How To Start Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged

You know what it’s like – you want to start oil painting and get your canvas and paints out. The excitement builds and fantasies about how fantastic it’s going to turn out from in your mind. It’s a glorious dream before the actual work begins.

How to start oil painting without getting discouraged

Then reality sets in. The dog throws up. A hangnail needs immediate attention. Ummm, how did this much laundry accumulate? TAXES. It’s one distraction after another. If you’re finding it hard to get started, you may be succumbing to resistance.

Fear not! Resistance Is Part Of The Creative Process

Whether you think of yourself as an artist or not, you are a creative being and go through the creative process on a daily basis. When you start oil painting, the process has a structure very much like storytelling; it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

How To Start Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged - The Lake progression

Progression of “The Lake”

For me, resistance usually likes to make an appearance in the middle, but sometimes it shows up at the beginning. To illustrate I’ll walk you through one of my oil paintings I did early last year.

Start Oil Painting Step 1 – The Beginning:

I had a lot of ideas for projects I wanted to work on last year. Typically when I start oil painting, I am very excited about the subject I’m going to paint. I create a vision in my mind for how I want it to look and then get going.

Procrastination Hack

Sometimes – for no apparent reason even though I’m really excited – I put things off. Being very familiar with my procrastinate-y ways, I’ve learned to sit myself down for a little talk which goes something like “Shelley, paint the ugliest painting you’ve ever done and then burn it in the fireplace.”

Silly? Perhaps. Usually, procrastination on a project is all about fear of failure. This is where resistance can start to take hold in the mind. Our brains are not as smart as we think they are – at least mine isn’t. If I tell myself to create something awful, another part of my brain kicks in that says “I can do better than that” and that’s all I need to begin. It’s a simple hack that works for me.

Here is the first stage of my painting, “The Lake”:

How To Start Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged - The lake step 1

In step 1, I get started blocking in the larger areas

This is a small 6″x6″ painting. I thought I’d whip through this puppy in an hour. WRONG. I was so very wrong. It didn’t take me long to block things in, but what I failed to realize was how difficult painting a figure at such a small scale would be. Getting the shadows correct on her back was a challenge. I also hadn’t anticipated how I would make the water look like water. How do people do that? I don’t know! At least I didn’t at this stage.

Freaking Out A Little

Usually what happens to me is I start to freak out after I get things roughed in. It just isn’t looking good and I can’t see any way I can improve it. Then I start thinking “I’m a huge failure”, “why did I think I could do this?” “I can’t paint anymore.” Then a horrible feeling starts to build in my stomach while anxiety is setting in.

This happens nearly every single time I paint. So once again, I have to give myself a little talk. “Shelley – seriously – this happens every time. Just keep going. Keep putting paint down and then take a break.”

All that is really happening is that there are a few minor problems that need to be fixed. It’s the fear of failing that sneaks in, takes over and clouds that fact. A big part of art is all about correcting problems and making adjustments along the way. Funny how I seem to always forget that.

Start Oil Painting Step 2 – The Middle

Once I push through my initial freak out, sometimes I start to hit a groove or get into a flow.

How To Start Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged - The Lake Stage 2

“The Lake” starting to come together

Adding more color to the boat seems to help calm me down. I like how the blues and the reds are playing off of each other. I’m even beginning to have a vision for how to handle the water.

That’s the thing with painting – you may not know how you’re going to solve a problem, but if you just keep going and keep an open mind sometimes the answers start to appear through the “fog”. It’s sort of like dreaming, but you’re awake.

Overthinking Things A Little

At this stage I still haven’t addressed the water because I got obsessed with getting the lights and shadows correct on her back. The area is only about an inch wide, so it was a huge pain. I was getting into my head a little too much and started over-painting a wee bit.

How To Start Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged - The Lake Stage 3

Hmmm, how do I paint water?

Anytime you are in the middle of a project, you’ll have small successes and failures. Sometimes you have bigger problems and need to step back and figure out a strategy for solving it. If you remain open and are aware of the emotions you’re feeling during the ups and downs, you may find answers you’d never thought of before.

Start Oil Painting Step 3 – The End Of The Painting Saga

I could mess around with a painting endlessly, but at some point, I get a feeling that it’s time to quit and get started with something else. After a couple of hours, I’ll come back to it with fresh eyes to see what I’ve missed and fix it or put a fork in it and call it “done”.

How To Start Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged - The Lake finished

“The Lake” finished

I could have gone in and refined everything on this wee painting, but I liked how it felt a little loose and “in the moment”, so I let it be. One of the things I like to achieve with my work is to have the painting look “real” from a distance, but very much like a painting up close.

Squinting my eyes helps to simplify shapes and also simulates observing from a distance. I also get up and back away from the canvas many times to make sure it’s reading right visually.

Allowing Resistance To Work For You When You Start Oil Painting

One of the things I’ve finally learned is that when I start to feel resistance it’s a sign that I need to address an underlying problem. That problem for me is usually fear of failure.

I heard one time that there are three basic things that people want in life. Success, happiness, and freedom. If you find resistance creeping in, ask which of these three things are being threatened from your perspective. Then list out as many ways as you can think of to overcome the issue, pick one and give it a try.

If your first try doesn’t work, then pick another. Life is a creative process and part of that process is doing things that don’t work so you can discover what does. Any time you get started on a project know that failure isn’t an option in the creative process, it a catalyst for creativity. Learning to be comfortable with failure is the only way to truly progress and grow as an artist and as a person.


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How To Get Started On An Oil Painting Without Getting Discouraged by Shelley Hanna