Katherine Tyrrell: Ten Artistic Tips Learnt From The Big Painting Challenge

Katherine Tyrrell: Ten Artistic Tips Learnt From The Big Painting Challenge

I’ve been following the series on my blog Making A Mark and have been writing a series of posts – one for each episode. These comment on the challenges and highlight tips as the series has progressed.

Below I’ve summarised some important tips which I’ve derived from the programme content and the comments of both judges and the amateur artists.

Top Ten Tips

Check out these tips if you’re thinking of entering an art competition on television – or just improving how you paint.

TIP 1: Observation is key.

It’s really important to look carefully whether you are painting a person, a still life, a landscape – or things which move and dance about and change while you watch! You will reap the benefits if you spend as much time looking as you do drawing and painting. Find the big shapes, the verticals, horizontals and angles and don’t forget to measure and check the size and relative proportions of what you can see.

TIP 2: Good drawing underpins sound construction.

When a drawing or painting does not look quite right it’s often down to a problem with the drawing. Problems with drawing often lie either in:

  1. A failure to observe carefully (see Tip 1)
  2. A tendency to simplify so as to ignore the difficult bits
  3. Unfamiliarity with a range of normal drawing media and the scope for making different marks (see Tip 3)
  4. Difficulties in placing an object on a page – leading to bits missing which you intended to include (see Tip 6)
  5. Difficulties in handling and mixing colour when using dry media rather than paint (Tip 8)

Identifying the nature of the problem with your drawing is your first step to learning how to correct it. Example: My major problem is my verticals often lean if I draw without thinking. My solution is to check how a major vertical lines up with the edge of the page as I draw it.

TIP 3: Practice drawing quickly using different types of dry media.

Dry media was usually used for the quick draw exercises in The Big Painting Challenge but was not limited to pencils or charcoal. There was also little time for slow careful drawings! Moving on from graphite to use different types of dry media – and colour – challenged a few of the artists! Dry media are great for drawing and sketching. Try becoming more familiar with the properties of different types of dry media and also how they can be used intelligently to produce quick drawings. Not everything is drawn using a tip – you can also use the side and cover more paper faster! Drawing quickly is something that can be learned – but it takes practice

TIP 4: Become comfortable in working from life – as part of your daily life.

The Big Painting Challenge placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of working from life. Working from life develops a whole new set of eye muscles! Amateur artists who have not developed and maintained skills in drawing from life often struggle when the subject matter is right in front of them and not in a photo. For example, if you only have only ever drawn the human face or figure from photos them you should not kid yourself that you have learned how to draw faces or people. I’d suggest that amateur artists applying for any subsequent series of the programme need to become comfortable working from life before they apply! Sign up for a life drawing class in your local area now. If you can draw the human body, you’ll develop excellent skills which will help you to draw anything! You can also practice your drawing skills by carrying a sketchbook with you and drawing the people you see in your daily life – that’s what I do.

TIP 5: Think hard about what you want your painting to look like before you start.

And carry that idea in your head as you paint. It’s useful to make a sketch and some notes of what you’re trying to do. These can help a lot if you get lost in the middle of a painting and forget what it’s supposed to look like. Some artists find it very helpful to give a work a title before they start which emphasises what the artist wants you to see.

TIP 6: Composition and design are really important.

An important decision to make at the beginning of any painting is where the four lines should go which frame your subject and how best to place your subject within those lines. In general it’s often a good idea to avoid putting your centre of interest bang in the centre of the painting. Spending some time looking at different options and thinking about this very often produces a much better result than making it up as you go along and seeing what you end up with.

TIP 7: Be bold with colour – but watch out for potential pitfalls.

Developing an understanding of how colours work with one another invariably leads to much better paintings. However amateur artists also need to be very wary of very common problems – such as colour which is:

  1. too dominant and unrelated to the subject matter
  2. too bland, subdued and ‘safe’
  3. unrelated to the light and shadows
  4. overmixed so as to become muddy

TIP 8: Perspective and recession apply to paintings of people and still life as well as to buildings and landscapes.

It’s worth learning some of the simple rules related to how to create depth in your painting. Objects further away from you tend to have less definition and they often become lighter in colour in daylight. Lines tend to converge on what’s known as the ‘vanishing point’ and having structural lines which defy perspective are confusing to the eye.

TIP 9: Know when you need to stop – and either start again or call it ‘finished’.

Not everything you do that is good takes precisely three hours to complete. Not everything you start works out well. This is not unusual. However if you constantly evaluate your drawing or painting as it progresses you’ll learn to spot when it’s time to put it down and start again – or finish it before you lose what’s good. However do note that paintings often pass through what many artists call “the ugly stage” which doesn’t mean it’s a bad painting so much as it doesn’t yet make much sense given the amount of painting which has still to be added. If you work in a consistent way and evaluate as you go, you’ll develop skills in knowing at what point paintings start to make sense and whether or not it needs adjusting.

TIP 10: Style is personal and will only develop over time and with practice.

An interesting characteristic of the amateur painter is he or she often switches about and changes their style as they try new media or new subject matter. This is entirely normal.

However one of the characteristics of the more mature painter – who has produced lots of paintings – is that they’ve:

  1. found the subjects which are meaningful to them
  2. developed a style which is consistent between different media and different subjects

Do experiment and try different things – and see if you can workout what triggers your appetite for painting and makes you want to do more. You can’t force this and it won’t happen overnight – it just emerges with work and over time. It took me quite a while to work out the media I like best, the subject matter I most like to do and the way I like to approach my artwork.


Katherine Tyrell

Katherine Tyrrell – Making a Mark An author and artist, Katherine’s very popular art blog is nine years old, regularly read by artists across the world and gets over half a million visitors each year. It covers art on television as well as a range of other art topics including open exhibitions of the UK’s national art societies and the major art competitions.

Her first book about drawing and sketching was published in January 2015 in the UK, USA and Asia. It sold so fast, it’s currently reprinting and is due back in bookshops in April. Sketching 365 (Apple, 8 January 2015) is a comprehensive and highly accessible guide that appeals to aspiring artists of all levels and art teachers. It’s packed with easy-to-follow tips covering drawing basics, deciding what to draw and the range of media you can use to draw anything you like. You can read more about Katherine on her website.