Saturday, May 2, 2015

Help! I'm Lost!

The Phases of Painting...

by Karen Ilari

There are many elements to a successful painting. Trying to tackle them all at once can be confusing and frustrating. Instead, take your painting in easy steps. Phases. This will make your process simple, fun and successful. Much like the phases children go through growing up, some of them are fun and easy, others are downright challenging!

The key is to focus on just the phase you are working on.  
Put all your attention on one phase at a time.

Phase 1 - Choose

Focus: Your response to the subject
Tools: Your heart

Choose your subject. Whether you are looking at photos, walking outdoors, setting up a still life, or arranging a model. Open your heart and your eyes and turn off your mind.
Let the image speak to you.
Pay attention to how you feel. Your emotions, the way your body reacts - your breath, your heartbeat. When you find an image that moves you, you have found a subject!

If you are out with your camera, snap a picture of whatever moves you. Lots of them!  Then take them back to the studio to look at them again and further refine the one that touches you the most.

Phase 2 - Compose

Focus: Pattern
Tools: Paper and pencil/charcoal/marker, camera, photo editing software

Decide where to put the big elements in your image. What is your focal point? Edit, Edit Edit. If it doesn't support your focal point, leave it out or simplify it. This is where you use all you have learned about composition, shapes, value, balance, placement.

There are a few ways to do this:

 - Thumbnail sketches. Make tiny pencil sketches, using just a few values, or shades of grey, black and white (the white of the paper).

- Compose with your Camera. Out in the field you can use your camera, zooming in and out, trying different angles, until you find one that works well.

- Photo Editing software. I most often use this technique. You can crop, change the size, turn the photo to black and white, even move large elements around.

Phase 3 - Draw

Focus: Placement and Shape
Tools: Pencil or paint

Transfer the major elements onto your canvas. If this is a simple landscape it will often just be a few simple lines. For a more detailed scene with buildings, people, close up subjects, street scenes, spend more time. The focus is to get the major shapes right. In the right place, the right size. Not to fill in any detail. 

Phase 4 - Block In

Focus: Value
Tools: Large brushes and paint

Fill in these large shapes in the correct value (relative light to dark, white to black). Start with the easy ones, lightest lights, darkest darks. Choose an approximate color, but at this point you are focusing on value. You can even use just black and white, or one color and white. The key is to compare each area to the next. Is this lighter or darker than the area next to it? Take your time with this phase. It is very key to the success of your painting. When you are done, all of the white of the canvas will be covered. No detail at all. Just large shapes in the right value. There is the tendency to rush this phase. Please don't! It isn't a pretty phase (think "terrible twos"), but it is so key to the success of your painting.

Phase 5 - Development

Focus: Color
Tools: Medium sized brushes and paint

I squint my eyes a lot in this stage. Still not looking at the detail. I'm zooming in on color. Break those larger shapes into smaller ones based on color changes. Don't look for lines, don't think about painting "things". Just look for shapes of color. From large shapes to smaller ones of accurate color, and don't lose those important value relationships you established in the last phase! Work all over your canvas until it is all at the same level of development. You should now have smaller shapes of the right value, the right color, in the right place.

Phase 6 - Finishing

Focus: Edges and detail
Tools: Medium and small brushes

At this point you can do as much or as little as you like to finish your painting. This is the point where you really express your individual style and vision.
You now have a solid foundation to work from. You can stop anywhere on the scale from very loose and impressionistic to photo realistic or anywhere in between.

 - Continue to break those shapes of color into smaller and more accurate shapes.

 - Pay attention to edges, are they soft or crisp?

 - Work an area until it reaches the level of detail you prefer.

 -  Don't lose the value and color you have already set up, just work within to further refine. ie. If you are working in a shadow area, don't pop in a bright highlight.

 - Remember your focal point. You have already set this up with all the previous steps, but now you can really highlight it with the most detail and finish

Phase 7 - Cool Down

Focus: Overall Impression
Tools: Your eyes, mind, heart and soul

Set your painting somewhere that it is visible in your everyday life. Glance at it as you walk by. Gaze at it while you eat your breakfast. Look at it at different times of the day, different lighting situations. Keep a pen and paper near it. Whenever something strikes you about the painting. Write it down.

Phase 8 - Adjust

Focus: Addressing your notes
Tools: brushes

The changes you make at this point may be small or large. Often for me it is further developing my focal point. Fixing something I missed. Sometimes I will get rid of some of the detail I have painted, taking supporting areas - those not in the focal area - back to a more impressionistic stage.  

Phase 9 - Enjoy!

Don't forget this phase! Sign it! Share it! Enjoy it!


  1. Great Stuff Karen! Thank you for such a simple road-map...paint-map...anyway, super helpful! Thank you!