I need to learn how to begin a painting

Hi All,  I'm new, but also old.  I've wasted some acrylic paint and cheap canvas because I have no idea how to begin.  For example, I'd like to paint from a photo of my boxer (dog, "Diesel").  After I apply gesso, do I next paint a background on the entire surface?  What to do if I have a dark background and sketch over the background.

How would you approach this?

Thank you,


  • CBGCBG -
    edited October 7
    First, invest an hour or two figuring out a good setting, a nice composition and pose as well as pleasing lighting, for taking a quality reference picture of your dog.  I honestly do not believe you need expensive equipment like a DSLR, but some preparation is key.

    Given the bright white and dark brown patches your dog has, I would suggest a bluish mid-value (a compliment of the dark brown) maybe on the slightly saturated side, as a background.  A natural setting with greens and blue sky might also work.
  • edited October 8
    Welcome to the forum, @PopThinks

    Here's a simple workflow for you:

    1. It will be hard to get the dog to sit still for long so best to take a good photo to use as a reference. This will also enable you to play around with the composition, color and background in an image editor before you start painting.

    2. Stain your canvas a neutral color and let it dry. Make it a mid-tone. A mix of Umber and white works well but I prefer gray, so I add a bit of blue.  This will get rid of the stark white and enable you to better judge values of the brushstrokes you apply.

    3. Do a fairly simple line drawing that maps out the forms. Use a light-colored pencil so it's visible on the dark background.

    4. Mix all your colors before starting. Color check against the reference photo as Mark describes in his videos.

    5. Start laying in the paint.

    Diesel is a good-looking dog. I look forward to seeing a painting of him.  :)

  • The advice above is good, but I don't think that premixing acrylic paint will work well for beginner. While many will suggest acrylic to beginners, it dries too fast. Yes, there are tricks one can do like using damp paper for palette. But by that reason, oils, perhaps water mixable oils, are much easier for those who cannot work quickly.

    One more obvious advice. Watch videos, from Marc Carder, plus many others on YouTube. Buy a couple of books for beginners.
  • Yes, I forgot you are using acrylics so @outremer is right. You won't be able to mix all the colors before you start painting unless you can store the mixes in small plastic airtight containers.  Otherwise you'll have to color check and mix as you go.
  • I am very appreciative for all your comments!  I get the impression I should be using oils instead of acrylics.  I'll stick with acrylics because that is what I have now. But, back to my basis question:  Gesso, background, sketch, then paint?
  • 2 different work processes, which can be done at the same time up to a point.
    1. Sketch your composition on a separate paper until you are happy with it. (As @tassieguy points out, get a good photo first)
    2. The painting: choose your surface, prep it for acrylic paint. Let dry a couple of days - a week. Sketch out your composition with a pencil or with paint. Paint away! 
  • Thank you for laying out a good plan.  I appreciate your help.
  • After I've made a background on the canvas, how do I paint on top of that background? Do I sketch the outline of my working area, then white the area out with gesso or white paint?
  • @PopThinks - you use different terms than we are used to. Also, most here I think use oils and not acrylic. If you haven't yet watched the Mark Carder videos, then view all of them.  Once you have applied your acrylic ground - not natural gesso - then one would not put any more on again, especially mixed with the paint. Maybe somebody more conversant with acrylics will chime in, but I think watching the videos and perhaps getting a book on acrylic painting will help you. 

    "Background," "working area," "white the area out again" - I don't know what these mean.
  • @PopThinks , don't make a lot of worries about background. Your main challenge will be the dog. If you begin with white canvas, and background tone won't be 100% opaque, your pencil sketch will still be visible. And when doing the background, do not overpaint the dog, just the edges. And of course you can sketch the dog over acrylic background if the background is not very dark (that won't work with oils).

    By the way, James Gourney did recently few dog sketches, check that here: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/

  • Thank you for the tip to watch the Mark Carder videos.  I'll do that. 

    I am a retired IT guy, which influences my terms.  As I learn more about painting, I will catch onto the lingo used.  BTW, what do you call the object you want to appear on top of the background?

    This is my current procedure:
    • I apply a coat of gesso to a canvas
    • A day or so later, I apply the background paint to the entire canvas
    • After another day or so I sketch the object I want on top of the background
    • Now, my dilemma: How to paint my object, in this case my boxer, getting the paint to be opaque over the background coat of paint?  I don't have a good answer other than painting over the sketch with a bland, opaque color before continuing.
    Thank you all!
  • Hi @Popthinks - I don't know what a background is - I think you are referring to a stained canvas. 

    Everything you do in a painting should have a purpose. So, if a stained "background" canvas serves your purpose, use it. If it doesn't serve a purpose, then don't. 

    Since you ask about painting white over the stained canvas before starting the sketch, I think you should not use a stained canvas. Some here do, some do not. I paint in oils and always use a white surface to paint on. 

    I suggest you start two versions of the same dog portrait: 1 with the stained canvas, 1 with just the white canvas. It may be useful for you to think of your paintings not as a make-or-break artistic effort, but trying out different things and seeing what you like. 

    Landscape painters frequently refer to the background, middle ground, and foreground of the painting in terms of the spacial depth. This is why I was confused about you writing about a background. 
  • Here are some acrylic painting tips:  acrylic paint is semi-transparent. Particularly red and yellow.  I would not have a dark under painting  when using acrylics because of the transparency.  If you need a clear red or yellow you will need to paint the shape white before putting in the color you want.  Keep a mister bottle of water handy.  There is a product called floating medium that you can purchase that greatly aids blending acrylic paint.  If I  have a detailed painting I'm working on I will draw it on paper and use transfer paper to put it on the canvas.  For acrylic paint, you will need transfer paper that doesn't have wax in it.  It will come in grey or white and other colors.  Be sure to use plenty of paint.  You may need to paint several layers to get the depth of color or a dark value that you want. Don't expect to paint an award winning painting the first time.  Just be diligent and you'll get there.  Mark's videos are excellent references for anyone who wants to learn to paint.  Keep in mind that almost everyone on this forum is an oil painter.
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