Painting Prep

November 2, 2007 at 2:55 pm 7 comments

Everyone knows what goes into creating a painting, right? Canvas, some paint, brushes, a palette, an easel… Whoa, hold your horses! A LOT has to happen before stepping up to the easel!

Here’s what I do to prep for painting.

Barbara J Carter’s files of reference photos

Since my painting focuses on the landscape, my first step is taking photos… LOTS of photos!

Taking my own reference photos is important to me. It means that the entire creative process, from beginning to end, is entirely mine. And it means that I’m not using someone else’s copyrighted image (which is illegal as well as unethical). If you’re just painting for yourself, it’s fine to use a picture from a magazine or the web. But as soon as you start selling your work, it becomes illegal to use someone else’s photography as the basis for your art (unless you get permission). So, I take all my own reference photos.

That means going where the scenery is photo-worthy. Although I have used photos taken while walking my dog around my neighborhood, usually the best photos come from further afield. I’ve had several opportunities to drive all around California this past year. I diligently took lots of photos everywhere I went. The best light is when the sun is low in the sky, casting wonderful shadows across the hills.

If you ever see a car pulled over on the side of a highway and a woman holding a digital camera over her head, it’s not a crazy person, it’s just me taking reference photos! (I like to hold the camera high to focus on the hills and avoid foreground clutter like fences and cars.)

Next comes the digital processing. This includes storing the photos so I can find them again, and sorting through them to find the ones that look promising. Each photo requires a lot of editing. Photoshop is the big-name photo editing program, but I use Paint Shop Pro, which does pretty well for me. I edit out annoying or unimportant stuff (like telephone wires, fences, signs, and in one case a hillside full of windmills!). I crop the image to create an interesting composition. I tweak the colors and the contrast to bring out the details I want to emphasize. And then I print it out. One raw photo can yield up to 10 different reference images (different crops and different sizes for different canvas sizes). Each is the correct proportions for a particular size of canvas that I use. I call these printouts “thumbnails”.

Many photos never see the light of day, while others can yield multiple usable thumbnails. Out of thousands of raw photos, maybe about 30% generate thumbnails. And then, of all those thumbnails, I end up painting only a tiny fraction. It’s a very rigorous process, and one I’m constantly refining. For example, I’m now keeping much better track of where each photo was taken, so I can use the location in the paintings’ titles.

When I want to begin a new painting, I pull out my files of thumbnails and riffle through them. I’ll pull a handful that strike me as interesting, and eventually select the one I want to paint. I leave the other finalists on the top of the stack so next time I’ll see them first.

(Actually, I usually select 2 to 4 thumbnails to paint from. I like to work on several paintings at the same time. But for the sake of the story we’ll focus on just one.)

Now, at last, I can start prepping the canvas. Finally we’re actually painting!

The whole canvas is first toned with my background color, red. For my California landscape paintings, I usually use cadmium red. This toning process takes several days because I paint not just the front surface but all 4 sides as well. It usually takes more than one layer to get the color really solid. Since the canvas has to rest on one of the edges, I can only paint a couple of sides at a time before I have to set it aside to dry. It’s best to let it dry overnight, so the process takes a few days. The result is a nice solid-red canvas, on the front and the sides.

Now, thumbnail in hand, I can begin actually painting the image. That’s the topic of my previous post.

That’s a lot of prep work for one painting, isn’t it? Hey, no one said this was easy!


Entry filed under: Acrylic, Painting, Process.

A Painting’s Progress The Parable of the Pottery Class


  • 1. A Painting’s Progress « Barbara J Carter  |  November 2, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    […] I’m skipping a lot of preparatory steps… I’ll blog about them next time! […]

  • 2. scaryreasoner  |  November 2, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    “And it means that I’m not using someone else’s copyrighted image (which is illegal as well as unethical)”

    It’s only illegal and unethical if you don’t get permission from the copyright holder.

    I’ve found most flickr photographers, for example, are more than happy to have some random stranger make a painting from one of their photos, if you just ask nicely.

  • 3. scaryreasoner  |  November 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Ah, I see you mentioned getting permission a couple lines down… *nevermind* 😀

    Ever tried plein air?

    I guess, in California, with low humidity, and acrylics, forget it. In Texas, (Houston, more specifically, it’s a rather big state) with the humidity we’ve got, it’s possible with acrylics — although the scenery leaves something to be desired if you’re into the traditional scenic landscapes. It’s pretty awesome to go out someplace, paint for a couple hours, and come back with a completed, dry painting. Though, with plein air, you’ve got to be on top of your game, and sometimes you strike out. The first time out is usually an eye opener. Fun though.

  • 4. barbarajcarter  |  November 5, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for the comments!

    I’m no plein air painter, that’s for sure. For one thing, I like to take my time on a painting. And my style is very layered, which involves lots of drying time between layers.

    Anyway, plein air painting is so popular here, there’s no way I was going to follow that trend! I have nothing but admiration for people who do it well. It’s just not my thing.


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Barbara J Carter

I'm an artist. I make paintings with dots.

I work in acrylic paint, in a couple of distinct styles: landscapes and abstracts.

Native to California, I've lived elsewhere and only recently returned to my home state. I now live in Los Angeles.

I mostly show my art in outdoor festivals in California. I also occasionally show my work in art galleries or open studio events. You can see an up-to-date list of upcoming shows on my website (click here).

I invite you to sign up to receive my free email newsletter, in which I list my upcoming shows and talk about my latest work. I send it irregularly, a few times a year.

My links

My paintings

Follow me on Twitter: @barbarajcarter

Why I call my landscapes neo-Pointillist landscape paintings

A bunch of my abstract dot paintings

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Click here to receive my free email newsletter for up-to-date info on my shows, my art, and anything else that I'm up to. I send it out irregularly, a few times a year.

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