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How to Art - The basics of putting it all together.

How To Art

August 14, 2020

I recently taught a class wherein we touched on the things to consider in using a photo as a reference or inspiration for painting. There were a number of questions that bubbled up after class and I thought I might expand on the subject a bit as the answers are very much a part of creating in general.

On occasion we are lucky enough to get “the shot” - perfectly lit, in focus and cropped to devote the attention to the focal point. For most of us, that occasion comes rarely. More often, we take a number of photos in passing, or because we are there and it seemed like a good idea at the time, figuring we would sort it all out at the canvas. As a result, not every photo makes a great painting. 

When we are setting up to start our painting with a reference pic, it’s important to consider the 4 C’s of Creating - Content, Composition, Color and Contrast.

CONTENT - WHAT do you want to paint and WHY? 

                     What drew you to the subject you are choosing? Was it the play of light and shadow? The colors and the atmosphere? The memories it evokes or how it makes you feel? Quite possibly all of the above! This will help you to decide what stays in the painting from the photo and what will be edited out. It should also help you to determine what the focal point will be and what you may want to edit to support the focal point. You may want to bring a fence line in a little more toward the focal point or direct shadows to bring the eye to the focal point. Lose the dead shrub in the corner or add a flower.

                  WHY you want to paint it will also help you decide if it is going to be striving for realism, atmosphere or an enhanced emotional response. Do you leave things as they are? If you are enamoured by the busyness of a street market you may leave a lot more in. If you are focused on the gorgeous fruit for sale, you may tighten your focus to just one vendor cart. The WHY will also determine whether you use bright, carefree colors or neutral sombre colors. It will also help you decide on soft, long shadows or crisp, high contrast shadowing.

It is important to keep the WHY in mind as you paint and refer back to it in your decision making. Write it down before you start. Then decide whether you want your painting to mirror the photo or reflect what the photo means to you.

In Urban Sketching there is often an overwhelming amount of visual information and choice in front of you. I would suggest sitting in a place that is comfortable and taking a breath before starting. Look around you, 360 degrees, and notice what you respond to the most in your environment. Decide on WHY and how much of that you want to depict. You may decide to create your piece as a montage of the area or the outing, connecting all the pieces that you are drawn to in one panorama. What you include is up to you and the ‘story’ you want to tell with your painting.


The composition should basically be the crew that support the Diva (focal point).Give the Diva her due. You the highest contrast (light against dark), a splash of bright color, size and position can all hold the viewer’s attention. Whether it is a soft, quiet song or an aria, the Diva gets to sing.

 Subtle lines or flow of color, line or pattern can help bring the eye (in a clockwise rotation) to the focal point. Some choose to be direct about it - railway line tracks, power poles, roads etc, others choose a subtle approach with catches of color that lead the viewer. It all depends on what you are trying to evoke in the viewer (see - WHY you want to paint this). 


It is important to develop a relationship with color. Talking out loud is allowed! As you work with colors, determine whether they are ‘cool’ or ‘warm’ versions of the hue. Are they bright and clean pigment (strange names like - pyrol, azo, hanza - often a man made pigment) or cloudy and neutralizing (natural mineral based - ochre, umber, sienna etc). The clearer pigment creates a brighter mix whereas the mineral pigments subdue the mix. To make a vivid purple you would use a crimson (blue toned red) and a Thalo blue (vivid dark blue). To make a more neutral heather color you would use a less vivid blue like Ultramarine (mineral) and maybe a tad of the mineral yellow - Yellow Ochre (the compliment of purple) to tone it down. Care should be taken when mixing compliments as they will turn brown, grey or muddy very quickly. Used next to each other they enhance each other... Side-by-side they sashay. Mix them up and they turn grey.

My rule of thumb when mixing colors is to add white last unless it is a super light color. Otherwise, start with the lightest color and introduce the darker shades like going into icy water - a little at a time!


Last but incredibly important. Without a light source the painting will come across as very flat and lifeless no matter how well it is executed. Determine where the light is coming from early on so that the shadows will be consistent. Is the light cool or warm? Are the shadows long and diffused or sharp and contrast is high (soft, hazy light vs strong light)? 

If we have no light source, we have no shadow and we lose three dimensional shapes as well as atmosphere and, interestingly, we also tend to lose the viewer’s interest or “buy in” to the work. The painting becomes background noise instead of a symphony.

I hope these points are helpful and that you will contact me at with other questions for this blog. Carry on at the canvas!