Working it all out first, before you start your Acrylic Painting


This is the photoshop layout reference file for the acrylic painting “The Knowing” 2003

by Robert Conway

After I graduated art/party college in the mid-eighties, I experimented with these french crayons on canvas board, they were water soluble so you could blend the colors by just wetting your finger and rubbing. They were these abstract landscapes with exaggerated color. This was a real crash and burn time for me, I ended up destroying most of these pieces out of total frustration, stink, stank, stunk.

The number one source of frustration was that I didn’t have the artwork all worked out first, I would just have it in my head, sort of worked out. Sometimes I would try to recreate something that I dreamt about, that looked so incredibly mind blowing in my head, that I would have to get it down on canvas. This was always a fools errand, memory fades, changes, I’d wake up dumbstruck the next morning and be like, ‘uh, I think it was magenta, not purple” I can’t really remember”. So I would be in the middle of one of these french crayon cadavers really frustrated, and I would get this ‘lost in the woods’ type feeling, because I had to ‘make-up’ too much stuff, and the composition of the artwork would always suffer because of this, too much guess work, too many elements conflicting, too many ways to go, too many things to think about. It really was just too overwhelming, I didn’t have a real plan going in, I would just figure, I’m good, I’ll figure a way to make this thing look cool as I go along, well, um nope. There was also a tendency to want to change direction in the middle of one these drawings too, one day I would want to go more abstract, the next day I would be, that’s not working how about more realistic. I was not the man with the plan, and I paid the price, a trip to the garbage can. I have a great deal of admiration for artists who can whip one off just out of their heads, I wish I could be that footloose and fancy free, maybe someday.

I work out all my painting in Adobe Photoshop first now and use this final comp image on my monitor as my reference. It’s like making yourself a map so you won’t get lost on your way. Just knowing that if I keep pretty close to what I have on my ‘map’ I am going to be in good shape. I can still have fun too, the painting always has a life to its own, better than the original layout. So even though I have the overall look down first, the emotional quality isn’t there yet, so the anticipation of bringing that on makes it challenging and fun, mostly challenging.

You won’t fall back to earth as hard if you have it figured out first. And there is less drama in your head too. I mean if you are going to paint something special, your brain is going to be in overdrive as it is, you don’t want to waste your precious thoughts if you don’t have to. My greatest fear as an artist is to get that lost feeling again. I mean I didn’t attempt any type of fine art projects for seventeen years because of those experiences, I hid like one of those cicadas that crawl in the ground.

The second part of working it out is to make sure that your original layout is accurately transferred to your canvas before you start getting the brushes out. I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t sort of sketch it out, it is very important to have as much information as possible worked out on your canvas first. This way you won’t have to do all that measuring, guessing, squinting. You know, you are like “Um. I think this tree is 3 thumb lengths from this rock?” or “Er, his head is too big and his eyes are too close together. . . ” You can just avoid this unpleasant pondering. A lot of painters are starting to have their layouts printed on canvas first, then paint over them, this way, you avoid all that unnecessary guesswork that just strains your brain and chews up a lot of your time. I mean in the end, the printed layout is always covered with all paint anyway, they are 100 percent paintings in the end, so what the hey? give yourself the best advantage before going into the battle. I played around with do this in my early days, but now I trace an exact size color image on my canvas with a dark 6B pencil rubbed on the back making sure I transfer as much detail as possible. Make sure you have all your spots are picked.

Having all the details worked out before you start to paint should give you a firm foundation going in. It also frees you up more so you can focus on the more emotional qualities of your artwork, this is where you can start to work your magic.

February 15, 2014


17 thoughts on “Working it all out first, before you start your Acrylic Painting

  1. I did a couple large scale pencil drawings in the past, and with the first one I used a grid system, but with the second I used a projector. The projector saves a lot of time because you don’t even have to draw the squares. I can’t remember how I did it but I may have just traced the outlines, or turned it back on as needed. Might be worth looking into if you haven’t already.

    My last piece is just the sort of thing you were talking about, of changing my mind mid-stream, getting lost…That CAN work if one is using medium that allows for endless revision. That has often been my mode of work = starting with a train wreck and trying to salvage pieces and eventually coming up with something I wouldn’t have come up with any other way. Not an efficient way of working at all, but it has some pluses.

    • Thanks for the tip about the projector, I may use that down the road, but right now I am fortunate enough to have access to this large color printer at work and I have been using that for printing out my layouts. My greatest fear as a painter is just getting lost with one of my paintings and not knowing what to do with it next. In the past I have had episodes like this which had me giving up on painting for years. So now I print out a precise map as a guide, it calms me down knowing that I have a direct path to follow, it just saves me from melting down. – robert

  2. I understand your fear of getting lost on a painting, I’ve experienced this as well. In a way it is a good sign, of an active imagination. But I know how frustrating it can be. And I think you’ve worked out a good method to keep you on track. It isn’t my way because a lot of the fun for me is in the discovery, but you say that you still have a lot of freedom and surprise within the framework you set yourself. So it works well.
    I think that what keeps me from getting lost these days is having an idea about where I want to go. I’d describe it as realistic with a lot of open space for improvisation. Color is important for me, so that is my main focus. My forms are just there to hang the color on. And also, working in series is comforting, you don’t have to keep thinking up new subjects.

    What is clear is that there is no one right way to go about it.

    I loved the spontaneity of your mural paintings by the way. Lovely.

    • “realistic with a lot of open space for improvisation” love that, yes I think I used to get lost because I would be in the middle of a painting and there would always be so many possible directions I could take it, I never knew when I was finished or not. Also my mind would change from day to day, so there is always that you have to deal with. And then of course there are those times when the memory of the painting you dreamed up in your head starts to fade just when you are getting to the good parts! I started out wanting to be some free wheeling, crazy brushstroke kind of painter but I discovered in the process that I needed a plan before I started, it took me a long time to figure that out, and now I am just fine with that. 🙂 – robert

  3. I like this post, Robert. Even when I have it all worked out, the paint and my hand always bring me “happy accidents”. I have had to learn to sometimes let go and allow the painting to live through the differences, but planning? Always, always. I can’t paint by the seat of my pants, either. I have to plan.

    • Yeah winging it has never payed off for me. when I was younger I thought when I started a painting that in the end my cleverness would save me and I would have some grand revelation and the painting would turn out to be a masterpiece, but that never ever happened. ha ha. always great to hear from you Leslie. – robert

  4. Great post, also funny and entertaining. Hit the nail on the head if your intent was to share an opinion, divulge a little “art secret” and make me grin. I especially relate to the hiding away for years part of your story. And I have come to understand (recently) that any tools that get me back putting pen/pencil/brush to paper/canvas/anything are valuable and worthy of respect.

    • I’m glad that you liked it slackerartist. yep, used to hide for years, now that I think I know what I am doing, I don’t even think of taking a break from painting and I am just trying to have a good time with it now. I really like your drawings I hope that you do not go into hibernation anytime soon. nice to hear from you – robert

  5. That should be helpful. I like people who know what they are doing and follow the plan. I actually either draw from the real object or have some look at reference if there is some. Things sometimes don’t work out. After the first layers I don’t use anything for reference. My paintings don’t have very strict outlines of shadows and might somehow be not realistic. I started to draw about 45-50 years ago, I didn’t have camera until I was 46, that’s why I never needed it or got used to photos. I have to use reference photos in classes even though students forget about them after a while.
    I would like to see your art, it should be great. I will have a look in a moment.

    • someday I hope I will be comfortable enough with my painting to not have such a strict method with the process, but for now i need my safety net. I really like your paintings I am glad you reached out, it is always comforting to here from another self-taught painter. 🙂

  6. Hello,
    Acrylics have an advantage , They dry faster than oils which enables you to continue painting and avoid the long waiting time it takes for oils. clean up is a breeze, just use soap and water.

    • yep, I never felt completely comfortable with oil paints and the time it takes to clean up after oil painting infringes on good sleep time. like I have said before I love the fact that acrylic paints dry fast because this means I can lean my right hand against the canvas which gives me a lot better brush control and confidence when I am painting.

  7. Hi, Thanks for checking out my blog. There are a couple of my paintings on mine and its good to link up with a painter. I don’t paint now but enjoy looking at others’.

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