Every discipline and form of expression must be built on a solid foundation. If not, chaos ensues. Here are 5 common beginner mistakes to avoid.
1 – A Messy Palette
From day one, organize your paints in a consistent manner to avoid confusion.
Once you start painting, especially in oil-paint, your palette quickly turns into this…
A Confession – My Palette
I begin on a large enough palette to have enough room to mix numerous colors. I now have an 18×24″ paper palette which I can reuse with acrylics but only once on an oil painting. On the right is the waterborne oils and on the left are acrylics, since I go back and forth.
Other Palette Options
It should be noted that for only a few dollars, you can create a palette simply by taping wax paper or parchment paper to the tabletop. For a wet palette that keeps your acrylics moist for days or weeks, put a shammy-cloth on a tinfoil oven sheet. Then cover it with parchment paper. Wet the cloth so it’s damp and when done for the day, put a second foil oven sheet on top.
Warning, the cloth will get moldy after a few months, but replacing it costs pennies. I bought two foil sheets at the dollar store for $1.25, the two-pack shammy-cloths for $2. Each cloth is cut into two sheets to fit the pan. A roll of parchment paper at the same store costs $2 which will do for more than a dozen palettes. $5.25 plus tax to create an experiment palette to work from for years. Or you can buy plastic ones, but they are too small for my liking.
On the cheap and on a very smooth table, I often will spread out a large sheet of parchment paper and tape it to the table. my last one was three feet wide. and it was fantastic for mixing large piles of paint for my 4×4′ painting.
Working the Palette
The smartest thing to do is to be mercilessly organized when it comes to playing with paint. I try to organize my palette in a linear version of the color wheel. By this I mean I put yellow in the middle, red to the right side, green and blue to the left. I very often work with a limited palette, meaning I use few colors to create everything from scratch.
So for example along the top of my square or rectangular surface, I start with cyan or ultramarine and cerulean blue, viridian, and forest green, cadmium yellows, ochre, sienna, umber and then cadmium reds.
2 – Avoid Mud
Simply put, when you add too many colors to create a more complex color, you get an ugly brown mud. If you try and fail to achieve a specific color, scrape it off and start again. I must confess, many of my paintings start from leftover paint from a finished project. The way to avoid mud is to keep your color wheel close and experiment until you get the color you want with as few tubes colors as possible.
One way we muddy our paint is by adding warm and cool colors. Be careful when you add warm and cool greens or oranges or reds for example. Adding black will instantly neutralize your color and ruin the batch. It is better to mix the opposite colors to get a neutral black or to tone down a color. Ie, cad red medium with pthalo green makes perfect black or turns down the intensity of the red for shadows for instance.
Which leads me to another point, try not to waste paint if you can help it. Unless you’re rich, paint is not cheap so stretch it out if you can or use up the leftovers to start another project. I often prime my next canvas with the leftovers or even start an abstract with the existing colors.
3 – Careless Use of Tools
It is unkind to your tools to not take care of them. And expensive. ALWAYS wash your brushes between uses and make sure they are well clear of dried paint before you leave. Stupid reminder right? It’s shocking how careless we can be in a hurry, or when we lose the desire to work.
Clean them as best you can in water or thinner. Soap is useful for acrylics and watercolors. Here’s a tip for oil. Use baby oil to clean instead of a stinky solvent. Every once in a while, I will immerse my acrylic brushes in alcohol. This will soften the water-based paint in the head of the brush.
By the same rule, clean your palette knives asap and never leave them in water overnight. They will rust and erode the stainless steel and ruin them permanently. Another way to ruin a knife is to bend it. Once you lose the shape of the blade, it will never work properly again. Toss.
4 – Ignoring Gesso
Raw canvas is wonderful to paint on for purity of experience and color in the background. However, with oil, the paint will eat away at the raw canvas, so a proper gesso, or primer to non-artists. Without gesso, your canvas will absorb too much paint as well.
If you are using wood or masonite sheets to paint on, definitely gesso them first to guarantee the paint isn’t absorbed unevenly, causing shiny and dull parts of the painting, especially when using oil-based paint.
Gesso isn’t the same as white paint. The primer fills the pores and creates a water-sensitive membrane allow water to escape the surface. I roll my canvases with a mini roller or for huge canvases, I used a regular roller. I roll (or brush) both left to right and up to down to ensure the whole surface is covered evenly. This ensures the paint colors don’t change due to uneven absorption.
5 – Trying Too Much Too Soon
This too seems obvious but I constantly see people learning the ropes try a whole bunch of media before giving one a fair shot. Ok, I admit that when I began, I started with a watercolor set I had from school. I absolutely hated how it looked and I generated many muddy pages before I gave up.
I then found some videotapes on oil painting and I started there and immediately fell in love with its texture. I didn’t love the smell or the drying time though.
When I moved to a new home, there was nowhere for me to paint with stinky slow-drying paint so I was forced to pick up acrylics. The trade-off was stinky for odor-free paint and slow-drying paint for lightning fast-drying time. As I discovered quickly, the advantage of acrylic is that it dries fast. The disadvantage is that it dries fast. I just had to learn how to change my workflow to accommodate it.
Lastly, I would recommend you try a specific media for months if not longer before giving up. I knew watercolor wasn’t for me immediately. But realizing the framing costs after creating a masterpiece was the final consideration. Canvas is not expensive and I paint the sides so I never have to frame it. my cheap streak won that one.