7 Tips for Jumpstarting Your Paintings

By Mary Gilkerson

This list had its beginning in a painting demo that I gave a few years ago for City Art’s summer High Noon series.

I had a blast with a really engaged audience who came up with some great questions. Below is the list of tips for creating a strong painting that I gave to the group during my demo.

Tip #1 Practice Daily.

Create a daily practice of around your art-making. It can be a small painting, part of a painting, a study or a sketch, but practice every day. It’s the only way to improve and develop your own style. Practice every day that you eat. 


“Weston Fields, Winter Sunset”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Tip #2 Know your materials.

Buy the best paint you can afford and be consistent in purchasing the same color from the same brand. When you become familiar with your tools and materials you don’t have to “think” about them as you paint. 

Williamsburg paints.

Williamsburg paints.

Tip #3 Practice the art of seeing.

Making art is about learning to see. The more you observe, the more you’ll see. Drawing and painting from observation is one of the best ways to develop those skills. Keep a sketchbook and try making small thumbnails that record the shape and value relationships that you see. To do that make a small sketch, about 2 x 3”, that includes the 5-7 general large shapes and 3-5 values. Keep the shapes very simple, without details. Assign only one value for each shape.

Thumbnail. © Gilkerson

Thumbnail. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Tip #4 Create strong figure/ground relationships or notan.

Notan is the harmonious arrangement of black and white in a painting. It’s closely tied to positive/negative shape relationships. It creates a strong underlying structure for a painting.

Notan sketch

Notan sketch. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Notan is the harmonious arrangement of black and white in a painting. It’s closely tied to positive/negative shape relationships.

Tip #5 Consider using a toned ground.

I use yellow ochre. Toning the surface gets rid of the white blankness of the canvas or board and gives you a firmly established middle value. Use a big brush and apply the paint loosely and thinly. Just be careful that it’s not running everywhere.

toned panel

Toned panel, closeup. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson, 2012

Tip #6 Mix your colors before beginning to paint.

The key to being able to paint fluidly is to have all of your color out and mixed beforehand. This will also help you limit your palette, and make sure that you have a definite color scheme. Mix 2-3 values of each color. 

Mix your colors. © Gilkerson

Mix your colors. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson 2012

Tip #7 Establish main shapes first.

Block in the 5-7 basic shapes you identified in your thumbnail. Working from background to foreground and dark to light, apply one color and value for each shape. Look for what the overall dominant value or color is. Keep the paint thin so you can apply more layers.

Notan. © Gilkerson

Notan. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson 2012

Block in the large shapes. © Gilkerson

Block in the large shapes. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson 2012

Bonus Tip #8 Adjust and develop the color and value.

Go back into each shape and add variation in value and hue. Allow for variation in thickness and thinness of the paint.

Full Sun © Mary Bentz Gilkerson, 2013

Full Sun © Mary Bentz Gilkerson, 2013


I’ve got a webinar digging deeper into the 7 Tips. I’d love to have you join me. You can register here for the time that works for you.

Interested in digging deeper into color and composition? May’s  in person workshop is filling fast.  So if you’re interested in joining the painting fun, hurry to the WORKSHOPS link in the menu at the top and get all signed up.. Follow this link to learn more.

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