When it comes to starting a painting, there are many different approaches to choose from. It’s up to you to decide which one will work best for your particular painting situation. Whether you prefer to start out by drawing a detailed composition on to your canvas first or by immediately massing in large shapes depends on your own unique personality, experience, willingness to experiment, the complexity of the composition, etc. which will determine what approach works best for you.

This initial start is what sets the pace for how the rest of the painting will go, so it’s important to take your time at this stage so that you can be assured of a solid start. If you take time in the beginning you will save time in the end. What I mean by this is that if you set accurate reference points from the very start, you can then use these to help guide you through to the end of the painting. Some key points of reference would be:

Establishing accurate drawing measurements from which you can base future measuring on.

Establishing your darkest value in order to accurately compare and judge other values to (value relationships).

Putting down areas of pure color in order to compare grays to.

Putting down an edge that can be used to compare other edges to (I find that a hard edge works best as a reference point)

When painting a portrait, I like to start out with a few marks to indicate the boundaries of my subject (height and width) so that I know where the figure will be placed. In this demonstration of a head and shoulders portrait, those measurements are from the top of the hair to the bottom of the chin and from one ear to the other.


Example of using marks to indicate the the height and width of the head.

Once I’ve determined what this measurement is, I can then use it to judge every other measurement. This then becomes a fixed point from which I can base all of my measuring decisions on because it remains constant and doesn’t change.

The same thing goes for values. After measuring and putting down a simple drawing to indicate the placement of the head, I’m ready to start painting.


Example of a simple drawing to indicate placement of the head.

I like to put down my darkest value first and use it as a guide for determining value relationships. In this demonstration I’ve placed the dark value of the hair to use as my guide. By doing so, I now know that every other value in the face (with the exception of the eyes) will not be painted quite as dark.


Example of placing darkest value to use as a guide when judging value relationships.


Other values in the face can be determined by comparing them to the dark value of the hair.



Once the correct value relationships have been established, I can then refine the edges and transitions between those values.


A solid start will help carry you through to the end of the painting.

Taking the time to get an accurate start is extremely important because if you don’t, you’ll find that most of your painting time will be spent in frustration, knowing that at some point you will have to go back and correct these problems. Believe me, I’ve been there before and have had more experience in this area than I would like to admit. I’ve found that if I have a solid start on a painting, it makes it much easier to go back the next day and work on it some more. In situations like that, I always look forward to painting and can’t wait to get back in the studio. On the other hand, if I haven’t had a good start and didn’t take time to get things right in the beginning, it’s very hard to get motivated to work on a painting again, knowing that I have to correct my mistakes. Motivation and inspiration play important roles in the success or failure of a painting, so do everything you can at the beginning stages to ensure that the outcome will be a success.