Why do we paint like we do?

In the few weeks I’ve been painting, I’ve realized how little I know about even its most basic tenets. I didn’t know — and now do — how to tone a canvas, how to clean and preserve my brushes, even how to hold a paintbrush. Now I was learning what I thought I knew as a four-year-old: how to put down paint.

After completing our drawings of Dopey and the Oven Mitt, it was time to fill them in. Prior to my rogue gun-jumping first painting, I would’ve thought that this process was easy-peasy — just like Paint by Numbers, right? Not, apparently, so fast.

As I’m learning, one of the keys to painting accurately is separating what you see from what you think you know. You think you know that the ocean is blue; if you don’t consciously work to erase that preconception, you’ll ignore the evidence before you and choose colors much less varied and interesting than what nature has presented. Likewise, you think your fingers are long and tapered, but from many angles they’re foreshortened and squat: Paint them as you think they are, and you’ll look like a cartoon.

It’s difficult work, erasing these preconceived notions. To do it, we need to rely on tricks that divorce our lines — which have no particular meaning — from the objects we’re painting, which are filled with it.

This process starts with our very first strokes. Rather than simply filling in our shape with paint, like we’ve all been taught to do throughout our lives, we instead paint in patches, silver-dollar-sized regions that might contain two or more different areas of color or value.


According to Jim, ideally you’d start with your darkest value, then medium, then light.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re using the “fat over lean” process of painting — creating our paintings by laying down thin layers of paint that we then let dry before continuing to add to and revise. In order to keep the ability to revise the edges in future iterations, and to minimize the possibility that our surface will crack, we want to avoid the ridges that might come from having excess paint on our brushes when we come up to an edge. To do this we first touch down our brush well away from an edge and then paint toward it. Only when the paint has significantly thinned do we then paint along the edge.

Another way to make sure we’re not getting bamboozled by the “object-ness” of what we’re painting is to use a large hand mirror placed against our foreheads and reflecting on our painting and the subject we’re painting from, causing us to see them upside-down and backwards. This helps to break the connection between the shapes and lines that we’ve painted and the object that they represent, so that we can better see flaws in our angles, proportions, and values without the brain jumping in and trying to make our item look more vase-like, or hand-like, or in our case, oven-mitt-like.

So how did this all translate to Dopey and the Oven Mitt?

Remember, here was what I was painting:


And here’s the final product:


Wait — is that a perfect copy? Is she really that good?

No! Psych — they’re the same! I didn’t have access to the original, so I just showed my finished painting instead.

But now, here’s the original:


Still pretty close, right?

Lookin’ good!


6 thoughts on “Why do we paint like we do?

    1. Oh, thank you so much! I just started this blog, and usually just assume I’m posting into the void (but knowing that at least I’ll have a record of my — I hope! — improvement!). I really appreciate the kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love your sense of humor! I think WordPress is a bit more geared towards writing than painting, or other art forms. I get a lot more traffic on my writing than paintings. But that could just be because Iā€™m a better writer than painter šŸ˜‚ Keep up the good work!


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