Help, I Have a Blank Canvas

Starting a new painting is much like a writer starting a new project.

The Dilemma, courtesy of

Starting a new painting is much like a writer starting a new project. Writers are told to just write if they are stuck. Just do stream-of-consciousness until the brain kicks into gear. Well, sometimes it’s the same thing for a painter. Sometimes just experimenting with color and strokes is enough to engage the creative side.

The Basics

No matter the level you are at, everyone experiences some kind of creative block. I tell every beginner and even some experienced painters, this is where a large sketchbook or scrapbooks come in handy.

I have learned that if nothing comes to you when you sit down to paint, stand up. Just kidding. Writing or journaling in your sketchbook is a great habit to get into. You can write what you learn from someone else, an idea for a painting, or an experiment. You can sketch an idea and work out the best composition before you start.

In other words, there is no bad journaling. Plus it gets the creative juices flowing. I have even done acrylic paint sketches in the book. If you don’t want to commit to a canvas or board, use paper. I like to experiment in my book though because I want a record of my progress. It’s sometimes encouraging to see that you did progress, especially on those days when you hate your work and yourself.

Make a Mark on the Blank Canvas

I encourage people of all ages new to the world of painting to start their first sketches and tests in a book. But a big roll of newsprint is ideal for multiple experiments. I have a friend who has an ideal approach to experimenting with color and technique. He cuts off 10 sheets off a roll of whatever size suits him and then proceeds to experiment until he is happy with his technique. Then he does a finished product on canvas or watercolor paper.

When you wade into painting for the first time as an adult, cut yourself some slack. First of all. Everything you try will be rough, ugly and way below your expectations. That is to be expected. Determine that your first 100 paintings will be crap. If one shines, be happy, but don’t think you have arrived.

The Journey

What most painters forget, or fail to see, is that the journey is the reward. The first handful of sold paintings will affirm your belief in yourself, but you have countless efforts to go. Now I was, in my opinion, very lucky to have struck oil on my first attempt. It went rapidly downhill from there. But after another 50 or so paintings, I began to sell paintings. Boy was I ever tickled when the first one sold. It never gets old.

I have a theory about finished, successful paintings. Even if they sit in the attic for years, someone is going to see it eventually and fall in love with it. It was the person who was meant to see it. I feel the good paintings belong to someone, I just don’t know who yet. It makes me so happy to see someone fall in love with my work. Putting money where their mouth is, verifies the compliments.

Let’s Go!

There are several ways to start a painting. The first is similar to writing. You don’t know what you’re thinking until you start writing. So in that vein, begin with cheap paint and a disposable medium like inexpensive paper or canvas pads or canvas boards. Here is the least expensive way to get canvas, by the roll. It’s not even very hard to stretch canvas and it is certainly the cheapest route for canvas paintings.

I create my own stretcher bars with a 2×4″ lumber, ripped to 1.5″ or 2″ high strips to the length I need, for the best gallery look. It only costs $4 for an 8′ stick of lumber. Of course, you will need wide canvas pliers and a stapler. It only takes 5-10 minutes to do even large canvases once you get the hang of it.

Paint Palettes

I like to use disposable paper palettes, much like waxed paper. You can use something disposable like a plastic lid or foam plates. I used the cheap dollar-store oven trays lines with half a sheet of a shammy cloth. wet it before each sitting and then put a sheet of wax paper on top. Then it stays moist for a week or more. THEN put your acrylic paints on paper. When done of the day, take a second foil oven tray and put it on top. Perfect and at a cost of about $4.


Put out a variety of colors. I recommend starting with your three primary colors, red, yellow and blue. Add spots of white and a little black if you must. Get an inexpensive color wheel to help you visualize the basics of color matching. Then on something disposable, EXPERIMENT. The only way to learn is to do. Take a variety of brushes or knives and experiment with how each stroke is created. Watch videos, but then DO. play with brush-strokes, knife-strokes and see what happens when you mix strokes.

Please don’t be impatient and start trying to paint a masterpiece. Play for days with brushstrokes. Then try to make a tree, a branch, a cloud or a hill. As you experiment, remember it’s all throw-away practice. But keep samples to remember where you started. Don’t try to create beautiful scenery out of your head. Or faces. Especially faces.

The First Rule

This is when you start using photos as your reference and don’t reproduce the picture perfectly. This is where you begin the process of learning about composition and what to leave out of a picture. It’s important to learn that when copying something, be ruthlessly careful to see what you are focused on. So a branch that goes to the left, becomes straight when you lose focus and paint from memory and at first, we ALWAYS default to the symbols we learned we were kids.

The sun is not Yellow. It is white. Water is not a simple out of the tube blue, but a mix of blues with sparkles of white on the surface of shadows. Skintones are not pink. They are a complex mix of white, red, yellow, blue and sometimes even green.

My point is that what you quickly skim as you paint comes out fake. But we will discuss complex colors and compositions later. For now, this is the experimental phase.

But when it comes to mixing colors, don’t use a brush, use a palette knife. When you use oil paints, you can get some nice effects mixing on the canvas, but it isn’t an ideal way to learn how to make colors. When you are trying to match color, compare it to the color wheel and see which way it shifts. No color is pure. The reason there are so many colors to choose from is that many artists want shortcuts. More about matching later.


Select some common inexpensive paintbrushes and begin your experiments. Use a pallet knife to mix your colors and wipe it off on a paper towel. Keep a container of water nearby and you’re off.

Begin by mixing some colors together to see what happens. I’ll get into color theory later but for now, just have fun mixing paints together and take some paint on a brush and start making marks. Experiment with different size brushes and see what you can make with each brush. Don’t worry about making a picture, just see how the brushes work. Try angle brushes (they taper from one side to the other at a 45-degree angle). You can make a huge variety of strokes with just one brush. Many watercolorists use the angle brush a lot for maximum flexibility of strokes.

Do not leave your brushes sitting in the water for too long and certainly don’t leave brushes with paint on them sitting on the bench for long. As you will find, the beauty of acrylic paint is it dries fast. paradoxically, the good thing about acrylic paint is it dries fast. So user beware and adjust.

Speaking of dry paint on brushes, I’ll detour for a sec. You can rescue them mostly by dipping them briefly in methyl hydrate or rubbing alcohol. The alcohol melts acrylic paint like magic.


I know this is painfully basic stuff at the moment, but I can’t assume everyone is advanced. Moving on. Let me be clear. You never achieve all the effects you’re looking for with brushes or palette knives. It has been said that every painting is a success because you learn something new from it. Even if you only learn what doesn’t work. We are always learning, so if you can’t succeed in making a “nice friendly tree,” right away, the practice session on scrap paper or in your notebook will always be a great place to learn.

One thing that bothers or distracts new painters is what kind of media to use. Even the most experienced painters will switch from one type of paint to another on occasion. Painters are always growing, adjusting, experimenting and combining methods. We will even use thing not intended for paint. Some will use cement or grouting trowels on a large canvas. Monet used a six-foot-long stick taped to his brush to get a better vantage point and to force himself to use looser brushstrokes.

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