It’s not about painting to sell. If selling is your ambition then you will never be a successful painter. Have the ambition to be a very good painter who creates a good painting every time. Paint for success. You want paintings that are successful. If they are truly successful then sales will take care of themselves. Focus on success, not sales. Here, below, is a certain method for successful painting. Memorize it. Practice it. Share it.

Robert Lewis

Robert Lewis

A Painting Must be Built

When I say “paint for success” I mean painting in a way that results in a successful painting. This can be done, and it can be a joyful experience, but the joy of painting can not really begin until you have laid the foundation, carefully put together all of the elements for success, and can be reasonably sure that, having meticulously done those things, you can now enjoy the rest and expect that your painting will be a winner. So, painting in a way that results in a successful painting doing the work to build a strong foundation. Until you do the hard, even boring, work, you do not have a chance of having the painting succeed and you will have yourself to blame. Without building a strong foundation, the best you can hope for is a miracle; and, of course, they do happen, but wouldn’t it be better to ensure success through a set of choices and actions that virtually guarantee success?

“Without building a strong foundation, the best you can hope for is a miracle.”

Is there such a thing as a sure thing? In painting plein air, it is a sure thing that if you do not build your painting in a smart way you will not have a successful painting, barring a miracle. I warn you in advance, building the foundation of your painting is hard, boring, tedious work. It’s not much fun, but the fun comes later. The work needs to be done and you need to stay focused in order to do this hard work as fast as you can so you can move on as quickly as possible to the really fun part. First, build your foundation. Here’s how.


It’s the skinny part of the phrase “fat over lean”. You get this part right and nothing can stop you from painting a successful painting. Virtually impossible. So, get lean. Then you can get fat…

Choose a Scene That will Bring You Success

If you are going to build something, choose a good location. You want a place that makes sense, a place with a good view, nice light, and an uplifting feeling. If you are going to paint a scene, you need to do the same thing, choose a scene that makes sense, one with a good view, nice light, and an uplifting feeling. Here are two common mistakes that get in your way when choosing a scene to paint…

Two Common Mistakes

First, you have a clear idea of what you want to paint and you wander around looking for the scene that matches what is in your imagination. In other words, you have preconceived notions about the image you will paint. You see it uup here and expect it out there. Sometimes this can work. More often it makes you blind to the really wonderful composition right in front of you and so you do not see it. You have are trying to fit the world into a stereotype while something very original is sitting right there. If you must paint stereotypes (and all plein air painters get that urge to re-enact early California plein air artist) it is best to go ahead and spend a few weeks hunting down every stereotypical scene you can find and paint them. Find those great old scenes of eucalyptus and ocean. Prove to yourself that you are just like those old-timers, maybe even better. Get those images out of your system once and for all. Now, move on to explore your own original sensibilities.

“…explore your own original sensibilities.”

Second, you make the mistake of seeing something beautiful and, without really analyzing it, begin painting. This is perhaps most damaging mistake. Think closely about this right now. Yes, what you have chosen is beautiful. It’s a great tree or a bush or a field or a barn. There is no doubt about that. You could point out the scene to anyone and say “Look at that!”. They would agree. It is beautiful. It is beautiful, but will it be a beautiful composition that will translate into a successful painting? Or are there inherent problems with the composition that will only get worse when you attempt to paint it?

[bctt tweet=”Not everything should be painted…because not everything will make a good painting.” username=”zentemple”]

Face the facts, lots of things are beautiful out there. Not everything can be successfully painted unless, of course,  you are John Singer Sargent. And you are not John Singer Sargent, are you? More to the point, not everything should be painted and that is because not everything will make a good painting.

So what does this mean? It means that when you see something beautiful that you want to paint you must stop and move you mind into an analytical mode, a mode in which you can look without emotion to picture the final picture. If you want to paint this, you must ask yourself the questions on this checklist and you must be able to answer them…

Vetting the Scene

The scene you want to paint should be able to give you answers to the following questions.

  • What is the composition?
  • What makes this scene interesting?
  • What is the painting about?
  • What is the center of focus?
  • What is the format? Horizontal, vertical?
  • Is there anything that could be visually confusing?
  • Is there contrast? Color: warm cool; values: contrast; texture: soft, hard; depth: near, far?
  • What will I leave out and what will I enhance?
  • Where are the problem areas?
  • Will the viewer understand what I have painted?
  • Do I know how to paint everything in this scene?
  • Most importantly, do I see myself successfully painting this scene?

That last question is, by far, the most important. If you remember nothing else, remember to ask yourself this: “Do I see myself successfully painting this scene?”

If you’ve answered all of these questions and it still looks like a go, then begin. If not, then move on until you find a scene that can stand up to the questioning.

Your Tone of Choice

Toning the canvas means putting a very thin wash of color over the white canvas. The tone is also referred to as a “wash”. There are a few traditional tones to use but there are artists who do not tone at all, preferring to leave the white canvas as is. The choice of color is up to the artist. While not every artist chooses to tone, there are some good reasons to do so. Briefly…

Why Tone?
  1. Imparts an overall cast to the canvas
  2. Prevents white canvas from showing through the painting
  3. Provides a slightly “wet” base for you painting

A color wash, toning, gives the empty canvas an over all color. Say you want the painting to have a warm feel to it. Toning with a traditional burnt sienna lends a warm feel to the painting even if it is completely covered by the succeeding layer of paint because it tends to blend in enough to warm up the paint color. A brighter tone that is effective is yellow ochre. A burn umber wash gives a more neutral warm cast to the canvas. A neutral gray makes a good neutral ground, blending with any color laid over it.

“Whatever color you choose, keep in mind that it will peak through in different places.”

You can also choose to use multiple colors in the tone. For example, use a warmer tone in the foreground and a cooler tone in the middle space. Whatever color you choose, keep in mind that it will peak through in different places. This can be used to great effect. Some artists rely on the tone of the ground to show through, resulting in sparkles of light here and there over the painting. This is often quite beautiful.

Other than imparting an overall cast to the canvas and preventing white canvas from showing, toning adds a thin layer of medium which can be used for different effects. Too much medium and it will be difficult to paint the lean layer over it, so keep the tone wetness of the wash as dry as possible. Purposely using medium with more varnish in it can be used to develop a “stickiness” to the surface which is sometimes useful. A loaded brush dragged across a sticky layer can produce good texture effects. But, generally, keep your medium very dry so you can move on to the grisaille with ease.

Rule of Thirds

Now that the canvas is toned, divide the canvas horizontally and vertically into thirds. Using a dry brush and a dark tone such as pure burnt sienna or burnt umber, draw a line at each third horizontally and a line at each third vertically. You will now have a grid and four places where the lines cross. The so-called “rule of thirds” has come to mean that the main subject of the painting should not be centered on the canvas but should be placed to one side or another, up or down.

“Compositions are more interesting and more dynamic if off-centered. They have more life, drama, and interest. A centered subject will feel static and lifeless.”

Compositions are more interesting and more dynamic if off-centered. They have more life, drama, and interest. A centered subject will feel static and lifeless. It is simply a matter of how the brain perceives things. Two paintings of the same subject by the same artist will feel fundamentally different if one is painted using the rule of thirds. That painting will be chosen over the other, every time. So, looking at your scene, place your subject in one of these four intersections on the grid.

“Not every scene will fit neatly into this scheme…but always start with the rule of thirds and see if it works.”

Put your secondary subject in one of the other three intersections. Not every scene will fit neatly into this scheme of the rule of thirds, but always start with the rule of thirds and see if it works. Do that first. If you find that it is simply impossible to make it work then find another reason to place your subject off-centered. Perhaps the scene which holds the subject is more easily divided into four verticals. Choose the second or the third for your subject placement. Basically, you try to place your subject and secondary subjects off-centered within any grid that works. Thirds works best. Quarters can also work.

Sketch the Composition: the Brunaille

At this point, you will create a rough but accurate brunaille (broo-nay-uh) which is simply a sketch done in browns (assuming you’ve chosen a brown tone). This is a rough sketch but it must be an accurate one. This will be drawn in a sketchy manner but it needs to be true to the scene before you. Lines, angles, and relative spaces should reflect the scene accurately. So take your time to use a view finder, hold your brush to measure angles, and/or any other tricks you have to accurately capture the scene before you and to transfer it to the canvas.

“This is a rough sketch but it must be an accurate one. This will be drawn in a sketchy manner but it needs to be true to the scene before you.”

Sketch in the composition using light, dry-brushed lines of burnt umber or burnt sienna. Roughly fill in areas to indicate the darkest tone, the middle tone, and the lightest non-white tone. Keep your paint thin and dry during the brunaille because you are painting the earliest stages of the lean layer.

Capture the Values: the Grisaille

Now that the brunaille is completed it is time to tackle the values. The grisaille (gree-zah-yuh) is like painting a black and white picture of the scene. In fact, if you have your smart phone available, take a photo and, in the photo app, you can quickly remove the color to get a black and white version of the scene. This is not a bad practice because it gives you a quick look at the values. Still you need to determine the values for yourself. You need to know how to determine values by using some kind of value scale.

Mix up a few lines of grays. Start with a pile of white at the top and a pile of black (mix burnt umber and blue or premixed black) at the bottom. Between the white and the black, mix up at least three values of gray, ranging in value from white to black.

“If you get the values right, just about everything else can go wrong and it will still be a good painting.”

In other words, you have a palette with only black, white, and grays. You will thinly paint the grisaille with these or mixtures of these.
<blockquote”>Use your value scale to determine the value of each color in the composition and match it with the gray of the same value on your palette. Paint it in. Paint the entire composition in grays, matching values of colors with grays. Be meticulous in your matching. Be accurate. Take your time to get this right. Getting this right ensures that the next step will be a success. If you get the values right, just about everything else can go wrong and it will still be a good painting. You will know when you have finished the grisaille when it resembles a black and white photo.

Color. Finally!

Mix to the values. Remember, mix to the values. You have just finished the hardest work, building the foundation of your painting from the ground up. You did everything carefully. You got the wetness of the ground or tone just right, you placed your subject in a grid of thirds, you accurately drew the composition, and you matched all the values and put them into the grisaille. All of that hard work is the foundation.

Now, one more very important thing is the color. To get the color right you need to check two things:

  1. Use a color checker to determine the color
  2. Double-check the value of the color you mix against the grisaille value for that color
The Color Checker

To check color you’ve mixed against the color that is out there in the real world, you need a color checker. It can take many forms and the most effective form is a simple rectangle of white plastic. You can cut a rectangle from any white plastic bottle or food container that is thin enough to cut with scissors. I cut mine from the bottom of the container a block of tofu comes in.

Learn how to use your color checker. Make it your friend, give it a pet name, do anything to increase its importance in your mind and in your painting life. In other words, get it into your head that you should always check your color using your color checker. Here’s how…

  1. Look at the color in the scene that you want to mix.
  2. Mix up the color you think it is.
  3. Brush a swatch of it on the color checker right up to the edge so that when you hold the swatch up against the color in the scene you will see if they match.
  4. If it doesn’t match, wipe the checker clean.
  5. Mix again. Swatch again. Check again.
  6. Mix until the color on the color checker and the color in the world match.

Warning: it is crucial that the light falling on the color check is the same light falling on the scene. If not, then the color checker will not give an accurate reading. So this may require that you hold the plastic color checker at an angle.

Color by color, mix and match and paint your color right into the grisaille. When you have completed this color matching and painting, you may be tempted to call it finished. You could be wrong about that, though, because the next step is where your painting can really come alive.


Up to this point everything has been lean. All of your paint has been laid on the canvas thinly or even scrubbed into the grisaille below. Now comes the fat part of “fat over lean”.

Thicken the Matched Colors

Go back into the basic colors you just painted in and add some thicker strokes. You don’t need to completely repaint it, just add some thicker paint and brushstrokes throughout.

Warms and Cools

Mix warms and cools of the basic colors. A very well-known artist I know once told me that you should change your color every two inches. What he meant was that if, for example, you had a blue sky that went across your canvas you might mix warm and cool versions of that blue and add them to the existing blue here and there. This creates a vibrancy and adds a great deal of visual interest. You can keep it subtle and the brain still picks it up subliminally.

So look for opportunities to do that, adding warm and cool versions of all the colors you have matched and painted in already, including in the shadows and the highlights.


In another post, I’ve already spoken at length about creating delicious brushwork. At this point in your painting, you have the opportunity to work on your brushwork. The painting is essentially finished and, if you just don’t have anymore energy or time left, you could call it “done”. But if you have the time and energy, make your painting dazzle and sparkle with brushwork that satisfies the soul. Your painting ought to look great from across the room, of course, but when the viewer gets up close, you want to take their breath away and that, my dear artistic friend, would be what I call success.