How to Plan a Painting: Improve your Art

No painter works the same, and the process of planning a painting is no different. Some artists like to work intuitively, and let the painting take its course. Others like myself prefer to have a fairly good idea of how the artwork will turn out before they start. So if you’re anything like me, this blog will break down the following steps to help you plan a painting: 

Steps to Planning a Painting:

  • Decide what your subject/s will be
  • Plan your composition
  • Choose your medium
  • Prepare your surface

Think Carefully about Your Subject Matter

It sounds obvious, but I know all too well the temptation to dive straight into painting just because you are excited to get started!  

For me, ideas for a potential painting can crop up weeks or even months before I begin them.  Often this is down to time; I might have commissions to complete and deadlines that need to be met, so need to prioritise my work.  

When I see a reference photo that has potential it goes on the ‘to-do’ list, but sometimes when I actually have the opportunity to start the artwork I have lost the enthusiasm I had when I first saw it. I start to doubt whether the end result would be as good or as interesting as I initially thought it would be. 

I don’t see this as a bad thing, as it is at this point that the best ideas jump out at me and let me know what I need to paint instead!  

So my advice is perhaps not to jump in and paint the first subject or idea that comes to mind- think about whether the idea has the potential to showcase the best of your time and ability. 

If you need any help with finding reference photos or narrowing down your selection, you can find our top tips here.

I understand that not everybody will have the time or inclination to let an idea mull over for long- I am very familiar with the urge to just get painting! But perhaps let an idea sit with you just long enough for you to be confident that you can sustain your enthusiasm and excitement for the piece throughout the painting process. I always find that, for me, the paintings that I am truly excited about and invested in turn out to be my best work. 


Planning your Composition

Composition is one of the key elements that can make or break a painting. You can select the most beautiful or exciting subject, but if this is not positioned or cropped in an interesting way it will let your artwork down, no matter how well executed they may be.  

To plan a composition, this could be done digitally or as a quick sketch before you start. 

Sketch by Daniel Wilson

If you have the skills and software you can experiment with different crops and positions of your reference photo on your computer, mobile, tablet etc. This can also help you to pick the right size and shape of canvas, such as whether it suits a canvas that is rotated portrait or landscape, or whether it suits a square or panoramic format.  

You might prefer to do a quick sketch of your subject, and instead draw simple lines surrounding it to see where the best composition may be. 

 There are some general ‘rules’ for compositions such as the ‘rule of thirds’ which can help when thinking about your composition. But personally I like to experiment and let my eye tell me what the most pleasing or interesting composition would be. 


Choosing the ‘right’ Medium

You might have one medium that you work in and stick to, which is of course absolutely fine!

Or you might choose to work in different mediums, such as graphite, charcoal, acrylics etc. or a combination. One thing I think carefully about before beginning a painting is which medium or mediums would allow me to do the idea the most justice. 

 For instance, if I want to give my background or subject a very soft or blended appearance, I would most likely choose to complete the painting in oils rather than acrylics. This is because the longer drying time of oils allows the paint to be blended much more easily than acrylic paint. On the other hand, if I feel that the subject would suit more transparent layering, I would choose acrylic paints instead.

‘Crunch Time!’ by Amber Tyldesley. Oils were chosen for this piece due to the blended background and soft fur effect I wanted to acheive in this painting.

When aiming to produce your best work it pays off to choose the medium that best suits your subject and style, rather than trying to force a good result out of an unsuitable medium. I know how frustrating it can be when you feel that your materials are working against you! 

Prepare your Surface

One thing I have learnt is to not just use canvases, panels etc. straight from the shop if they do not suit your style of painting! 

 Often the texture of ready-primed canvases can feel a bit too coarse for finely detailed work, whereas they may be perfectly suited to artists who work in a different way. For this reason I will often lightly sand the canvas surface, or apply more layers of my own gesso to build a texture that is right for my work.  

Another thing you might want to consider is applying a tonal ground to your canvas or panel. When I am using acrylics, I often apply a wash of thinned down paint to the surface first to cover the white gessoed surface. Beginning a painting on a toned surface rather than bright white can help you distinguish between the tones of your painting more easily from the offset.

What colour you use for your acrylic wash is entirely up to you. You might for example pick a colour that is dominant in your reference photo to give you a head start in building up the layers. When I am painting wildlife my go-to colour tends to be Paynes grey.  As the colour of many animals’ skin is grey, I find this gives me a realistic basecoat that I can start building the layers of fur on top of.

I simply dilute my acrylics with water for this stage. If you add too little water the paint will be too thick and opaque, and if too much water is added the paint will not adhere to the surface. To get the right effect you can keep adding water using a wide flat brush, and blend the paint until you have an evenly toned canvas.

Thank you for reading!

I hope these tips will help when it comes to planning your next work of art!

If you have any questions please leave a comment below and we will get back to you.

Make sure to share your paintings with us by tagging our Instagram page @StudioWildlife_art and let us know if you found this helpful.

Follow our Studio Wildlife Pinterest page to see more examples of wildlife artwork created by some incredible wildlife artists!

Subscribe to the Studio Wildlife Youtube Channel to watch videos of our process.