How to Paint for Absolute Beginners.

So you want to paint? Awesome! Let me help you get started!

Part 1: Pick a Paint

Hi everyone! I’m putting on my teacher hat today **adjusting teacher hat** and speaking to anyone and everyone who wants to get into painting. Maybe you’re a beginner, maybe you’ve always painted in one medium and you’re looking to branch out, or maybe you just like reading my blog posts and you’re going with it because this is today’s topic (and for that I thank you very much!!)

I discussed my own “artistic journey” (which has been more like a marathon complete with side cramps and blisters) in this post. Now I’m turning it over to you. I’m not an expert artist by any means, and I feel like I am always learning and getting better myself. At the same time, I have a lot of experience working with paint (and selling it at Curry’s Art Store in high school and undergrad!) so I think I have something valuable to offer in terms of a starting point. Whenever I get an idea for a painting, I quickly know what the medium will be. Nowadays that choice is usually oil versus watercolour paint for my personal work. Allow me to enlighten you 🙂

Watercolour on paper.
Watercolour on paper.

Maybe you’ve never painted before and you’re wondering, What’s the BEST paint to paint with? Well, there’s no right answer to this. A lot of it has to do with what you want to achieve. Who are your favourite artists? How do you want your art to look? What is your budget?

Acrylic painting on canvas
Acrylic on canvas.

Different paints have different characteristics. You know a watercolour painting when you see it. The colours in watercolour paintings often have a fluidity to them, and even though they can be colourful these paintings often retain a softness of sorts. Oil paintings on the other hand can be sharper, there is a deep richness and vibrancy to the paint colours, and the paints can be layered and blended to achieve effects that are unique to oil paints.

Oil painting on canvas
Oil on canvas.

I would say that watercolours have a tell-tale appearance and so do oils and acrylics are somewhere in-between. You can achieve watercolour-like and oil-like effects with acrylics, but really acrylics are their own medium. One thing that makes acrylics unique is the enormous array of mediums that are available to acrylic painters. These can be used to modify the appearance of the paints in a million different ways and are especially attractive to abstract or non-figurative painters.

Disclaimer: Of course the same paint in a hundred different artists hands can be used and presented in a hundred different ways but I’m trying to provide some basic comparisons and advice here for the beginner.

Alright, buckle-up because I’m going to get a little artist-nerd now:

ALL paint works the same way: A pigment (the stuff that gives paint colour) is ground up really fine and suspended in a binder (the thing that keeps it all together, the thing that makes it what you know as paint). The binder can be lots of things. Watercolour paint binder is water-soluble gum arabic – literally the sap from an acacia tree. For acrylic paints the binder is acrylic polymer (a semi-liquidy plastic-y material). For oil paints the binder is, you guessed it, oil. In oil paints there are lots of different oils used – linseed oil, safflower oil, walnut oil. For master paint-makers the choice of oil often has to do with which oil is best with which pigment but this choice can also affect the finish when the paint is dry (matte, glossy), drying time, and so on. Usually when we paint, we dilute or thin the paint a little bit, to make it more workable on our painting surface, which is commonly paper, or canvas, or board. When the diluent evaporates and the painting is dry, the binder is what is left behind and that sticks to your painting surface and holds the pigment there.

Tube of oil paint
This is Old Holland’s Alizarin Crimson a popular colour used on many artist’s palettes. These are the pigment ingredients, just like the ingredients listed on a packaged food item. This paint contains a mix of Quinacridone (pigment violet #19), anthraquinone (pigment red #177) and azo condensation (pigment brown #23).

Other interesting paints? Encaustic painting uses heated beeswax mixed with coloured pigments. Once in a blue moon when I worked at Curry’s Art Store someone would want to know, “What is Casein painting?”. The answer? Painting with pigment mixed with a binder derived from MILK casein (aka milk protein). The paint has a glue-y, sticky consistency and while the idea makes me shudder – it’s an ancient paint that’s been used throughout history. Even Andy Warhol used it back in the day.

Brushes!!! Some examples. The blue handles are synthetic, soft bristle round brushes, red brush is synthetic, soft filbert, and far right is hog hair filbert. In general the blue handle brushes are for watercolour but I have some that I use for oils and others for acrylics. They’re pretty interchangeable except for the hog’s hair – that is best suited for heavy-bodied paints. On the other hand, some artists say there are no rules! (LOL, I am generally not that type of person OR artist).

So really, the world is your oyster when you’re picking a paint but I would say the big three remain watercolour, acrylic, and oil paints. And usually (usually!!! but not always!) you paint with watercolours on paper, and oil and acrylic on canvas (or paper, or board, or whatever…)

Tubes of paint
Alizarin crimson three ways: Winsor & Newton watercolour, TriArt acrylic, and Old Holland Classic oil paints.

Ok, up first – oil versus acrylic.

Examples of different oil paint colours in tubes
Old Holland Classic Oil Paints

Oil paints have been around for hundreds of years. All the Old Master’s painted with oil (think Leonardo and the other three ninja turtles :)). Acrylics were invented in the 20th century – around the same time as polyester and silicone – it was a good few decades for synthetic materials :).

Acrylic versus oil – alizarin crimson comparison. Top section is a paint swatch straight from the tube. Middle is gradation from dark to light with just basic solvent (water vs Gamsol) to thin. Bottom section is gradation of paint plus titanium white from dark to light.

For my big, high-contrast, intentionally high-impact portraits I always choose oil paints. And I painted with acrylic paints for a long time before this. It’s been a quick transition from acrylic paints but I don’t see myself ever going back. And if I could go back in time and repaint some of my acrylic portraits in oil – I definitely would. The oil paint is just so much nicer to paint with in my opinion and I can achieve such realistic results.

Oil painting on canvas of a cat
Oil on canvas.

I have found oil paints to be superior for everything I want to achieve visually in comparison with acrylics. A lot of this has to do with drying time. Because oil paints take so much longer to dry (days to weeks to months depending on painting thickness vs minutes with acrylics) you can blend, soften, and change colours on your canvas relatively easily – this makes subtle changes and gradations in colour and shading possible which really lends itself to realism. Acrylics dry so quickly that the workability is really compromised.

Acrylic painting on canvas of a red dog
Acrylic on canvas.

I have also found that in direct comparison, oil paints appear to be waaaaaay more highly pigmented than acrylics. My Old Holland oil paints pack a powerful punch – I actually avoid using highly pigmented greens, blues, and reds until absolutely necessary or when I’m sure that they will stay concentrated to their intended area to avoid the whole canvas getting accidently infiltrated with unwanted pigment. A little really goes a long way. David Langevin wrote this excellent article comparing oils versus acrylics where he discusses pigment load and a multitude of other factors for anyone who would like more information.

Acrylics do seem to be a bit more accessible and forgiving for beginners – there is less to think about and there isn’t much overhead compared to oils. You need paint, a brush, something to paint on (canvas, paper, canvas paper), and water for thinning the paint and clean up. You can definitely use other mediums if you like but that’s the basic setup. For oil paints, you will need the paints, brushes, something to paint on, but you will also need to consider what you will thin your paints with – straight solvent, medium, linseed oil? As well, clean-up is a little more tricky – generally you need a solvent of some sort and brush cleaner doesn’t hurt either. There are also some “rules” for painting with oil paints – like fat over lean – while acrylic paints are a little more rule-free if you will.

The last thing I would note about oil versus acrylics is the cost. For professional artist quality paint you will pay a lot more per unit volume of oil paint versus the exact same colour in acrylic. A little goes a long way with oils so that’s definitely a pro, especially if you paint in thin layers. For oil paints, you need at least solvent to thin and work with the paint (like Gamsol). You might also want to mix your solvent with something like Galkyd or linseed oil. All of this adds to the cost. With acrylics you’re ready to go with the paints and some water to dilute. You can use one of the various acrylic mediums as well, but that’s only if you choose to. Water and paint, you’re ready to go. Of course, if you’re using acrylics you’ll inevitably ruin a few brushes with those fast-drying paints and that does add to cost.

So then, what about oil (or acrylic) versus watercolour? How do you choose between those? A lot of it has to do with how you want your painting to look and I discussed some of those differences earlier in this post.

Watercolour paint swatch
Watercolour swatch of alizarin crimson: Top is straight paint right out of the tube, middle is watercolour gradation from dark to light, and bottom is watercolour mixed with gesso white in gradation.

There are also some other things to consider. For one thing I think watercolour techniques are a little bit difficult to master. My mom told me once about a friend of hers whose doctor recommended he take up painting for stress – he took up watercolour and he told my parents that it caused him even more stress! I actually think watercolour painting is really enjoyable but you kind of have to give in to the properties of the paint. Watercolour painting is kind of fragile for a few reasons – the paper itself needs to be treated carefully, and can’t be overworked, and the paints themselves (once applied to the paper) can be ruined by one erroneous drop of water. Of the three major types of paint I’ve discussed in this post – artist quality watercolour paints are definitely the least expensive milliliter for milliliter.

Watercolour paint tubes in a jar
Fishbowl of watercolour paints.
Watercolour palette
My watercolour palette. It is always very busy looking. I have all of the colours labelled on the side of the palette with masking tape labels because that is how Ann Fullerton helped me to set it up twenty-five years ago!

Of course, my words about paint are all generalities, but for anyone out there trying to decide which paint they are going to paint with (or start painting with!) I hope really hope it helps!

Watercolour and ink pen drawing
Urban watercolour sketch. I love watercolour and ink pen. It’s one of my favourites.

No matter what paint you pick – make sure you buy the best you can afford. Some people will buy inexpensive or student quality paints when they are starting out but these can make artists feel frustrated – inferior quality paints often contain less pigment to filler resulting in inferior colours and mixes. As well, you may see the word “hue” on the paint tube or jar – for example, “cadmium red hue”. Instead of containing cadmium pigment (which is $$$) it contains other, inferior pigments that look like cadmium red – but the properties and mixing characteristics will be compromised. Trust me – artist or professional quality is a good thing.

Watercolour and ink painting on paper
Watercolour and ink.
Watercolour painting on paper
Super old watercolour, c. 2003.

If you’re still undecided on which paint to paint with – you can seek out some artists famous in each medium and see what appeals to you most. My favourite oil painter? Edward Hopper. Notable other oil painters you may have heard of? Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt. Notable acrylic painters? The paints were invented relatively recently so the artists are 20th Century and on – Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rothko. Check out Drowning Girl by Lichtenstein – it’s a personal favourite 🙂 Lastly, for watercolour painters check out William Blake (!) and Franklin Carmichael of the Group of Seven (another favourite).

William Blake and a vizsla
My personal tribute to William Blake, 2018, with Muse Clicquot.

For anyone out there hesitating to start because you can’t pick a paint – just pick up your brush and get started! There’s no better way to find out what you like than to start experimenting yourself 🙂

Any questions? Ask away below.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for Part 2 of my How to Paint series coming soon.

9 thoughts on “How to Paint for Absolute Beginners.

  1. It was a very interesting read. Thank you so much for giving a sound knowledge of various painting materials and equipment ;above all this article gives a push all the people need who are feeling hesitation in their art-journey

    Liked by 1 person

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