7 Steps to a Successful Painting

Woman drawing the oil painting on the beach
Yagi Studio / Getty Images

Each of us has been endowed with the ability to create. Some have actualized this ability more than others. Many people I know were discouraged early in life from doing anything artistic and adopted beliefs about themselves that made it impossible in their minds for anything ‘creative’ to come from them. If you’re one of them, you’re in for a real surprise. I am of the conviction that anyone can paint. As far as I am concerned, if you have a pulse, and have enough manual dexterity to sign your name, you can paint.

But you need to trust the process, the method set out in these seven steps. Do each step as honestly and as faithfully as you can without skipping or combining steps, or adding anything. Preliminary sketchesmeasuring, and drawing is not asked of you. Just do the simple steps in sequence, showing courage and trust at each step. Do not proceed to the next step until you are happy with what you have.

The method can be used for oils and acrylics, but the ‘thick over thin’ principle must be adhered to and you may have to wait for the under painting and value study to dry before proceeding. I often work up to the value study in acrylic and then change to oil.

Though this method of painting may seem quite simple and unsophisticated, it works. The focus is about putting down exactly what you see, as you see it. So let’s get started!

(This article is an extract from Brian Simon’s book 7 Steps to a Successful Painting, and used with permission. Brian's book evolved from years of teaching people from all walks of life to paint with acrylics.) 

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Study Your Subject

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Look at the subject (here a landscape). Study it. Forget names of things (e.g. sky, tree, cloud) and look for shape, color, design, and value.

Squint, squint and squint again. Squinting helps eliminate detail and reduce color so you can see the big shapes and movement in the image.

See it already painted in your mind. See the forms of your subject in two dimensions.

Do not rush this step. Three-quarters of the painting are done at this stage.

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Underpaint the Canvas

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Underpainting (or toning) eliminates the harsh, intimidating white canvas and allows you to paint freely without worry about ‘filling in’ the white. Use a big brush to paint a wash of burnt sienna.

Why burnt sienna? In my experience, it works well with most other colors and is a warm color. In a context of blues and greens, blue sienna can take on a red appearance.

Enjoy the feel of the paint and let the brush strokes show. Don’t worry about making it even and blended, keep it loose and free. Do not start shaping your image, you’re simply creating a colored background. Have fun, get warmed up and in the mood for painting.

Don’t make your paint so thick that it looks dark, or so thin that it runs down the canvas. Simply cover all the canvas in a way that pleases you, then stop.

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Identify the Big Shapes

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Look at the subject and identify the big shapes then, using burnt sienna, rough in lines denoting these. Identify five to six shapes, but avoid detail.

This step is about organizing the composition of the painting over the surface of the canvas. In the photo, you can see that six or seven big shapes have been identified. The whole canvas should look like puzzle pieces.

If, once you’ve done this, the paint is still wet, use a rag to pull off the paint from the lighter areas of the paint. To identify the lightest areas, squint your eyes at the subject. If the paint has already dried, don’t worry, you will have a chance, later on, to deal with the lightest areas.

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Work Through a Value Study

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Squint at your image so you don’t see color (value has nothing to do with color, it’s how light or dark something is). Start with darkest darks and roughly paint them in. Work through about five values, from the darkest to the lightest.

You can infer some representation at this point but absolutely no detail. Use a tiny bit of dioxin purple to darken sienna for dark darks.

In this photo, you can see how the image is already there even though I haven’t added any color.

If you get the values, you’ve got the painting. It doesn’t matter what the value of something is, as long as it is right in relationship to the value next to it.

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Block the Colors In

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Keep the paint thin. And don’t cover all burnt sienna, let lots of it show. Roughly estimate the colors and put them down as you see them. Use white sparingly.

Start with darkest colors and work to lighter ones. Each color you put on must be same value as what’s underneath it, otherwise your painting will ‘collapse’!

Don’t use colors you don’t like, but do make the colors you use ‘sing’ by considering the dependency of each on the color next to it. The relationship is what counts, not the actual colors.

In the photo you can see that most of the colours are roughed in where I saw them. I started with the darkest and worked to the lightest color. Look at all the areas where the value study peeks through – why would you want to cover it all up?

You will lose some of the drama and excitement of the value study as you apply your thin colors. This is a normal occurrence in this method of painting, do not worry!

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Adjust Color and Value

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Have you lost your darkest darks? Go back and put them in. Then look at the lights. If they’re not light enough, begin to key them up using a bit thicker paint.

Adjust colors and make them sing. But don't add detail, infer or suggest it. Don’t get stuck in one place, work holistically all over the canvas.

Let the paint be paint – don’t force it to be a tree or a flower. It has beauty in itself.

In the photo you can see I darkened some of the darks, then added more reds and orange and light green to areas. Some cooler greens were added to the river and the foreground.

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Finish the Painting

© Brian Simons, www.briansimons.com

Do not finish the painting, but find a good place to stop. Resist the temptation to fix everything. Let it bother people, especially you. Now is a good time to put on a few highlights with thick paint in the lightest areas – ever so gently lay the paint on top in one stroke without scrubbing.

Step back, get out of the way, let the paint be paint! There will always be more to do and the more you do, the more you snuff the life out of the thing, trying to fix and finish it all.