How to Write a Painting

How to Write a Painting

Who knew your creative writing class could give you so many art ideas? Next time you sit down to create your next illustration, take a few lessons from those who use a pen more than a paintbrush.

Brainstorm ideas.

It all starts with that tiny spark of inspiration. But it doesn’t come unless you work for it. Here are a few tips:

  1. Keep a sketchbook. Use it to draw thumbnail sketches, design weird characters, and record the people, places, and objects around you. Most importantly, just be DILIGENT about using it.

  2. Keep a reference file. Collect interesting photos. Keep a collection of artwork that inspires you.

  3. Keep a journal. The best stories that you write/draw will come from what you already know. A journal will help you remember your experiences and keep them for reference later.

  4. Broaden your horizons. Read books. Keep up with current events. Get out of the studio. Travel. In general, just create new experiences to draw from. You can’t make good artwork from a vacuum.

Decide on a format.

Ask yourself a few questions before you start:

  • Is this painting a “short story” or a “novel”? Will it be a small spot illustration, a mural, one image, or a series?

  • Is your story narrative, or poetry? Consider the style of your painting and what will work best for the idea you are trying to convey. Figurative or literal? Realistic or abstract? And what medium are you going to use to execute it?

  • Who is your audience? For example: children, adults, men, or women


A writer/artist can only create a believable story by really knowing his subject. Research such elements as:

  • Time period

  • Place

  • Props

  • and Characters

Outline a plot.

Sketch, sketch, sketch…

An artist creates a “plot” for his story through sketches. Work through some thumbnails, then move on to more refined compositions. Decide on the setting, characters, and general details you want to include in your painting.

Write a first draft.

No sane writer ends his work on the first draft. Why should an artist be any different? Get all of the kinks out of your system first.

  1. Experiment with value. Play with using a dark background vs. a light background. Try using different lighting methods like a bright sun, a spotlight, or a nighttime scene.

  2. Experiment with color. It can be dark, bright, cool, or warm. Experiment and be aware of how it affects the overall mood of your painting.

  3. Create studies. Get the pose of a hand just right. Work on the design of a character. Experiment with the expression on a face. If there is a difficult element in your painting, work it out with a study.

It can be really easy to skip these steps and charge right on to the final painting. Be wise, and don’t.

Use descriptive language.

Imagine a pair of jeans. Now imagine a pair of jeans with grass stains on the knees, a rip on the back pocket, and a patch on the leg. Just as with written works, the story comes alive in the details. Don’t just use visual elements in your painting as filler — let them contribute to your story.

Is your painting boring?

A novice illustration often lacks in these small details. It makes the image fall flat because it’s too generic, bland, and boring for the viewer to really relate to it.

On the other hand, another beginner’s mistake is too much detail. Like a story can become wordy and verbose, a painting can become busy and confusing if you are not too careful. Be clear and concise. Use only details that will support the overall mood/idea of your painting.

Short and Sweet

A good illustration is often one that is simple, yet well thought-out. A teddy bear on a little girl’s bed. A small patch on a well-worn quilt. The right details will make your scene more real for your viewers, and strike a deeper emotional chord.

Revise and rewrite.

Before you declare your painting finished, look over your painting for errors — careless brushstrokes, messy edges, and slight drawing mistakes. (Also check out my previous post, “Five Things You Must Do Before Your Painting is Finished.”)

The real work behind any piece of art – a story, a painting, a movie, etc. – is the editing process. The perfect piece will be something that you can’t add to or take away from without hurting the overall quality of the piece. When it comes to painting, this means being able to stick with it to the end and doing what is necessary to make it the best piece possible, even if that means (gulp!) starting over.

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