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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Who would think settling on a composition would be so challenging?

Problem: I'm inspired to paint, but what the heck should I paint?

Could I get a painting out of this sweet scene?
Don’t you find the work of accomplished artists amazing and inspiring? And more than a bit mysterious in terms of how they arrive at the compositions they do? Often their subjects and arrangements seem so effortless, so simple – yet these “simple” arrangements produce quite a powerful emotional response us. We soon realize that what looks so easy is pretty darn tough to pull off when we try to do it ourselves.  

Figuring out what to paint takes a lot of study and hard work. This includes: a huge dose of trial and error, copying other successful works (switching out particulars), sketching and re-sketching ideas, snapping countless pictures of possible scenes with a camera and altering with photoshop and did I mention trial and error? Sorry, you thought “what to paint” was the easy, fun part. Actually, creating good compositions takes as much study as any other aspect.  And yet, it is rare that an instructor will take the time to discuss this crucial aspect of painting. Curious.

Most of you are beginners at painting, so it may be a good idea to keep it extremely simple while you’re tackling all the other aspects of the craft. Consider some of the following ideas to paint when you’re a newbie to oil painting. As your skill grows, your compositions can evolve into more challenging and complex arrangements (while making it all look effortless, of course). But for the time being, let’s choose subjects that will lead to success & confidence.

Some Ideas:
The Daily Painters list a daily challenge ( I love this site. I find it extremely helpful for ideas and examples of easy set ups that are fun and something a newbie can tackle. I especially appreciate reviewing the submissions of painters who take on the challenges. It’s great to see the variety of approaches to the subject matter presented.

Dog Portraits:
An unexpected paint pleasure
Paint something you thought you had no interest in. I was recently commissioned to paint a dog portrait, which I thought was the last thing in the world that would interest me. Until I did it, that is!  I am all about pet portraits now.I’m approaching neighborhood veterinarians as we speak to see if I can put some advertisements in their offices. After experiencing the surprising pleasure from the dog portrait, I wondered what other ho-hum subjects could end up being rewarding (given the right lighting & narrative)?

Copy a painting you really love. Pick a painting you usually wouldn’t attempt. Dedicate at least a day each month to do a copying exercise. You shouldn’t labor over these exercises…several hours is plenty.

Create a Series of Small Works.
Penny Candy, 4 x 6
-Fruit – Grapes, a single pear or apple, or how about a whole row of apples of various sizes and colors? Paint your chosen fruit from different vantage points (looking down at the fruit, straight on). Experiment with different lighting angles, various colors & patterns in the backgrounds. Consider paring items that send a secret message. A gummy worm on top of a book…scissors on top of a rock on top of a wrinkled piece of paper…
- Dishes – especially if they have special meaning to you; I love painting my grandmother’s teacups. A coffee cup with a bit of newspaper showing in the background creates a whole narrative. Paint the steam…include an antique spoon.
- Sea Shells – just beautiful, and full of beautiful highlights.
-Candy – especially the translucent type.
 -Paint what you think is too hard – this is actually a must.  You just can’t avoid drapery, elipses, hands, feet, ears. Do a small 4 x 6 of just a hand to get the practice.
-Stacks of things:  when stacking, make sure there’s interest to the stacking, off set them in other words.                       
       Some things to stack:
             Old Books
 -Sports Related Objects:
tennis balls
baseball mitt
ice skates
pool balls (the color combos are endless, no pun intended)
-Antique Anything
Would it be fun to paint reflections?
Sports Equipment
Kitchen Equipment
Tea Kettles
Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich
Cookies with Milk
Hot Dogs
Decorated cupcakes
Honey in its cute squirt bottle
Jam in its pretty jar

Urban Landscapes…
People in casual setting…playing cards, drinking coffee, at a jazz club
People in motion: walking dogs..window shopping…diving in a pool…
zipping up a coat.

And when all else fails, I always refer to What Do The Masters Do?
And what do the masters do? They take (steal, borrow, embellish) from the works of others.

Yup, if you study the work of current masters, I guarantee a lot of their compositions are borrowed from earlier masters.  They change things up a bit, but there’s no mistaking that they’ve taken their inspiration from a tried & true composition plan. You learn so much from “borrowing” – knowledge that you’ll apply to completely different scenes.

Again, if the masters do it, shouldn’t we newbies?


  1. your oil painting tips are tremendous, painting for beginners could get benefited out of that.t definitely takes time to organize your painting like ten composition etc, i feel privileged after going through your website.

    1. Thanks for visiting the blog, Melissa! I appreciate the feedback. Happy painting :)