Planning Your Paintings

Planning your paintings offers many benefits in the creative process, though planning your work is by all means not necessary to produce a meaningful, valuable piece. In this article, I will explore techniques for planning your paintings. And on the contrary, discuss how not planning, that is, improvisational painting has its place in the artist’s experience.

To plan, or not to Plan… That is the [Painter’s] Question…

Consider the Intention of Your Painting

Perhaps the easiest place to decide whether or not to plan your work is to consider the intention of your painting. The intention of your painting will direct your next steps after setting out your supplies and playtential space.

Consider the end goal or idea if you have one. Are you preparing a painting for a gift or commission project? Do you have a specific idea, image, or composition in mind? And if so, might this design require specific measurements, techniques, painting or artistic styles, design elements beyond your free-handed skills? Painters, new and experienced, will incorporate this initial step in their planning process, considering the intention behind the project.

Rough Drafts Build Confidence

Try planning your paintings by making rough drafts to build confidence. A rough draft acts to establish a skeleton or malleable agenda for your painting. If you are drawn to starting a painting with the specific subject matter in mind, for instance, a portrait or landscape piece, it follows to consider preparing a reference or sketching on the canvas first. Rough drafts build confidence in artists of all levels, providing basic structure before ink or paint stain the canvas.

Like in writing, a rough draft of any piece of art serves to ease the artist’s creative experience. Sketching with a pencil offers the most flexibility, emphasizing light pressure and small strokes on the canvas to ease erasability. Depending on how stylized you intend the painting to be, you may start free-handed without using tools in your sketching. For more precise compositions, such as realism, depicting depth perception, proportion, and architectural design, using rulers, compasses, and other household items may enhance the rough draft.

Unfinished abstract painting, demonstrating mixed usage of tools and freehand (2021)

Referencing photos, objects, or scenes in front of you empowers painters to reference back on the subject matter as they sketch routinely. Preparing your rough draft with careful reference to photos or subjects in front of you, as I practiced in this landscape sketch below, builds confidence before setting paint down.

Sketch of camping scenery (2020)

The following artwork began as a lightly pencil-drawn sketch of a different camping scene. I took my time, using small pencil strokes, switching my gaze up to take in the scenery before returning to sketching the image. I then added color (in this example, pencil crayon) and elaborated beyond realism with floral designs seen on the right.

Example of another planned artwork, first in pencil then added creative abstraction with colour (2020)

Check out this article from ArtStudioLife for specific tutorials on using a rough draft to build confidence in planning your painting.

Consider your Skill Set

Whether or not you plan your paintings also requires a self-assessment of one’s painting skill set. Consider your skill set in delivering the style you want for the painting project on hand. Planning your paintings based on your skill set in designing, executing, and evaluating your aspired goal in mind actually empowers you more than beats you down in confidence.

If you have little to no formal training, it may serve you to evaluate the intention behind your anticipated piece. Does the composition of this painting require precision, perhaps with the assistance of tools or tutorials, to achieve the quality of design you are after? If you have never painted a realistic portrait before, free-handing without proportion training and measurements is far-fetched for a first-timer.

Boost your skillset with the perks of “Youtube University,” local art classes and workshops, and get practicing! The more you create and exercise the skills and techniques you want to have, you will elicit satisfying paintings!

Blank Slate: Endless Opportunities

Now let’s flip the page and think about why a painter may not wish to plan their paintings. A blank canvas or surface is like starting with a blank slate—the blank slate: endless opportunities for expression and exploration. No matter what your goal or idea of the project may be, or your skill set using materials and techniques, a blank slate offers little restriction or expectation. Just put brush to canvas and paint away, exploring your playtential with improvisational painting.

Emotional Experiences

One common response when facing endless opportunities is the bubbling up of emotional experiences, often paralyzing angst, confronting the blank page or canvas awaiting your mark. Especially in less experienced painters, discovering and knowing what to do, how to start the painting to feel satisfied with your painting experience. I recommend checking out some earlier articles that support painters in this experience, such as “Oh Dear, Where to Start?” or check out painting prompts #1 and #2.

In fact, emotional experiences are fantastic starting points for igniting the creative process. The blank slate of your unmarked canvas can offer solace for expressing this angst or feelings such as fear, insecurity, anticipation, etc. Art Therapy often begins by cultivating presence and evoking self-awareness of one’s emotional wellbeing. Then inviting playful, judgment-free expression of one’s inner world through artistic tools. Hence, the endless opportunities laid before you on this canvas may feel more like a friend than a foe, an open, boundless place to appreciate rather than to fear.

See in the following example a blank slate canvas I turned into explorative expressive art:

Expressive art without planning (2019)

You are the Answer

To plan, or not to plan – that is the [painter’s] question. And you are the answer! Take charge of your painting process, and try both approaches to see what suits your intentions and skillsets. You are empowered as the sole creative force behind your creative process, from start to finish. You are the answer, for no one else is the proprietor of your work.

I am passionate about making the best of life through cherishing relationships, exploring worldly experiences, and cultivating a creative lifestyle of art, music, dance, and fitness. I am a self-taught painter, inspired by the sublimity of nature, consciousness, love and universal transcendence that binds all of humanity and nature, together.


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