The Two Most Important Questions to Ask Before Painting

by Paint Tube 3 Minutes

The Two Most Important Questions to Ask Before Painting

by John MacDonald

While painting, there are a hundred questions we ask ourselves: Is this green too dark? Is this edge too hard? Does this tree look right? And so forth. These questions are best answered not by thinking, but by painting. We mix paint, brush it on, and see if it works. But there are two crucial questions we should ask ourselves every time we paint, before we paint, questions that require thinking and analysis:

  1. Why do I want to paint this scene?
  2. Is there enough in this scene to make a goodpainting?


Let’s look at both of these questions in detail.

Being a Tonalist at heart, I’m most attracted by a mood that conveys a sense of tranquility and stillness. Here, I was attracted to the quiet simplicity of the landscape– the undulating curves of the hills and distant blue hills sandwiched between a nearly featureless sky and ground. The eye is drawn through the silence to where distant hills meet the sky–a quiet focal point.


Why do I want to paint this scene?

The answer to this question reveals the message of the painting —its content, what it’s about. It not only gives us the focal point for the painting, it keeps us focused during the painting process, constantly reminding us of what is essential to the painting and, by extension, what isn’t.

In his 1910 book,Landscape Painting, Birge Harrison cautioned, “Don’t try to say two things on one canvas. Any motive that is worth painting must have a central point of interest. Concentrate on that and sacrifice everything else ... don’t put in a single unnecessary feature.”  Having a clear idea of the message of the painting will help us know what to keep, to simplify, to change, to omit, or to add to the painting.


Is there enough here to make a good painting? Given the message I want to convey, yes, I think so. The many horizontals are balanced by the vertical tree trunks. The negative shapes of the fields are varied. Despite the limited palette, there are subtle hints of warm and cool tones and there are opportunities to play hard forms against soft forms and large masses against small details. The values work and there is room for invention.


Is there enough in this scene to make a good painting?

This question is addressing the form of the painting rather than the content — not what you say with the painting but how you say it. This isn’t referring to technique — how you apply your brushstrokes, for instance — but to something more basic and important: how you structure the painting. A well-realized focal point with all the beautiful details in the world won’t work if there isn’t an abstract structure that holds the painting together — the composition and the value structure. 


My initial two paintings are based on the photo. In both cases, I was content to closely follow the forms and values in the photo. I zoomed in a little, changed the amount of detail and color contrast in the sky, and finished with a subtle foreground diagonal to lead the eye to the trees and hills.


In answering this question, we need to look at all the visual components of the scene and determine if they can be adequately translated into paint. We ask ourselves if there is adequate variety in shapes, values, color temperatures, edges, etc., and if all can be orchestrated into a painting that will work. By asking this question, we discover what the scene offers us and what it doesn’t, what we may need to change, delete, or invent.


For this and the study below are both based on a cropped section of the image. In both, I wanted to move away from the photo and be more inventive, to explore an extreme value contrast between a light sky and dark ground. I also wanted to minimize secondary value contrasts, allowing only some of the lighter values in the dark trees to provide the notes of greater value contrast. Wherever possible, I made color changes rather than value changes, preserving the simple value structure of the painting and giving it maximum color contrast.


Working through these two questions may seem too time-consuming, too analytical, and too chilling to the fires of inspiration. But without this initial work, the painting is much more likely to fail. And with practice, asking and answering them becomes much more intuitive and automatic. We eventually reach the point where we can look at a scene and quickly know what we want to say and how we can most effectively and beautifully say it.