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Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing…

Many inexperienced painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to observe closely what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually looking at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed object.  Artists try to avoid labeling an object as “tree” or anything else and instead train themselves to interpret what they see in a new way.  Seeing means focusing attention, looking at shapes, values, and colors before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the “tree”?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can accurately paint what you see, NOT what you think you see.

Drawing helps you see, and seeing helps you draw.  Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you!  One of the main purposes of drawing is to train yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to see.  Look for basic shapes, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes.  Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush.

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational skills, is that you will learn to condense observed information into a simplified format, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simplified, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Reference photos:

mulpus reference photos.jpg

Line drawing:

mulpus line drawing.jpg

Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, use the information to record an image skillfully.  Mastering these techniques will improve the quality of your work.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

Your picture has your touch in it.  You can pick a subject that appeals or has special meaning to you.  You can rearrange what you’re looking at any way you like.  You can simplify or exaggerate parts of what you see.  Look beyond the normal, the everyday, the expected for your painting subjects.  Notice the negative shapes, the rhythms, the reflected lights, the colors.  Look at an object close up for a new viewpoint.  Consider a portrait approach or botanical style.  Look for varied shapes and unusual forms to add interest to your picture.  Each person sees the world in a different way.

Creating Form and Space in a Painting.

How can I create the look of a three-dimensional object or scene on a flat piece of paper? An artist creates form in a picture, in part, through the use of TONAL VALUES: lights and darks will suggest weight and mass in your painting. In other words, contrast and variation of values (lights and darks) will indicate form, space, and depth. SHADOWS appear as SHAPES lying on the surface of an object, following the contours and revealing the form of the underlying object.


Many of the objects you paint will be a combination of CURVED and FLAT surfaces. Light interacts differently with each of these surfaces, so pay attention to value changes in order to paint a convincing illusion of three-dimensional form.

On a curved surface, darks and lights change constantly and smoothly. When painting a curved object look for a core shadow with reflected light on the dark side as well as a slight shadow on the light side. The change from light to dark on a curved object is GRADUAL across its surface. The direction of the light shining on the curved object determines where different shadows and lights will fall.

In contrast, a viewer can perceive flat surfaces because of a contrast of value between EACH of the surfaces. Each side of a cube, for instance, receives a different proportion of light. Value does NOT stay constant across each surface, but changes slightly as each side recedes.


Color is made up of both HUE (the name of the pure color) and TONE. Each color (hue) has the quality of lightness or darkness. (Yellow has a lighter tone, for instance, than purple.) Differences in the tone of a color are easy to see when the colors used are not very intense (or strong). However, the brilliance or intensity of colors can interfere with your ability to isolate and focus only on the lightness/darkness of color, thus making it difficult to judge tonal values in a painting. SQUINTING your eyes can help you see the proper tone. As you squint, look only for the difference in lightness or darkness of an area.

A black/white GRAY SCALE (a card with gradations of white, gray, and black) can make it easier to judge tone in your picture. Alternatively, make a black and white copy of your reference photo, or draw a value sketch of your scene including lights, mid-values, and darks for reference while painting. In black and white you will see the tonal values of the subject ( and not the color). This new way of seeing will help you compose, simplify, and adjust values in your painting. With practice, you will be better able to recognize tones and values and to control them.

When you look at your painting subject, look for a range of tones from light to dark. However, keep in mind that TONE in a picture is always RELATIVE. Observe the strength of tone in one area of the picture in relation to all the other tones. When you squint, you will notice that highlights and darks are visible to you while non-essential details tend to blur. Try to simplify your image into at least three (no more than five) tonal values, e.g. light, dark, mid-tone. You can start your painting with pale undertones to establish the layout of your composition. Leave highlights as the white of the paper. Mid-tones are painted next, overlapping some layers to build up color. Dark tones are usually the final layer of building up color in your painting. Having the lighter layers painted, you will find it easier to evaluate just how dark you need to paint your darkest colors.


CONTRAST (the relative difference between light and dark areas in a painting) is one of the ways in which the brain distinguishes one thing from another. The stronger the contrast, the more it attracts attention. Contrast helps a viewer differentiate between subject and background in a painting and directs the viewer’s eye to the center of interest, especially when the center of interest is the point of greatest contrast.

Contrast is dynamic, contributing excitement, attracting attention, and relieving monotony. Contrast creates a tension between the opposing elements, a push and pull, to provide visual strength and make a forceful statement in a painting. (COUNTERCHANGE is the term used for placing light and dark tones next to each other to create impact.) Every artist wants to paint a picture that has some impact! To create a stimulating painting, include strong contrasts.

Contrast in VALUE is the most common form of contrast used by artists. Other possible types of contrast are contrast in temperature, in energy, and in purity of color (bright or muted). While painting, artists try to arrange and modify the values of various parts of a picture, depending on what they want to emphasize. Sometimes they alter values from how those values appear in reality to whatever the artists need to make a stronger composition. If you squint at your painting and certain areas blend into each other, you may need to add more contrast in your work. If you make shadows darker or lose some detail in the bright highlights, you can make your painting more dramatic. If your picture looks dull, with all areas the same tone, you may need to increase the tonal range. Make sure that darker and lighter tones alternate across the painting and that there is tonal variation WITHIN each wash for variety.

Early Morning, Early Spring.jpg

In the above watercolor painting, note the contrasts in tone and color temperature in particular. Are there soft and hard edges? What draws your attention in this picture? What techniques suggest depth and three dimensions?


Since VARIATION is important in watercolor, also allow some edges (perhaps in shaded areas and highlights) to merge into areas of similar tone and to be less detailed. (This is called LOST AND FOUND, or HARD AND SOFT EDGES, or fading and disappearing edges, or broken or inferred edges.) When edges appear or disappear or are soft, they create a sense of movement in a painting, allowing the viewers to imagine or interpret what they see. In contrast, hard edges define SHAPES and hold or direct the viewers’ eye. By employing hard and soft edges, the  artist can further refine the creation of distance, depth, and form.


Also use PERSPECTIVE ( a succession of spatial planes receding into the distance) to help you create believable space and form. When you place a light-toned object in front of a darker one, it appears to be positioned in front of the other spatially. Larger objects appear closer than smaller ones.


Tonal counterchange (light against dark) not only appeals to the eye but also creates shape and depth in a painting. Light and shadow across the surface of an object reveal the form of that object. Strong tonal contrast and a varied range of tones create the illusion of space and suggest three-dimensional form.

Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want to Learn.

Here are some basic watercolor techniques that every painter should strive to master.

*Painting a WASH is an important skill. Try to use a big enough brush to hold a good amount of paint. Mix a larger puddle of paint than you think you need so that you don’t run out and have to mix more in the middle of painting the wash. Start with color at one end of your paper and smoothly stroke across to the opposite edge. Your brush should hold enough paint to sweep from one side to the other without running out of pigment. If not, find a larger brush to use. There should be a damp bead of paint on the lower edge of the color you just put on your paper. Reload your brush fully with paint, and smoothly stroke across the page again, just touching your brush to the damp bead of your last stroke. This bead tells you your paint is still wet and helps prevent streaky washes.

*To paint a GRADED WASH, start with color at one end of the paper. Paint three to four long strokes, as above. Dip the brush in water, and wipe it gently on the side of your water container (so the brush is not too wet), then return to the wash and continue painting three to four strokes. Repeat, dipping the brush in the water and wiping gently before going back to the painting. What are you doing? Every time you dip and wipe your brush, you are reducing the pigment and water on your brush to gradually lighten the color of your wash. You are not trying to wash all the pigment out of your brush all at once, but instead are gradually diluting the pigment on your brush as you continue to paint down the paper.

* Blend two colors together to create GRADATION. Start by laying the first color about 3/4 of the way from one end toward the other in a wash. Right away, load your brush with your second color, and paint toward and over the first color 3/4 of the way. Reverse direction, and work back to where you started your second color WITHOUT lifting your brush. Move back and forth until the colors blend smoothly. The trick here is to not lift the brush from the paper once you begin blending.

*To MIX COLOR on your palette, dip into the lighter color first, then drop the darker color into the light color. Mix. It is not necessary to wash your brush every time you reach to get more color to add to the mixture. Doing so is wasteful and dilutes your mixture. Instead, just go to the color desired, and pick up some color with the dirty brush, then bring it back to the mixture. Any dirty palette wells can be cleaned later with a damp brush! It’s okay, however, to clean your brush when you want to use a single clean color or want to change to a new mixture of color.

*To mix CONCENTRATED DARK COLORS, mix as above, but DON’T keep adding water, because you dilute your mixture and will have difficulty achieving intense or dark combinations.

*Learn how to LIFT COLOR with a brush. Remember that you can lift wet paint from your paper as long as your brush is DRIER than the paint.

*FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. Use a brush that is less wet than the painted area. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! Also, be careful how close you get to the wet paint with your brush. You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough. Once the paint begins to move, make your strokes further and further away from the paint. It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, or flower petals.)

*Learn to LET THE PAINT AND WATER DO THE WORK. Don’t fight the paint or try to force it to do what you want it to. Learn the rules of how water behaves -(i.e., when two unequal bodies of moisture meet, the GREATER wetness will ALWAYS flow into the LESSER wetness). Learn to do nothing except watch what the paint and water can do without your help.

* Learn to see and paint NEGATIVE SHAPES. A negative shape is the background or shape AROUND an object, not the object itself. You essentially save the light shape (perhaps of trees in a forest) by painting around the tree trunks with a dark color. For trees, paint vertical strokes that represent the space  between tree trunks. Try to vary sizes, angles, and shapes of the dark lines, even making some of the light tree trunk shapes y-shaped to represent branches. When the paint on the paper is dry, use a slightly darker pigment to paint again but only in the dark spaces, and add even darker marks to define the space between more tree trunks deeper in the forest. It might help to lightly sketch these first. In the beginning, allow large spaces around a few shapes. If you leave too little space, it becomes difficult to paint meaningful shapes at deeper layers. Repeat the process for several layers. Slowly and gradually progress to darker layers of color. (There is no need to mix progressively darker puddles of paint here – use the same puddle for successive layers. Two layers will appear twice as dark as one, etc.) Negative shapes in a painting add variety, depth, interest, and a sense of reality to your image.

*Practice control of  BRUSH STROKES and techniques. As an artist, you want to paint with as few brush strokes as possible to preserve the freshness and clarity of your painting. Make your shapes with a single stroke as opposed to first outlining and then filling in with color (like a coloring book). Avoid cautious, tiny strokes with a too-small brush. Instead, try to use a larger brush than you think you need!

While many other techniques are useful, learning the ones described above will assure many a good painting. Thank you to artist and author Gordon MacKenzie for recommending many of the above ideas.