Oil Painting Basics: Part 2 | Getting Started & Setting Up

Every artist has their own routine when it comes to getting started. My personal routine has evolved over the years and includes cleaning up my space before I get started and finding a great playlist, audio book, or movie to listen to while I work. Whatever yours is, or whatever yours evolves into as you start your artistic journey with oil painting, do what works for you. To get you started, however, here are some basic guidelines:

Getting Started

1. Have A Check List
Before you even think of “getting started,” start with making sure you have everything you need. If you’ve missed it, Part 1 is all about supplies and things you will need. Click here to check it out. If you’ve “been there, read that,” below is a list for you to double check. One of the saddest things you can experience with oil painting is being so excited to get started all to find out--you forgot to buy a canvas! Click here for a free printable version of this checklist!

2. Know Your Subject  
Next to having all your supplies, knowing what you will paint is important, so I’m going to break this second point into a few points in itself. (Of course, this subject is much more complex than just a few points.) Additionally, I find that once I get one idea of something to paint--I get 10 more ideas! So I always keep a list of "To Paint." That way, when inspiration is lacking--I can turn to this list and not be lost.

2.1 Know Your Subject & Keep It Simple . . .  Simple Enough  
While you’re just beginning, and even if you’re not beginning and it’s just what you like, you don’t need elaborate subject matter full of meaning and intrigue. Don’t be shy of painting something simple. If a single object such as a lemon or apple is what you wish to paint--paint away! You can make it beautiful no matter what. Be clever. However, if super simple subject matter, like a single apple, isn’t your thing, maybe try a basket of apples. Simple can mean a few objects or one face. Don’t start with something overly ambitious like a multi-figure painting, a huge still life with every fruit imaginable in it, or a city scene next to a creek with a million trees and a few little fishermen waving to their wives and children who are flying kites. Keep it simple. Simple enough.

2.2 Know Your Subject and Don’t Fear
Most importantly, start with something that you’re drawn to. If that be a portrait or still life, go for it! Try a landscape if that intrigues you. My grandma, an artist herself, taught me a great lesson when I was a little girl about painting. She told me to draw her night lamp across the room. “Draw it as perfectly as you can” she said. I probably sat there for far longer than you’d expect someone of that age to, but I did, I drew it as perfectly as I could. My grandma then told me if I could draw that lamp “perfectly” then I could draw anything perfectly if I just looked at it the same as I had just looked at the lamp. The lesson here isn’t, “if you can draw a night lamp perfectly, you can draw anything,” but instead, it is, if you can draw or paint one thing perfectly that you see in front of you, there is no stopping you from drawing or painting something else perfectly in front of you. All of the sudden, nothing you draw or paint is easy, and nothing is hard. Drawing is drawing . . . is drawing. Painting is painting . . . It was one of the best lessons I learned. Don’t fear a subject matter just because it is “hard.” Let’s remember this great quote from Van Gogh “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

3. Know What To Paint From
Once you know your subject, decide whether it will be best to work from life or from a photograph:

Paint From Life
Painting from life is invaluable. (Painting from life means simply painting from objects or a subject in front of you, not painting from your imagination or from a photograph.)  Nothing is a better teacher than your own eye observing objects or a subject in front of you and painting it from life. At any time you can, paint from life. Especially if you’re really trying to mature your skills. Take your paints outdoors to paint a landscape. Set up a still life in your studio to work from. Have a family member or friend sit for you while you paint. Though it may seem more difficult than working from a photograph, your eye will show colors (as well as hard and soft edges and patterns) infinitely better than any camera. Any time spent painting from life is time well spent. I cannot stress it enough.

Paint From A Photograph
Painting from a photograph is far more convenient than painting from life. Not to diminish the importance of painting from life in any way (it will always be number 1,) but if you don’t have anyone to sit and model for hours, you have a vase of wildflowers that will die in a day and you need longer, or even if you see a beautiful landscape while out on a drive--this is when photography is a wonderful resource. I love the article from NY Daily News on Norman Rockwell and his experience with painting from photographs. Also, if you need a guide to photographing great images to paint--check out this post from yours truly!

Setting Up

1. Your Work Space

Whenever possible, set up near a window with natural lighting. If you are right handed, the window should be on your left so that the shadow your hand casts doesn’t cover the very spot you’re working on, and visa-versa for those who are left handed. If you don’t have natural lighting, a couple of 100W “day-light” bulbs will suffice. Just avoid any yellow light.

Make sure you are comfortable. This seems like a no-brainer, but there are still many times when I walk away from my easel after a couple hours stiff as a board, not wanting to return.  

Don’t forget to position your palette, subject, and supplies well. For me, I will always have my handheld palette in my left hand (as I am right-handed) or to my right if it is sitting on a table so I don’t have to reach across my painting and body. I position my easel directly in front of me, and my model or subject to the right of my easel so that I can mix colors on my palette as close (in eyesight) to what it is I am painting. (If I am working from photos, I usually tape them to a board immediately left of my canvas so that I don’t cover them with my arm as I am painting.) Additionally, I keep all my supplies to my right. My brush will be in my right hand, and I want to access my “medium,” “brush cleaner,” or anything else quickly and easily.

2. Laying Out Your Colors

I will be the first to agree that, yes, paints are expensive! But don’t shy away from putting enough out on your palette to save a buck! I would say a good rule of thumb for knowing how much is enough is “nickel size or larger.” If you’re nearing dime size or less--keep squeezing! In the moment when you’re 45 minutes into your painting, completely in another world, you won’t even notice that you’re fresh out of bright red. It’ll just so happen to be in that moment that you need to rosey up the cheeks of the little lady you are painting, instead of stopping, stepping out of your zone, and restocking your bright red, you’ll reach for that “darker red” which is actually the wrong color, and that’s when mistakes happen. So put out enough paint. If you don’t use it all, that’s ok. There are many ways to save it for another day. 

As you lay out your colors, be aware that the order in which you lay them is also important. Not only does it help you logically remember the attributes of each color, but over time, it helps you reach quickly for colors so you can focus on mixing them rather than finding them. It becomes habitual.

My palette habit reaches for this order of color from left to right.
Titanium White
Cadmium Yellow (Cool Yellow)
Cadmium Yellow Medium (Warm Yellow)
Cad Red Light (Warm Red)
Alizarin Crimson Permanent (“Cool” Red)
Dioxazine Purple (Warm Purple)
Ultramarine Blue (Cool Blue)
Cobalt Blue (“Warm” Blue)
Sap Green (Warm Green)
Viridian (Cool Green)
Burnt Sienna (Warm Toner)
Burnt Umber (“Cool” and “Warm” Toner)
Ivory Black (“Cool” Toner)

3. Canvas Prep
You will love the painting process if you have great surface to work on. You can read more about what canvas or surface you select on Part 1.

Before you begin your painting, it’s helpful that your canvas or surface is “toned”, or, in other words, that it isn’t white. A quick way to tone a white canvas is a light, transparent wash of burnt sienna or ivory black over the entire canvas. Mixing some paint thinner into a little bit of paint on your palette will do just the trick. Apply it with a brush, and use a paper towel to spread it out so that it covers the whole canvas. (A transparent sheet of Duralar will already be “toned” as it is not white.) You should be able to leave finger prints, but it shouldn’t be dripping. I like to set mine out in the sun for about 10 minutes and let it dry a bit--or I prepare my canvas the night before. Note: When toning with black--it should be a light charcoal and not a rich deep black.

You’re ready to start painting now! I can’t wait for you to get started! Good luck! Be bold! Check back for Project #1 soon, or follow along on Instagram @SarahCNightingale for updates. If you've learned from my posts and want to share your work, hashtag #PaintingWithSCN. We would all LOVE to see!


Garden Prints

As summer officially says its goodbyes, I couldn't help but wander out to my little garden and soak in the sunshine. It's been a wonderful season with lots of change. Moving to the midwest has undoubtedly been an adventure, but in these summer-filled paintings of mine lie all the wonderful memories. 


Basics Of Capturing Great Photo Reference For Painting

I will always love painting from life above all else. There is nothing greater than sitting with your subject in reality and working out a painting. Similarly, some of the most beautiful work the world has ever seen was created by observation and observation alone; however, painting from life often isn’t convenient, or in some cases, it’s impractical. Working with photographs can be a perfect alternative! When painting from a photograph, it is important to remember that a good photograph is essential to a good painting. You don’t need to be a professional photographer, but you do need to take good photographs. Additionally, always remember to be you. Be authentic. Although there are many beautiful images around the internet, books, and elsewhere, all images are subject to copyright--they belong to another artist--always work from your own images. In this post, I am going to give you a few great tips to help you produce your best images, and therefore, your best paintings.

Camera: An SLR camera is always going to be the best option for you to have great photo reference. Not only do you get the best resolution, the clearest image, but they keep edges natural and colors closest to reality. Point and shoot cameras, including phone photos, often don’t capture the absolute light and quality you would see in real life, stay away from those if you can. You’ll be so much happier with the results you get from an SLR than you do from a point and shoot.

If point and shoot is your only option, however, maybe make notes on a piece of paper about what colors you are seeing in shadow areas, the areas where the light is the brightest, and any other subtle colors differences before you take the photograph. It’s also a good idea to note where you see sharp edges and soft edges. Later, when you’re painting from your photographs, you can refer to your notes and enhance those areas on your painting of the missing color in your photos.

Exposure: A helpful way to capture the details of your subject, details that would otherwise be lost, is to take three shots exactly the same with the exception of exposure. The first photo should be under exposed, the second “perfect exposure,” and the third should be over exposed. This allows you to look into all the areas of light and dark and ultimately reveal details that one single photo wouldn’t produce.  

In the images below, shot at three different exposures, consider what details you can see where each yellow arrow is that you cannot see in the other images.

Composition: This subject is complex enough to have entire books written about it, but ask yourself these three things and you’ll be set.

1. Is anything centered? With the exception of a single portrait, don’t center anything. Instead, split the canvas in thirds each way and align things on the grid of thirds instead.

2. Is everything unified? If something feels out of place, move it. (Remember, you don’t have to paint your painting exactly like the photo. If you’re photographing something with large stationary objects like a landscape for a painting, a tree can be moved, a path can be removed, etc.)

3. What is my main focus? With any painting, one object or subject will be the focus, and the rest will be complimentary. It is common to have the focus be in the lightest area, or have the brightest light or color on it. Arrange the other objects to “point” to the main focus. A lady wearing a bright red dress on the beach, on a cloudy day, amongst a group of other people wearing all black would certainly pull the focus to her. Be clever.

A great way to plan out composition is to make “thumbnail sketches.” These are sketches that you make in under 1 minute that give the basic ideas. Thumbnails sketching is shorthand for the artist! It’s ok if they don’t make sense to others, as long as they make sense to you and you can take that thumbnail sketch into a bigger idea.

Lighting: Equally important to composition is lighting. Again, another complex subject, but here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I have only one light source? A common error in beginning art is that a subject will be lit by two light sources. It is always best to light your subject with only one light. Even better is to have that light be the sun! If you're shooting indoors, turn off all indoor lighting and photograph close to a window that lets in that natural sunlight. (Although, in rare circumstances for effect, it is acceptable to have two light sources. Consider a painting of a girl reading by a candle? Maybe a second candle or lantern is off in the background? In this case, there would be two light sources and, if done correctly, would have a beautiful effect.)

2. Is my light “flat”? Flat lighting is simply lighting that produces very little shadow on the subject and very little contrast. A big culprit for flat lighting is a camera’s flash. A flash will produce a “flat” image--turn it off. Another culprit for flat lighting is an overcast day. A good option for an overcast day is to take your subject near a window, turning off or covering all other light sources but the window, and allowing the building to act as the “shadower” and the window to be the light source.

Similarly, lighting that is not flat is full of contrast, but be sure to pay attention to your contrast. The contrast the sun creates on a bright day outdoors is much more harsh than that of the same sunlight coming in through a window. The contrast can set the mood of an image. Think about how hard or soft you want it to be.

3. Where are my shadows? My rule of thumb is to have my subjects ¼ of the way into the shadow. A shadow falling directly in the center can be distracting, while a shadow falling more than ½ of the way on the subject can make the overall image seem dark and dreary. A shadow from straight on or from "below" can also make a object appear as if it is floating in the air.  Every object should have a "resting shadow."

If I’m photographing a portrait, I ask, are the eyes in shadow? Where is the shadow of the nose falling? I like it falling slightly to one side, a little bit downward, but not straight down. Moving a lighting source or turning your subject to the appropriate lighting can do wonders for your photos and therefore your painting.

Additionally, when I am photographing landscapes, it can be a bit different as I am not in control of lighting the subject (the sun is). However, whether I am photographing a person, a still life outside, or a landscape, I always make sure to photograph when the sun isn’t directly overhead, usually 10am-2pm or later. That way, shadows are sure to fall and create depth in my landscapes.

Compare these images below. What does the shadow or lighting say about each image? What feels awkward? What makes the apple feel as if you could reach out and pick it up? Which apple(s) is floating? If it is floating, it is lacking a "resting shadow." Can you see any that are "flat"?

Multiple Shots: My dad always laughs at my “camera technique.” Because I grew up in the digital age, the concept of film and only having a roll of film to shoot on is a foreign concept to me. Therefore, when I am doing a photo shoot, I experiment with many angles and many different shots. This means many, many, many photos--the reason for my dad’s laughing. It is always nice to have many photos to choose from rather than only having a few that you have to settle with. I always regret the times that I didn’t shoot enough photos. If I think I have enough, I double it--then I know I do. Bottom line is--take lots of photos!

Capturing The Moment: The last thing I want to mention is the importance of capturing the moment, or, capturing your vision. As I mentioned under “composition,” making thumbnail sketches is a great way to record ideas and thoughts to narrow down what you love to a single idea. Before you begin your photo shoot, decide exactly what it is you want to capture, and keep that in mind as you shoot. A strong image should always have a strong idea behind it. Similarly, when an image reflects something the artist is passionate about, it will show in the work. Be authentic. Be courageous in your ideas. Be decisive. You can do it!!!

>>If you've missed them, check out these two other tutorial-like posts!


Shop . . . Open!

It's live!! I'm so happy to be opening shop once again! After taking a break earlier in the year to finish my last bit of school, I am thrilled to be opening shop again and filling the walls of your home with beautiful artwork. Today's listings are mostly originals! So be quick if you see something you love, and check back soon for more prints (and originals! Because there is always something on the easel!)


Oil Painting Basics: Artistic Action for Growth

Before I jump to posting Oil Painting Basics: Part 2* (which is coming together quite nicely and I actually am genuinely thrilled to share with you very soon, eek!!!) I wanted to talk about artistic action for growth. It is something I learned as a youth, yet artistic action for growth is something I still strive to master. Artistic action for growth is simply the idea of setting goals that will help you grow as an artist and following through with those goals. Growth takes action. To become better, you must take action.

Here's a Plan of Action for you to consider:

  1. Keep It Simple
There is an overwhelming amount of knowledge you can obtain on the subject of oil painting. Let your curiosity guide you. Maybe this means you’re most curious about learning color temperature and value than you are learning about proportional drawing but every book says, learn to draw first--I say, study color first! Because it is what you are interested in, and as an artist, you are your best teacher if you can listen. Become a fountain of knowledge on the subject you are curious about. Study it until it bores you and maybe then you’ll find you become more curious about drawing. Whatever it is, the exploration of your curiosity will help you learn and grow in a way most delightful for you.

  1. Rejoice Over Your Mistakes
I studied under the incredible William (Bill) Whittaker for a while while I was in school. The time in his studio is a treasured memory for me. I look up to Bill in so many ways and I am so grateful for the knowledge I gained in his studio. One thing I learned from Bill was to “rejoice over your mistakes!” If ever I would place a piece in front of him and acknowledge a flaw of any kind in my work he would say, “Hurray! You’ve done it!” Or something to the likes of that. Bill taught me that the first step to making a better painting is to recognize the mistakes. It means that you are training your eyes to become more sensitive, and similarly, it means that you cannot fix your mistakes if you cannot see them. Still to this day, I am completely charged with enthusiasm when I find mistakes in my work. I quickly go about fixing them and feel so good about myself that I could find them! In the words of Bill, “Feel good about yourself!”

  1. Master Your Masterpiece
If the only thing you want to do is to paint a convincingly life-like, beautiful peony--master it. Make it yours. Authenticity is a beautiful tool in creating artwork that speaks to one’s soul. Decide what it is that you want to create. Although it is tremendously helpful to study the work of other artists and recreate the work of masters, ultimately, those things should just be tools to guide and teach you how to create your own work. As you paint things that you want to paint, over time, your work will being to show a style that is uniquely yours. When a painting is made with trueness and honesty of its creators soul, it shows in the work, and the viewer can sense the subtle significance.

On another note, remember that you are learning. Every honest painting you create will continue to be better, painting by painting. Your best work is always ahead of you. I have been painting in oil for 14 years now, and I am sure that my best work is ahead of me. I often feel very humbled by acknowledging what I don’t know and seeing the faults in my work, but I am happy that I can continue to grow and learn. Learning to paint is a wandering adventure. You can go where ever you’d like. At times when you feel like climbing that 90 degree cliffside of a learning curve--climb it, but at other times when you need to sojourn in a comfortable place and review things you know to reinstate them more clearly, sojourn. Learning to paint is about the process not the product. If you do a bad painting, it’s part of the process, and your next can be better. Your successes will show in the entirety of the process of your growth, not in a single painting.

  1. Make A Commitment
When I was fifteen years old I made on a lofty goal in conjunction with a professional gallery in downtown Sacramento. They were putting on their annual “50-50 Show” where artists of all kinds proposed a theme to create 50 works of art in 50 days in, on 6x6in panels. I decided I could do 50 painting of portraits in 50 days. I proposed my idea, they agreed, and I was in the show! The first day of my 50 days painting a portrait was a learning experience in itself, and I spent hours on the piece. As the days went on and the paintings began to multiply, I watched myself work faster and my work began to get better! Around painting 15 I remember thinking, “this is the very best painting I’ve ever done! I hope I can make them all look this great!” When, to my surprise, 16 and 17 were even better. By the 50th painting, I was blown away by how much I had learned just by doing. I learned about color, design, and how to apply my paint just by consciously trying to get better everyday and “putting in the mileage,” as my professors at BYU would say.

Since that show, I have always had a commitment to a personal artistic goal. My goals have ranged from “paint one painting for myself a month” while I was in school, to “paint three studies a week,” or even “read 1 art book a month.” (Although that last goal isn’t a progressive “painting” goal, it was helpful to broaden my knowledge and be apply to later apply the things I learned. I cannot say enough good things about reading art books.)  What ever can work in my schedule, I make sure to plan out that goal and keep it.

  1. Show Your Work!
Just like your algebra teacher told you in junior high, “show your work!” She may have given that advice in a completely different context, but don’t hide your art in a box in the closet. Put it out there for people to see. There’s a world of friends, family, art lovers, beginning artists, and professional alike that can congratulate you on your successes in art at whatever stage you may be at. A community or support group is invaluable. If showing your work means sending a picture of it out in a group text (I do that daily to my family and a couple of friends for honest feedback,) go a step further and try posting it to Facebook or Instagram. In addition, there’s never a better time to enter an art show than now! Don’t be afraid of showing your work next to others. I once heard an incredible artist (though the name escapes me now) that he would rather be the worst artist in the show than the best because that means he can only get better. It’s a process. Any form of showing your work will be rewarding to you in someway or another.  

In the words of the great, afro-donning, artist extraordinaire,
“All you need to paint is a few tools, a little instruction, and a vision in your mind.”

If you missed the first post of this blog series, see link below:

*Part 2 expected to be posted by Sept. 1, 2014. For updates like my Facebook Page Sarah C. Nightingale Art or follow along on Instagram @SarahCNightingale.