Where to Start, Staining the Canvas, and Other Mediums

Welcome to the October 2022 training report. Last month (September 2022) Chontele and I hiked through Mount Tamborine in Queensland. The air was crisp, the greens were rich and luscious, and nature’s infinite detail was on full display. Below is a small painting I did based on a photo from that day. I’ll be referring to this painting frequently throughout this report.

Dan Scott, Mount Tamborine, 2022
Dan Scott, Mount Tamborine, 2022

Where to Start When Facing A Complex Scene

One of the most challenging parts of creating a painting is the very start. This is especially true for complex scenes. All the information can be overwhelming to even advanced artists.

Below is the reference photo I painted from. Look at all the colors, shadows, highlights, leaves, branches, twigs, rocks, etc. Where do you even start when trying to paint this?

Dan Scott, Mt Tamborine, Reference Photo
Mount Tamborine, Queensland

Below are a few broad suggestions on how to get started when you’re faced with a complex scene like this.

(1) Make one true stroke.

I’m currently making my way through a documentary about the writer Ernst Hemingway. He wrote in a way that I strive to paint: simple, strong, and interesting. In Episode 1, he shares some wise words on how to start:

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would stand and look over the roofs of Paris and think, do not worry, you have already written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally, I would write one true sentence and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

Hemingway, Episode 1

These words run true for artists as they do writers. The only difference is, we need to make one true stroke or mark on the surface rather than write one true sentence.

Once you make one true stroke, the next will reveal itself. Before you know it, you’re in the midst of the painting.

The actual stroke does not matter all that much. Its role is more so to build momentum and confidence than to convey important information in your painting. But aim to make it true. Get the color and value and nature of the stroke as right as possible.

(2) Stain the canvas.

If I’m unsure how to go about a painting, I typically default to staining the canvas with a thin wash of color. That’s what I did for my Mount Tamborine painting. At the very least, this warmed up my hands and gave me a chance to feel out the composition without committing to any particular direction. It also provides several other benefits that I’ll discuss in the next section.

(3) Simplify!

It’s important to simplify regardless of the direction and strategy you end up taking. Tune out the noise as best you can and simplify the scene down to the most basic elements. What would the scene look like if you could only see basic colors and shapes? Once you see the subject in this simplified form, painting it becomes much easier.

Tip: Squint at the subject to tune out the noise and to see the basic value masses (lights and darks). To squint properly, pretend you’re outside under the midday sun without sunglasses. The subject should appear slightly hazy and vague.

Strategically Staining the Canvas

(Note: Staining the canvas is typically an oil painting technique, but you could use it with most other wet mediums. The main consideration is for watercolor or gouache painters—you typically need to preserve the white of the surface for your highlights, so staining should be used more sparingly.)

As mentioned in the prior section, I started my Mount Tamborine painting with a stain of rich color, roughly mapping out the overall composition. It might not look like much, but this stained surface played an important role in the overall painting process. Here are some of the key benefits:

  • It set the stage for the darks. Painting onto an already dark surface makes it easier to hit those deep darks. This is particularly important when using partially transparent paints like alizarin crimson.
  • The blues synergize well with the greens and yellows to come. Remember, blue + yellow = green.
  • It allowed me to warm up my hands and feel out the composition without committing to any particular direction.
  • It killed the white surface, providing a more balanced playing field to paint on. It can be difficult to accurately judge your colors when painting directly onto a white surface. White tends to make colors appear darker than they really are.
  • It gave me the option to leave parts of the stained surface exposed in the finished painting. This creates depth and promotes efficiency.

You don’t always need to stain the canvas. I often prefer to paint directly on the white surface. But it can be an effective strategy. The two main considerations are:

  • What color(s) to use? My default colors are earth colors like raw umber, burnt sienna, or yellow ochre. These provide a versatile surface to paint on. You could also choose colors that play into the overall color theme of the painting. That’s what I did in my Mount Tamborine painting. This is a more advanced strategy. If you’re a beginner, stick with an earth color.
  • Will you wait for the stained surface to dry or paint wet on wet? By default, I wait for the surface to dry. The main exception is when I want the colors to mix and create a dynamic color display on the surface. My Brisbane City, Mist painting is a good example of this. You can see the painting plus some progress shots below. I used rich blue for the stain and worked over the top wet on wet. This produced interesting color mixtures on the surface. It also gave me the option of making my colors darker and cooler by working them into the stained surface (as the color on my brush would mix with the blue paint already on the surface).
Dan Scott, Brisbane City, Mist, 2022
Dan Scott, Brisbane City, Mist, 2022

Tip: Don’t use too much paint when staining the surface. I find the surface becomes less responsive the more it’s loaded with paint.

A Note on Other Mediums

I paint in oils but I understand many of you primarily use watercolors, acrylics, gouache, pastel, pencil, or some other medium. The following is advice on how you can take what you learn from me and apply it to these other mediums.

Firstly, most of what I write about relates to the time-tested fundamentals of art. Things like value, color, composition, edge, etc. This knowledge can be applied broadly across almost any artistic medium. For example, being able to capture accurate value relationships (lights in relation to darks) applies whether you’re drawing in charcoal or painting in oils or watercolors.

There are two main differentiators between the mediums:

(1) The techniques and manner in which you make marks on the surface; and

(2) The strengths and limitations within which you must work.

The techniques are best learned through experience. There’s no compromise for this. You must be familiar with your chosen medium as you are with your own hands. You must know how the medium will move and interact with your brush and what the likely outcome will be from your strokes. This is where most of the challenge lies in starting a new medium and it’s why all great artists pick a medium to focus on. If you try to master everything, you’ll spread yourself too thin.

As for the strengths and limitations of your chosen medium, it’s essential that you learn and understand them. They set the rules within which you must work. They also provide that some mediums will suit you better than others based on your own preferences and characteristics. For example, if you prefer working wet on wet, it would be foolish to choose acrylics over oils.

Below is a quick summary of the strengths and limitations of the primary mediums.


Dan Scott, Maryvale, Cows, 2022
Dan Scott, Maryvale, Cows, 2022

Strengths: Thick, impasto paint; versatile techniques; slow drying time (good for working alla prima); rich colors.

Limitations: Paint can crack if you work lean over fat; messy; colors can change over time; toxic.


Edward Theodore Compton, A View From the Val Roseg to La Sella, La Muongia and IL Chapütchin
Edward Theodore Compton, A View From the Val Roseg to La Sella

Strengths: Vast range of techniques; thin washes for ambient spaces; intricate detailing.

Limitations: Weak colors compared to oils; prone to unrecoverable mistakes; difficult to master; unpredictable; not as archival as oils; dry fast.


Dan Scott, Childhood Painting (3)
Dan Scott, Childhood Painting

Strengths: Can work with thick paint or thin washes; the fast drying time means you can quickly build up layer upon layer of scumbled color; beginner friendly.

Limitations: Limited range of techniques; dry fast; may be perceived as having less commercial value than the other mediums, as it’s often used by beginners and not so much by professional artists; colors can change as the paint dries.


Mary Cassatt, Portrait of the Artist, 1878
Mary Cassatt, Portrait of the Artist, 1878

Strengths: Wide range of techniques; the colors are richer and more opaque than watercolors.

Limitations: Similar to watercolors.


Claude Monet, Bank of the Seine, c.1869
Claude Monet, Bank of the Seine, c.1869

Strengths: Broken color; painterly appearance; bright, clean colors.

Limitations: Struggles with intricate drawing and rendering; cannot easily create solid blocks of color; dry medium; colors can lack richness; not as archival as oils.


Dan Scott, Sketchbook, Studies Based on Steve Huston’s Drawings in Figure Drawing for Artists

Strengths: Can draw in a painterly style; diverse range of drawing techniques; rendering and detailing.

Limitations: No color; prone to smudging; dry medium.


Adolph Menzel, Head of a Bearded Man, 1884
Adolph Menzel, Head of a Bearded Man, 1884

Strengths: Crisp strokes; rendering and detailing; easier to fix mistakes compared to charcoal.

Limitations: Not as versatile as charcoal; no color; prone to smudging (though less than charcoal); dry medium.

Finally on this matter, I encourage you to experiment with different mediums. This will help you become a broad and well-rounded artist. You’ll find that different mediums will teach you different lessons on art and that they complement each other. But focus on mastering one.

How I’d Paint This in Other Mediums

Let’s go back to the reference photo from earlier.

Dan Scott, Mt Tamborine, Reference Photo

I painted this scene in oils, but how would my approach change if I were to use a different medium? Unfortunately, I don’t have time to re-create the artwork in each of the different mediums, but if I did, here’s what I would do:

Watercolors and Gouache: Thin washes with dark and saturated accents. Keep the white paper exposed for the brightest highlights (the leaves and perhaps parts of the sky). Use a tiny round brush to detail some of the key branches around the top, particularly where there is high contrast (dark branches against a light background).

Acrylics: Build up layers of distinct color, working wet on dry. The paint dries fast, so my strategy would have to play into this. The outcome will be similar to that of oils, but the way I get there will be different.

Pastel: Similar approach to oils but with a dry medium. Focus on broken color, making small marks of distinct color that come together as one. Simplify into basic color shapes where possible.

Charcoal and Graphite: Focus on value (light and dark) and detail. I would spend most of my effort on the light areas and would use broad shading to simplify the shadows. The white paper would be reserved for the brightest lights and parts of the sky. A few dark, sharp accents would be used to create interest in the shadows.

A Good Frame Can Transform an Artwork

I have been getting some of my paintings framed over the last three months. I’ll put out a detailed guide on framing your work shortly, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at how the paintings turned out and what the experience has been like.

Dan Scott, Framing (2)
Dan Scott, Framing (3)

These are the first paintings I have personally arranged to be framed. My parents had one or two framed for sentimental value, but that’s it. I’ve always preferred to keep on painting than to worry about all the other aspects of the art life like framing. Framing is also rather costly and we artists aren’t known for being flush with cash.

It was Chontele who prompted me to start framing a few of my good paintings. I’m sure glad she did! The frames have transformed the paintings and injected them with richness and life.

Until recently, they have been hidden away in spare rooms and under the staircase, gathering dust and slowly but surely accumulating in number. This is a fate most of these paintings don’t deserve given the time and effort that goes into creating them.

We have been using Masons Framers in Wynnum, Queensland, Australia. Their service has been excellent, to say the least. We’ve only been there a handful of times but we already have a smooth process going. They know what we want and we know what they can do. Every now and then, we will drop a few paintings off, they will recommend frames, we decide, and then wait a few weeks for them to fulfill the work. Simple. Of course, I wouldn’t get every painting framed. Only the best and most sentimental ones.

My recommendation to you:

  • Find a good local framer. Ask your artist friends about who they use and recommend. Failing that, ask your local art supply store. I’m sure they will know a good framer.
  • If funds permit, get one or two of your favorite paintings framed and hang them in a prominent position in your home.
  • Build a relationship with your framer. They will be a helpful resource. Many framers have been in the industry for decades and may be able to answer any questions you have about archiving, hanging, framing, or your materials.

What I’m Painting Next

Let’s try something new with this report. If it works, it might be a regular section.

I’ll share what I plan on painting next. If you have time, paint it yourself. If you send us a photo of your work by the 25th of this month, we can feature it in the next report along with my work. It will be interesting to see all the different interpretations of the same subject.

Below is the reference photo I plan on painting. It depicts the backyard of my parents’ home (and my childhood home). Click here to see the full-sized version.

Dan Scott, Reference Photo, Parent's Garden
Dan Scott, Reference Photo, Parents’ Garden

Below are some key points and pitfalls that you might want to consider:

  • The white flowers on the right-hand side will be a challenge in terms of getting the colors right. They are mostly in shadow and appear lighter than they really are.
  • The play between light and shadow is a key feature.
  • The colors need to appear rich and clean.
  • It’s a complex scene with many parts. Simplification will be important.
  • There’s a contrast between nature and the rigid, geometric structures like the house and fence.
  • Notice the wonderful colors of the neighboring house caused by reflected light. This will be tricky to get right, but it will really make the painting if you do.

Again, get a photo of your work to us by the 25th of this month for a chance to be featured in the next report. Email it to admin@drawpaintacademy.com. Please also let us know:

  1. Your overall thoughts on the painting. Are you happy with how it turned out? What areas do you think could be improved?
  2. What was your strategy for this painting?

If you don’t want your painting or comments published in the report, just let us know in your email.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott Signature

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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