Learning how to paint?
October 31, 2005 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Any tips, books, exercises on learning how to paint with oils?

I took an Introduction to Art (painting) class while living in Austin and really enjoyed it.
I recently moved to Portland, OR, and would like to continue learning how to paint.
Are there any tips, tricks, books, exercises, helpful websites you might recommend? I don't think the style/method matters to me, as I'm willing to try anything -- I think I just need to spend more time in front of a canvas.
I searched Google, craigslist, and AskMefi archives, but found nothing of any substance.
I might also be interested in a local course, but I'm only available in the evenings or weekends.
posted by j to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The most immediately useful tip I can remember from my early days in college as a painting major would be that you should never *buy* black paint.

You can mix your own black that has a lot more depth and "blackness" by mixing burnt sienna or burnt umber with turquoise.

You should mix your own skin tones, too, instead of relying on store bought "flesh" colored paint.

The other thing -- something that just helped me personally -- was to do an underpainting with a wide brush, very gesturally in a warm tone like mars violet...just to get an idea of where all the light and shadow is. It also gives your painting a bit more depth when finished.
posted by kaseijin at 1:42 PM on October 31, 2005

Individual tips are too numerous to list, and a lot will be dependent on what you want to achieve anyway. Go here. Decent enough tutorials, but the real content is in the forums. Massive, helpful community and a great place for a beginner to learn quickly. Advice there on everything from types of brush to pricing your work, and some very accomplished artists post there.

I am no longer a beginner but if something like that had been around when I was learning to paint I could have saved years of muddling around making mistakes. A lot of the cheesey landscapes and stuff that get posted there aren't my cup of tea, but basics are basics and you can learn a lot just browsing, reading other people's problems, and the replies they get.
posted by fire&wings at 1:49 PM on October 31, 2005

I agree with fire&wings - the Wetcanvas forums can be fascinating. There's so much talent on there and people are generally very helpful towards beginners.
posted by Ostara at 2:10 PM on October 31, 2005

If you want a class, you might try PNCA. (adult continuing ed schedule is here)
Or one of the PCC campuses (current courses)
posted by misterbrandt at 2:11 PM on October 31, 2005

it depends on "what" and "how" you want to paint -- what kind of style are you interested in? Do you want to be able to paint photo-realistically? Are you interested in color fields?

The best way to learn how to paint is to just paint; if you want to learn how to paint photo-realistically, there are a number of tips and exercises -- some specific to oil techniques, and others just general illustration principles -- that you can use to learn how to make your paintings look "real".

Still, I think it's worthwhile saying that the world of painting isn't limited just to photo-realistic work (in fact, a lot of that work, as fire&wings alludes to, is booooring) -- it's also worth saying that just because you can't freehand a photo-realistic painting doesn't mean you can't include photo-realistic elements in your paintings -- you can always screenprint stuff or trace a projection. Some folks may be of the opinion that these techniques aren't authentic, because they're "shortcuts", but i'd say those folks have a pretty narrow understanding of art making.
posted by fishfucker at 2:17 PM on October 31, 2005

That is very good general advice.

As for black paint, it's not that you must not use it, it's that you have to be aware that it has a color to it. That color can vary depending on the provenance of the black. Mixing a black from known pigments is a good way to get a consistent black. But even then it will never be neutral. This goes somewhat for white, though titanium white is one of the more consistent colors out there, so it's less complicated, but again: never neutral. Also, forget that there's even a concept of "flesh tones", if you are painting figures.

On a more general note, not that you should necessarily copy artists, but don't forget to look at artists you enjoy – especially when you can see their works in person! That makes an enormous difference.
posted by furiousthought at 2:43 PM on October 31, 2005

Reading what fishfucker said prompted me to reply again. What he says is correct. Picasso said "I spent my whole life trying to learn to paint like I could when I was 6," or words to that effect. "Just painting" is always a good place to start - doing anything is better than sitting in front of a blank canvas worrying over the way you're holding the brush. Believing that what you have painted (without guidance or approval) is good art is a battle - but as your self belief grows so will your painting. Usually there comes a time when you must progress beyond that though. When I look back at earlier paintings they have something I can't do now, but that doesn't mean I don't want to be doing what I do today. Something to remember as you are taught how to paint is that there are no rules. Treat it all as friendly advice and be prepared (and desperate!) to discard most of it because what works best for you is right. You don't have to be wildly inventive, making potato prints with blood on sheepskin, but don't feel you have to conform to anything. Find the materials and tools that suit and don't be afraid to experiment, however small or seemingly insignificant the change seems. So there's some more rambling advice...
posted by fire&wings at 3:07 PM on October 31, 2005

Here’s a “looking at stuff” tip:

(From the “any tips...?” part of your question, I’m inferring that you’re interested in painting “pictures,” i.e., making images that resemble real-world things, places, people, etc., at least as much as you might be wanting to simply explore the materials and the beauties of paint and markings for their own sake, or for their conceptual potential.)

If this is in any way true, I’d suggest that you start learning to see whatever you’re looking at as an arrangement of interestingly-shaped value distinctions, rather than as objects that have a fixed shape (or color) regardless of how they are lit, in very much the same way that a program like Photoshop can simplify a realistic photo into a few values by “posterizing” it. In its coarsest form, this kind of translation is very akin to how paint-by-numbers kits used to work (still do, I guess, if they even exist anymore). But it’s also an excellent way to begin interpreting the seen world in paint or when drawing: See and record the major value shapes as accurately as possible rather than the “outlines” of the objects themselves, THEN start refining the quality of the edges between these value shapes; some are crisp, many are soft, and some are so soft as to almost create a new, in-between, value shape of their own.

Additionally, I’d add to the excellent advice you’re getting here to “just paint” and to “look at lots of paintings” only by suggesting that you also get down to your local library and do as much reading of how-to guides to painting as you can stand, simply to add to your technical literacy (include some drawing, and acrylic and watercolor painting books, too). You may well find some approaches that resonate with your own instincts. But the main point of this aspect of your self-training is to clue you in to as many possible approaches as you can absorb, as you’re getting started, so you spend as short a time as possible stumbling over your own inevitable technical ignorance. Oil painting is a pretty technically complex process, both chemically and as a visual craft, and even if your impulse is to paint very directly (i.e., getting the color and shape right at once, rather than building up layers towards an eventually quite different effect), it can only help to at least have read about other approaches.

Have fun!
posted by dpcoffin at 6:51 PM on October 31, 2005

Oh, and as for “no black,” forget that! If you like black paint and/or black things, go for it; just realize that adding black to any color is usually the least attractive, least interesting way to mix a “shadow” value for it.
posted by dpcoffin at 6:57 PM on October 31, 2005

Response by poster: thanks to all for the great advice.
I've just checked out the wetcanvas website and it looks like it could be great (although somewhat daunting).
Someone once told me that it's best to learn how to paint in a "realistic" manner first, to learn skills, then move on to more stylized/abstract type work. I love all kinds of art and am interested in painting both realistic and abstract art. Being a technical minded sort, I have a hard time "being creative", so I find it "easier" to have something staged or to paint from a picture, but I'm hoping with time that will change. I like the idea of studying artists I like, to see what I can pick up from them.
misterbrandt -- thanks for pointing out those classes. All of them are mid-semester right now, so I suspect a new one wouldn't start until Jan.
dpcoffin -- I've checked out a couple books from the library, but they haven't quite been what I've been looking for. I will keep looking, though.
I have heard the "no black paint" thing as well (in my class, we weren't allowed to use it either) and have done okay without it. Although I did buy some black after the class and wasn't able to find a way to work with it yet (too harsh/wrong effect).
posted by j at 9:57 PM on October 31, 2005

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