So you’ve decided to learn to paint but don’t even know where to begin! Art stores can be intimidating if you’re a beginner—do I start painting with oil? Acrylic? How many colors should I buy? We’re going to help you with all that.
Tip: If you are taking this course on your own, please take a look at the Being A Successful Student lesson first.
You’ll first need to choose which paint (or medium) to use:
- Oil (traditional or water-based), or
Your choice of your medium is a very important first step to maintaining a long-term interest in painting. Many beginners don’t consider all the important factors, which can lead to struggling and eventually losing interest in painting altogether because the wrong medium was chosen!
Here’s what we’ll cover in this lesson:
- How We’ll Use The Decision Table
- Decision Table Examples
- Look Of Each Medium
- Start Up Cost Of Paint And Supplies
- Financial Support
- Area To Paint In (“Studio”): Size And Serenity
- Area To Store Paintings And Supplies
- Set Up, Cleanup, And Painting Basics
Exercise 1: Importance of “Look”
Exercise 2: Importance of “Cost”
Exercise 3: Importance of “Financial Support”
Exercise 4: Importance of “Studio”
Exercise 5: Importance of “Storage”
Exercise 6: Importance of “Time”
Exercise 7: Importance of “Toxicity”
Exercise 8: Use Your Decision Table To Choose Your Paint
Remember that you’re not married to the first paint choice you make. You may decide after trying acrylics for a while that you’d like to try oils and that’s perfectly fine!
Making Your Decision
Of course, as this is an online school, this course is available to anyone in the world with internet access. Each student’s circumstances and personality are unique. The size and peacefulness of their available studio area can vary dramatically. Some will want to get started with their painting sessions quickly, and prefer minimal cleanup, while others will be willing to proceed more slowly to get that exact look. We’ve identified and discussed below seven important factors to consider in selecting your medium. We have designed a simple decision table that you will complete as you consider each factor. Your completed decision table is critical to guide the medium decision you’ll make in Exercise 8.
In making your decision, it’s also essential to weigh the importance of each of these seven factors to you. Obviously, not all of the factors will be of equal significance in making your decision. So we have you separate each factor into “very important”, “important”, or “less important” categories as you go through that factor’s exercise. For example, if you have the money readily available to you to get started, the cost would be considered a less important factor—but if you had no money at all, then cost would be a very important factor. If you had most of the money you need to get started but would need to borrow some money, the cost would probably be an important factor.
Plan on taking a thoughtful 30 to 45 minutes to determine your choice of medium–this is a very important first step!
How We’ll Use The Decision Table
We’ve created a Decision Table to help you out. After we discuss each of the seven factors, you will have the opportunity in an exercise to add that factor to your Decision Table under “very important”, “important”, or “less important”. Be sure to access the Choosing Your Paint Excel or Choosing Your Paint Worksheet PDF Decision Table file and print it out so you can use it for this purpose. Or simply copy our decision table onto a piece of paper and make your entries there.
You’ll notice that the table also has separate columns for Indicated Medium, Notes and Comments, and Follow-up. We’ll be discussing their uses below. A simple example: you would add a follow-up note if you need to ask a parent or relative for money to get started. There’s also ample room for you to add other factors that may have an impact on your situation.
We’ve also made up some examples of Decision Tables for you to look at below.
Tips: If one of these examples is similar to your situation, you may want to start with that table as your own and modify it for your circumstances. Several beginning students have mentioned that having a printed example to refer to help them complete their own Decision Table as they went through the exercises. Finally, remember to take into consideration the people who will be around your studio area—if your roommates are angry at your studio choice, your painting experience will not go well.
Discussion Of The Seven Factors
Let’s get started with ‘Look Of Each Medium’ and its associated exercise.
Look Of Each Medium
The paintings shown below are typical examples of each medium. As you scroll down through the paintings, consider which medium you like. We’ll ask you in Exercise One which look you prefer and how important the look of the medium is to you.
Watercolor paintings tend to be lightly colored and have a soft, sometimes cloudy quality to them
Words associated with watercolors: soft, delicate, traditional, gentle, quiet, patient, diligent, fluid.
Here are some examples of watercolor paintings:
Oil paintings tend to be vibrant and luminous and are the most traditional of the three paints. Oil paints can either br traditional (solvent-based) or water miscible (water-based). More on this later.
Words associated with oil paints: traditional, classic, rich, deep, historical, patient, complex, thoughtful.
Here are some examples of oil paintings:
Acrylic paints have a more synthetic feel to them, but also tend to be very vibrant.
Words associated with acrylics: expressive, abstract, contemporary, trendy, bright, flat, edgy, fast, experimental.
Here are some examples of acrylic paintings:
Exercise One: Importance Of “Look”
Determine the importance of this factor to you. Mark “look” in either your very important, important, or less important section on your decision table. If look is very important to you, indicate the look of the paint you like best under indicated medium on your decision table. If look is not important to you, mark “any” there on your decision table. In the notes column, you can write a note to yourself about your preferred choice.
Start Up Cost Of Paint And Supplies
In order to complete all of our exercises and follow them exactly, you will need the full set of paint. You may choose between student and professional (or artist) grade paints.
You may choose to do some research and look for coupons to get an idea of how much things cost. Read our Tips For Painting On A Budget lesson for more information about discounts and creative ways to not spend all your money at the art store.
We have done a little online shopping based on our recommendation lists for each medium and put together two budgets for each—a Starter and a Full. The Starter budget is a bare-bones, absolute essentials budget, while the Full budget adds in additional materials that are helpful to have if your budget is a little larger. The budget worksheets for each medium can be found under the “My Locker” tab.
Here are the general costs for each of the mediums and packages:
|Watercolor||Acrylic||Traditional Oils||Water Miscible Oils|
Prices taken from US-based art suppliers, 2016.
*Note: The starter Acrylic budget will only get you through the first painting exercise in the Beginner’s School course. To finish the other two exercises, you will need to purchase more paints.
Starter packages contain student grade paints while Full packages contain artist grade paints. We’ll discuss more about the difference between these in a later lesson. Below are some graphics that illustrate what comes in each package. There are other items you will need in your painting supplies that we believe you can find (“scavenge”) lying around your house (e.g. rags, empty containers). Only items to be purchased are shown in the graphics below.
Decide which package you prefer and can afford to buy—Starter or Full. Note that for the Acrylics Starter Package, you will only be able to complete the first exercise in the Acrylics Course. The Full Package must be purchased in order to complete the other two exercises.
As you can see, each of the Starter packages cost around $100 and have less of a cost difference between the four medium choices.
Full packages cost mostly more than $200, but you may really feel strongly that you want to start only with a Full package. If cost is very important to you (i.e. funds are limited) but you still want to begin with the Full package, you may write watercolor or acrylic in your indicated medium column on your worksheet as they are less expensive than the Full packages for oils and WMOs.
Exercise Two: Importance Of “Cost”
Determine the importance of cost to you and add cost to either your very important, important, or less important section on your decision table. It would be very important if funds are limited, important if you have some funds, and less important if you aren’t concerned about the cost.
Add a note of the estimated cost of the package (Starter or Full) you are considering to the notes section of your decision table.
If your funds are limited, you may need to find someone to help fund your creative endeavors. This situation may apply mostly to teens or young adults who have family members that will help them out. Parents: wouldn’t it be nice if your kids had a hobby other than their cell phone? Seniors may find their children may be willing to help them out with the start-up cost.
Based on the likely start-up costs in Exercise Two and the money you have to spend, you should have a good idea whether you need financial support to help get you started and if so, how much money you will need.
Tip: If you will be relying on the financial support of someone else to get started, you’ll want to share your budget worksheet and your completed decision table with them.
Exercise Three: Importance Of “Financial Support”
Determine the amount of financial assistance you will need. If you need more than $50, add financial support to the very important section on your decision table. Make a note on your table of whom you can ask for assistance.
Area To Paint In (“Studio”): Size And Serenity
Whatever the medium, when you’re creating, you’ll want a quiet space, free from distractions, with internet connectivity, where you can learn without feeling rushed or pressured. Studio spaces with hardwood, tile, or concrete floors are best. If your only option is a carpeted room, consider laying down a tarp before beginning any painting projects.
Be sure to consider the input of other household members who may object to certain studio locations near food areas or in shared spaces. Following are some area specifics for each medium to help you determine where suitable studio space might be available. If you are fortunate enough to have your own room with enough space, congratulations!
Watercolor: Tabletop with approx. 24 inches square of free space.
Acrylic: Tabletop with approx. 24 inches square of free space (for use with tabletop easel) or approx. 48 inches square for standing easel and side table for water container and rag.
Traditional Oils: Tabletop with approx. 24 inches square of free space (for use with tabletop easel) or approx. 48 inches square for standing easel and side table for solvent and rag. Unless you use Gamsol or solvent alternatives like linseed oil (see Safety in Oils for more information), your studio area needs large windows that open to outside for ventilation. A fan is also helpful.
Here’s a helpful note from our oil painting instructor, Cynda Valle, on being a mom and a painter:
If you are a fulltime mom of little kids, you must find a way to paint while at the same time keeping an eye on the kids. Serenity under these circumstances is an impossible goal, but the artist will find a huge increase in her “inner peace” if she manages to paint where she lives and works. Staying constantly “set up” and in close proximity to her charges makes it possible to take advantage of small blocks of time several times a day rather than the more conventional studio model of long stretches. She can and will paint amidst her kids’ chaos, cuz that’s the only way she gets to paint at all. The most important issue with studio practice around little kids is a work table high enough or some kind of physical barrier to keep supplies out of their reach (kids, being the creative little things that they are, are inclined to be curious and love oil paint ). When I and several fellow artists did this when our kids were little, I called us “Kitchen Table Artists” and these were some of the most gratifying, productive years of my life; when you have less free time you procrastinate less: attempting to take advantage of the few moments you do have to paint. This really helped me love my kids better, cuz i would spend a moment here and there remembering and recognizing the artist in me.
Water Miscible Oils: Tabletop with approx. 24 inches square of free space (for use with tabletop easel) or approx. 48 inches square for standing easel and side table for water and rag.
You’ll also want to be able to stand or hang the painting up (on an easel or a wall). This way you can take in the whole painting and see what’s working and what’s not. If you need to, you can do this temporarily in a space other than your working space (move it to a hallway, the porch, hang it over your couch, etc.)…just don’t trip over the dog!
If you do not have any space available inside your home to paint in, consider whether working outside would be a workable solution. Depending on the weather, it can be nice to work outdoors. I occasionally set up my easel on my porch and paint with oils out there. You can also purchase a plein air easel to paint with oils, WMOs, or acrylics outdoors. You can work with watercolors anywhere and blocks of watercolor paper are very easy to transport. Find a place to sit, put your block of paper on your lap, and start painting!
Exercise Four: Importance Of “Studio”
Determine the importance of the studio factor to you based on its availability. Mark “studio” in either your very important, important, or less important section on your decision table.
If studio space is very limited and you only have a small tabletop on which to paint, you would put studio under very important and watercolor as the indicated medium on your decision table. If you have a table or space for a standing easel but no ventilation, you can mark “acrylic”, “watercolor”, and “WMO” on your decision table. If you have a table or space for a standing easel and a ventilated working space, you can mark “any” on the decision table.
Area To Store Paintings And Supplies
Watercolor paintings are easiest to store since they’re just flat works on paper. Canvases can be stacked upright or hung on a wall. The size of the space you need to store your works will depend on the size of the works themselves. Excessive temperature shifts should be avoided to reduce damage to your finished works.
Exercise Five: Importance Of “Storage”
Determine the importance of this factor to you. Mark “storage” in either your very important, important or less important section on your decision table. If your storage space is very limited, mark “watercolor” on your decision table. If you have a place to store fully dry canvases, mark “acrylic” on your decision table. If you have a place to store wet canvases (i.e. a wall to hang them on), mark “any” on your decision table.
Set Up, Cleanup, And Painting Basics
For all paints, the set up will be around 5 minutes. As long as you stay organized and keep your painting supplies in one area, you can be ready to go in just a few minutes. The first time you set up your studio will take the longest and you can prep items for future painting sessions.
Setup: Watercolor paper needs to be stretched onto a board before you can start painting on it, so if you don’t prep the paper ahead of time (several days before), you will need to do that before you can start painting. If you choose to buy loose sheets of paper, stretching it before painting will take about 30 minutes. Alternantively, you may purchase pre-stretched watercolor paper in blocks, which takes no time at all. Simply put the block on your desk and you’re ready to start painting!
Your paints will already be laid out in your palette, so getting a clean jar of water will take the most amount of time if your paper is already stretched and ready to go. The setup time with watercolor is very minimal as long as you do your prep ahead of time.
Cleanup: Approximately 10 minutes. The fastest setup and clean up time is with watercolors since dirty water containers can be dumped down the sink and brushes just need a few swishes in clean water. The paint dries quickly on paper, so paintings can be filed away as soon as they’re dry to the touch. Because clean up is so easy with watercolors, we recommend them for our younger painters.
While watercolors seem easy to use, some of the techniques are difficult and can take a lot of practice to get just right. It is more difficult to cover up mistakes with watercolor. They are very fragile in that paper is easily torn or wrinkled and sometimes just one drip or drop of water can ruin details that have taken hours to create.
Correcting mistakes: Some mistakes can be corrected by “lifting” the paint as long as the pigment is non-staining and you’re using high-quality rag paper. Otherwise, accidents can be difficult to fix with watercolors. Due to the fact that they are transparent paints, covering up an accidental mark is nearly impossible. If noticed quickly enough (while the paint is still wet), accidental marks can be “picked up” with a clean tissue or q-tip. Deciding once the paint has dried to redo a section is nearly impossible. Trying to erase or rub out a section can cause the delicate paper to rip–you’re better off starting over from the beginning on a new piece of paper.
Setup: Getting ready to paint with acrylics is a fairly simple process. You will need to set up your easel (tabletop or standing), lay out your paints onto your palette, and get a clean jar or two of water. This will all take about 5 or 10 minutes.
Cleanup: Approximately 15 minutes. Dirty water container can be poured down the sink and brushes washed out with soap and clean water. Paint dries quickly on the canvas, so they can be stored as soon as paint is dry to the touch.
Acrylic paints are very good for hard lines because canvas areas can be taped and painted easily without blending or bleeding under the tape due to their fast dry time. They can be very helpful for expressive painters or people who work very quickly, however, they don’t blend as well as oil paint because of how quickly they dry.
Correcting mistakes: acrylics are opaque, so fixing mistakes can be relatively easy once they are dry. Simply paint over the portion you want to change. Acrylic paints dry fairly quickly, so there’s not much you can do to remove the paint while it’s still wet. It’s best to wait until the paint is dry and paint over the mistake.
Set up: For traditional oils, laying out your paints will take the longest time. Your solvent and medium will be readily available as they will already be in lidded containers. You’ll also need to set up your easel (tabletop or standing). Most paintings will be done on a toned canvas (a background wash done with oil paint), which will involve some prep. It’s best to do this in bulk—two or three canvases at a time—a day or two before you want to paint. If you don’t have a prepped canvas ready to go, you can apply the wash in a thin layer and wait about 20 minutes for it to dry slightly.
Cleanup: Approximately 20 minutes. Dirty solvents can be reused and stored in a lidded container. Leftover paint on the palette can be stored in airtight containers for reuse or removed and discarded in a paper towel. Palette must be wiped off with a rag or paper towel. Brushes should be washed off in clean solvent then washed with soap and water. Paintings must be hung or left someplace where they will not be disturbed because of their slow drying time.
Their slow dry time allows for greater blending, but can also lead to muddying of colors if you’re not careful. Some oil painting techniques require a great deal of patience as layers must dry fully before more paint can be applied. There’s a chance of foreign objects getting stuck in your paint as it dries (bugs, dust, hair, etc.) though most can be easily plucked out with a dry paintbrush. The mediums can emit vapors that can be irritating or harmful, so a well-ventilated paint area is highly recommended.
Correcting mistakes: Because they dry so slowly, fixing mistakes in oils is very easy. You may use a palette knife to scrape off the paint that contains the error or move it around with your brush until the paint is where it should be. Once the paint is dry, mistakes can also be painted over with opaque pigments.
Water Miscible Oils (WMO):
As we mentioned briefly before, water-miscible oils are oil paints that use water instead of solvent to thin and clean.
Set up: The set up for traditional oils and water miscible oils is nearly identical, except that instead of having solvent in a jar, you will have water. You’ll need to set up your easel (tabletop or standing). Most paintings will be done on a toned canvas, which will involve some prep. It’s best to do this in bulk a day or two before you want to paint. If you don’t have a prepped canvas ready to go, you can apply the wash in a thin layer and wait about 20 minutes for it to dry slightly.
Cleanup: Approximately 20 minutes. Cleanup is very similar to that of traditional oils, except that dirty water can be poured out in the sink and replaced with fresh water.
Exercise Six: Importance Of “Time”
Determine the importance of this factor to you. Mark “time” in either your very important, important or less important section on your decision table. This factor is the time you have to paint in a typical painting day. This factor would not be important to you if you usually have plenty of time–90 minutes or more–to paint in one sitting. It would be very important if you can only spend 50 minutes in one sitting.
If time is a very important factor to you (i.e. you don’t have much of it), mark “watercolor” in the indicated medium column on your decision table. If time is an important factor to you, mark “watercolor” and “acrylic” in the Indicated Medium column. If time is not an important factor to you, mark “any” in the Indicated Medium column on your decision table.
All paints can be non-toxic or very minimally toxic as long as you purchase the right items. All paints, whether watercolor, acrylic, or oil, are just pigments mixed with something else (called a binder). The binders are non-toxic. It’s the pigments in all paints that can get nasty. Lead, cadmium, and cobalt are pigments that are toxic, but all of these have modern non-toxic equivalents (denoted by the word “hue” on the paint label). You won’t get the depth and richness from a hue as you do with the real pigment, but if you’re concerned about toxic pigments, you can purchase the non-toxic hue instead. Given your likely studio space, PLEASE consider who else might be affected by this—young children, pets, etc. A studio with a locking door is great!
Standards for the naming and labeling of paint are set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Conforming to the standards is voluntary, but most manufacturers conform to them. On the back of the tube of paint will be the letters ASTM followed by a code, such as D 4303. Any toxic paints must be labeled with D 4236, which means it is potentially hazardous.
The Art and Craft Materials Institute (ACMI) label on paints show that the paint has been evaluated by a qualified toxicologist. Any paint that is potentially hazardous will have the ASTM D 4236 rating, a signal word such as “caution” or “warning,” a list of the hazardous ingredients, a list of how it can hurt you if used improperly (i.e. may cause cancer, etc.), instructions for using the paint properly (i.e. avoid ingestion), an appropriate phone number, and a statement that it is inappropriate for use by children. The label above displays a “CL” in the center, which stands for “cautionary label.” This means the paint contains something that may potentially be toxic.
The “AP” (approved product) label identifies art materials that are safe and that are certified in a toxicological evaluation by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems.
Don’t eat, drink, or smoke in your studio because you don’t want to ingest your paint. This can be difficult, we know, but if you’re hungry, take a break and eat somewhere far away from your materials.
To learn more about the elements in your paint and how they might affect you, read the label or check out the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) online. www.MSDS.com has over 3.5 million data records detailing the chemicals in everything from household cleaners to your paint. You can look up items by their product number or keyword on the MSDS site.
One of the major concerns about using oil paints is that they require solvents to clean up. Gamblin’s Gamsol is a solvent that has been 100% refined, making it minimally toxic with virtually no odor (the harmful and smelly fumes have been removed). Even still, you need ventilation in your studio if you’re going to be working with traditional oil paint solvents. You can also replace solvents entirely with linseed or spike lavender oil, both of which are non-toxic and do not require ventilation.
Water miscible oils (WMOs) are oil paints that can be cleaned up with water, eliminating any need for solvent. They look and feel just like traditional oil paints, but you will need to buy special water miscible mediums to use (WMOs can’t be used with traditional mediums like linseed oil).
If you’d like to try oil paints, you can read more about these concerns in our lesson Safety in Oils.
Exercise Seven: Importance Of “Toxicity”
Determine the importance of this factor to you in terms of concern for yourself, your general carefulness, and that of others (including pets) who will be around your studio.
Mark “toxicity” in either your very important, important or less important section on your decision table. If toxicity is very important to you, mark “watercolor” and “acrylic” on your decision table. If toxicity is important to you, mark “Watercolor”, “acrylic”, and “WMO” on your decision table. If toxicity is not important to you, mark “any” on your decision table.
Congratulations! You’re almost finished! Now it’s time to use your decision table to decide on the paint you’d like to start with.
Do this by first examining the factors listed in the very important section of your decision table. If they point you to one medium, choose that one to start. If you can’t make a decision after reviewing the very important section of your decision table, write down the two or three mediums left, and review the important factor part of your decision table. In most cases, that will point you in the direction of one medium. If you still can’t decide, sit down with other members of the household and get their feedback on the mediums you are considering. Remember to keep in mind that if you need financial support, you’ll want to discuss your choice with your benefactor before finalizing your decision.
In all cases, after making your medium decision, follow up with any others to discuss your decision with them and get their approval if necessary.
Once you’ve made your decision, move on to the first lesson in your selected course. We’ll spend more time on studio set up and many of the factors we’ve discussed in this lesson.
If you want to share your decision table with us, send it as an attachment using our submission form and of course feel free to use this approach for making other important decisions in your life!