• Carolyn Land

Starting a Painting

To prepare one’s work is first to nourish one’s feelings by studies which have a certain analogy with the picture, and it is through this that the choice of elements can be made.  It is these studies which permit the painter to free his unconscious mind.”                                                          Henri Matisse

There are many ways to start a painting.  There is no right way or wrong way.  You can walk up to your sub straight and start with mark making and work intuitively, or you can lay out a format for your composition then work into it. But at some point, the question of composition is going to have to be addressed if you want to have a strong painting.

I was always taught that if you don’t know what you want to say, you are going to have a hard time putting it down on paper! Now that can be a picture of something as seen in a realistic painting.  It can also be as abstract as: a feeling, the relationship of negative and positive shapes, the interaction of colors to produce a mood, or the juxtaposition of lines.

A good “rule of thumb” is: First, establish the basic composition or the under lying structure. It’s extremely helpful to place the most important shapes of the composition on your working surface before starting to paint. Second, there should be large, medium, and small shapes so you have variety which is an important “Principle of Good Design.” The drawing is the basic plan for where to put those colors, lines, and textures you are going to use.

Round the Bend”           Pastel over Watercolor


I am going to side track here…After I wrote “rule of thumb” I was curious where the phase came from, so I looked it up.  The first citing was an English law about men not being allowed to beat their wives with anything larger in diameter than their thumb.  Ooh!  After fact checking “Word Origin”, the phrase more likely came from carpenters who used their thumbs as a quick, handy measuring tool for 1 inch. The phrase is almost certainly an allusion to the fact, mine measures a full inch and one half.  That could be because it is an arthritic thumb! You will have to measure your thumb and see. 🙂

Collage by FL artist Carolyn Land

“The Gorge”              Handmade Paper Collage


Another good “rule of thumb”, is to know where you are going to put your center of interest.  This is not necessarily the subject of your painting.  It is usually where the darkest value meets a lighter value.  Value is other important “Principle of Good Design”.  Sometimes the subject of a painting – or the idea that you might want to express cannot, in and of itself, be the center of interest or focal point. For example, if you want to express a mood or emotion.

This being said, having a idea of what you want your painting to be about, where the large underlying shapes are going to be placed, and where you might put your center of interest, is not the same as having a mental picture of what your finished painting is going to look like.  That train of thought usually does not turn out well. Somewhere in the painting process your unconscious takes over and the unexpected happens.

” You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but is should be a vague idea”.          Pablo Picasso

Having a loose plan does not curtail your creativity.  It just enables the artist to work into a strong composition which helps tell your story and relate your feelings about your subject.

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