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The 4 Keys Needed to Unlock Your Artistic Potential

Written by S. Augustin

Being a self-taught artist I went through a lot of trials and errors whenever I decided to work on a traditional work of art.

Being a digital artist was very simple. There was no mess involved and I could resize and redesigned the idea I wanted to create as often as I wanted.

When I began learning how to paint on canvas using oils and acrylic paint I felt pushed out of my comfort zone.

Starting with a blank canvas was intimidating. Although I learned about color theory, perspectives, composition, and other fundamentals of traditional painting, I wasn't satisfied with the outcome of my painting.

It wasn't until I refined my method of painting that I saw a significant level of improvement. Which lead me to develop my niche or artistic voice.

This blog contains the key elements that I have used to refine my skill and speed my learning process when it comes to traditional art.

If you are looking to improve your artwork, these tips may assist.

Create a Vision Board

The importance of having a reference.

Before I think about applying paint to a canvas, I create a vision board. A vision board is an important reference tool whether you are a beginner or a professional.

Creating a reference is a great way to brainstorm your ideas from your imagination to reality. Your vision board should reflect your artistic voice.

Stock images make a great reference for anatomy poses, landscapes, plants, texture, and in some cases special effects.

  • For example, If you like to paint portraits you can ask a friend to be your model or you can take a self-portrait. You can also use a royalty-free image just to practice. Be careful to read the fine print when using these images. You may run into legal issues later on.

Using a reference can help you visualize the composition of the canvas. Composition is the term used to describe the arrangement of the visual elements in a work of art.

Your vision board should also include light values, color palettes, and an idea for negative space on the canvas. Be familiar with the color theory and decide which color combinations will work best in your artwork.

All works of art should have a focal point. Include negative space is to avoid overcrowding your work of art with too many ideas.

  • For example, If I was painting a portrait, the eyes or the model would be the focal point of the painting. I would add the most detail to the eyes and the areas surrounding the eyes. I would not put as much detail in what I place in the background because I do not want to distract from the main focus.

Once your vision board is complete you need to analyze the mood, thought, or purpose of your painting. Determine what is the message that you want your painting to speak. Are you creating something that is meant to be cute and colorful or is it dark and dreary?

If you are a beginner, start with something simple. Develop your style. Create your story. If you are studying from a still life photo, take your time to break down and examine the colors. If you want to create a collage, determine the main idea.

Creating your vision board is the first key element in unlocking your artistic potential. Especially if you're creating a painting to sell.

Laying your ideas in one place before beginning a painting will save plenty of time and effort going forward.

Create an Efficient Work Environment

Set up your workstation beforehand

Nothing is more harmful to your workflow than having to stop in the middle of your creative process to find a certain brush. Or realizing that you ran out of paint and you have to make a trip to the store.

Just like how you set your vision board before you paint you should also set up your workstation in your studio.

An efficient workstation is an important factor in time management. It's easy to flow through the process when all the tools needed are within reach.

  • For example, mixing the colors from the reference photo in advance. Or setting aside the brushes I would need to paint with.

The important elements that I must have in my workstation are good lighting, a clear desk with only the tools I am going to use to paint, and also a way to clean my station in the midst of my process.

I would not recommend painting in dark or dim areas. It will negatively affect the colors uses in your painting. I would also not recommend painting in direct sunlight or extremely bright areas for the same reason.

You need to be able to see your painting clearly by using indirect sunlight or studio lighting. This is the best way to achieve color accuracy, especially when using a realistic reference.

On another note, having less clutter on your workstation would minimize distractions. The less time I spent looking for a paintbrush or paint thinner, the more time I could use to focus my skills.

  • Before I begin painting, I always make sure my canvas is primed, my reference colors are mixed on my glass palette, my brushes and mediums are within reach, and I have my vision board reference next to my actual canvas.

Once I am in the flow of creating, I don’t want to have to stop and search for anything. Not even cleaning supplies.

All artists have experienced how messy traditional art can be. This is why I keep cleaning supplies like non-toxic paint thinner, glass scraper, and paper towels nearby as I paint.

This is why I feel like having your workstation set up before you paint is the second key to becoming a better artist.

Transfer Your Vison to Canvas

Now that you created a good reference for your artwork, it's time to transfer it. You can paint on virtually anything such as a canvas, cardboard, wood panel, etc. As long as it is a flat and smooth surface you are good to go.

There are several ways to transfer your image but the most important factor is the outline.


The foundation of every work of art is line art. The outline is the foundation of the composition of your vision board.

Having a clear and clean outline of your vision can help you transfer your reference to your canvas easily and accurately,

  • For example, if I was painting a self-portrait, I would outline my facial features, what I'm wearing/holding, and maybe what’s in the background. This would ensure that I am painting in the correct location and the elements in my portrait are not misshapen.

Perfecting your outline on canvas takes the guesswork out of your flow that's why it's the third key element you will find in most traditional artists like myself.

Gridlines, Graphite Transfer Papers, & Projectors,

Here are the most common ways an outline from the reference is transferred to the canvas.

Depending on the size of your canvas you can determine which of these tools would be more practical for your use.

The grid method involves drawing a grid over your reference photo and then drawing a grid of equal ratio on your work surface. This would be the paper, canvas, wood panel, etc.

You need a pencil or charcoal, a ruler, and a paper copy for your reference. The key to using the grid is to have the same amount of lines on your reference photo and your work surface. The ratio is 1:1.

Copy the outline of the reference image square by square onto the canvas. (If you were a beginner I would suggest you number the squares so you don't get confused). Once you're done you should have a complete outline of your reference on your canvas.

  • For example, if you wanted to use the grid method on an 8”x10” canvas then you would divide the canvas into rows and columns. Both my canvas and reference photo must have 8 rows and 10 columns of squares. From that point, you can number each square and copy the linework from the reference to the canvas. Once that is complete you can erase any unnecessary lines before you begin to paint.

Graphite transfer paper is a traditional method used by artists to transfer same-sized drawings from a photocopy of the reference to a canvas. I typically use this for portraits but it can be used for virtually anything.

What you would need is a paper copy of your reference, carbon transfer paper, a dull pencil, and your work surface.

With the transfer paper in between your reference paper and work surface, you can trace the outline of your reference photo onto your work surface. This is why it is important to have the reference image, transfer paper, and canvas be the exact same size.

  • For example. Let's say I wanted to paint a rose on an 8”x10” wood panel using transfer paper. I would lay the 8”x10” wood panel on a flat surface. I would cut out transfer paper so that it will measure up to 8”x10” and tape it down to the canvas so it doesn’t move. Then I would lay the 8”x10” reference paper copy on top of the transfer paper and tape it down.

  • Using the dull pencil I will trace the outline of the rose firmly on the wood panel. Once my trace is complete I will remove the reference image and transfer paper from the wood panel. The carbon trace of the rose is the only thing left on the canvas. From this point, I can begin to paint in the sketch.

Projectors are used by photorealist painters to enlarge and transfer the image from their small photo onto a large canvas.

In this case, the workspace and reference photo do not always have to be the same size. You simply project the image from the reference to the workspace

If you are using a projector it's important that the image stays in place once you begin tracing until it is complete. If the projector is readjusted during the tracing process it becomes difficult to match the linework again.

At the end of the process, you should have a traced image of the reference on the workspace.

  • For example, I want to enlarge a photo of a beach on a 20x24 inch canvas. I would set the projector on a table and set the canvas on the wall. I would hang the canvas and tape it down so it does not move while I am tracing on it. I adjust the ratio of the reference image projected on the canvas. so it should fit entirely on the canvas and look sharp. Then I will begin to trace the outline of the reference on the canvas. when I turn the projector off I should have a complete outline of my reference.

Invest in Quality Art Supplies

Cheap Supplies Make Poor Quality Art

Constantly using cheap products is not a good way to improve your art portfolio. Although it may be cost-effective, you may not like the quality of your artwork.

This doesn't mean that you have to start paying top dollar for professional supplies. Especially if you plan on just practicing your skills, you do not want to waste high-quality products on a practice. That would best be used for a commission or a gallery exhibit.

The best option is to find something mid-range. It might take a little research but there are plenty of products that work best for beginners.

  • For example, cheap products, such as oil paint, tend to be more oily and transparent. As compared to mid-range or student grade products that contain less oil and more color pigment.

When you are purchasing a product, such as paint, look at the reviews and photos of art made with it. This is the best way to evaluate if the product is worth the investment.

You may even have to try a few brands to see what you like to work with best. But small changes like this can lead to a big improvement in your portfolio.

Less time layering cheap paint on and picking loose hair from brushes can transform into more time making the colors more vibrant on canvas with different brush tools.

This is why I consider having good quality products as an essential 4th key for unlocking your full potential as an artist.

In Conclusion

This blog is not based on a professional opinion. It is based on my experience as a self-taught artist.

Once I started to make these small changes in my creative process I have seen my skills improve significantly.

Creating a vision board created a start and an end goal for my painting experience. I know what I want my canvas to look like and I have the artistic freedom to create it in my style.

When I set up my workstation ahead of time, I feel more focused on my painting. I spend less time looking for lost items, and more time refining the color palette. Making my art look more realistic and vibrant.

Using graphite transfer paper, I am assured that I transferred my reference from my vision board accurately. With strong outlines, it's difficult to lose the foundation and focal point of the painting.

Finishing my painting with quality art supplies I can be assured that my colors match vividly and there are no loose bristles or debris in my painting. Good quality products will also ensure that my masterpiece will be in good condition for a long time.

I just repeat this process over and over again. Adding more detail or improving the quality of my supplies.

If I stick to this method, I am sure it will improve my performance as an artist and improve my overall portfolio.

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