Painting Education

How do you learn how to paint well? Here is how special art schools, called “ateliers“, teach painting to students.

Painting Education Starts with Drawing

Everyone who enters an atelier for the first time just can’t wait to start painting! And then they find out that before the school will teach them how to paint, they have to acquire some realism drawing skills first.

Many students see drawing as something to get through in order to get to the “good stuff”, but it is important to note that a good portion of painting IS drawing. If you can’t make a shape correctly with a pencil, there is little chance that you will be able to do so with a relatively unwieldy brush.

Not to mention that as you start to master the art of drawing, it is easy to fall in love with the beauty and challenge of it. When I was training with Juliette Aristides, she had to MAKE me start painting. I was completely enamored with drawing by the time I really started to understand the nuances of it, and I needed a nudge to move on to the next phase of my art education.

If you truly want a rock-star painting education, you need to learn how to draw first. Luckily, ateliers like this Master’s Degree program can teach you everything you need to know about drawing in order to set you up for painting success.

“Foot” painted en Grisaille by Mandy Theis


The next step on your realism painting journey is to learn Grisaille. Grisaille means painting in black and white. It is similar to drawing in the sense that you are using lights and darks in order to create believable forms. You’re just doing it with paint now instead of pencil or charcoal.

However, Grisaille can be frustrating because your hand is always a little bit better than your eye at this stage of learning how to paint.

Drawing has trained your eye to see things much better than you used to. Drawing has also trained your hand to manipulate charcoal and pencil with nuance. Therefore, it can be frustrating to start painting and realize that you can SEE what needs to be done, but you do not yet have the experience with paint manipulation to make it happen at the level you can see it.

In fact, this is such a common frustration that I wrote and entire article on how your hand gets better before your eye.


How to set up a white object to paint warm/cool

Warm/Cool Painting

Warm/Cool painting is one of the most exciting phases of atelier training. By now you’ve learned to master the basics of realism drawing and how to control paint in a fairly nuanced manner. In the Warm/Cool stage of painting training, you now start adding colors to your palette.

But not too many colors.

There are many variations of Warm/Cool painting, but the palette that I learned and teach uses titanium white, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue.

By limiting colors on your palette, it helps keep you from being overwhelmed while you are trying to integrate learning color with your drawing and value-painting skills.

It is also very satisfying. Even though I made this painting with only 3 colors, it feels like a full-color painting.

This was the stage of my own atelier journey that I found the most inspiring. I was learning how to paint, and all the previous drawing and Grisaille work was paying off.

Full Color Painting

After exploring a limited color palette, the next step is to start adding colors to your palette. But again, not too many at first. The fewer colors you have to work with, the less overwhelming it is to explore and apply your color palette.

You will start to discover what colors you really need as you go. There is a color palette, known as the Zorn palette, that is a great place to start when you are working with a full color palette for the first time.





That’s it. That’s the Zorn palette, and you can get some variation of every color you might need out of it.

Some of you might be wondering about not having blue in the palette. But in this case, black acts as the blue. If you add white to it, it will become a grayish blue.

Adding More Colors

As you become more experienced with painting, you might find that you need a stronger blue than black provides. If you just can’t live without a true blue, you can add an ultramarine blue to your palette.

The green that is mixed with black and yellow is fairly neutral, so a Viridian Green helps artists hit more chromatic notes. If you find you can’t make your mixed green as green as you need it, Viridian Green is a good color to add to your expanding palette.

(Want to learn where to place paint on your palette? Check out this article on How to Set Up an Oil Painting Palette.)

Once you can easily manipulate the colors in a more basic palette, there are many different palettes that can be explored. Examples include the Fletcher Palette, the Gilbert Stuart palette, and many others that artists have recorded for us in their journals and writings.

*** Warning about jumping from palette to palette***

Often students believe they just need that one more color to be a better painter, when really what it is they need is more experience with their current palette. The colors on your palette cannot make you a better painter. Putting in the hours practicing painting with your palette is what makes you a better painter.

“Roses” by Mandy Theis, 2018

Anyone Can Learn How to Paint Realistically

There is a pervasive myth that somehow people get bopped on the head by a talent fairy one day, and paint like Rembrandt the next.

Well, the truth is that Rembrandt and Da Vinci and nearly any other artist working realistically had a painting education. They learned how to paint in ateliers.

And you can learn how to paint realistically too. You simply need to go to a school that offers what is called “atelier training” such as this MA program in Studio Arts. These schools offer extensive painting training that will teach you the skills you need to draw and paint anything your heart desires.

Do you think atelier training is right for you? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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