints come in both artist (also called “professional”) quality and student quality, with significant price differences between the two. Choose artist quality for the best results. While it’s logical to think that student paint will be adequate for learning, it may impede your growth. The low pigment load and added fillers in student paint make it difficult to achieve bright, clean colors, and you may be discouraged by the murky paintings you create.

To get started, all you’ll need is a primary color palette—red, yellow, and blue paint tubes. Add a tube of white if you’re working in an opaque medium, such as oil, acrylic, or gouache. With these colors, you can learn to mix a version of every other color that you need: greens, purples, oranges, browns, greys, and blacks. Using a limited number of pigments will allow you to focus on paint application, rather than continually hunting for the perfect tube of color as you paint.

In terms of brushes, a small selection of four or five options in various shapes and sizes will be enough to begin painting. You’ll quickly learn which brushes you prefer, and you can stock up on those in the future. For now, focus on experimenting and discovering the marks that each type of brush can make. You can learn more about brush types in this article.

Get an overview of the painting process

Over the centuries, painters have worked out efficient systems for starting and developing paintings, and you can access that knowledge through how-to books and free online videos. Look for titles that suit your interests, such as “paint like the Impressionists” or “how to paint people.” You’ll discover that there are a few basic ways that artists start a painting, such as by making a drawing and filling it in with color; creating a tonal underpainting; or starting from flat patches of color. By working from the demonstrations in books or videos, you will become familiar with basic painting processes and gain the confidence to tackle a subject of your own.

Paint from life, not photos

Painting from real objects is a great way to learn for two reasons. First, it forces you to interpret the three-dimensionality of what you’re seeing on a two-dimensional canvas. Photo references are already flat, so copying them requires much less problem-solving, and you’ll learn less as a result.

Second, painting from life helps you hone your observational skills and teaches you to see the world the way that artists do. You’ll become aware of subtle color, value, and shape relationships in the things you’re looking at, and you’ll be able to use this awareness to inform and enrich your work.

Discover your personal preferences

Set up a small still-life of one or two objects and attempt to paint it using approaches you learned from videos and books. Notice which method feels most comfortable to you. This will allow you to personalize your learning and focus your efforts on that technique in future paintings.

You’ll discover other biases, as well. You may like hot reds and oranges in your paintings, or prefer cool greens and blues. Perhaps you long for a color that you’re having a hard time mixing with your primary palette. This is the time to purchase more paint tubes and explore how the new colors affect your work.

The process of identifying your likes and dislikes is a crucial step in learning to paint; you won’t find your artistic voice without it. When you recognize and respond to your preferences, your paintings will become more meaningful to you, and they will begin to communicate your vision to the people who see them.

Set goals for each painting

Once you feel competent at mixing and applying paint, begin to evaluate your paintings for individual elements, such as color, composition, edges, and paint quality. You’ll probably find some weaknesses in each, but pick one issue that bothers you the most—maybe your colors feel too muted, or your paint is too thinly applied. Make it your goal to improve this aspect in your next few paintings. You should ignore the other problems as you do this; remind yourself that you can address them, one at a time, in the future. Breaking the complexity of painting into manageable parts will help you learn without becoming overwhelmed.

Celebrate your successes, no matter how small

Novices tend to be their own worst critics, fixating on the faults in the works they produce. But if you hope to become a painter, you must learn to celebrate your creations. They are the expression of your attention and effort, and each one will have taught you something new. When you look at your paintings, make a point of finding something that’s working, and congratulate yourself on the success. It may be as simple as a confident brushstroke or a beautiful color interaction, but noticing it will elevate your mood and provide the motivation to carry on teaching yourself to paint.

Becoming a proficient painter is a relatively quick process. With focus and practice, you’ll be making paintings in a very short time. Becoming an excellent painter can take a lifetime, but you’ll find that the learning process is engrossing and worthwhile.

Ingrid Christensen