The Fundamentals of Painting and Its Role in Mastering the Basics

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Fundamentals of painting

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Understanding the fundamentals of art and painting is not just for those who are beginners. It’s something that you have to come back to time and time again−no matter how long you have been working at it.

These essential building blocks form the foundation of all great artworks. Gaining an intimate knowledge of them over time is what allows you to continue to grow and learn as an artist. In this article, we’ll explore these crucial elements, why they matter, and how you can apply them to your own work.

What Are the Fundamentals?

Artist in her studio, Alfred Stevens. It is through the fundamentals of art that a lot becomes possible. When you understand how light works, color, edges and composition, you can paint anything you want to.

The fundamentals of art make up the language of painting. It is through the painting foundations that we are able to translate our visual world – whether that is something you see with your eyes or in your own mind.

It is only thanks to the painting foundations that you can paint whatever you want to. Once you grasp and understand the fundamentals, an exciting new world of opportunities opens up to you. This is because they allow you to translate anything you see into shapes of light and color.

Why You Need the Fundamentals of Painting

The artist in his studio, Giovanni Battista Quadrone. Learning the fundamentals can be frustrating and time consuming. However, it is the only real way to move forward.

The fundamentals are the foundation of painting. It is impossible to learn painting without them. All of painting throughout art history was created with a deep knowledge of the fundamentals.

Over time artists came to understand more and more about how to translate what the eye sees onto a 2D surface. When comparing artwork from the 14th century with later work we can visibly see how much art history would progress because of the development of the fundamentals.

Notice the difference in how the fundamentals in the 1400s and the 1600s. You can see how artists developed their understanding of the natural world and the implementation of the fundamentals to painting.

Building a Strong Foundation

Think of the fundamentals of painting as the roots of a tree. Without strong roots, a tree cannot grow or thrive. Similarly, without mastering the basics, your painting skills will be extremely limited. A solid understanding of the fundamentals provides the foundation upon which you can build more complex techniques skills.

Broaden your range and creativity

Pastel over lithograph by Edgar Degas. Here we have a piece that is a mix of two different mediums. Degas would be highly experimental when it came to combining and mixing different mediums together. He also had a very strong foundation and understanding in the fundamentals that allowed him to freely explore.

Mastering the fundamentals doesn’t stifle creativity—it enhances it. When you have a firm grasp of the basics, you can experiment and push boundaries with confidence. Knowing the rules allows you to break them intentionally, leading to innovative and compelling art.

Historical Significance of the Fundamentals of Painting

Some art periods brought new breakthroughs into different aspects of the fundamentals. For example, Leonardo da Vinci is responsible for a jump in the treatment and understanding of light in art. As a scientist and innovator he was able to understand how light works in the natural world and then figure out how to represent it in a more real and natural way through light and dark values.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci is credited with making great strides in the understanding of how light works and how to paint it.

The importance of VALUE in the Fundamentals of Art

Edgar degas print with a strong value structure, which is the most important fundamental of painting
In this piece by Degas we can see large areas of color that create a very clear sense of light. It is highly important to be able to simplify what you see into simple areas of light and dark value.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. All of painting is made up of value first and foremost – something that all painting throughout art history have in common. It is the building block that every painting is built upon. Think of value as the scaffolding for your artwork; it provides the structure upon which everything else hangs. Without a solid understanding of value, your paintings will lack light, depth, contrast, and a sense of realism.

Value is more important than color. In fact, in order to be able to mix up good colors, you need to first understand its value. If you don’t, then the painting will lack a sense of light. This is why value thumbnail sketches are so valuable.

Practical Tips for Value

  1. Monochromatic Studies: Start with black-and-white studies to focus solely on value without the distraction of color.
  2. Squint Test: Squinting helps simplify the values in your subject, making it easier to see the overall light and dark shapes.

The Role of COLOR in the Fundamentals

Eugene Boudin, Vaches au Paturage. In this painting we can see how the artist simplified color in such a way that he was able to see large areas of color spots instead of getting caught up in detail. In order to paint detailed painting it is very important to first be able to understand the large basic areas of color first.

Color brings life to a painting. It conveys mood, emotion, and atmosphere. However, understanding color involves more than just picking pretty hues. It requires knowledge of color relationships and how to create color harmony.

The best way to think of color is in terms of color spots. Spots of color are placed next to one another just like notes of music are placed together to create a specific harmony. Color is more than just an aesthetic choice; it’s a powerful tool for conveying the essence of a subject. It is in this that the power of painting lies and does something that no other art form can – including photography.

Practical tips for color

  1. Color Spots: A painting is made up of spots of color, one next to the other. Practice seeing objects in terms of spots of color instead of objects. Simplify colors into large areas of color before breaking them down.
  2. Color Temperature: Before you think of what ‘color’ something is, first consider its color temperature. It is more important to get the color temperature correct than the color.

The power of EDGES in art and painting

Seascape pastel by Edgar Degas. with good use of edges and clear understanding of the fundamentals of art and painting.
In this pastel drawing by Degas we can see an enormous range of edges. The edges create a great amount of interest and allow us to feel and see great depth of space.

Edges refer to the transition between different areas of a painting. They can be hard, soft, or lost, and each type serves a specific purpose. Hard edges draw attention and define shapes, while soft edges create a sense of depth and atmosphere. Lost edges can add mystery and intrigue to a painting.

Edges can make or break a painting. They guide the viewer’s eye and create a sense of depth and dimension. It is one aspect that can create a great amount of interest for the viewer.

Practical tips for edges

  1. Box Camera: Find an old box camera and look through it eveyday. Doing this will train your eye to see soft and sharp edges more readily
  2. Work with Charcoal: Because of how pliable willow and vine charcoal are you can really practice making hard and soft edges very quickly and easily. Doing this will help your painting a tremendous amount.

Ability to master COMPOSITION

still life by william nicholson with strong fundamentals of painting and composition
Here is a still life by William Nicholson with a very effective composition. Notice how most of the main subject matter is in the upper right quadrant of the painting. This creates an unevenness as well as interest in the composition.

Composition is the arrangement of elements within a painting. It guides the viewer’s eye and creates a harmonious balance. It is composition that holds everything together in a painting. An artist could do amazing work in the areas of color, edges and value. However, if the composition isn’t good, the painting will only ever be mediocre.

Good composition ensures that all parts of the painting work together to support the overall message or story. It is helpful to see it as the blueprint of a painting. It organizes elements to create a cohesive and engaging whole.

Practical tips for composition

  1. Rule of Thirds: Divide your canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Place focal points at the intersections for a balanced composition.
  2. Leading Lines: Use lines to guide the viewer’s eye through the painting, creating a sense of movement and direction.

Applying the Fundamentals to Your Own Art

Start with Value Studies

thumbnail value sketch for mastering fundamentals of painting with value
Here is an example of what a small value thumbnail can look like. It has 3 clear values – light, medium and dark. Just taking a brief moment of time to make one will make an enormous difference in how well you understand the value structure of your subject matter.

Before diving into a full-color painting, create value studies to establish the light and dark value structure of your subject. This practice helps you focus on the overall composition and ensures your painting will hold together.

Doing this is also a good practice in simplifying values. Creating clear and simple values can be an extremely difficult skill to establish in painting. So, work on it in a smaller thumbnail format in black and white. Once you start to integrate color, creating clear values becomes much more difficult.

Focus on How Color Works

Jan Ciaglinski, Painting of Eugenia Alexandra Rubtsov, mother of the painter Rubtsov. In this painting we can see that the mindset of the artist is much more on seeing the subject in terms of color spots than as an object. When building with spots of color you capture a much more real version of your subject matter.

Once you learn and understand how color works, the world is your oyster. You will be able to mix up any color you need for any situation that comes your way. Learn about all of the basic colors and what happens when you mix them together.

When you understand and grasp the principles, then you can extend far beyond and be comfortable mixing up very bold and unusual color combinations that you would never have though of otherwise.

Practice Edge Control

This painting by Jan Ciaglinski shows a wide range of sharp and soft edges. Notice how the edges become soft as the image recedes back in space. It is these soft edges that create the depth of space that exists in the piece.

Concentrate on controlling edges in your paintings. Use a variety of hard, soft, and lost edges to create depth and interest. Pay attention to how edges can guide the viewer’s eye and enhance the overall composition. Spend time look at old master works and how they used the fundamentals of painting edges. Some of the richest lessons are found in these paintings.

How a mastery of art fundamentals can help you

Mastering the fundamentals of painting is the key to becoming a successful artist. By understanding value, color, edges, and composition, you can create compelling and visually stunning artworks. Remember, these basics are not just for beginners—they are the foundation upon which all great art is built.

Take the time to practice and refine these skills, and you’ll see a significant improvement in your work. Explore, experiment, and most importantly, enjoy the process of creating art.

Here’s a question for you: What of the fundamentals do you struggle with the most? What are you trying to improve? Scroll down below and leave me a comment to let me know.

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    6 thoughts on “The Fundamentals of Painting and Its Role in Mastering the Basics”

    1. I feel that I struggle with values. I can get darks and good lights, but mid values don’t seem to be enough different to identify. Example: sky is light, but then there is several layers of mountains and then the water. Those mountain layers should be different levels of mid values. If I could attach a picture, I could show a painting I did.

      1. Hi Debi, Thank you for your comment. Values can be the most difficult to get a solid grasp on. I would recommend first creating a black and white study of your subject to be able to understand those different layers of mid values before proceeding with color. You can also put a black and white filter over an image to get a clearer understanding of the underlying values.

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