8 Rules of Painting You SHOULDN’T Live By (and Why)

Published on Jul. 24th 2008


As much as some people would like to paint by specific formulas and rules, real painting doesn’t work like that. It’s more important to see what you’re painting than to follow the traditional rules of painting.

Here are 8 “rules” of painting that artists don’t always need to follow.

1. To make an object recede into the distance, use a cool color.

Here’s why this rule doesn’t always work: painting outdoors in the evening, I can often see the furthest objects—the distant mountains and even the sky behind the mountains—are both warmer than anything in the entire painting.

If you paint those mountains or sky with a cool color, your painting won’t look realistic.

2. You should paint distant objects thinly and close objects thickly.

Thick and thin is up to the artist, and both can work at any distance.

For instance, when painting a bank of trees, the patches of sky you see through the trees is very far away. . . but this sky can still be painted very thickly if you use the right color, value and temperature.

Thin or thick really does not matter. Sometimes the most distant object can be thicker than the objects in the foreground.

3. Always paint the foreground first, then objects farther away.

Absolutely false. Begin in the darkest dark, always! If the darkest dark is the furthest thing in the background, then that is where I start.

The reason you should start with your darks first is because light colors tend to cover dark colors more easily. If you start with light colors you’ll be using up a LOT of dark paint when you need to paint over them.

4. Yellow ochre is a cool color. Sap green is a warm color.

Everything in painting is relative. Surround yellow ochre with a blue and you’ll see that it’s warm compared to the blue. Put cad red around sap green and it will look cool.

The same comparison test can be done with any two colors—one will be warmer and one will be cooler at all times.

5. You can only mix 2 or 3 colors together at a time. Any more, you’ll get mud.

False. It simply depends on how you mix them. I often mix many colors together, adding just a touch here and there to make my color slightly warmer or colder.

There’s no magic number that you can’t exceed—the problem is when you mix two opposite colors together, like red and green, or blue and orange. THEN you get mud. (Read more about mixing colors.)

6. Start at the focal point.

Don’t focus too much on any one area of the painting, especially at the beginning. The entire painting should work together and be pleasing and harmonious, so try to build up all areas of the painting continually.

7. Never, ever put anything in the center of your composition.

Follow this rule ALL the time and you’ll be sorry. If you really want the viewer to see something, to really recognize it. . . put it in the middle!

This is a “rule” that can be broken if you want to make a point. Remember, you’re the painter—come up with your own composition!

8. Don’t use black.

Simply ridiculous. Black is just another color, and as such, there are always uses for it in painting. Mix another color with black if you feel like it’s too “run of the mill.”

To learn more, visit Don Sahli’s website at www.sahliartofpainting.com.

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