My Materials & My Painting Process

Recently I got an email from someone who described herself as a "very novice" artist.  She was inquiring about how I work, my painting methods and my process.  It's great to be asked these questions because I love to teach others & share..  but it definitely takes time to explain and teach how I paint.  I've been studying and painting for nearly 30 years now, so it's hard to sum up everything in an email.  But maybe I can start by posting some blogs and maybe even some videos for others to learn (eventually). 

For someone just starting out, it’s great that you are learning to paint and it doesn’t matter when you started as long as you keep learning and practicing!   I’m always trying to learn new things, learning is fun – and it’s a journey.  It takes time and patience.  

There’s many good places to learn solid techniques.  And honestly I’m not sure I have all the answers – I just have my own way, which continues to evolve and change as I learn or experiment.  There’s really not one way to paint.   Here’s a quick breakdown on how I work:

My materials:

I like to use mostly M. Graham paints, they are high-quality & made in Oregon.  Perhaps there are better (& more expensive) paints out there but these have suited me fine.  I like the consistency of them, and the colors are good.

My color pallete is generally made up of earth tones - usually series 1 paints.  The series of paint (from 1-5) you should find printed on the tube of paint.  It refers to the "lightfastness" of the color.  In other words, under direct sunlight, how long will it take before that color begins to fade away?  Series 1 paints will retain their color intensity the longest.  Series 5 paints will fade more quickly over time. So, if you're concerned with the archival quality of your art, you should lean towards the lower series of colors anyway.  As an added bonus, these colors are generally less expensive, I suppose because most novice painters assume they need bright colors.  I don't necessarily choose them based on their series, I just happen to enjoy painting with them. I think if you are going for realism, particularly natural realism, it makes sense to select colors that are generally found in nature (such as earth tones).  Extremely bright colors - or colors with a high chroma value - are not typically seen in nature except for perhaps a sunrise / sunset / rainbow / fairy or unicorn kingdom / land of Oz, etc.

  • Raw Umber is my core dark, it’s an excellent cool dark & when mixed with white is a wonderful gray. 
  • Burnt & Raw Sienna (red and yellow) – that burnt sienna is about as red as you usually need – it’s great for flesh tones in people too.
  • Burnt umber (a warm dark)
  • Yellow ochre
  • Ultramarine blue  (mix with raw umber to get very dark – near black)
  • Sometimes a cobalt blue if needed, but it’s rare
  • White – (titanium white or Permalba)
  • Cadmium yellow (medium & sometimes a cad light)

That’s pretty much it..  Bruce H. Smith, one of my painting instructors at BYU who was very influencial to me got me into this pallete.  It’s great for painting portraits & painting from life, and I’ve found it to be excellent for nature scenes as well – unless you’re trying paint a sunset or something crazy like that, you would need more high-chroma colors of course.   But the advice he gave me was “paint with these colors for about 10 years, and really learn what they can do together, then you if you need others you can bring them in”.   I've found that to be excellent advice. 

I’ve tried various paint mediums – from linseed oil, to liquin.. currently using M Graham walnut alkyd medium – I like that.   Don’t use too much medium, just a little if you need the paints to flow better.   I just put a little bit into a small cup (or soda pop lid) and dip into it as I need it.


I work from photos generally, so learning to take good photos is helpful.   You have to have good reference materials with good details to start from.  I used to work from large photos, like 8x10  (because my paintings are big).   Now I’ve taken to just painting straight from the digital photo on my monitor – I don’t even print them anymore.  The colors on the monitor are great (if you have a decent computer), and you can zoom in & out for looking at details.   But that’s a recent development for me, I painted for years from printed photos.  I used to rig up a system where I would hang the photo down from the ceiling – down at my eye level so my eyes didn’t need to move far from photo to canvas.  Now I have a small macbook Air that I mount on a tripod and use the same way (iPad would probably be better). 

Sometimes I draw initially with vine charcoal onto the primed canvas, just working out the shapes.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of good drawing skills.. that’s foundation to painting.  It’s important to practice drawing a lot!  If you can’t draw well, you won’t be much of a realist painter. 

Sometimes I skip the charcoal and “draw” the shapes directly with raw umber & white – onto the canvas..  working out light / dark areas.  Don’t go too dark yet, just identify the areas that are in shade.  If you restrict yourself to RU and white, you can make all kinds of adjustments, moving things around..  paint thin at this point..

Once I have the drawing & composition worked out, I just go into painting.   As far as “how to paint rocks” or “how to paint water”.. there’s no magic formula.   I use pretty much the same technique on everything – from a rock under water to a person’s face:  I paint what I see.  Forget what the thing is, and what you think it should look like – look, and look carefully.  Paint what you see..  paint the shapes, paint the dark areas, then the light areas.  Initially it might look weird, or totally wrong – but stay with it. It’s a process of careful analysis.  Break down hard & complex things into smaller & easier things.

I hope that helps a little bit – maybe I should make a video or do some more instruction blogs.

Here’s another good resource:

Also it might be smart to find some artists you like and sign up for weekend workshops – a lot of artists are doing that these days.. and you can often learn from the very best!   I recently took one myself from David Kassan.   I’ve taken David Gray’s workshop before too.   But I would learn from lots of people, that’s probably the best way.   Rather than taking a college course – where you get one perspective, start finding art workshops from various well-known artists that you love.   You can sit in a small group & paint & learn for a few days.