How to make a painting you love without knowing all the technical bits - because you don't need a degree or an in depth knowledge of art theory to make satisfying art

If you’re anything like me, you prefer the act of making art to pondering your way through the theory of it.

Now I’m not a fan of rules, but I am a fan of anything that supports what you’re trying to achieve, and since art theory can support us in making art we love, I’m all for it.

Up to a point. 😉

Many would say that it’s actually essential for understanding how to make a painting you love, that also works.

I’m inclined to think that just how much you need will depend on what your art is for; if it’s just for you it’s not going to have the same requirements as art for a gallery, for example.

I also find that we do often intuitively make good design decisions for our art even if we don’t know all the whys and hows.

Parts of it I do find quite interesting, but I’d still rather be getting paint on my fingers and immersing in the creative process than fiddling about in left brain thinking about where my focal point is and what exactly is going on with my range of values.

So can you make a painting you love with just a basic understanding of the theory?

I think you can.

You can certainly make art that looks and feels good TO YOU.

And the more you paint, the more you integrate the understanding of what makes a painting ‘work’.

I certainly don’t know all the theory, but I know enough that I don’t have to keep checking and referring to it while I’m painting.

That frees me up to paint expressively and use my feeling sense to develop the painting instead of making it into some kind of logical exercise.

Here are a few very simple basics that will stand you in good stead if, for example, you don’t have any formal art training or know much about theory, but are simply longing to make art you love.

I’m operating on the principle that knowing just enough to take a painting from three year old daubings to something that is interesting and lovely can take you really quite far.


A good composition can make a mediocre painting into a really interesting painting.

Bearing in mind we’re talking basic here, a good rule of thumb is to have multiple objects in odd numbers of differing sizes, and not to centralise anything too much.

Having things off centre and slightly wonky is generally much more interesting for the eye.

It’s not that you can’t centre a subject, just that off centre is an easier way to make the painting ‘work’ if you’re just starting out.

Here’s an example of the focal point being off centre. {You can see also how the angle of the boat draws the eye to the treeline in the distance.}:


Colour Palette

I may not be the best person to advise on this as my colour palettes are fairly erratic.

But since that makes me happy and I hear that it makes others happy too, let’s assume that you don’t need too much knowledge of colour theory to make a painting you love!

It’s a good idea to get familiar with warm and cool colours, but if that feels a bit beyond you right now, just pick colours you feel drawn to, and refer to the tonal range bit below.

Here’s a fun ‘reverse engineered’ palette from my painting ‘Jump’, made at Doing this with a few of your paintings can give you some insights into your own palette.

palette of 'jump'


This is your darks, mediums and lights.

The subtler the nuances the more difficult it is to achieve interest, so again, if this is a newish concept to you, try to make sure you have at least one dark, one mid tone and one light colour.

Personally I like to avoid black if possible; it’s not hard to make very rich and interesting darks by mixing other colours together. {Try Van Dyke Brown and Prussian Blue!}

Black can be very flat. Again, that’s not a rule, just a guideline for bringing more depth to your painting.

Here’s a painting that uses dark blues, mid tones of oranges/pinks/yellows, and white.

If you squint {one of my favourite tricks!}, you can instantly see the range of values and whether they’re placed in a way that pleases you or need some adjusting.



Related: Click here for a free sample video from my painting course Abstractify, using three values as a way to understand this concept experientially.

Light Source

I love this as an easy way to bring life to a painting.

Imagine a source of light shining from one side of the painting, and make sure you put your light colour{s} on any objects that would be touched by that.

If you’re working from a reference image there is likely already a light source to guide you.

In the most simple terms, make one side of objects light and the other dark.

Here’s an example of a painting I did using a very obvious light source – a window.

Glass Jar

Glass Jar

A few random tips

aqua-handI recommend not drawing lines around everything, especially if there’s no variation in width or pressure. Line is a wonderful and exciting tool; the more you experiment with what it can do the more interesting your work will be. Try using line for only part of an object, or painting over parts of lines you’ve already put in.

aqua-handDare to move away from the expected colours. If you’re going for a landscape, let the sky be green and the ground be layers of rich blues and pinks. The minute you let go of what it’s ‘supposed’ to look like, you can start to find out what YOU want it to look like. Furthermore, this approach helps to sidestep perfectionism; if you’re not trying to recreate a blue sky with white clouds, you can’t get it ‘wrong’. 🙂


Be suggestive! The beauty of painting is you don’t have to spell everything out to the viewer. In fact it’s far better to leave questions unanswered and allow the viewer to fill in the blanks themselves.

aqua-handUse ‘mistakes’ to your advantage! If you do something you hate, don’t jump to the conclusion that the painting is ruined, simply paint, gesso or collage over it. The overall outcome will be richer for it.

These are just a few simple ideas to bring more interest – and more ‘you’ – into your art, and to help you make a painting you love.

Even picking just one thing can make a lot of difference.

What little easy tricks do you use to make your paintings work? Do you think we need to know all the technical bits to make good art? I’d love to hear your perspective! I suspect not everyone will agree with mine. 😊

The Happy Artist Studio - a membership for artistsIf the concepts in this blog post have piqued your interest, you might like a course I created called Abstractify, all about embracing YOU and making art you love in YOUR way, especially if you’re looking to go more abstract.

We explore things like composition and tonal range as doorways through which you can express your own unique painting style; we talk about some theory in simple terms so you’ll have some tools from which to bounce into making your art your own. And there’s a lot of fun, guided experimenting!

You’ll find the course, alongside a full library of further art courses, a supportive community, focused topics and Q&As, and a foundational program for all artists, inside The Happy Artist Studio membership. Click here to find out more and join us!