How do we get over the fear of the Great White? The big empty space? That white paper or white canvas that is staring at us, blinding us into submission and freezing us to the spot. Unable to move we have no idea how to get started. Where to put that brush mark. How to break the silence of the white weave. Will that first brush mark be the beginning of the end? The first step to disaster? Oh I can't face it, let's just go and do something else.
Sounds familiar? I often hear students don't know how to start a painting. The subject they are painting is so overwhelmingly difficult, they just freeze in fear.
But fear not, my dear painters!
There is an easy way out.
Watch this video for my suggestion on how to beat the great white canvas, or if you would rather not watch, read on below.
There are two ways to get rid of the vast white emptiness
1. You give the canvas a wash of colour.
Many painters start off with a thin layer of a mix of burnt umber and white, or raw sienna, or whatever colour. Just make sure it is a thin wash, mixed with solvent. If you don't want to use solvent you can scrub a thin layer of paint onto your canvas. If you keep your paint layer thin it will dry quickly and you can actually get started on your painting, which is the point of this exercise after all.
If you paint a thicker layer of paint you might have to wait a few days for it to dry. (btw, you can also work into the wet coloured layer and lift out areas of paint in order to set up your design, but that is a different method althogether). Once your wash is dry you have killed the 'Big White'. Congratulations. But you still need to start.....somewhere....on that canvas.....
2. Just dive in with your first mark
Another way to get rid of the empty white space is to just dive in. Grab a brush and make a mark. Go on.
With both ways you have to make a first mark at some stage. That first line, dab or splodge.
how to make that first mark?
But where do we put that brush? Surely it is not as random as I make it sound?
Well, it can be. I think it doesn't really matter an awful lot where you put those first marks, especially if you are trying to get over a 'white canvas phobia'. Just put some marks down. Make the white dirty. Kill the white. Do it.
Follow these steps to kill the white
But if you prefer a little more method in your madness then follow these steps:
Look for a simple Shape
Find the overall general simple shape of your object. My jug of flowers is a long tall rectangle. Your portrait model might be an oval. That still life might fit into a square. This very simplified shape will contain your subject (roughly). You will not end up with half the subject coming off the canvas because you put it on the canvas too high or too low. Your subject will fit inside your simple shape.
Find a Dividing Line inside the Shape
Find a dividing line inside your shape that stands out, one that helps define the shape. For me, it was the top of the jug: one third of my rectangle is flowers, two-thirds is jug. For your portrait sitter it might well be the shadow line that divides the face in two, or perhaps the line of the eyes, the hair line; it doesn't really matter, find a line that stands out to you. In the still life it could be the biggest object that takes up half of the picture. Whatever it is, find a line and draw it into your shape. This line will help me remember later on that I thought the jug was about 2/3 of the whole.
There. You have done it. Your 'Great White' is gone. You broke it up with some simple plain looking lines!
Honestly, it doesn't matter that they look a bit plain and simple. What matters is that you have made a start. Now that the ice is broken, you can move onwards and upwards.
You can now continue, now that the fear is gone, to making some adjustments to your shape. My rectangle is perhaps a little narrower, and the top, where the flowers are, are much wider than the jug.
Find More Shapes
Find some more really big and general shapes: I found some circles that will become my flowers. You might find some more rectangles for an apple in your still life, or a triangle for a nose.
Use this Skeleton as the Basis of your Painting
From this really rough set up with some big and basic shapes you can continue working: my flowers are not really circles and my jug has a handle. I can adjust, fix, and add until I have a picture that looks like my jug of flowers!
So in order to break the fear of the Great White Empty Canvas I would recommend one guaranteed cure: Grab a brush and make a mark. Anywhere. Better still; start with drawing the rectangle/square/triangle of your subject matter. It really can be this easy.
(materials used: white cotton canvas, synthetic filbert brush, burnt umber oils )
How do you tackle the Big White Empty Canvas?
Leave a comment below to let us know!