11 Easy Painting On Canvas Ideas for Oil Painters (Beginner & Professional!)

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11 Easy Painting On Canvas Ideas for Oil Painters (Beginner & Professional)

Oil painting is a beautiful and relaxing hobby that anyone can enjoy. It's also relatively easy to learn, even for beginners. In this blog post, you'll see 11 easy oil painting ideas to help you get started.

Now I will also say the word "easy" is subjective, some of these will be easy canvas painting ideas and yet others will challenge professional artists - depends on what you are used to doing. The bottom line is, no matter where you are in your skill development there will always be a challenge if you allow yourself to explore something different.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your oil paints, blank canvas, paint brush and give one of these simple canvas painting ideas a try. You'll love the results!

FYI - if you are wondering what art supplies you need for oil painting, click here to grab the Ultimate Oil Painting Supply Guide.

1. Start with a basic still life.

A still life is a great way to get started with oil painting because it doesn't require any complex techniques or perspective drawings (unless you want to add them). You can set up a still life with whatever you have around your house. Some simple objects like fruits or flowers will do the trick. Just arrange them in a pleasing way on a table or counter, then set up your easel and canvas to start painting.  

 Below is an example of a simple tea cup. This little tea cup was completed in one sitting (alla prima technique) in a high-key value setting. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, no worries: here is a brief description: 

 Alla Prima: is a wet-on-wet oil painting technique where you paint a subject from start to finish in one sitting. Many of the courses I provide are alla prima style so that you can paint something quickly and beautifully in one sitting. This cup is in the course “Masterclass: Study of Light and Dark” where can receive a step-by-step tutorial on how to paint this cup in High-Key.  

High-key: this is when you stick to the lighter notes of a black-and-white scale. If you check out the value scale here: the high-key paintings are on the side circled. For more fabulous high-key painting examples, check out this Pinterest Board. (As a side note: if you want to paint cheaply, the high-key is the way to go because it uses a ton of white paint (which is one of the least expensive pigments to purchase).

 Don't worry about making your still life perfect, the goal is to just get a feel for the medium and how to apply the paint to the canvas. Start with a few simple brushstrokes, using a small amount of paint on your brush. Experiment with different brushstrokes and techniques, and see how the paint reacts on the canvas or panel. As you get more comfortable with the oil painting process, you can start adding more detail and realism to your paintings.

For more about setting up a still life, check out this article "Setting Up A Still Life and 25 Ideas for A Still Life", where you'll receive

  • 25 Ideas for A Still Life,
  • 4 Things To Consider When Collecting And Compiling a Still Life,

If you want to dive deeper into creating a still life with guided instruction, then I'd recommend this course "Intro To Oil Painting" for a guided tutorial and the painting techniques needed to achieve a beautiful work of art. Within this course, you'll be provided with step-by-step instructions via video to see exactly what to do to paint this particular project.

2. Paint a landscape from a photo.

If you don't feel like setting up a still life, another great option for beginners is to paint a landscape from a photograph. This, for me is, by far the easiest way to learn! All you have to do is choose a photo that you really like and then set up your canvas and easel so you can start painting. Again, don't worry about making it perfect, just focus on getting the basic shapes and colors down. As you get more comfortable with oil painting, you can start adding more detail to your landscapes.

Here are some key tips about painting from a photo.

  1. Don't be a copy machine. Many artists who start with photos want to recreate the photo, like a copy machine. The key is to find what attracted you to the photograph and enhance the painting to be what YOU want it to be. Find a way to enhance the best part of the photograph, whether that is the skyline, a tree, a flower, a bee, the cherry blossoms, get to choose what is important to you to create a beautiful piece.  For example: if you were to visit the Eiffel tower, there would be hundreds of people around. For you is the story about the Eiffel tower and the skyline, or is it about the people who have been milling about the tower to see a part of history? If it is about the tower, then you’ll ignore the people in the photograph.  
  2. Look outside every now and then to see what it looks like in real life. Some photographs capture and alter information making the whole scene come into view. BUT when you look outside you'll notice there is an "atmosphere differential" where what is further away becoming bluer/cooler and fuzzy to see.
  3. The general rule (and of course can be broken) is; cool colors for the things further away, and warmer colors bring things forward.

In the Masterclass "Sheep Landscape Painting" you'll see how I totally deviate from the photograph to make a composition that I like and follow the idea of the atmosphere differential.



3. Experiment with different brushstrokes.

One of the great things about oil painting is that there are endless possibilities when it comes to brushstrokes and combining brushstrokes with different types of paintbrushes. You can create all sorts of different effects with your brush, from bold and expressive strokes to soft and delicate ones. Experiment with different techniques and see what you can create.

Some fun brushstroke challenges are:

  1. Try to paint without lifting your brush from the canvas. This helps to see the fluidity of the subjects and challenges you to pick a single color or load the brush with multiple colors.
  2. Paint a picture using only large brushstrokes. This is challenging because it helps you define the subjects using simplified marks of value and color.
  3. Use only one brush for the whole painting. This will enable you to master the brush and you'll discover what you like the brush for. For example, I found I love the Flat brushes because I can use the broad edge for large strokes, for lines I'll use the flat's edge like a blade, and for fine details, I'll use the corner of the flat.
  4. Limit the number of brushstrokes (making each one count). This exercise combines #2 and #3 - it will help you begin seeing the subjects in there most simple form, light, medium, and dark and help you maximize the use of the whole brush.
  5. Use a Palette knife! This is challenging and a great idea if you'd like to loosen up! With brushstrokes, you can more easily blend one value to the next, whereas the palette knife requires that you create broken strokes that allow the mind to create the picture.

4. Try your hand at portraiture.

Portraits are another great subject matter for oil paintings. If you have a friend or family member who's willing to sit for you, try your hand at painting their portrait (or work from a mirror for a self-portrait or photograph). Again, don't worry about making it perfect, just focus on getting the basic shapes and colors down. As you get more comfortable with oil painting, you can start adding more detail to your portraits.

Portraits can be the hardest, especially if you are a Type A like me. So this is why I recommend using a Triangle Grid method of drawing. Below is a short video that I did on Facebook to show what it is.  


In addition, Zorn palette will simplify the color mixes to attack a self-portrait. Check out this article and for more information about the Zorn palette "Benefits of Using the Zorn Palette".

5. Paint a self-portrait.

You are always available as a subject when you want to paint! This may seem daunting at first, but it's actually not as difficult as you might think. Just start by sketching out the basic shape of your face, and then start painting in the different colors. As you get more comfortable with oil painting, you can start adding more detail to your self-portrait.

Like the above, you can use the Zorn Palette, which is a limited palette of only 4 colors: Titanium White, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and Cadmium Red Light.

For me the easiest approach to a self-portrait is to first paint in the Grisaille method or the Brunaille method of underpainting. The grisaille method is where you paint only in black and white, which is a fabulous exercise in studying values. The Brunaille method is where you just use Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber for the underpainting. By limiting the palette you can more easily see the planes of the face and get a quick structure of the face without going into details of color.  Once I have a decent underpainting, then if I want I'll use an oil painting technique where I glaze on the color.

6. Create an abstract painting.

If you're feeling really creative, try your hand at creating an abstract painting. This is a great way to experiment with different colors and brushstrokes. Just let your creativity flow and see what you can create.  The beauty of abstract art is it allows viewers to be inspired to explore the depths of their imagination and create something truly unique. It provides a beautiful opportunity for expression where nothing is out of bounds - allowing us all to grasp new perspectives in unexpected ways.

Now, I admit I am not an abstract artist so check out this Skill Share Blog article that has 35 Abstract Art Ideas for Inspiration. Some of these appear to be easy abstract painting ideas and others rather complex. But the truth is, you never know until you try!

If this is a bit of a struggle, don’t worry the best way to start is to lay out a grouping of colors that you like and paint from that palette of colors. Here is a fun website that is a great way to get some fabulous color matches for you to use and try different colors,  Once you have the color palette down, then consider the rule of 3rds for composition so the abstract can make sense. Here is more information about the Rule of 3rds taken from my Masterclass "Sheep Oil Painting". You can gain access to this course plus 30 more with the "Online Video-Based Oil Painting Classes"

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is the basic, most fundamental requirement to make a painting appealing to the eye. The rule of thirds involves dividing up your image using 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines, as shown below:

The idea is that an off-center composition is more pleasing to the eye and looks more natural than one where the subject is placed right in the middle of the frame.

In the following video you will learn:

  • how to create a Rule of 3rds Grid in Photoshop
  • how to relay the Rule of 3rds in your reference image.

NOTE: If you do not have Adobe Photoshop, I highly recommend it, but if you don't see more of a need than just this exercise, then take the dimensions of the reference image and divide by 3. Then grab a ruler and draw lines on the image based on the calculated measurement.

Or another alternative to Adobe Photoshop is using your tablet and finding a grid app to overlay a grid.

7. Use a limited color palette.

Another great way to improve your oil painting skills is to use a limited color palette. This means choosing just a few colors to work with and using them in different ways to create your painting. This can be a great exercise in restraint, and it will force you to be more creative with the colors you do use.


In the portrait section, I mentioned the Zorn Palette this is a great way to mix a variety of colors for all natural subjects in addition to portraits. Another great way is to use colors as I suggested in the abstract painting section: use this fun website to get some fabulous color matches for you to use and try different colors. 

8. Paint a cityscape. 

If you're feeling ambitious, try your hand at painting a cityscape. In my opinion, this is a bit more challenging than other types of oil paintings because my Type A personality wants the architecture to be accurate and straight BUT when you look at some of the great paintings they didn't have straight lines but instead ensured the perspective was correct.

One of my most successful pieces of artwork that I did for a cityscape used a palette knife only. It was a fun learning experience that allowed me to lean towards impressionism while using a bold paint palette. And the palette knife worked well with my Type A personality because it forced me to think in terms of blocks of color and basic shapes.



9. Capture the beauty of nature.

One of the best things about oil painting is that you can use it to capture the beauty of nature. Whether you want to paint a landscape, a still life, or even a portrait, oil painting is the perfect medium to use. So get out there and start exploring the world around you with your brush and canvas. Some simple painting ideas for capturing beauty in nature include: painting a flower or flowers, palm trees or trees, a leaf, the unique view of painting underneath a leaf, rocks, or ladybug! There are all sorts of cool projects just waiting for you right outside your door, so grab that blank canvas and have fun!!

For more information about painting outside, check out this Plein Air Article "The Essentials for Plein Air Painting: A Beginner's Guide"

10. Paint on a small canvas.

 If you're finding it difficult to fill a large canvas, try painting on a smaller one. The neat thing is you can purchase mini canvas for less than $3 or make your own! In the article "The Essentials for Plein Air Painting: A Beginner's Guide" I show you a mini canvas I created using an Altoid tin (here is a picture).


Painting small enables you to paint a piece with little time commitment, with fewer supplies, and this can be a great way to focus on the details of your painting. In addition, it will help you build up your confidence. Once you're comfortable with oil painting on a small scale, you can start working on larger canvases.

11. Paint a copy of your favorite painting.

A great way to improve your oil painting skills is to paint a copy of your favorite famous painting. This will help you get a feel for the brushstrokes and colors used by the artist, and it will also give you a chance to practice your skills. Once you're comfortable with the painting, you can start making changes to it and making it your own.

So I put my own spin on this because a favorite artist of mine is Van Gogh. I was lucky to see one of his paintings in person and I LOVED how thick his paint was and the fluidity of his strokes shown in broken color and bold strokes. So I wanted to try my hand at painting like him, without any possibility of copyright infringement (for more info about Copyrighting Artwork, check out this article "How To Copyright Artwork: What, Why, and How"). I painted Van Gogh's Starry Night in a scene of a mouse in Van Gogh's room with his hay stacks, sunflowers, and more. In short, I let my imagination go to a new place with an old piece of artwork.


Final Thoughts and Your Next Steps!

Remember, oil painting is supposed to be fun. Enjoy making a beautiful mess - sometimes it'll be amazing, sometimes it won't. The most helpful tips I can give you are:

  1. Don't take it too seriously, and just enjoy the process. The more fun you have, the better your paintings will be ANd the more likely you'll want to do it again.
  2. Watch a video tutorial to aid you a bit through the process. This brings me to your next steps (after all what's the point of reading the article UNLESS you TAKE ACTION :) .  So here we go!
    1.  If you are a beginner, take this "Free Oil Painting Workshop" and grab the FREE guide, “Ultimate Guide To Oil Painting Supplies”,
    2. For any level, take the next step to join an oil painting group that can help you grow: Video-Based Oil Painting Classes or Join Us for LIVE Oil Painting Classes.

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