Painting Step by Step

Oftentimes I take progress photos of whatever I’m working on with no clear intention of what to do with them. That, my friends, is a problem of the past. I thought I’d walk  through a painting and discuss some considerations for the piece as well as some of the technical process.

Process Photo

First and foremost, we need a workspace.

FL Studio

I’m working in Florida for a few months and renting an unfurnished apartment. So welcome to the pop-up studio! This was the first time using the new space. I was a little concerned about lighting, but these shop lights with some 5200K light bulbs did just fine. There was some glare on my palette which was more annoying than anything else.  Bonus points: the coffee pot is only five feet away.


Getting started on a piece, I try to do a loose but accurate drawing using a small brush and burnt umber. With this scene in particular, it was crucial for me to get the drawing down accurately for a few reasons. First, the main focus is a group of figures. With figure drawing/painting, the anatomy, proportions, gestures, etc. have to be right. Otherwise it will look very wrong. Second, the plane that the figures are standing on is higher than the plane the buildings in the background are on. This makes for some unusual perspective trickery. A big concern here was that even if I painted it correctly, it might still look weird. I decided to bring the two planes closer to level in order to avoid that dissonance while still remaining somewhat true to the reference photo. I find that whenever I stray too far from the source material, that’s when I start making bad decisions.


Once I’m satisfied with the drawing, it’s time to start the under-painting with thin washes of local color. This is an important step for some of the effects that I like to implement. Without going into detail on why I love the transparent qualities of oil paints, let’s just say they’re pretty awesome. It’s my goal to have specific areas of the under-painting showing through after subsequent layers of paint have been applied. For this piece, I knew that I wanted the shadows cast by the figures to be only this thin wash. Similarly, I liked the rich, orange glow on the woman’s hijab (transparent paints, I tell ya!!) so some of that was going to stay as well. An opaque paint application just won’t be able to capture the same quality. FullSizeRender

After all the washes are in place and I start to establish some values. Having my darkest darks and my lightest lights on the canvas gives good reference for all the values in between. At this point I start adding and refining detail as well. Generally speaking, I’ll start with my focal point, get that to a level of detail that I want and work my way out from there. For me, the focal point should have the highest level of detail as it should command the most attention. If the background has more detail than the main focus, it runs the risk of being distracting. Now, none of this is to say that the focal point needs a lot of detail–just that it should have the most.


At this point, the painting is starting to come to life, but it’s also a point where problems with the composition become more evident. I wasn’t quite satisfied with it, so I checked in with fellow painter, Antwan Ramar. He rightly suggested that the left side of the painting was looking a little cramped. The two figures were pulling the eye too close to the edge of the canvas. So adjustment were made.

The Wishing Well

After a few rounds of second guessing, edits, and tweaks, a finished painting emerges. Overall I was very pleased with how this piece came out. Now, on to the next piece!

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