How to Beat the Empty White Canvas


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.

Sophie Ploeg Blank Canvas

Find a simple shape in your object

Draw or paint your simple shape onto the canvas and ‘kill the white’ !

Sophie Ploeg Blank Canvas

Find a dividing line that stands out to you

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.

Sophie Ploeg Blank Canvas

Adjust your simple shape

Sophie Ploeg Blank Canvas

Find some more big simple shapes

Sophie Ploeg Blank Canvas

Start adjusting, fixing and adding more shapes and lines and use this as the skeleton for your painting

Make Adjustments

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!

Published: March 6, 2018

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  1. Thanks for recommending this Sophie! It sounds so simple, and I know it works – it just takes practice. The practice is to overcome the feeling of overwhelm when you’re someone who enjoys detail. And to actively resist the temptation to get into details in the early stages. Your 5 step approach helps a lot… knowing I just have to work my way through the broader steps to get to the finer detail. It’s a satisfying way to go about constructing a painting, and I’m enjoying it a lot.

    1. Thanks Angie, glad to hear you found it helpful. Just think of a sculptor: she would not sculpt an earring in the ear if there isn’t a head yet. The skeleton comes first, the foundation. Without that, the detail will just float without grounding.

  2. Thanks Sophie. That’s really helpful. I’ve used the idea of finding basic shapes when I’m drawing in my sketch book, but for some reason I’ve never done it for my paintings. And I like the idea of finding that dividing line to help define the shape further. I’ll definitely give this a go. Was there a reason for choosing burnt umber (neutral? earth?), or would any colour do? Also, I tend to use Liquin to speed drying. Is that not something you do?

    1. Hi Pete, thanks for commenting! I am glad it made sense. Why Burnt Umber – because it dries quickly (I don’t use any medium or solvent usually) and is a nice neutral colour that suits my palette. Any colour would do but keep in mind that an underpainting might peep out here and there in the final painting – if you choose bright red, it will come back to haunt your or to light up your painting with life. You can use the colour of the underpainting to various effects in the final painting. I tend to work on the safe side; Burnt Umber is not going to give me any surprises.
      I don’t use liquin myself, I don’t need the drying time to be any quicker than it is.
      Hope that helps! Thanks again for stopping by. 🙂

  3. I have a bit different problem. I just LOVE to start paintings with all these lovely visions sparkling in my mind, but after the first layer I freeze in fear, not quite sure how to proceed to get to where I want to be. As a consequence, I have a lot of unfinished painting in lying around.

    1. Hi Lou, thanks for commenting! Ah, that would be another blog post for another day! I totally know what you mean and have felt like that many times. I just know that once I get going it is fine, it is just that first mark after that first layer. My only way over it is to just ‘do it’. Even if you do something ugly or wrong, it is better than nothing. Just get that brush back onto the canvas!

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