Updated: Jan 22
So, you want to begin painting? How do you start, what do you work with, what should you paint? First off, it pays to know what each medium involves, both in terms of cost and space required as well as the difficulty of handing. Each medium has its own characteristics, so learning what works best for you is a good start.
Watercolour is perhaps the most cost effective medium, and it’s also the most convenient in terms of space required and potential mess involved. At its very basic, just a few paints, a pencil, and some watercolour paper are all that is required. But watercolour has a sting in its tail in that it is the most difficult of all painting mediums to master. It is the perfect choice for depicting light – a simple wash of colour on white paper exudes a luminosity that cannot be surpassed by any other medium. But controlling the washes, painting negative shapes, and working from light to dark can be confusing at the start. Having said that, the challenge is very addictive and positive results can leave you feeling euphoric, especially after long spells of trying.
Watercolour is known as a transparent medium, meaning you cannot successfully paint light on top of dark. Instead, you work from the lightest colours through layers towards your darkest ones. It sounds easy, but it involves lots of negative painting, which is applying darker shapes around lighter ones. This is often frustrating, as an accidentally covered shape can sometimes ruin the picture. The carrier for the paint is water. Depending on how much pigment/water ratio you use, will determine to what level the white paper shows through, and therefore how dark or light your results are. More water equals thinner paint, therefore a lighter value. More pigment means thicker paint leading to a darker value. Watercolour will form hard edges, but it also excels at soft edges, known as wet into wet. I love the way watercolour runs and flows and I like to allow the paint to do its own thing after I have applied it, which often results in exciting effects. Start learning watercolour with my helpful tutorial videos.
Acrylic is a great starter medium. In a comparable way to watercolour, you only need a few paints, some brushes and acrylic paper at a minimum level. Acrylic differs to watercolour in that once dry it is permanent, whereas watercolour can be removed to a certain degree, but the main advantage of acrylic is that it is primarily opaque, meaning you can paint light on dark. This allows you to build layers of dark over light, light over dark and so on until you reach the results you are aiming for. Acrylic dries fast, which can be a bit of a handicap, but essentially you can build up a painting quite quickly and any errors are easily over painted.
The carrier for acrylic is water, which makes it easy to clean up after painting sessions. It is like household emulsion, so you don’t really want to be getting it on clothing or furnishings. I would recommend wearing an apron or old shirt when painting and make sure you have some sort of table cover and maybe even a floor covering to be on the safe side. I have dropped loaded brushes and watched helplessly as they have rolled off the table and blotted colour onto the carpet. Yikes! I usually start my acrylic paintings with thinner diluted colour, then build up the shapes using opacity. Using opacity means mixing colours with white paint to lighten them. You can also paint acrylic onto anything that has been primed ready to take the paint. The primer is called gesso, which is available from art stores. As a starter, I would recommend an acrylic paper, which is paper that has been ready treated. Other surfaces to try are canvas, canvas board and gesso board.
Oil is a beautiful medium to use, but perhaps the most involved of the painting mediums. It is slow drying and quite messy to use and control. Just a tiny touch of oil paint on a sleeve can literally end up everywhere if you haven’t spotted it. Some people find the solvent fumes give them headache, which can be dissuasive, but the look and feel of an oil painting is more than reward for that. Cleaning can be quite a process too. I would recommend wearing protective clothing when painting with oil, even the possibility of using surgical gloves, as absorbing chemical compounds and solvents into the skin is not the best treatment for your hands.
Oil is very definitely an opaque medium. You start by thinning colour a little with solvent and subsequent layers require more oil content, a process known as fat over lean. The solvent used to be turpentine, a highly volatile and pungent headache inducing substance, but nowadays there are odour free solvents such as Sansodor and Zest it, which are much better for working indoors. Be warned though, although you cannot smell these substances, you are still inhaling solvent fumes and you may still get a headache, so, if possible, use good ventilation. I guess this is why many oil painters use the medium outdoors. Oil can be messy, so perhaps not the most practical painting medium to be using at the kitchen table just before dinner. Cleaning is methodical and a round of solvent rinsing and baby oil usually sorts brushes out without the need for washing in the sink.