16 Commonly Asked Questions by Painting Beginners

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Looking at a great painting, it can be hard to remember that every artist was an absolute beginner at some stage. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it's perfectly okay if you don't know what kind of paint to use on your first canvas. This list of 16 commonly asked questions can help you get started learning to paint and have fun while doing it.

  • 01 of 16

    Do I Have to Know How to Draw?

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    If you were to attend a traditional art school, you would spend a year or two learning to draw before you touched paint. Just like learning a new language, many teachers believe in learning the basics of perspective and shading first. ​There is value in this approach.

    But you don't need to know how to draw in order to paint. All you need is the desire to create and the discipline to practice and develop your technique. You'll make plenty of mistakes, but that's part of the learning process. Ultimately, the creation of art is what's important, not the road you take to get there.

  • 02 of 16

    What Kind of Paint Should I Use?

    Brush with red oil color
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    The most common types of paint used are acrylic, oil, water-mixable oil, watercolor, and pastel. Each has its own characteristics and properties to master, and they all look unique. Oil paint has been used for hundreds of years and is known for its deep, rich hues. Watercolors, on the other hand, are translucent and delicate.

    Many artists recommend using acrylics if you're new to painting because they dry quickly, mix and clean up with water, and they're easy to paint out and hide mistakes. Acrylics can also be used on just about any surface, so you can paint on paper, canvas, or board.

  • 03 of 16

    What Brand of Paint Should I Buy?

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    It depends on your budget. A good rule of thumb is to buy the best-quality paint you can for a price that you still feel able to experiment with and "waste" it. Try various brands and see which you like using.

    There are two basic types of paint: student-quality and artist-quality. Student-quality paints are cheaper and may not be as rich in hue as more expensive paints. They have less pigment and more extender or filler.

    That said, there's no reason to spend the extra money on artist-quality paints when you're just starting out.

  • 04 of 16

    Can I Mix Different Brands of Paint?

    Artist squeezing acrylic Paint
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    Yes, you can mix different brands of paint, as well as artist-quality and student-quality paints. Be more cautious about mixing different types of paint or using them in the same painting. For instance, you can use oil paints on top of dried acrylic paint, but not acrylic paint on top of oil paint.

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  • 05 of 16

    What Colors Should I Get?

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    For acrylics, watercolors, and oils, if you want to mix colors, start with two reds, two blues, two yellows, and a white. You want two of each primary color, one a warm version and one a cool. This will give you a larger range of colors when mixing than just one version of each primary.

    If you don't want to mix all your colors, also get an earth brown (burnt sienna or burnt umber), a golden earth brown (golden ocher), and a green (phthalo green).

  • 06 of 16

    Do I Have to Learn Color Theory?

    Brushes and oil paint forming a messy colour wheel
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    Color theory is the grammar of art. Essentially, it's a guide to how colors interact, complement, or contrast with one another. It is one of the fundamentals of painting, and the more you know about the colors you're using, the more you can get from them. Don't let the word "theory" intimidate you. The fundamentals of color mixing aren't particularly tricky to understand.

  • 07 of 16

    What Should I Paint On?

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    You can paint on practically anything, provided the paint will stick and won't rot the surface (or, to use art-speak, the support).

    Acrylic paint can be painted on paper, card, wood, or canvas, with or without a primer being used first. Watercolor can be painted on paper, card, or special watercolor canvas.

    A support for oil paint needs to be primed first; otherwise, the oil in the paint will eventually rot the paper or threads of the canvas. You can buy pads of paper primed for oil paper, which is perfect for doing studies or if your storage space is limited.

  • 08 of 16

    How Many Brushes Do I Need?

    Paint brushes

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    As few or as many as you like. If you're just starting out, a No. 10 Filbert brush with bristle hairs is a good choice. Remember to clean your brushes regularly and to replace them once the bristles begin to lose their snap. As you become more skilled, you'll want to acquire different types of brushes for different kinds of paint and to produce different kinds of lines.

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  • 09 of 16

    Where Do I Put the Paint I Intend to Use?

    Colors and Brush never Disappoints
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    If you're going to be mixing colors before you use them, you need some surface for squeezing out your paints and mixing them. The traditional choice is a palette made from a dark wood with a hole for your thumb in it that makes it easy to hold. Other options include glass and disposable paper palettes, some designed to hold and some to be on a tabletop.

    As acrylic paints dry rapidly, you can't squeeze out a whole row of colors on a traditional wooden palette and expect them still to be good an hour later. You'll need to use a water-retaining palette, or only squeeze out paint as you need it.

  • 10 of 16

    How Thick Should the Paint Be?

    Directly Above Shot Of Palette On Bed
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    As thick or thin as your heart desires. You can change the consistency of oil or acrylic paint with a medium to make it thinner or thicker. Watercolors are even simpler; they become more transparent as you dilute them.

  • 11 of 16

    How Often Should I Clean a Paint Brush?

    Person's hand washing paint brushes under a faucet
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    If you want your brushes to last, clean them thoroughly and completely every time you finish painting for the day. Acrylics and watercolors can be removed with water alone. You'll need to use a chemical solvent like brush cleaner to remove oil paint. 

  • 12 of 16

    Should I Hide My Brushwork?

    Paint strokes
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    Whether you leave brushstrokes visible in a painting depends entirely on whether you like it as a style of painting. If you don't like visible brushstrokes, you can use blending and glazing to eliminate all trace of them, as in the photorealist style of Chuck Close. Alternately, you can embrace brushstrokes as an integral part of the painting, emulating the bold manner of Vincent Van Gogh.

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  • 13 of 16

    Where Should I Begin?

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    There are various ways to start a painting, from blocking in rough areas of color to doing a detailed underpainting in a single color. No one approach is more correct than another. It's a matter of personal preference. But before you begin, make sure you've given careful consideration to your choice of subject matter, canvas size, and media. Being prepared is always the best way to begin painting.

  • 14 of 16

    How Long Does It Take to Finish a Painting?

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    In his book "On Modern Art," the artist Paul Klee wrote, "Nothing can be rushed. It must grow, it should grow of itself, and if the time ever comes for that work—then so much the better!"

    A painting takes as long as it takes. But remember, you're not under any deadline to finish, either. Don't rush, and be patient with yourself, especially when you're beginning.

  • 15 of 16

    When Is a Painting Truly Finished?

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    Better to stop too soon than too late. It's easier to later do something extra to a painting than to undo something if you overwork it. Put the painting to one side and don't do anything to it for a week. Leave it somewhere you can see it regularly, even sit and stare at it critically. But resist the urge to fiddle until you're sure that what you're going to do will be beneficial.

  • 16 of 16

    May I Paint a Photograph?

    Artist working from reference on a digital tablet
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    There's absolutely nothing wrong with using a photo for reference. The artist Norman Rockwell used elaborately staged photos for most of his work, for example. However, if you want to reproduce a photograph as a painting, that's a different matter, because it depends on who owns the rights to the image and whether you intend to sell your work for money.

    If you took the photo, you own the rights to that image and can reproduce it. But if you took a photograph of a person or group of people, you may need their permission to reproduce their likeness in a painting (and may need to split the profits with them).

    But if you want to paint an image taken by someone else (a photo from a fashion magazine, for example) and then sell that painting, you would have to get permission from the person or agency that owns the rights to that image.

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