Spreading the paint: Painting the whole canvas evenly

aquarium fish group painting

Some day I will have to stop tweaking this one.

by Robert Conway

Like I had mentioned in a previous post, I have to have everything worked out in a layout before I take the brush to canvas. Being a self-taught painter, I have had to come up with a few unconventional methods in order to get final results in a painting and this is the only way I can do it, this is my safety net against failure, I need to have a clear idea that this is going to be a good painting when it is finished, I really do not want to spend all that time working on a piece and just hoping that it will look good in the end, I have to know it from the start. By basically making yourself this map you are eliminating a lot of ifs, whens and buts out of the equation, this way you will feel more comfortable with your subject and more confident with your work as you proceed down the road further. I have to mention at this point that I am discussing rendering representational art, this does not apply to painting anything abstract, a subject I have yet to delve into.

There are always certain elements inside of your composition that you will favor over others and this can lead to a tendency to give them more attention than the other elements of your painting. Each element in your artwork is going to effect the others around it in some way and if there is an imbalance, the entire composition is going to suffer. I don’t want to sound like a tree hugger or anything, but I like to think of a composition as a fragile ecosystem, all of your elements have to live together on your canvas and if there is a lack of balance, the whole arrangement is just not going to work and there is going to be a lack of a feeling of control, tension and uncertainty. I find it best to work over the whole composition evenly, this way when you take a few paces back to view your painting, you will better evaluate your progress because you have minimizing distractions this way and it will give you a clearer path to the finish line. It makes it more difficult to visualize an entire painting when it is uneven because you are asking your brain to do extra work by having to mentally to fill in the gaps for yourself and this can lead to uncertainty and doubt about the final outcome of your artwork. Doing it this way will give you a more focused vision as to what you are to expect with your artwork down the road and there will be less drama, less surprises and more order in your execution.

Since you are never going to nail these areas down on perfect on your first pass, it is better to work it a little then move on and revisit it later, because as you are painting the objects around a certain area it is going to change the way you see it as your painting evolves. This works out well for those areas that you are having trouble with because it gives you more time to think it over as you travel around and tighten up your composition.

February 15, 2014


36 thoughts on “Spreading the paint: Painting the whole canvas evenly

  1. I find that my work is almost always an experiment so I guess I do not have the idea that it has to be a i suppose ‘sellable’ piece(?) before I begin. I do paint abstract quite a lot though, as I love the quick pace of it. Something I truly hate is returning to paintings to tweak them. I find I am quite the contrast to other artists – most do not know when to stop painting where I probably should spend more time on my work. haha!I love hearing other artists point of view. Fantastic painting of those fish too. Absolutely perfect Robert. Leave it as it is. It is definitely finished. Love it.


    • I am jealous Meg, maybe I should do an abstract every once in a while to loosen myself up. I think I do concentrate a lot on trying to make a painting that would be good to sell and now that I have started this blog I am realizing that sometimes that takes some of the fun away. the last few have been difficult because I have really been pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I think in the next one I am going to tone down the realism and give myself a break. thanks for the kind words on the painting, keep in touch – robert

  2. I love it..they are so beautiful. I just had started a digital and didn’t finish it. I do that alot and then go back to it..sometimes not..I will finish it on the second try. somethimes I can spend hours and hours and hours to get what I want in a digital.
    One day I will go back to acrylics and paint something ..your art gives me the inspiration to do that.
    have a wonderful week Bob

    • nice to hear from you Sherri, I finally figured out what was not working with that painting and just fixed it after staring at it for so long, I am so relieved. there was a week there when I was gloomy gus and I was just not feeling the magic, but low and behold it is looking real good now. I have the tiny brushes out now just highlighting the detail then I am going to sign the sucker and move on to my next one. hooray 🙂

  3. This post just goes to show you how individual each artist is, and how probably no artist is truly like any other. For my part, I never know how a painting is going to turn out until it’s done. It’s usually “done” when I’m either a) tired of the effort, b) totally jazzed by the effort, or c) have no idea where to go next! I too dislike revisiting paintings to tweak them. Either they made it or they didn’t, but I never go back and rework them. If it was an idea and a composition that I felt a really strong connection to, I might start all over again on a fresh canvas and see what happens the second time around. The most important thing, which you described quite accurately, is to not overwork one section (we used to call that “letting it get too precious”) while either ignoring other areas or becoming afraid to work them because you might spoil what you’ve already done.

    • Alli I think I like your method better! haha It certainly is interesting to see how other artists do their thing, and what I am finding out from the comments I have been getting is that I should loosen up and start to have more fun again with my painting and if a painting goes wrong I should just shrug it off and go on to the next. In my early days if a painting was not working I would get so frustrated I would just stop painting anything entirely, so I think that is where my obsession started with planning everything out so painstakingly came from, that fear of crashing and burning. any who, this one is finished and I am happy and relieved and the next one is going to be fast and loose, I hope of course. 🙂

      • The most important thing is that you enjoy what you are doing. Whatever method you use to make your work enjoyable is the right method for you. As for the flops, I don’t throw them away, I just put them away somewhere and maybe years later I’ll pull them out and have a totally different perspective on a particular piece. Sometimes I end up really liking it!

        • I have a couple stashed away in the attic, a little dusty, you are right your perspective changes over time so you can always go back and rediscover, maybe fix them in the future after you have had a few more years of experience under your belt.

    • yes for me time is crucial because I am like the worlds slowest painter for some reason, so for me I want to be as sure as I can that the final result is going to be something I am happy with.

  4. If you’re having fun , you’re doing it right . Painting looks great ! Personally I tend to alternate between tried and true processes an d new ones . When I get discouraged doing something new and it doesn’t turn out , I fall back to something more familiar to make me feel like I’m accomplishing something .

    • thank you, I am falling back on this painting I had hanging around for a year, its half finished and is really easy and is looking good. I really spun my wheels on my last 3 paintings and this one is like a well deserved break from trying to build the better mousetrap.

  5. I used to be so trapped in realism that painting wasn’t fun. It was more like this process that I had to get through. I rediscovered joy in my work again when I started slapping the paint to the canvas and not worrying too much about every little detail. If I don’t finish a painting in a few hours, I think I am overpainting which brings me right back to the original frustration. Your fish are gorgeous! How long did it take you to paint this?

    • oh thanks, yes a fish painting takes a long time, since I have to work everyday I only get like 2 hours of painting in a day so that is a few months to complete one. It is very interesting what you said about the realism trap, although I like painting that way it is too controlled to let loose and have fun. I am going to have to change things too. thanks for writing you are an inspiration.

      • You inspire me with your absolute correctness in imagery. If you like painting the way you paint why switch it up if only for experimentation perhaps? I still get stuck in the “realism” trap once in awhile. That’s when I paint more random swooshes…

        • I am very happy with the way things are going with my painting I just wish they would not take so long thats all, other than that I am fine. I am going to always remember your term realism trap. I need to start throwing some random swooshes around and see how it feels.

  6. First of all, lovely painting. I have absolutely no patience for painting water!

    And I think I’m 50/50 on whether to plan a painting. I do agree that sometimes it’s essential (with work like yours, where everything is meant to be quite realistic, it makes more sense). Sometimes it is really fun to do something unplanned though. Crank up the music and attack a canvas. These pieces often tend to be ones I have to go back to later and refine, but the emotion in them can be great. That said, your work is quite elaborate, so planned composition would be a higher priority. I only really encounter that when I’m trying for a less stylized portrait (though mine are all stylized to a degree).

    P.S. Thanks for the like on Apple of my Odd Eye.

    • when I originally intended to paint that was the kind of painter I wanted to be, put on the headphones, have a little smoke and fire away at the canvas, the problem was that I would be satisfied with whatever I painted for like a day then I would wake up and totally change it and then change it the next day. maybe it is because my point of view swings from day to day. I don’t know, all I know is that right now I need a plan and a ‘map’ to follow or else what I am doing is going to turn into a mess of confusion. I never intended in the beginning to have my artwork be so realistic looking, that may be because of still clinging to a little bit of insecurity, anyhow I really love what you wrote and I know that one day I am just going to throw the map out and go for broke. take it easy 🙂

  7. These are interesting insights to the development of your personal style. I liked hearing a different point of view, and your resulting paintings are great.

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