I nearly put “rules” in quotations in the title because it comes across a little more hard and fast than I mean it to. There is something to the idea that given infinite options, creativity is limited. Give yourself constructive boundaries and flourish within your bounds. These “rules” are things that I’ve learned over the years and I really do keep them in mind whenever I’m working on a painting. Hopefully it can inspire you to create your own little list of creative guidelines! Some of these are classic painting techniques and some are tid bits that I’ve picked up along the way.
1. When painting, go from big brush to little brush. This has a few advantages but it also forces you to work on the grand scheme first, before you start filling in details. Do the background and big shapes with a big brush and once you are done, try to use progressively smaller brushes.
2. When using oil paint, always paint from lean to fat (oily). This is a classic rule that has a very practical reason. The way that oil paint dries essentially causes the paint to let off fumes. When you put a dry (with more thinner) layer on top of a more oily layer you are compromising the chemical balance of your painting and it will crack or become discoloured.
3. Try to not use colors as they come out of the tube. This is a personal thing – I think that everyone’s perception of color is a little different. My “absolute red” is different than yours. Given that we all see color just a little different, let that influence the way you work with your colors. Like, “This is a nice red but it needs a little yellow and touch of white to be the red I want”.
4. Make your own black and greys. This will add volumes to your work if you need black or grey. Black is made by combining the 3 primary colors, Red, Yellow, and Blue. Grey is made be combining complementary colors. Your greys and blacks will be more dynamic than if you just used a black or grey from a tube.
5. Mix as many of your colors as you can directly on the canvas. This will create a more dynamic and less flat application of the color. It also creates unexpected “moments” where colors peak through that you could not have anticipated.
6. Try to paint from dark to light. Again, this is one of those habits that will help in multiple ways. Firstly, (and this should probably be its own rule) shadows should be lean applications of paint. Many times you see shadows or darkness in paintings and it looks like an oil spill. The classic technique demonstrates that shadows should be applied as thinly as they are in reality. This also makes it easier to make your highlights pop towards the end of the painting and it give you a construct of dark hues to light hues to follow.
7. Vary your brush strokes. This will be subject to the style or content of what you are painting, but typically a variety of brushstrokes (big, thin, fast, slow, long, short) will create a more interesting composition than all horizontal and vertical strokes with the same size brush for example.
8. Think (and then paint) in layers instead of a flat plane. When you start doing this you will open the door to many interesting avenues. Firstly, if you know what color your content will be, consider creating a background with complementary colors that will cause your content to stand out. Also think about how your painting shows depth. How is the tree 2 metres from the viewer different from the tree 200 metres from the view (aside from size). With oil paint especially, thinking in layers allows you to do a lot of compositional work with the thin layers of paint before you put your final layers on top.
9. Consider your edges. Easier said than done. When you look at Renaissance paintings with “realistic” looking figures, notice how the figures with all hard edges looks less like reality than the figures with soft or lost edges. (Look at Northern Renaissance vs. Italian Renaissance paintings). Something else that is tricky for people who are accustomed to drawing with their paint is the tendency to outline. Outlining many times is unnecessary and while you think you may be delineating one space from another, consider how the eyes make a mental “outline” when there is simply variation in color or shade.
10. Remember that a painting is the product of a process. This has been something I’ve been trying to be conscious of more lately. Don’t be afraid to show your process in the painting. Leave bits unfinished or unsmooth, show how you used blocks of color to create a composition – art doesn’t have to be like a photograph that has every bit of canvas accounted for or “finished” – think about how you can show in a painting *how* you made your painting.
There are so many things going on in an artist’s mind while painting, I’m sure that if you asked 100 different painters, all of their lists would be different. These are some of the things that I keep at the front of my mind and hopefully it will inspire you to think about your constructive creative guidelines or otherwise just paint!