The Basics of Painting


Painting is a visual art form in which patterns of lines, shapes, colours, tones, and textures are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light. Its elements combine into expressive patterns that can represent real or supernatural phenomena, interpret a narrative theme, or create wholly abstract visual relationships.

The basic elements of a painting are its support, pigments, binder, and solvent, together with the way they are applied. The pigments, which come in a wide range of earths and minerals, are mixed with water and gum or oil, sometimes with a plant extract, and poured onto the surface of the supporting medium. The binder holds the pigment in solution until it is ready to be dispersed, and the solvent controls the flow and application of the paint.

Throughout painting’s history, the supports evolved from rock faces to portable ones of paper, wood, and canvas, and the range of pigments expanded to embrace a vast range of earths and minerals, as well as plant extracts and modern synthetic colours. The invention of oil (linseed) paint in the fifteenth century in Europe was an important technological advance that changed painting and allowed it to take on more sweeping forms and subject matter than ever before.

Early cultures, primarily those of tribes, religions, guilds, and royal courts, controlled the craft and design of paintings and determined their function. Eventually, however, the notion of the “fine artist” developed in Asia and Renaissance Europe. The painter, a professional with the social status of a scholar and courtier, signed his works and decided their design and often their subject matter.

When a painting is created, the artist’s formal organization of the design elements–the shape, line, colour, and texture–is an essential element in its visual expressiveness. The formal interplay of these elements produces a sense of inevitability and a self-sufficiency that gives the work its presence on the wall. The composition and arrangement of these elements may be largely influenced by the artist’s representational or symbolic considerations, yet it is the formal interplay that creates optical sensations of volume, space, and movement and that creates forces of both harmony and tension.

The line is the most fundamental element of a painting’s design, but not all lines are created equal. The lines that frame images or convey axial directions in a painting are often called contours, while the lines implied by alignments of forms across the picture or by echoes and repetitions of shapes are often referred to as a linear design.

Color is the next most fundamental element of a painting’s formal structure, and it can be considered a separate area of study in itself. The colors that are created in a painting represent the tonal values of its surface. Each tonal value represents a degree of lightness or darkness on the surface, and they are typically represented by a series of shades.

The tone or value of a particular hue, or tone group, is determined by the relationship of that hue to white or black. It is a fundamental element of painting because, like the underlying tone of the background in a photograph, it can be used to establish the sense of depth in a painted image. It also animates the image by providing an indication of the direction of light and shadow.