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From Wassily Kandinsky and Andrew Wyeth to Rene Magritte and Mary Cassatt, the world has always been fascinated by painters and the work that they create.
Painting is one of the oldest art forms. And over the years, it’s continually evolved while still holding true to many of the primary principles that make it such an impressive means of artistic expression. Today’s painters march to the beat of their own drum while also pulling on lessons learned from major art movements of years (and millennia) past, and no matter our skill level, all of us have the ability to put brush to canvas and create something beautiful.
So where do you even begin when you want to learn about painting? It’s a hefty topic, but we’re covering all of the basics in this short guide, including the history of painting and the artists behind famous painting works, as well as the elements of the craft and how you can get started.
Long before artists were painting canvas, they were painting rocks. One of the world’s earliest paintings, located just this year in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, dates back to at least 37,900 BCE, though researchers note that this is just a minimum estimate and it could be many years older.
Early paintings were largely centered around animals, likely due to their importance and significance to human survival. Portrait painting, or human depictions in general, came around later with the Ancient Egyptians.
As you might assume, anything that has been in existence for 45,000 years or so is bound to see some changes over time. Every century, era, and geographic region has its defining painting movements and techniques, and while it would be impossible to capture them all here, there are some that have been particularly integral to establishing modern painting ideas.
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Major Painting Movements
Painting—and all art, for that matter—is inherently tied to the context in which it is performed. The major movements throughout history tell a story not just about what type of art was trending at the time but about the ideals, hopes, challenges, and philosophies that shaped reality in the moment.
Here are just a few of the modern movements that have gotten us to where we are today.
Baroque art, such as that created by Francisco Goya, dominated European paintings and architecture throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Defining features include rich colors and dramatic scenes, with highly detailed works that in some cases took many years to complete.
Impressionism originated in France in the late 1800s and is largely associated with artists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. One of its main defining features is its small yet visible brush strokes, used with the intent to depict real life with just a touch of unreality.
Shown above, “The Scream,” painted by Edvard Munch, is an excellent representation of expressionist painting, which overtook Germany and Austria in the early decades of the 1900s. This movement shied away from the realistic depictions in favor of oversized feelings and distortions, often resulting in somewhat unsettling works.
It’s painting with a twist. Symbolistic paintings like this famous work from Gustav Klimt became highly popular in European countries in the second half of the 19th century. The goal of Klimt and other symbolists was to depict emotions and ideas as much as real life, putting a critical spin on the increasing materialism of the times.
When you think of famous painters, who are the first names that come to mind? Stuart Semple? Frida Kahlo? Francisco Goya? Giotto? There are as many famous painters as there are famous painting techniques, and each brought their own unique style and point of view to their work.
Much like major movements, it would be impossible to even brush the surface of all famous painters in one article, but here are several that you might (or might not) be familiar with.
A Russian painter who is widely credited as the creator of abstract art, Kandinsky believed that realistic representations were a hindrance to true artistic expression and instead relied heavily on shapes and colors to convey his views.
An American impressionist painter who largely focused on the relationships between women and children, Cassatt spent much of her life in France, where she was the close friend of another painter you may be familiar with: Edgar Degas.
Seurat is the creator of two renowned painting techniques: chromoluminarism and pointillism. The French painter is also well-known for his crayon drawings, though “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” remains his most celebrated work.
Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte gained fame for his thought-provoking, though somewhat odd, creations, each of which encapsulated the role of surrealism in putting an unexpected spin on otherwise representational art.
More modern famous artists, including Andrew Wyeth and Stuart Semple, have continued on the traditions of those who came before, all the while defining new ways of painting and depicting life in all its true (and not so true) colors.
Since its very creation, painting has been about more than just expression. Much like the written word, it has served as a way for humans to convey bold ideas and spur them into action. It has also served as a connecting lifeline between people, places, cultures, and philosophies, as well as between different periods of time.
Whether you’re into Gothic representations like those popularized by Giotto or contemporary digital painting techniques, being part of the painting world also makes you part of centuries upon centuries of tradition devoted to gaining a better understanding of the world around us—and conveying that world to others. It’s part of what makes painting so important on an individual level, but also why it’s remained so essential to humans throughout history.
We’ve talked about painting ideas, movements, and pioneers, but what about actual techniques? To get a better grasp of how paintings happen, it helps to start with their most basic elements: in this case, paint itself.
There are five standard types of paint used in art, and many artists specialize in just one variety:
A slow-drying paint that allows artists to work in glossy, dimensional layers. Famous oil painters include Vincent van Gogh, John William Waterhouse, and Childe Hassam.
A watercolor painting is made using a fast-drying, translucent paint made with binder and a colorful pigment. Some of the most famous watercolor painters include Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Girtin, and Fidelia Bridges.
A highly versatile type of paint with rich color saturation that can be used on a variety of canvas mediums. Artists like Paul Jenkins and Katharina Grosse specialize in using this durable paint.
A wax-based paint with strong color pigmentation that’s not quite as popular as the other types on this list—probably because it requires heat and special tools, versus a simple paintbrush. Famous encaustic painters include Karl Zerbe, Esther Geller, and Michele Ridolfi.
Gouache is similar to watercolors in that it requires water to activate, but it offers a much more reflective pigmentation and takes hours—instead of minutes—to dry. You can see it put to use in the work of artists like Harry Anderson and Eugène Galien-Laloue.
Whether it’s a portrait painting, a digital painting, or a watercolor painting, all paintings are made of the same elemental building blocks:
- Color: Used to depict objects but also certain moods and emotions. In addition to colors themselves, painters use saturation, intensity, and value to get across the meaning of their work.
- Shape: Shapes are everywhere, and painters have a unique ability to take those shapes and put them onto canvas. When you add dimension to shape, you get form—which is one of the major distinctions between paintings and sculptures.
- Line: Both real lines and implied lines are used in paintings to convey objects, movement, and other essential components of a piece.
- Value: Value, or tone, refers to how light or dark a painting is, with black representing the darkest value and white the lightest.
- Texture: Texture in painting can be something you can actually touch, such as the rough painted surface provided by oil paint, or something you see, such as a glossy or shiny surface. Line, color, shapes, and value are often used in pursuit of texture in some way.
- Space: Painters make strategic use of space in their art, including both positive space and negative space. How space is used can completely change the effect of a painting, though all great works manage to find just the right balance.
- Composition: This refers to the way a painting is arranged. Balance in composition is key, as is proportion, focus, contrast, and rhythm.
- Direction: This is both the layout of the painting (horizontal vs. vertical) as well as its perspective. Light and shadow play a big role in conveying direction and have a direct impact on how viewers perceive a piece.
Of course, it’s not just paintings that espouse these elements. You’ll find the same features in other types of visual art as well, including photography, sculpture, and drawing. Your ability to excel at these elements is instrumental to your ability to excel as an artist, and it is also the defining feature of what makes a successful painter.
Skillshare makes it easy to learn how to paint online. Whether you’re interested in traditional techniques or are looking to learn painting with a twist, here are some of our favorite painting classes to get you going.
Painting Classes on Skillshare
Pick up everything you need to paint online with some of these fantastic Skillshare classes.
Peggy Dean takes you through all of the basics of modern abstract expressionist paintings, including how to work with composition, color, and texture.
Follow along with instructor Sukrutha Jagirdhar as she uses picture-perfect sunsets as a backdrop to teaching the core techniques of watercolor painting.
Robert Joyner’s no-fuss approach to acrylic painting is a great introduction to the craft for beginners, with plenty of great tips and reminders for intermediate painters too.
In this creative class, Sushma Hegde shows how to capture the essence of real flowers in gouache, with tons of expert advice on color mixing and the use of gouache paint.
If portrait painting is your goal, then you’ll definitely want to check out Beth Gatza’s class on painting realistic portraits with acrylic paint.
Ashleigh Atmore’s class helps take the guesswork out of oil painting, with step-by-step instructions that go over supplies, mixing, textures, and more.
As you learn how to make your own paintings, why not pick up some of your favorite works as inspiration?
There are plenty of places to buy paintings, including affordable options for those of us who don’t have millions of dollars to drop at the nearest auction house. To begin building your collection, check out online stores like Artfinder, Zatista, and Saatchi Art. You can also help support independent artists through sites like Etsy and Society6.
Other great places to buy paintings include art fairs and festivals, galleries, and art museum gift shops. If you have modern artists who you love, check out their websites as well, since many of them make it easy to buy pieces or prints—or even to commission something that’s just for you.
A home filled with paintings is a home filled with love. If you’re passionate about this type of art, start stocking up and help support artists while also curating your space in a way that speaks to your artistic spirit—and the human soul.
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