Seven Ways To Make A Painting Work

The following tips are for those of you who already paint for a hobby or for relaxation, and for those of you wondering whether to give it a go, who simply want to achieve visually pleasing results for your efforts. So that’s painting for pleasure, without undue frustration, exasperation or artist’s angst, and without believing what you may have picked up from schooldays from art teachers who sniffed at your work, resulting in you thinking you’re just no good at it. And believe me, from talking to quite a few excellent students as a former art tutor for ten years, I know this is all too common.

Don’t let those teachers of the past pull your strings in the here and now. Everyone can paint, it’s just that like so much else in life, rules, justifications and conventions are constructed, complications are made, books are written, packed with ‘how to do’, with all those ‘necessary’ stages on show and to go through, and certain materials are insisted upon, not to mention what kind of brushes. And don’t get me started on the branding that goes on. Please believe me, it doesn’t have to be like this. You can go and buy watercolour pans or tubes (which will last you well), coloured inks, marker pens, fast drying acrylic paints, a few simple brushes, and some decent sheets of paper or cheap canvases, and you’re away – you can enter the creative zone, enjoying the colour splashes, the random blending, the feel of the brush in your hand. You can enjoy both the planned and the serendipity working together. Just like any other creative pursuit, you can use a few tools and a few simple guidelines to make your very own magic happen.

The following guidelines are for both abstract and representational styles of painting, using any media. And that’s quite a claim, I know. But they are ways/solutions I’ve observed from both my own practice and perhaps more importantly what kept cropping up in those classes I taught, where the focus was nearly always on problem solving to result in a sense of accomplishment for the artist and enjoyment for the viewer. And I was kept busy and on my toes.


 If you can tick off MOST of these features, you’ll have a painting that visually works and brings pleasure:

1. A tonal range of light (pale), medium and dark

 This renders visual depth in an abstract, and three dimensional form in a representational painting. Most people are too frightened to go into the darks – please don’t be scared of the dark ;>) If you go for it, you’ll see the difference instantly. This is the biggest problem I’ve come across, but it also happens to be my personal favourite in my own painting. Lights can be whites and pale pastels, darks can be rich and luscious or with a sense of blackness in them. If it helps, think of a colour photograph converted to black and white – you don’t want to have all grey mid tones, all those greys make visual sludge.

  1. The use of layers of paint

 Don’t be afraid of layering one colour on top of another. In watercolour, this will result in glazes where the existing colour is modified, warmed or cooled, but you can do this with opaque paints too. The result is a harmonising which is more natural than if you block paint with one colour butting up against another. And of course, if you change you mind about a colour, you can do a cover up with acrylics.

3. Have a sense of foreground and background interest

 Yes, even in an abstract. How? Through a combination of large shapes/marks and smaller ones, in conjunction perhaps with one of the considerations below.

Or you could paint your ground in an abstract manner, leave to dry, then paint something semi-representational on top. Anything goes here.


  1. Blurred and Sharp areas/Soft and Hard.

Make some areas soft focus blur into others, blending with your brush, and paint into your base with some harder-edged, more sharply defined, points of interest to draw the eye around the painting.

  1. The use of colour – warm, cool, complementary

Warm colours appear closer to the viewer – so that’s, yellows, oranges, reds, purples

Cool colours appear further away – blue-greens, blues, greys.

Using this knowledge means you can create a visual perspective in your painting, with ‘foreground’ warms and ‘background’ cools, just through the use of colour alone.

NB White sounds cool, but in fact is an exception (there’s always one!). White appears closest of all to the viewer, and of course will give you your light tones, when used in cool pale pastels.

Complementary colours used in your painting will give it life. What are they?

Red and green (both pastels and darks)

Yellow and purple (both pastels and darks)

Blue and orange (both pastels and darks)

These pairings give maximum visual effect to one another, so you can use this quality in your painting to give it some ‘zing’. But don’t use them all in one go ie all three pairings in one painting, that will give you a headache! Just choose one pairing, or two at the most.

  1. Texture

You could think of this as pattern. Again to add visual interest and somewhere for the eye to explore. Dots, dashes, splodges, lines, anything goes…maybe with the use of pens or printed patterns, sand drying in PVA glue, dry brush patterns (that’s hardly any paint on a very dry brush dragged across the ‘canvas’). And keep it moderate, which brings us to:-

  1. Enough is enough, know when to stop

 When you try these features out in your painting, please don’t fiddle around with the results as it’s just happening before your eyes – just leave the area in question to dry and move on to another area of the painting. Muddy, smudgy colours usually result from someone having ‘played around’ with the paint for far too long. Wait for one layer to dry before applying another, and leave a pleasing texture well alone.

So that’s it! I’ve deliberately avoided giving too many visual examples so you can have a go with an open mind.

A few fun ideas to try include:

Blowing ink to make patterns or letting it drip and drool

Pressing an object with an interesting shape or texture into paint, then applying it to your ‘canvas’

Wet into wet: Letting one diluted paint run into another, or wetting the paper first then dropping in your colour to see flushing patterns emerge.

Zen tangling – working ‘doodles’ into your abstract with coloured pens, while your mind relaxes.

So why not take some time out, have some fun, listen to some music and make a splash. Have a go at making your very own mark.

(pictures courtesy of pixabay)





About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: Art: Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook Artists page Facebook
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3 Responses to Seven Ways To Make A Painting Work

  1. rafaelvivar says:

    Very educative. Given the chance and if I have the talent, I’ll paint a lot of stuff. xx


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