Baking a Cake - OOPS, I mean - Creating a Painting!

You cannot ice a cake until: the recipe is selected, the ingredients gathered, the batter is mixed, the layers are baked - then you can put the icing on the cake!

So to create a wonderful painting: you must select your subject, place it on the canvas, block it in, give the subject form, then "finish" it with strong shadows and highlights.

Make notes as you work.  Keep track of: the subject and where you selected it from, the colors you chose, the steps you took...  These notes will help you when you work on a project over a long period of time.  They will give you information for future projects, for example: if you mix a green you really like, you will be able to mix it again.  They will also give you a history of all of your paintings.  Save these recipes!

Paintings can be grouped into two main types:  landscape and still life.  With a landscape you are creating an image of an area.  The distance and sense of place are as important as the objects.  Still life paintings are focused on one or more objects: flowers, a group of things, even a portrait may be considered a still life.  The following information is broken down into the two groups when necessary - the steps are the same, but the way they are approached can be different, but you get the same results - a wonderful painting! 

Select Your Recipe:

Choose the image you wish to paint.  Modify your reference material as needed:

Your reference material can be a photo, a calendar page, an ad, an original drawing, a scene in front of you, or a combination of things.  Due to federal laws, you cannot reproduce a copyrighted image to sell.  For example, if you paint Mickey Mouse you can use it yourself or give it to someone, but you cannot sell the painting.  If you create a painting based on another painting and you are not beginning a career as a forger, you sign it with your name, but also give credit to the other artist.

Select your center of interest.  This will be your focal point - the main subject within your painting.  The rest of your painting will work to highlight or help the viewer focus in on your center of interest.  Try not to put your focal point in the center of your canvas - this is boring.  A better way is to separate your image into thirds, both vertically and horizontally.  Then use one of points where these four lines intercept to locate your focal point.  In a landscape never place your horizon halfway down your canvas.  Besides making your painting boring, it will also be unsettling to a viewer.

Determine where your light source is.  The best paintings have one source of light illuminating the subject.  Keep this source in mind while painting your highlights and shadows.  The farther the object is from the light source its highlights become less intense and the shadows become less dark.

Contrast is the difference between two things - color, texture, size ...  the more contrast a painting has, the more interesting it is.  The most intense contrast should be saved for the focal point - your center of interest. 

You should adjust the image size and/or proportion to fit properly on your canvas. 

You can change the colors - if the reference has pink flowers, you can paint them purple or yellow

or any color you wish.. 

Use the reference for the shapes, sizes, relationships, shadows and highlights.

Gather Your Ingredients:

Transfer your subject onto your canvas.  You can draw it freehand, trace the image, use a grid to copy the image, project an image - however you do it, just get the outline of the subject laid out, save the details until later.

Select the colors you will use and the paints needed to mix them.  Have your reference, canvas, paints, brushes, a pallet, a pallet knife, some medium, some odorless turp, and some rags handy.

Our eyes cannot see all of the colors of nature, but color film can pick up less then half of the colors that we can see.  To create a better painting, you need to exaggerate some of the colors you see in a photo.

As Easy as Baking a Cake

by Artist Jackie Stacharowski

©2008 - 2015

General Ideas to Keep in Mind While Painting:

Work hard, concentrate, breath and enjoy the process.  Have fun! 

Be comfortable when you paint.  Make sure you have enough light and room for your supplies.  You can sit or stand or turn your canvas around to reach tight and awkward areas. 

This is your painting - you can do it anyway you would like.

If you are working from a photo, remember: 

You are creating a painting based on a photograph -

not painting a photograph.

Start Mixing the Batter:

Block your painting in.  It's the same technique you use when using crayons in a coloring book.  Fill in the big spaces with the local color [local color - is the main color of an object:  the blue of the sky, the red apple, the gray stone, the brown soil, the green leaves, the yellow flower...]

Work from "top - down" and/or "away" to "near".  For example,  when painting a landscape top - down is usually the sky and then the distant objects first, then those in the foreground moving closer to you as you move down the canvas.  When painting a still life, paint the background first, then the objects farthest away (or less prominent) working to the objects closest to the front or center of interest.

As you fill in the colors, step back.  Make sure that you like the colors you have chosen when they are next to each other on the canvas.  Adjust any sizes or shapes.  You are only at the first stages of the painting process.  This is the easiest time to make most adjustments. 

Do this step carefully, but quickly.  Remember - this is only the first step - don't try to get the final look of the painting here.  This is your foundation to build the rest of the painting on.  It needs to be a strong foundation, but it isn't the finished house, or cake, or painting.

Let the painting dry before going onto the next step. 

HINT: It is a good idea to be working on a least two paintings at a time so you can work on one while the other is drying.  If you are using acrylics, the drying time doesn’t matter as much as long as the painting is dry before going on to the next step.  

Beating the Batter Into Shape - Creating the Guts of the Painting:

Add the details from your reference onto your canvas.  Work your subjects in the same order as you blocked them in, unless there was an awkward area - then make an adjustment.

Create three puddles of paint for each color you will be working on during this painting session: the middle value, the lighter value for highlights and a darker value for the shadow areas. Value is the term used to describe the relative degree of lightness or darkness of a color - pure white being the lightest value and pure black the darkest value.  By varying the degree of change between values of your color, you can control the illusion of shape of your subject.  For example:  when painting a blue object, if your use medium blue, white and black as your three values your object will appear very curved.  If you use a light blue, medium blue and darker blue your object will appear to have a gentle curve.

Begin by filling in the form of the object you are painting using the mid range color.  Then wipe your brush, pick up a little of the highlight value and place it along the edge of the object that faces the light source.  You can place it either by using a continuous stroke of the brush or by dabbing your brush along the area you are painting.

Wipe your brush, position it in the light value and drag it into the medium value paint.  Drag it in the direction that forms the shape of your object.  If your object is round, use a curving stroke, if flat - a straight stroke. 

To define the outline of an object or area, hold your brush so that you will drag the paint away from edge of your form, leaving some of the highlight unblended, this creates a hard edge.  You may need to hold the brush upright, or at an angle or sideways - whichever way allows you to pull the bristles away from the edge you are creating.

To just add a different area of color within a form or to define a more distant object, blend out the entire edge of the color you just used.  This creates a soft edge.

With practice you will be able to create both hard and soft edges of different degrees - very soft, soft, not quite soft, hard and very hard.

Use a combination of hard and soft edges within your painting.  Distant and less important objects should have softer edges.  Closer objects and your center of interest will have harder edges.

Then pick up your darkest value and repeat the process to create your shadows.  Again vary the edges so the closest and most important areas have the hardest edges.

Try not to overwork an area of your painting.  It is easier to blend something more later, you cannot unblend an area!  Wait for the next step to really push your shadows and highlights.  You need to have all areas of your painting to the same level of completeness before you can judge how intense to make your contrasts.


Sky - is deepest (or darker) at the top and gets much whiter (or lighter) at the horizon.  The greater the contrast, the "higher' the sky and the larger the sense of place will be within your painting.  From side to side the color of the sky should also change, but not as much. 

To create a sense of distance, objects farther away should be lighter, smaller and bluer then those closer to the front.  The bluer and less distinct an object is, the farther away it will appear.  By making these adjustments in more steps or smaller increments, the more distance will be created.  This is called aerial perspective.  The more air between you and an object, the more 'blue' things will appear.  This is one of the short comings of color photography, the film does not pick up as much blue as our eyes see.  To create a better painting, you need to exaggerate the blue of distant things.

To paint clumps of trees and/or bushes:  begin by using your medium value to cover the area of the clumps.  Then pick up some of your highlight value on a brush with firm bristles.  Dab the highlight area along the curved shape of your clumps that faces the light source.  Turn your brush in your hand and vary the pressure you use when dabbing.  This will create the top of your clumps.  Then pick up the darker value and dab to create the shadow areas of your clumps.  The shadow area will usually have a straighter line where the clump sits on the ground and a curved line where the clump faces away from the light source.  After all of your clumps are defined, take a very soft brush and gently sweep over your clumps.  Wipe your brush between sweeps.  The more distant (farther away) you want your clumps to appear, the more you should sweep.  This sweeping is done to minimize the brush strokes left on the painting.  The contrast between the amount of the sweeps in different areas of your painting will help to create the illusion of depth - less visible brush strokes in an area make it appear further back.  Leave more brush strokes in light, closer areas - the texture of the brush strokes will also catch the actual light in a room keeping and intensifying the illusion of brightness.

Large areas of a single color and value can be boring, to add pizzazz to your paintings, add other colors.  When painting in a large area of a landscape, such as grass, sand, and water...  first brush in your medium value, then add dabs of other, related colors and blend them in, then work on your highlights and shadows.  Take time to really look at a real lawn.  Notice how the shades of green vary, how there are areas of yellows, tans, browns and blues.  You can use these colors to add flavor to your painting or you can use others, just remember to add interest (especially in large areas).


Still Life Paintings

Your background is as important as your subject matter.  Think of it as creating a tablecloth before you set the table.  Remember where your light source is.  Backgrounds are usually lightest at the top of the canvas and gradually become darker towards the bottom.  They usually vary from side to side as well, the side nearest the light source is usually lightest, gradually becoming darker towards the other edge of the canvas.

Large areas of a single color and value can be boring, to add pizzazz to your paintings, add other colors.  When painting a large area or large quantity of something (such as leaves), vary the color:  first brush in your medium value, then add dabs of other, related colors and blend them in, then work on your highlights and shadows.  Take time to really look at a group of objects, such a display of granny smith apples in the grocery store.  Notice how the shades of green vary, how there are areas of yellows, tans, browns and blues.  You can use these colors to add flavor to your painting or you can use others, just remember to add interest (especially in large areas).

Vary the edges of  the objects within your painting.  Crisp, hard edges define the outline of an object.  Save your strongest edges and the most contrast of light and dark values for your center of interest.

After you blend to achieve the edge of your area, take a soft brush and gently sweep across the object.  Wipe your brush between sweeps.  This will 'erase' the brush strokes in the paint.  The less important objects should have less visible brush strokes then your center of interest.  Also, vary the amount of sweeping when working with contrasts in values.  This will help an object with hard edges appear shiny and sharp.  Softer edges and less contrast will help an object appear fuzzy or soft. 

Leave more brush strokes in light, closer areas - the texture of the brush strokes will catch the actual light in a room keeping and intensifying the illusion of brightness.

Icing the Cake - Putting on the Finishing Touches

Once you have all of your painting to the same level of completeness you will be able to finish it off with a flourish. 

Start with your shadows - are the shadows at your center of interest the most intense?  If not, make them the darkest.  Vary the shadows so the most distant or least important areas have the least intense shadows and gradually increase the intensity of the shadows so the strongest are at the center of interest. 

Now do the same review of your highlights.  The most distant or least important areas should have the least intense highlights and gradually increase the intensity of the highlights so the strongest are at the center of interest.

Your signature is an important part of your painting.  Choose an area where it can be seen without overshadowing your center of interest.  Choose a color that will stand out from the paint in that area:  if dark, use a lighter shade of the same color.  If it is light, use a darker color.

Choosing and Mixing Colors

There are books that cover only color theory and practice - I don't have the time to cover all of it here.  The best guide is to play with your paints.  Create a chart, so for each tube of paint that you have, paint a spot of the color right out of the tube, then mix in some white and add a spot, then mix in black and paint another spot. 

Then mix two colors together, right out of the tubes and then add the white and black and paint the three spots and label which colors they are.

In General:

The primary colors are:  red, blue and yellow.

The secondary colors are: purple, green and orange.

If these six colors are evenly placed in a circle, the complementary colors are opposite each other across the color wheel:  Complementary pairs:  Red and Green,  Blue and Orange,  Yellow and Purple 

To tone down a color (make it less intense) add a little of the complement.

To create the most contrast, use complementary pair of colors next to each other.

There is no such thing as an absolute color.  Each color comes in many variations. 

Colors that are considered warm are those that lean towards the reds and yellows.

Colors that are considered cool are those that lean towards blue and green.

A greenish blue is considered warm and a purplish blue is considered cool.  An orangey red is considered warm and purplish red is considered cool, etc.

For the cleanest mixes of paint, mix two warm or two cool colors together.  Mixing a warm and cool color can quickly create a muddy color.  Unless you are trying to create a color to paint mud, try to avoid muddy colors - they make a painting or an area boring.

Most colors out of a tube can have their value changed by adding white for a lighter value or adding black for a darker value.  There are exceptions.  The most prominent exceptions are red and yellow.  If you add white to red you get pink, not light red.  So you need to add orange or yellow to lighten red.  Or use the red out of the tube as your lightest value and different amounts of black to get a medium and dark value.  Yellow with black added together turns into green.  You can add brown to yellow to get a darker value, or use the yellow from the tube as your darkest value and add different amounts of white to achieve your medium and lightest value.

Earth colors are those pigments that are created from minerals in rock and soil.  These create the most naturalistic looking colors - good to use in landscapes or still life paintings of 'natural' objects (flowers, fruit, vegetables, trees, bushes...)   These include the umbers, the siennas, and the ochres.  When these earth colors are added to other tube colors, they make them appear more natural.

There is no ONE formula for mixing a color - play with the colors you have.  Although it is fun to buy new colors, it is best to learn the ones you have before adding more to your collection.


There is no wrong or right brush.  Play with your brushes and see what you can do with them.  In general, the stiffer the brush the stiffer your paint can be.  The smoother the paint you are using, the softer the brush can be.  The size and shape of the bristles and the handles vary greatly.  Different artists like the feel of different brushes.  Practice is the only way to determine what your favorites will be.

Clean the Kitchen

Take care of your tools and they will last a very long time.  Clean your brushes at the end of a session.  Reshape the bristles and lay the brushes flat to dry.  Keep your paints and mediums closed - wipe the excess paint from the tube, if the paint dries it can be very hard to open the tube.

Even concert musicians practice every day - the more you paint, the better you will become.  Each canvas does not have to be perfect.  Experiment - you can always paint over something you don't like.  But if you don't try something, you will never learn and grow as an artist.

All work is copyrighted and subject to Federal Copyright Laws.

All rights are retained by Jackie Stacharowski unless otherwise negotiated.

The viewer of this information understands and agrees that these concepts

are the property of Jackie Stacharowski and

may not be copied without the written agreement of the artist.

Keep these thoughts in mind as you paint from a photograph

and you will truly create a work of art.

Work hard and enjoy the process.  Have fun! 

Look Twice, Think Twice, Paint Once.

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