I can't paint, but I want to make some paintings.
November 4, 2013 8:58 PM   Subscribe

I want to make some paintings that basically look like this--basically some flat fields of hopefully compatible colors on canvas. I don't care if what I make is real art, I mainly just want to add some color to the room. I went to the craft store and was kind of confused by all the different options for paint. Let's just assume I pick a set of colors I like -- what do I need to buy to make the painting, other than a canvas? What kind of paints, which colors, what kind of brush, what else do I need? How do I mix the colors? I'm not under any illusions that I'm going to make anything good, I just want to get some colors down on canvas in a hopefully appealing way. If I picked a palate from a site like colourlovers, is there a way to order the paints premixed in those colors or what that be a bad idea?
posted by empath to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Just experiment and go for it! There is no one right way to do art!

I would go with acrylics because they are easier to clean up and they dry faster. Avoid the "student" or "budget" grade paints -- they have a lot of filler and not as much pigment. Go ahead and spring for the better-quality materials. (You want to look for tubes of acrylics, not the 99-cent craft paints).

You thin acrylics with water. You may want to paint a very thin layer of watery paint on your canvas first to tone down the white. That way if you miss a spot it won't be as obvious.

Larger canvases are easier to work with than smaller ones.

If you want to be able to hang it without a frame, buy a canvas without staples on the sides.

Avoid those horrible canvas boards. Get a real canvas.

Don't be afraid to use unconventional materials! Dip some bubble wrap into your paint and press it onto the canvas -- it makes a neat pattern. Or make perfect circles with the rim of a mug. Drag a fork through wet paint to make lines. Play around.
posted by Ostara at 9:07 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Have a suggestion for what brand of acrylics to buy specifically?
posted by empath at 9:10 PM on November 4, 2013

You'll need canvases- go for the kind with hidden staples, you'll see- and acrylics, and brushes. Maybe a cheap paint palette, but I usually use, like, cardboard scraps.

Definitely go for acrylics. Perhaps, to start out, get a mid-range student set like this. It'll have every color you need to start out with. For big patches of color, you probably want a really broad, flat brush, but I'd get one of those and also some smaller ones- maybe try to find a set of brushes.

Very important: when you load your brush (aka when you stick it in the paint), only dip the fibers about a third to a half of the way into the paint. Many people just plunge the whole thing in up to the handle, which makes paint get stuck inside the inner part of the bristles, basically ruining the brush.

For mixing, you basically put two blobs on a palette (or scrap of cardboard) and kind of gently paint over them until they're mixed. I bet there are youtube videos that show exactly how it's done... and looking at those examples you link to, I think you want to experiment with paint that's not perfectly blended. Swirl it together slightly, load a flat brush, and drag it across the canvas, and you'll get an interesting effect.

Don't forget to paint on the edges of the canvas!
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:15 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My wife paints with acrylics. She uses Liquitex BASICS and is happy with them. We got her a couple new canvases and brushes last weekend; either Aaron Bros or Michael's is usually having a half-off sale on whatever she needs, and these two stores are literally right next to each other at a shopping center not too far from us. Get a color, a complimentary color (e.g. blue + yellow) and black and white for creating shades and tints.

For that style of painting, you will want a pretty wide brush for applying the colors. What detail there is in that kind of painting will come from the texture so you want to apply the paint nice and thick and work it around, get lots of brush marks and imperfectly mixed colors. Try putting some sand in the paint to give it texture too. Use sponges, wadded up paper towels, etc. to apply or blot off paint. At the same time be sure to lay down some structure first thing with a pencil, then paint over that with black... so lines that you mean to be straight are in fact straight.

A simple plastic palette is fine for mixing paints for applying. You will also want some kind of shallow vessel to hold water for rinsing your brush when changing colors. My wife uses a plastic rectangular tray that some frozen food or another we have bought came in.
posted by kindall at 9:42 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

For your purposes student-grade acrylics will be just fine.

If I were you I'd just find a nice helper who works at the craft store, tell them you're making a very basic color field painting (or series of paintings) and that you'd like to be outfitted accordingly (yet affordably), and then consult/ask them questions.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:43 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

One trick that i use is to put two or three related colors next to each other on the palate (like red, yellow and orange or brown, yellow and green) and then run a brush through it to swirl them together just a little. Then, when you dip the brush into the paint, you will get a mix of colors on the brush. This gives the paint a nice textured effect.
posted by metahawk at 10:32 PM on November 4, 2013

Art store staff are often surprisingly helpful. I have definitely gone in with similar questions, that made me feel foolish to even ask ("I have a canvas and I want to make it gold. Ish. Err what's next? Paint, paper, chalk, do I need actual gold?") and they have always been extremely helpful.

As a rule of thumb: oil paint takes a couple days to dry, so it's good for fidgety paintings with lots of detail where you might need to get exactly the perfect blend of paints over a day or two of painting, and when you don't mind waiting a couple days between one layer of paint and the next. Acrylics take a couple hours to dry, so they're good when you need some blend-the-paint-on-the-canvas flexibility but not a ton, and when you want to be able to paint layers on top of layers without waiting forever for the bottom layer to dry. Water colors dry the fastest; they are a totally different medium.

For your purposes, you want the tubes of acrylic paint. Buy more than you think you need and return your leftovers (or ask the store clerk how much to buy). Get a white and a black. If you have a large canvas and are looking to create some texture, this can get expensive because it might take a few layers of paint, so ask the clerk if she thinks gesso might help you get the most bang for your buck. Look at the brushes and don't get the ones that look so cheap that the bristles will fall out in your paint-- get the ones one price-level above that. If you need to "undo" something, use an old credit card to scrape off the (still wet) layer of paint, then either a q-tip or a paper towel. Then let it dry, then paint over it.
posted by samthemander at 10:46 PM on November 4, 2013

To help you with getting an interesting texture with just paint, instead of using a brush use a palette knife. If you don't want to spring for one, it will probably suit your needs just fine to use anything from a popsicle stick to a plastic knife - just something a little bendy with a good solid edge. It'll help you sculpt the paint with a larger amount of control than what you'd do with a brush, if you're not used to using brushes. Think of it like buttering toast!

For acrylic, you don't have to worry as much about cracking or things drying at different times. You can basically set it aside to dry and come back and layer on as much as you want, as many times as you want. I've got a big canvas that I painted over maybe 20 times over six months and it's been perfectly fine for 10 years. So if you don't like what you've made, you can always take it off the wall and paint over it.

There's lots of ways to go about making a nice color field painting. But something that could help you is to look at compositions of objects on a flat surface and see which ones make you happiest. You can do this on a tabletop yourself, with simply-shaped things like dishes and magazines, rearranging as you like until you get something good. Or you can look at blogs like Things Organized Neatly. Think about the number and size of shapes as well as the distance between them, the amount of different things in a single image, and so-on. Then think about their color. By replicating those different elements in your painting, you'll get something more satisfying than just picking some colors.
posted by Mizu at 10:55 PM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Blick has good acrylic paints. Don't forget a large tube of white for mixing colors/blending.

The painting you linked to has a lot of texture and heavy buildup. You will probably want to buy a lot of paint to achieve a similar look.

Money saving tips:

Buy old paintings/canvases at thrift stores and paint over them (instant texture!)
Buy your paintbrushes/scraper at the hardware store
Paint on wood or other reclaimed material.

Important things to remember:

Your painting will be beautiful
You will make a mess
You should listen to music while painting
posted by W.S (disambiguation) at 11:34 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm taking an art journaling class and just learning to paint as a total newbie as well. It is really fun and yes paint to music. One blog suggested making practice compositions on canvas board e. g. 8x10 or in a sketchbook before you work on large scale canvases if that is what you are planning. That way you'll feel a bit more confident rather than starting straightaway with a huge canvas. I'm using Martha Stewart acrylic craft paints that I got on Amazon. She has some nice premixed colors. Do think about if you want to mix your own colors or buy them premixed. If you do decide to mix your own just make sure you make enough in that batch to cover the whole section you are painting or measure the amounts of paint used. I didn't do that when I previously mixed some acrylics, didn't have quite enough and the second batch I mixed didn't quite come out the same exact shade. Personally, I'd start with the premixed paints as it is so much easier. Have fun Picasso!
posted by wildflower at 12:04 AM on November 5, 2013

Acrylics are fine. Don't forget to blend your colors. Always. Colors straight from the tube give off some kind of "amateur" signal. Also, do more layers than you think is necessary, this helps to build up the feeling of the painting and makes it look less amateurish also.
posted by beerbajay at 4:29 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitely get acrylics. You can get the tube acrylics, but if you are really on a budget, the craft paints in squirt bottles will work just fine, too. It depends on if you want the fun of mixing up your own colors (fine art tube acrylics) or the process of picking colors from the gazillion bottles on the wall (craft paints). However, do NOT buy Craftsmart brand paints from Michaels (they mix/flow very badly). The other brands in the bottles are fine (Apple Barrel, Anita's, Ceramacoat).

The thing about the painting you linked to is the texture/color that is peeking through the top coat. So like others have said, painting over a thrift store painting, using unconventional tools to apply the paint (credit cards, putty knives, plastic knives, bubble wrap - even smooshing plastic wrap on top of your layer of wet paint) will give your painting a little depth. Don't be afraid to paint the first layer in some random colors (use that thrift store painting) and then put your "pretty" top coat of paint on top of that and do a little scraping away of the wet paint to reveal some of the alternate colors underneath.

The secret to abstract paintings like that is the layering and the little bits of stuff peeking through the top layer. The other secret is to let yourself go, release your inner 4-year old and have fun. Do what feels/looks good to you.
posted by sarajane at 4:33 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I paint with Golden acrylics, but any brand of acrylics in a tube will be good. They come in a wide range if colors and usually have a swatch on the tube, so you may not have to do much mixing if you find shades you like. Colors straight from the tube tend to have a bright, saturated Crayola-like quality to them, so a tiny bit of mixing will help bring them down to earth. Note that prices vary depending on the pigments used, and it's okay to buy the cheaper stuff.

If you do choose to mix your own, you'll probably want to get black and white. It takes a tiny bit of black to darken a color, and it takes a ton of white to lighten it. Mix in very small quantities until you get a feel for proportions so you don't accidentally use half a tube of white.

The craft store will have cheapy plastic palettes for mixing, or you can use an old plate or Tupperware lid or pretty much anything non-porous that you don't mind ruining. (You can get acrylic paint off of a lot of surfaces; you just might not want to.)

The nice thing about acrylics is that you can mix them with water to get a runny watercolor wash, or use them undiluted. Load your brush up or just dab a little bit on at a time with a mostly dry brush - experiment and see what feels and looks good. Acrylics don't dry super fast, so you can blend a bit on the canvas, but once they dry completely you can paint over them with another color and it'll be opaque.

Most craft stores sell little bitty pre-stretched canvases as well as larger ones. You can get a couple and use them for practice swatches.

If you want to mark off specific areas or create clean lines, use masking tape. You can also mark the canvas with a light pencil before painting, and the paint will cover it up unless it's been heavily diluted.

Lay down some newspaper or an old rug/mat when you set up your painting area. Wear clothes you don't like or go naked. Get some Solo cups for water; I like having a "dirty" cup for brush rinsing and a "clean" cup for wetting/diluting. Don't set up too far from a sink in case you need to use it, and if you're using the kitchen sink empty it ahead of time.

Brushes are a matter of personal preference, but for large fields of color I like brushes that are about 1-2" wide, rather than those flat wall-painty brushes. That's just what feels good to me, though. YMMV.

Play around, experiment, and get as messy as you like. There's not really a right or wrong way to paint with acrylics, just ways you prefer. And always rinse your brushes thoroughly immediately after you finish painting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:45 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's great advice already here, so I thought I'd just add a few fun, casual tutorials to help you get layers of interest on your painting:

Make your mark and Favorite everyday things for painting - Alisa Burke

Anything you don't like, you can paint over and the previous marks will add texture. It's wonderfully freeing to realize there are no mistakes, just layers.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:01 AM on November 5, 2013

If you look at that painting, aside from the black line dividing it, there is dark in the lower left corner, up to light at the upper right corner. There are also a lot of vertical washes and then horizontal "stripes" over those, to get the effect of color peeking through.

I would get a medium size canvas board from the art supply store (or Michael's). Usually they come in packs of 2. Here is a decent guide for using acrylics, along with how to mix them and a basic color palette to buy. It also gives some good tips on mixing, such as adding only a tiny bit of dark to a lighter color, instead of trying to do it the other way around.

I've used the Liquitex Basics and also the large tubes of Van Gogh. If you are working with large blocks of color, you can get those little wooden paint trim brushes at the hardware store. That way if they get wrecked, you won't be out big bucks from buying expensive art brushes.

One thing you could try is start with painting vertical stripes: black, black and green mixed together, and then lighter and lighter across the canvas. Then dilute some white with water, and wash it across the top (after the stripes are dry) and use something like an old comb, or a ripped piece of corrugated cardboard, to make grooves and horizontal stripes. Then you can see the color peeking through and decide if you like the look. Also try it with a palette knife (or plastic knife as stated above). Sometimes even these experimental swatches turn out really nice! But you will see how various colors come through.

If you get frustrated with acrylics and their drying too fast, they make extenders you can add to them. A lot of it is techniques and learning the properties of the paints. In general, start with your darker colors first and put the lighter ones on top, but you can see in the black horizontal stripe where it was scraped away a bit to reveal other colors underneath. Think of it as reverse paint stripping, what would happen if you started stripping away layers of paint in an old house?

Above all, have fun! And wash those brushes right away afterward and yes, solo cups for keeping them wet and having water to thin them. But better than oils, which require nasty chemicals for cleaning and stink up the place.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:32 AM on November 5, 2013

There is a nice documentary (available on Netflix), "Gerhard Richter Painting." I think for the sort of look you are going for it would be helpful to see how Richter applies and drags paint across his canvases.
posted by stowaway at 8:19 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the suggestion of Liquitex BASICS (mid range student grade).

Here's some other hints:

Use more paint that you thin you'd need. It's a pretty common mistake amongst people who don't paint. Especially with a painting like this. You see how you can see the other colors coming through? The artist most likely laid down a base color, let it dry, and then laid down a layer of topcoat. Some places the layer is thin, other it's thick. Let it sit for a bit, and then go over it with a dry brush, that will scrape off the thick parts that haven't dried, and the thin parts will stay. (like down at the bottom where you can see the yellow through the green).

Also, never use black to darken colors. You'll want to mix it's compliment. Here's a really simple color mixing chart that should give you an idea, if you've never studied color theory.

The suggestion of looking at Things Organized Neatly to get some ideas of compositions is a great, great idea.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:58 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a self-taught painter I have a little to add:

To start with, any acrylic paint will do. It helped me feel more free to experiment to use the cheapest craft paints. And just buy paint in the colors you want to use. If you like to paint, then move on to mixing. Mixing colors is hard, so don't expect good early results if you try it.

Start big. Little canvases or boards are pretty confining. The smaller it is, the harder it is to make your idea work, especially anything like color fields. Canvas board at 18 x 24 (IIRC) or 16 x 20 is a good way to start, cheaper than canvases and stretched canvas feels funny to work on when you start. Bouncy.

You can apply paint with anything. I use rags and toothbrushes a lot. Paintbrushes have a learning curve. If you want thicker build, use a painting knife, like you'd frost a cake. The plastic ones are great.

If you want thickness, use a heavy gel medium mixed with your paint. Mediums are amazing. For a thick application, let it dry overnight before doing anything else.

In the end, just play with the colors and try not to expect your first efforts to come out the way you see them in your head or to be able to reproduce anything you do. And you can always paint over anything you aren't happy with.

My favorite book for this is: Acrylic Revolution. It is about how the paint works, not how to copy paintings.
posted by monopas at 12:50 PM on November 5, 2013

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