What to Paint?

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Cherries by Robert A. Sloan

What to paint? It's a question only you can answer, but the series of articles linked here will all focus on painting different subjects in oil pastels. What medium you use can affect how you approach a landscape, a portrait, a wild animal or an imaginary one.

Many of these articles will be step by step demonstrations, others analyzing how to best render specific subjects in oil pastels with simpler exercises than completed paintings. This section will be constantly expanding as I add more tips that help most for particular subjects.

If you don't see your favorite subject listed categorically or you'd like a particular article, feel free to contact me with suggestions! I love getting reader suggestions for article topics, most of all in this area.

The broad categories of "animals," "landscapes" and so on have many subcategories and special problems within them. When you decide what to paint, they each have their own demands.

Do birds count as animals? Is the process of painting them similar? Feathers and fur have different textures, I'd better do at least one separate article on birds. You may want to know how to do a particular bird that I haven't covered. Let me know, and if I see a good lesson in it, chances are I'll write it up and draw it for you!

With one exception -- if it's a subject I have not actually painted to my satisfaction before, it may take a while before you see an article. I don't mean to hide my mistakes, but I sure don't want to hold them up as great examples to beginners and pass them on as tradition. Sometimes my answer to "what to paint" depends on what I'm most practiced with and whether I feel experimental.

Rest assured though, the category of "things I can't draw well" shrinks more every day as I keep on with my daily art -- if you want to see my flubs, check my Daily Art blog. That's where I don't just post the good examples but throw in my stick figure Sick Day cartoon and the botched gesture sketch too.

Enjoy. I hope you find your favorites are a lot easier to paint after I start filling out this series!


Alaska Mountain by Robert A. Sloan

This includes seascapes, deserts, jungles, your back yard, even cityscapes and parking lots. Intimate landscapes like the hollow of an old oak tree and big Western skies are landscapes too, even if the horizon doesn't show. Plein air means drawing outdoors, so the article on taking your oil pastels outside belongs here too.

What to paint if you love fresh air -- the landscape!

Wilderness scenes

Landscapes that are mostly trees, grass, snow, skies and rocks are covered in this introduction to landscape painting in oil pastels.


Human landscapes are full of hard-edged geometric shapes, the intricate curves and designs of made things, signs with text on them and other special elements. They're tricky, not always as forgiving as landscapes and trees -- but they can be powerful and a lot of fun to paint. Hint: use your ruler in the sketch!

This is what to paint if you want to paint from life and don't live near a good park, or way out in the country.

Seascapes and Water

What to paint when you want lots of reflections and dramatic weather -- seascapes and water scenes are a grand, showoffy, beautiful specialty in landscape painting that's not always as hard as it looks.


Girl Drawing by Robert A. Sloan

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From little distant skiers in your snow mountain landscape to gestures, portraits, figures and more, these articles are all about drawing people. Young, old, male, female, any profession or personality can be rendered by a skilled portraitist -- or implied in a few strokes. So if your answer to "What to paint?" involves anything human, here's where to look for the latest articles.

Self Portraits

The one model every artist has available is the only one who'll sit still as long as you really want them to. Do a good self portrait with a mirror and portraits of anyone else will get a lot easier! Don't worry, you don't look as bad as you think you do. And the art will flatter you. Your strokes are much wider than that wrinkle or pimple, all that comes through is the high points!


Clothed or nude, attractive or not, the human figure has fascinated painters through the ages. From gesture to serious rendering, how to draw the human body. Distant figures in landscapes are very easy, but this article also goes into figures close enough to see some details.


Hands are tough for every painter -- till you get it. Less is more, pay attention to values and paint what you see instead of what you know is there. Hands do look better when you paint them tonally.


Bobcat by Robert A. Sloan

If it moves around, eats, reproduces and isn't human, your painting subject falls in this section. I'm not limiting it to mammals unlike some of my favorite books, because I like doing butterflies, reptiles, birds and fish too. Watch for more specific articles as this section grows, it could keep growing indefinitely since I am a serious animal painter!


Birds are some of my favorite subjects. With birds, you can get out all the brights and then some, there's infinite variety between bald eagles, waterbirds and little birds to have fun with. The more often you paint birds, the easier it is to get them true! Includes a three-stage demonstration "Barn Swallow" painting in Senneliers on watercolor paper, underpainted with an iridescent wash and primed with clear Colourfix primer.

Animals from Life

Whether it's a squirrel in your yard, the cat in your bed or the dog downstairs, the animals you see every day can be drawn a lot easier even from snapshots than the animals you don't. Observe them every moment you spend with them.

Animals from Photos

Good photo references can help give you accurate anatomy and details for animals you've never seen even in a zoo -- but be careful not to just copy the photo. Learn to avoid photo distortions and combine photo references for lifelike natural animals.

Still Life

Clear Quartz by Robert A. Sloan

What to paint when you have trouble with moving targets? Crystal bowls with lots of detail and living fruit, marbles, stones, ceramics, lace, vases, pottery, flowers... what all still life subjects have in common is that they're easy! You can set up your still life and keep it right where you can see it for as long as it takes to finish the painting. Try small studies of individual objects first, then build up to arranging a still life for a serious painting with a theme.

Drawing Eggs

Drawing eggs is tougher than silver or crystal in some ways, as white objects sometimes have no white on them at all. Step by step tutorial includes a single egg in charcoal and a still life of several eggs. Requires paper, pencil, oil pastels.

Painting Clear Objects

Marbles, quartz pebbles, glass vases or glasses, painting clear objects is easier than it looks. Once you get the knack, your still lifes will be stunning showoff pieces! Choose objects you love and find beautiful, and don't forget the shadows of clear things are gorgeous too.

Arranging a Still Life

Half of the beauty of a serious still life painting comes in arranging the objects, setting up your lighting and choosing your point of view. Get good photos of your setup with a digital camera in case your spouse, mom, daughter, roommate or cat decides to rearrange things.

Abstract Painting

Abstract Wheels by Robert A. Sloan

Abstract painting is tough. When you don't have a recognizable subject to engage the viewer's interest, your composition, color balance and other artistic qualities have to be superb to make it a beautiful painting.

However, were you aware Celtic knotwork, Navajo rug patterns and any repeated design also count as abstracts? This is where your doodles can grow into full-blown fine art. What to paint when you can't decide what to paint could grow from your favorite color, an emotion, or a fancy ancient pattern.

Imaginative Subjects

Dragons, dinosaurs, surrealist landscapes where dreams come alive on your paper, all of these imaginative subjects can be rendered lyrically or as realistic as if you drew the viewer into your mind. When there are no living examples of what to paint, you can still create an accurate impression. This section will build castles in the air with sound principles of good rendering.

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