Old Masters Academy

Top Tips for Beginner Artists




Having spent several years painting – and making just about every mistake possible – I wanted to compile a list of tips and tricks to help others enjoy painting as much as I do. So here it is!

Most of these tips come from my own direct experience or from students I have worked with in the past. Certainly, there are enough tips out there to fill an entire book, but I wanted to focus on just those that are helpful for the real beginner.

1. Be Yourself

What kind of an artist do you want to be? I encourage all my students to explore different techniques and various styles on their journey into art, but usually there are one or two specific styles they focus on. If you’re not sure, then ask yourself what kind of art do you like? And go from there.

For example, I really like abstract and landscape paintings – especially those that combine the two. So I’m attracted to Monet’s work and to other similar styles. I’m really not nearly as interested in finely-detailed work, portraits, or animals. So I generally stay away from them.

Knowing what I like helps me to be myself. If I’m not good at drawing, I don’t draw! I use a big brush to avoid getting into the details. I am myself and go where my natural preferences take me instead of pretending to be something that I’m not.

2. Overcome your fear

Have you sat there in front of a big, white canvas not really knowing where to begin or how? I sure have. When I was just beginning and finally got enough courage to go into an art store to buy a set of watercolour paints (one of my first mistakes), it took me another six months to actually dab my brush in water and paint something. I was scared to death!

Without going into a lot of detail about the psychological basis for this kind of fear, what I can tell you is that in my case, I was afraid of creating something really awful and being laughed at. That nasty little voice inside that says “who do you think you are, trying to be an artist!” was preventing me from enjoying what I think is the greatest endeavour going.

So fear of creating something awful and being laughed at, along with not really knowing how to start, kept me away from art for a long time.

Now one of the things I did to overcome this fear turns out to be really simple: I gave myself permission to screw up. That is, I told myself that I was not going to try and paint a masterpiece my first time out. Instead, I was just going to have some fun with different colours, mess around a bit, and get a feel for painting. The second thing I told myself was that if I really didn’t like what I was doing, I would paint over it! Let me tell you, I have painted over a lot of first attempts over the years, and I still do!

3. Start with acrylic paints.

I mentioned above that when I started painting, I began with watercolours. Talk about intimidation! My first paintings were drippy, scratchy, muddy things that were a complete disaster. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that watercolours are very difficult to control as a beginner and that I should have started with something less challenging.

So here’s my recommendation to you. Start with acrylic paints. They mix and clean up with water, dry quickly, and have vibrant colours. Plus they are a whole lot cheaper than oils. I have come to depend on acrylics for giving me the colours and control I like, and use acrylics more than any other medium these days.

4. Stick with gallery size canvasses that don’t need frames, or medium size regular canvasses for which frames are easy to find and cheap.

As a beginner, you should stick with common sizes of canvas. They are easy to find, easy to ship, and easy to frame.

So what do I mean by common sizes? Well first, what you’ll find in stores are two kinds of canvas. The first is a canvas that is ½” thick. I call this “regular” size canvas. The second canvas is usually 1 ½” thick. This is called “gallery” size.

With gallery size, you do not need a frame to hang it on the wall. It looks great all by itself. However, with the regular size, your paintings will always look a whole better with a frame around them. To make framing cheap and easy, you should stick with common regular size canvasses. For example, sizes like 12” x 16” are great for framing. I wouldn’t go past 16” x 20” if I have framing in mind.

For gallery size, even though you don’t need to frame, I would stick with those sizes as well just because they are more versatile in people’s homes. That makes them easier to sell!

5. The fewer brushes you own, the better

This is one of my favourite tips because not only will it improve your painting, but it will also save you lots of money. You don’t need a ton of brushes in order to paint. I only have a few myself and they work just fine.

The best way to begin learning is to focus on low-detail abstract or abstract landscape paintings. These help you avoid fiddling with details. You only need a couple of brushes to get started (different sizes) and you will find that you can accomplish just about anything with them.

I use hake brushes and a rigger. That’s it. Oh, once in a while I’ll pull out some other brush, but 90% of my work is done with a hake and a rigger.

6. Use a larger brush than you think to avoid “fiddling” and to create a more abstract or impressionist painting.

Along with having fewer brushes to worry about, I also recommend starting off with brushes that are bigger than you think you’ll need. Why? Well, if you’re using a brush that is small, you will be more inclined to try your hand at details. This is what I call “fiddling”. It will kill an otherwise great looking painting in no time flat.

You may have even noticed this in your own work. You’re humming along, painting a nice big old landscape with a big old brush, and then you think to yourself that you could start painting in leaves or fence posts or blades of grass with your small detail brush. All of a sudden, you’re half-way done putting leaves on a tree and you realize a) this will take forever, and b) this makes the painting look funny.

At this point, the painting is doomed.

So, avoid this detail work – at least when you’re just starting out. Keep it simple, make it big and loose and you’ll be pleased with the results.

7. When you’re just starting out, purchase no more than 4 or 5 colours.

My personal recommendation is to go for either a “warm” group of red, yellow, orange, or a cool group of blue, green, purple. Add to that black and white, and you’re all set. Learn what kind of colours you can make by mixing them together. You’ll learn quickly, for example, that just a tiny bit of black with significantly change your paints.

Oh, and I generally avoid those starter kits with lots of little tubes of paint. Here’s why: first, I don’t need a gazillion colours. Second, with small tubes, I always feel like I can’t make any mistakes or else I’ll waste what little paint I have. That’s no good. So I stick with big tubes or jars or paint. That way, I don’t have to hold back on the amount of paint I use. I can afford to make lots of mistakes. And believe me, I make mistakes all the time.

8. Don’t try to create a masterpiece the first time you pick up a brush.

Think about it. How many years did it take you to learn how to speak and write? It takes time to learn a new skill and I don’t know anyone who has picked up a brush for the first time and created a masterpiece.

So, please (and I can’t emphasize this enough), don’t put extra pressure on yourself by trying to paint a great painting the first time out. Let yourself make mistakes, experiment, and have some fun without thinking about the result.

I know some students who will purchase a dozen canvasses at a time so they don’t put extra pressure on themselves to create something magnificent. Knowing that you’ve got a whole bunch more canvasses helps you get over the psychological problem of thinking that you’re “wasting” money if you don’t create something brilliant your first time out.

Just keep in mind that every mistake you make, every painting that you create, is a step closer to that masterpiece that will come one day. Take your time, and enjoy your learning journey along the way.

9. Before you begin, have a plan

What I do before I even set up my paints is to think about what I want to do. Actually, now all I think about is the colours I want to use, then I let the creative process take me where it wants to go.

For example, you can create a lot of unique, vibrant paintings using only black and red paint. So I’ll think about the ratio of black to red. Do I want it to be mostly black, half and half, or mostly red? I get a sense of what I want to see, and then I just begin.

When you paint this way, it’s important to not think about the result. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Remember, if you’re really not happy with your result at the end, you can always paint over it and start again.

10. Stop painting sooner than you think

This is a hard concept to get at first. Why would you stop painting when your painting isnt’ finished yet? Well, here’s why. Most beginning artists paint too much and too long. What happens is that the painting becomes too busy (too much stuff in it), or too messy with too many colours all vying for attention, or too muddy.

So, when you think you’re about half way done, put your brush down. Step back from your work, and think about it. Give yourself some time to do this (with acrylics and oils, you will have plenty of time to think about your painting before the paint dries).

As you look over your painting, ask yourself: is there something more I really need to do here, or can this work stand on its own? If you have any doubt at all, keep your brush down. Remember, you can always go back later if you change your mind.

© Copyright 2009

David Hamilton Studios

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