There are different ways to create a painting, routes that take you from blank canvas or sheet of paper to finished painting. None is better or more correct than another, they’re merely different. It’s a question of trying each and seeing which you prefer, which may be a mixture of techniques..
1. Blocking In
This is my favourite way to paint. With a blocking-in approach, the whole of the canvas is painted or worked up simultaneously, every part of the painting is brought along at the same time, no bits are left behind for later. The starting point is deciding what the main shapes are in the painting and to paint these areas a colour (blocking in the composition). Then you gradually refine the shapes and colours, working your way towards detail and correct tones.
2. One Section at a Time
Some artists like to work on one section of a painting at a time, moving onto another part of the painting only when that section is finished. You might paint from one corner outwards, finishing a certain area of the canvas at a time or complete an individual element before moving onto the next. It’s used with all subjects, from landscapes to still life to portraits. It’s not something I often do, because I find the blank areas are distracting and influence my judgement of the colours and tones I’m applying.
3. Background Last
Start with the main subject, the details and foreground, then when this is finished, or almost finished, you paint the background in around this. If you’re uncertain about your brush control, this is probably not the approach to take as you’ll end up worrying about accidentally painting over something as you add the background. Watch out for having a background that goes around a subject, or not quite up to it, which will ruin a painting. I don’t like this approach as it treats a background as a separate thing to the rest of the painting, rather than integrated.
4. Background First
If you start with the background, you can get it done and don’t have to worry about it. There’s no concern either about having the background go behind the foreground elements as you’re literally painting those on top (even if you left white gaps where these would go, their edges will go over the top of the background). The danger is being so in love with what you’ve done that you’re resistant to changing it even if, as you add foreground elements, you realise it needs it.
5. Underpainting or Delayed Colour
This is an approach that requires patience as it involves first creating a monochrome version of the painting, then glazing colour over this. For it to work, you must use transparent colours, not opaque, for glazing, otherwise the form or definition created by light and dark tones of the underpainting will be lost. This approach has the advantage that you work out tones etc. without the distraction of colour. Depending on what you use for the underpainting, this approach is called different things: Grisaille = greys or browns. Verdaccio = green-greys. Imprimatura = transparent underpainting.
6. Detailed Drawing, Then Paint
Some painters do a careful, detailed drawing first, and only then reach for their paints. There is a strong argument to be made for the fact that if you can’t get the drawing right, your painting will never work. However, I think there’s a balance to be found between a drawing that guides you and one that constrains. You may find you like this degree of control, but don’t be afraid to paint outside the lines.
7. Alla Prima (All at Once)
Alla prima the term used when a the painting is finished in one session, working wet-on-wet instead of waiting for the paint to dry and building up colours by glazing. Quite how long a painting session lasts depends on the time that’s available to you. Limited time to complete the painting tends to encourage a looser style and decisiveness as well as the use of smaller canvases! Landscape painters working on location (plein air) are doing alla prima, but it applies to studio painting too.