Seven ways to start


Dear Artist,

American abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn said, “I don’t go into the studio with the idea of ‘saying’ something. What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.” He’s talking about the give and take between you and the thing you’re creating — that tingly chess game of advancing a pawn and letting the board re-calibrate its meaning in response. After awhile a little rhythm takes over and intuition leads to a tango for two. A few bold strokes, and the openness to let them signal what’s needed next, is as notable a beginning as any.


“Winter Pond II”
acrylic on canvas, 2002
169.7 x 304.6 cm
Gordon Smith

Some other ideas:

Paint a ground toned in a warm, medium intensity neutral, like pale rose or mushroom. Then lay in compositional zones from the opposite side of the colour wheel. The rest of the painting will evolve by either jostling with, neutralizing or intensifying the existing vibration.

If you usually begin by drawing, skip this step. By unhooking the caribiner from the harness it’s a free climb. The painter takes the risk and, brush in hand, simply begins. The potential is for a release of something gloriously possessed.
Scumble a mother colour in an over-reaching way, then contour your subject. Think of a rock face; now brush in its brindle as an underpainting. Cut the sky into the rock as if it were the subject and as if it were the positive space. Your rock just got rockier. “The sky,” said John Constable, “is the principal actor in your painting.”


“The Red Studio”
oil on canvas, 1911
71 1/4 x 72 1/4 inches
by Henri Matisse

Before you begin, reduce the number of items in the composition and paint the foreground first. Use a bigger brush. Zoom in. Zoom out.

Look for patterns, lay in the big shapes and do the drawing last.



PS: “In every phenomenon the beginning remains always the most notable moment.” (Thomas Carlyle)

“Horizon Ocean View”
oil on canvas, 1959
70 x 64 inches
by Richard Diebenkorn

Esoterica: While visiting an artist friend recently I noticed a jar on her desk filled with small, neatly folded pieces of paper. “What are these?” I asked, mid-grab. “Those are my idea prompts,” she answered. That’s how I know how to start.” A little yellow fortune beckoned from my palm. I unfolded it and read the word, “connection.” “See ya,” I said, putting on my coat. “A great flame,” wrote Dante, “follows a little spark.”

Many thanks to the thousands who responded to our Painter’s Keys survey. Of those who participated, 77% report never missing a letter. Half have been subscribers for 3 – 10 years and 11% have joined us within the last year. More than half the participants are reading the comments online and checking the workshop calendar. Nearly all are okay with seeing some relevant advertising. And question #9? Among the colourful remarks were, “Stop the psycho-babble,” “perfect,” “…bolstering the inner belief that can be destroyed by doubt,” “too busy painting to read them,” “dignity for artists” and “a kick in the pants.” Thank-you.


[fbcomments url=””]



Featured Workshop: Keiko Tanabe
Keiko Tanabe workshops
Keiko Tanabe workshops
The next workshop is being held in Croatia, Island of Korcula from September 1st to September 10th, 2015.
The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.






Expansion by Christa Krisman, Quesnel, B.C., Canada, immigrated from Germany in 2000


acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches
Christa Krisman, Quesnel, B.C., Canada, immigrated from Germany in 2000


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.



Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.