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How to Paint a Basic Painting, a Step-By-Step Guide (Materials Included)

In this tutorial, I am going to replicate an experience of painting your first painting, with very basic materials (cheap paints and brushes!).

I will go step-by-step over what materials to get, and what paint to mix, and I will show you my progress step-by-step as well.

Without further ado, if you want a simple answer on how to paint a very basic, simple introductory painting, I would say the following:

To paint a basic painting, work from reference, pick an easy composition, and a smaller canvas, a few brushes, and a basic palette of paints (less than ten including white), start with big shapes, working general to specific, finish up with details but do not include all the detail you see in your reference image.

Alright, now let us get into it:

Steps to painting a basic introductory canvas:

  • Step 1: ideation – choose what you like, positive feeling, strong enough to carry execution
  • Step 2: Identify and sketch the composition
  • Step 3: basic underpainting wash – identify values, give the painting depth at the end (rendering with one color with attention to values) – value planning
  • Step 4: color preparation – either do a small color sketch or work off reference – have a plan for what color goes where
  • Step 5: Rendering – work from general to specific, add big shapes first, detail later.

Materials list to paint a basic painting

  • Basic canvas – I grabbed an 8 x 10
  • Basic paints
  • Pencil for underdrawing
  • Water container
  • Palette – I help you create one for a couple of dollars, see below
  • Rag
  • Freezer paper or parchment paper
  • Brushes
  • Sketchbook
  • Basic storage bin to store all these items after you paint
  • garbage bag – to cover the table surface – bags for the surface

Basic canvas:

I opted out for a simple 8 x 10 primed canvas, sold in packs of 10 in the US at the art store. These are “value” canvases, with a coupon it ended up being a little more than a dollar per canvas.

Basic paints:

For the purposes of this tutorial, I grabbed the “value” non-pro grade type paint. I wanted to emulate a painting by someone who never painted before and was just buying their first set of paint.

How is this different from expensive professional paints?

Paint is made with pigment (color) and binder (what holds color together), the cheap paint also has lots of filler – the cheap ingredient that “extends” the pigment, so you need less pigment to make more paint.

The filler and less pigment change the properties of the paint for the worse. Most notably, it mixes together to form much less saturated colors.

Enough mixing and almost any combination starts looking dark and unsaturated.

It also spreads on canvas in a less controlled way, and finally it dries thinner, and less saturated too.

All these negatives are hard to notice, however, if you never painted with really well-made paint. It should also be said that good paint may cost upward of 30 times the amount I spent on this set of acrylic colors. So if you are following this tutorial, do not worry, for your first time, or even the next few paintings, this will do just fine.

A water jar:

A jar of water. Water temperature does not matter as long as it is not really warm, or ice cold. Tap water is fine.


Every painter needs a rag. There are many uses, we will mostly use it to wipe the brushes dry once they are cleaned in water.

Basic brushes:

I recommend buying natural bristle brushes, but for this tutorial, I grabbed the very basic 25 pc set from the local art store, it was on sale and cost about 5 dollars. A single good brush can cost 5 – 10 times that amount. Again, we are emulating painting for the first time and not spending too much just to try to paint to see if we even like it!

A clipboard:

This clipboard I obtained for $1.25 in US, at the local “dollar” store. It will become a reusable pallete for us that can be used time and time again. It also makes clean-up a breeze. I will show you how to create this palette below.

Pencil and pencil sharpener:

To create a sketch for our composition. If you were serious about painting, you would probably usea charcoal pencil. Charcoal gets along with paint much better than graphite. However, for our first painting it will not matter.

Sponge brush:

You don’t need this really, you can use a cotton ball, but we will use this to create a wash underpainting below the painting. It is just a fun tool to use and have in your tool kit, but again a cotton ball will do fine.

Bar of soap in a container:

We will use this to clean brushes, and the soap smells nice too. Once you want your brush clean, if you are using acrylics first clean it in water. Then, press down on the soap so that the soap travels up to the top of the brush. The soap will wash away the paint once you dip it back in water.

When cleaning your brush in water, always push the brush against the side of the jar, and never the bottom. The bottom of the jar is filled with settled pigment particles from previous cleaning.

Scroll to the middle of this tutorial for how to clean your brush.


We will use this to prop up our painting as if on an easel. I got this from a neighbor who was throwing it out.

A clip:

We will use this to finish off our palette.

Parchment or freezer paper:

Freezer paper is better, but I had parchment paper at home and decided to use it. We will use this to finish off our palette.

Create your palette:

Cut some sheets of freezer/parchment paper, clip it to the clipboard, use the clip to secure the other side.

Once done, cleaning the palette is as easy as throwing out the paper. It makes clean-up fast and easy. You can also paint the clipboard any color you want (grey?), and use wax paper that is transparent.

If you want to be neat, you can clip or tape the other sides of the paper to the clipboard.

You will also need a garbage bag for the used-up palette sheets, and some paper towels or a towel for cleanup. It also does not hurt to get a basic storage bin to keep all your supplies when you are not painting.

Step 1: Ideation for your painting

Step 1: have an idea of what you want to paint, a basic still-life or a basic landscape painting is probably best. Do not pick complex subjects with many figures, focus on compositions with 2-3 items. For our painting, we have a background (mountain), middle ground (elevation-hill) and foreground (grass field)

What is a still-life painting:

Still life is a type of painting that focuses on depicting inanimate objects, typically commonplace items or natural objects, arranged in a visually appealing (and sometimes symbolic) composition. The objects can include fruits, flowers, food, plants, books, and everyday household items. Still life paintings are characterized detailed rendering, lighting, and composition. They can also be very thematic – with themes around food, or around symbolic objects related to the artist or their message.

– Gvaat

A note here: you should paint from life if you can, the simple reason is you see lots of stuff you do not see from a picture, you learn to see like an artist, and the resulting painting usually will come out more alive. 

We are doing a painting of a mountain landscape for this tutorial. 

Step 2: Sketching out the composition

I am painting Mount Ararat, which has a beautiful snowy peak and a great yellow-green grassy foreground. See the image below. Although I have it on the sketch above, I chose to omit the structure for simplicity and used multiple reference images from various angles to come up with my composition.

Reference: Mt. Ararat and the monastery of Khor Virap. Credit: World Pilgrimage Guide

In pencil, create a basic composition by breaking up your reference into small blocks. – where is everything going to be? Composition is where you place things, and how they relate to each other. 

Composition is where you place things, and how they relate to each other. 


If I paint the entire mountain in the lower right corner, will it have balance, will it have interest, or will it be awkward to look at? I plan to paint the sky bright blue, and I want it to be one of the main attractions of the painting, this means I will set the mountain lower on the canvas, to give way to more sky.

Step 3: A wash/an underpainting/ value planning

I had to use these two paint colors (black and brown) to create burnt umber. If you had a good paint set, you would already have burnt umber (a dark earthy and majestic brown). This set did not have it so I mixed it up.

Create a wash and paint over the entire painting – not too wet, but transparent – not opaque! – use a light brown color for this and plenty of water. I used the sponge from our materials list.

An underpainting would include a plan for values – what is darkest, what is lighter, and what is lightest in color. With the wash, I did not pre-paint the values, but I darkened the canvas so bright white of the canvas did not stand out. I want the white paint on the mountaintop to stand out instead.

Step 4: Color planning

While that dries, we will organize our colors – which colors to use for the mountain, which house to use for the foreground, and which colors to use for sky? All important questions. Let’s find out!

Step 5: Rendering – general to specific!

The rendering is done from general to specific. That is to say, from big shapes to smaller details. And so when you use brushes, start a basic painting with larger brushes, and move to using smaller brushes gradually as you add more and more detail.

Using the brush size from big to small as the painting progresses, helps ensure that you are painting from general shapes to more specific ones.


I planned out some of the colors ahead of time in my head by looking at references and the paints that I had. I first picked the light and dark blue from the acrylic set to mix for the sky.

I then added a little white as I went down from the top of the canvas to the bottom of the mountain.

More white toward the bottom and blended the sky quickly with a big flat brush.

I used the same blue and added white and “grass green” from the acrylic set to mix a more bluish grass to populate the hill right before the mountain. A quick note, the names of the value acrylic paints like “bright blue” and “grass green” are not standard paint names. There is no Terre Verte here, or Cobalt Green. When you get the value set, just do your best with what you have!

When you mix colors make sure you either use a palette knife or the brush to the point where the mixture is one solid new color.

I then began to block in the hill with a blue-green color. Notice how the mixture looks like a single fully blended color. Blend colors well before you put them on the canvas.

I added some yellow and more green to the blue-green mixture of the hill to mix for the foreground grassy field.

So the mixture (above) is the white, both blues, green and yellow from the acrylic set.

This is (above) what you should have at this point.

Now, I want to add some detail and shadow to the foreground, I am mixing green and brown and black. If I was painting with high-quality paints, acrylics or oils, I would not use black at all. I would use a darker blue or darker brown or both to create the shadow together with the green.

However, here, the pigments are too diluted with filler in this value paint pack, so I have to use black to get a darker color that is still saturated.

With that said, I used very little black to get the darker green I used in the foreground above.

Now I am mixing yellow and green, with an even larger quantity of green for a fresher greener color.

Blocking in large patches of color with this mix.

Above, look at the slight variation in green (from yellow-green to larger shapes of brighter green). These variations will help create a feeling of space and complexity even when the painting is not detailed.

Above, with green, blue, brown, and black I am mixing the shadow portions of the hill that stands between the mountain and the foreground.

Experimenting with how colors work together. I added some white and light blue to the top of the mountain (very little blue).

Here, I got white, blue, light blue, and grey. I also (off-screen) added some purple to this mixture to create the atmospheric perspective at the bottom of the mountain.

Above is the paint I used for the stone, with a tiny bit of white added to it. This set calls it a “Golden Brown”. I could probably get a similar color with yellow ochre, titanium white, and burnt umber.

Added some detail to the mountain and added stone shapes to the elevation in front of the mountain.

The orange and red bottles of acrylic paint you see in this image were left unopened for this painting.

More detail with smaller brushes. As we discussed above, the further you get into the painting the more you move from general (large) shapes to specific (small) shapes. You can achieve this by using progressively smaller brushes throughout the painting process.

Repainting some of the base of the mountain, I wanted to create a clear separation in space between the background and foreground.

I also added a bright blue to the top portion of the canvas – the clear blue sky.

In the above, I am trying to get the colors to line up below the mountain – purple-bluish hues. I repainted this portion a couple of times. This is what is nice about an acrylic set of paints like this – it dries very quickly – minutes. While painting with oils, I would have to wait for a day or days to repaint the same section.

Final product after about an hour and a half of painting.