‘How Do You Have the Confidence to Start a Painting?’

About 9 months ago I started working as a freelance artist. It has taken a lot of work but things are beginning to gain momentum. Recently, I was talking to my friend Jen and she asked me ‘How do you have the confidence to start a painting?’  She mentioned how she stares at a blank canvas for hours, putting it off, not knowing where to start and worrying about messing it up. I thought it was a very good question so I agreed to write an article, giving some tips on how to break the ice with painting.

Do Not Worry About Messing Up.

Worrying about messing up is a common concern for beginners. This mindset stems literally from scarcity of material. I think the biggest crime in the art business is selling those little pointless tubes of paint. If you want to create art buy large tubes of low-price paint to practice with at first. I do not buy the very cheapest brands because they will be low-quality product that tends to separate. I like System 3 paint, which I think is a good balance between quality and cost. All you need is cadmium red, ultramarine blue, lemon yellow, sap green, yellow ochre, black, and white. All other colours can be mixed so get the biggest tubes you can afford and you will have an abundance of materials. Then it does not matter if you mess up. You can just start a different painting.

It is possible to pick up cheap canvases if you shop around (in the UK you can try The Works or Home Bargains). Abundance mentality is key. With the resources behind you, you can afford to mess up. Interestingly, once you start selling your work it gets even easier because the hobby funds itself, replacing a tube of paint here, getting a fresh canvas - becomes less of a problem.

If we were talking about learning to draw it would be even easier. Just get a ream of white printer paper, a pencil eraser and pencil sharpener and just draw anything you want to. The more you draw the better you will get. So that is how I would respond to the idea of messing up.  Just go for it and do not worry, the next one will be better. Remember, messing up is how we learn to improve. 

Decide On What You Are Going to Paint Before You Come to the Canvas.

I like to work a lot from photographs, either simply copying the image directly or making compositions from several photographs. If you know what you are going to paint before you start there is no need to stare at a blank canvas. You just get out a light pencil and start drawing in the shapes from the photograph. However, even if you do not want to work from photographs, having a good idea about what you plan to paint before you start can be a good way to overcome the daunting whiteness.

Think Like a Child.

Part of not having confidence is being afraid people will judge you badly. As an adult sometimes it is easy to end up feeling that you need to be awesome at everything straight away and that can be crippling. Every child starts a painting with stick men, and circles for the sun; they don’t care they just draw. In Zen philosophy there is a concept called the ‘Beginner’s Mind’, it is a good mindset to be in when trying to do anything. Being a true beginner frees you from the necessity to be good at something straight away. If something does not quite work out, it is just practice, it is not worth beating yourself up about – I would love to be able to say that I remain serenely in this state of Zen when one of my painting’s goes awry, the truth is I can get pretty grumpy or so my wife says. However, eventually I get over it and finish the painting or trash it and do something different.

I think most of my confidence literally comes from knowing it just does not matter if I mess up, the rest comes from practice and experience (gained from this process of messing up and starting over). One final tip however for starting a painting is marking the canvas. Just do a few squiggles in an appropriate colour on the canvas. It overcomes that feeling of spoiling the canvas. In order to create a painting you have to destroy the canvas.