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  • Writer's pictureJames Spencer

My Painting Process - An In-depth Guide

I am often asked about the process behind my work so I thought it would be nice to share what goes into creating a painting, step by step. I’ll take you through the whole process, from preparing a painting surface to finally framing and photographing the finished work. I will introduce you to my alla prima painting technique, the materials I use and why I use them.

Use these links to jump to specific parts of the guide:

Preparing A Painting Surface


I prefer to paint on wood panels as opposed to canvas when working in oil. There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost because there is no movement in the surface when applying brushstrokes on panel whereas canvas will always have a bit of flex. I also find that the textured grain of canvas can mean that you need a lot more paint to cover the surface which for me makes the process feel more laboured and less spontaneous. The relative smoothness of panels allows for crisp, fresh mark making which is a key aspect of my work. The grain of canvas can help to produce lovely textures but for works on a smaller scale I feel that my painting benefits more from the smoothness of wood panels. Portability is also a key factor here. When painting ‘en plein air’ it is far easier to transport panels rather than canvases due to their rigidity and thin profile. Works on canvas are also more susceptible to damage and deterioration over time when compared to panels. Impacts can cause tears or dents in the surface of canvas paintings and whilst panel pieces can of course get damaged if not taken care of, they are less vulnerable. That is certainly not to say there is no place for canvas in painting, in fact for larger scale work canvas is probably the best choice as it is less prone to warping when compared to wood panels.

I use 5mm plywood as this thickness remains rigid and lightweight when cut into panels up to at least 10x12’’. I buy full sheets of plywood and have them cut to size at my local builder's merchants. The next step is to dust off the panels, front and back. This ensures they are free of any tiny flecks of wood which could get stuck in the paint when priming the surface.


Next I apply 1 coat of clear acrylic primer to the back and edges of the panel. This is in order to seal the surface so that moisture will not be drawn into the plywood. Moisture in the air could make the panel more prone to warping if the surfaces are not sealed. There are other wood primers on the market but I only use mediums which are specifically designed for use in the creation of art. I find Golden’s GAC 100 is great for this purpose. I apply the GAC 100 with a paint brush, being careful not to get any on the other side of the panel.  If I get any acrylic primer (GAC 100) on the painting surface then it will affect how the gesso and oil paint adhere due to it’s glossy texture.


Once the acrylic primer has dried I apply gesso to the painting surface and edges. The purpose of gesso is give the oil paint a toothy surface which it can adhere to. Properly priming with gesso will contribute towards a strong, stable paint film, making the painting less vulnerable to deterioration over time.  I use a mix of Golden’s white & black acrylic gessoes to produce a neutral grey tone. I like to use grey as I find it works as a great base for mixing colours whereas white can feel very harsh, making accurate colour mixing quite tricky. Just on a side note, I also have my clear palette painted in a neutral grey on the underside. This is so that I can see how the colours will appear when applied to the panel and whether they are the right tone and hue. Back to gesso. I no longer use a brush to apply gesso, instead I opt for a squeegee. This may seem like an unusual tool to apply paint but I find it very effective in producing smooth layers without brushstrokes. I cover the panel with 5 layers of gesso. The panels are left to dry for at least 3 days before being used to ensure the acrylic paint film has cured.

Painting A Studio Still Life


The first step in creating a painting is to decide on a subject. I like to paint a range of subjects but I’m often drawn towards objects which interact with light in interesting ways such as glass, polished metals and flowers. I also like to play with colour through the use of statement backgrounds, you can see examples of this in my ‘Jars’ series.  My still life pieces tend to be minimal in composition. I like to leave plenty of negative space around the subject as I find this creates a sense of calm. I particularly enjoy putting humble, everyday objects on a pedestal. The aim being to encourage the viewer to take a moment to mindfully contemplate the world around them. Sometimes I make thumbnail sketches to check that the composition works and to get to know the subject a little better before starting the actual painting.

Decide On Panel Size

After putting together a composition I must decide which size panel to use. In recent years I have painted a lot of 6x8’’ and 8x10’’ studies but I’m currently enjoying working on a slightly larger scale. This allows me the space to put more movement into my mark making and generally be more expressive in my painting.

Easel Positioning

Once I have selected a panel I fix it to my easel which is usually set 2-3 feet back from the subject, depending of course on the size on the subject. From this distance is the whole subject should be visible within one field of view. In any painting, in the studio on en plein air I always try to make sure that the subject fits within my field of vision, without needing to turn my head. This is because the perspective alters as you adjust your viewpoint, effectively the goal posts are moving as you line up to take a shot.

Preparing The Palette

I like to keep things fairly minimal when it comes to colour selection. I use a limited palette of titanium white, Winsor Yellow, Winsor Deep Red, French ultramarine and burnt umber. This simple approach gives me the opportunity to really get to know each colour whilst still allowing me to mix a vast range of tones and hues. When using the same set of colours throughout a body of work an additional benefit is the harmony between pieces. Hues echoed across individual paintings can unify a selection of works to create a balanced whole. This is especially effective when producing work for exhibitions as the paintings will be viewed both individually and as a complete body.

I use small pots at the top of my palette to contain my paints, this stops them from drying out too quickly and prevents unnecessary waste. Next on my palette is my metal dipper pot. This contains the medium that I mix into my paints to make them more fluid. Here I should point out that I paint without the use of solvents. I am a big fan of Gamblin’s Solvent Free Fluid which allows me to make fresh, flowing brushstrokes all without breathing in solvent fumes. I’m primarily an ‘alla prima’ painter, meaning that I tackle a painting in one sitting as opposed to building a piece up through multiple layers. This method removes the necessity of thinning early layers of paint with solvents.


When it comes to brushes I tend to use synthetic hog filberts along with long and short flats in a range of sizes. I love the feel of these brushes as they enable me to cover the surface quickly with bold brushstrokes as well as paint finer details effectively. They also stand up pretty well to being scrubbed and twisted into the panel. Brushes will loose their shape over time when using this technique but I still hold on to them even when they appear a bit ragged. Their splayed bristles create wonderful natural textures, great for suggesting areas of foliage and grasses.


I begin by using a small brush with just a tiny amount of pure burnt umber to sketch out a rough composition. I don’t add any medium to the paint at this point, the intention is simply to create a framework which will guide me during the ‘blocking in’ stage.


Before I start blocking in I like to pre mix pools of paint for the main three to five colours. Firstly I take a moment to observe my subject and the key areas of light and shadow. I find squinting to be the most effective way to detect this contrast. Then I decide which core colours make up the bulk of my composition. This method makes the painting process more efficient than mixing from scratch each time I need a different colour. Mixing plenty of paint from the start ensures that I will have continuity of colour throughout the painting. If for example I’m painting in the background and realise I haven’t mixed enough of that colour I will need to re-mix it and then match the hue and tone which can be really tricky to get right.

Another benefit to having the main colours ready-mixed is that once I begin the piece I can easily jump between colours whilst maintaining my momentum and flow. Colour mixing is surprisingly time consuming, in fact I’d suggest that more time is spent on the palette than on the painting surface. Therefore having colours pre-mixed means I don’t have to break my rhythm and refocus as often as I would do otherwise.


Block In

Now it’s time to start blocking in main areas except for the background. Again I observe the subject and take my time to decide on the placement of each colour. This stage is the foundation for the whole painting so it’s important to be as accurate of possible. Making large alterations further in to the painting process can lead to a loss of freshness and vitality. I try to keep the blocks of colour quite angular as the initial drawing and composition can be easily lost if I soften edges and shapes too soon, flats are especially useful for this step. For each slab of colour I try to use the biggest brush possible relative to the space I will be covering. This is in order to apply the paint in a solid, uniform tone. Filling a large area with a small brush will probably produce areas of inconsistent, broken colour which is not what I’m aiming for in these early stages.

Next I mix mid-tones from the pre mixed pools of colour to give the shapes form. This step is where the subject will begin to look more three dimensional. Now I can start adding more detailed areas on top of the simple blocked in shapes. The previous stage was about creating solid blocks colour, free of noticeable texture but in this stage I will use a variety of marks for a natural feel. My goal is always to paint each detail with the fewest brushstrokes possible in order to keep the painting fresh. Once I have laid down an area of colour I fight the temptation to make any further adjustments until I have completely covered the panel. This is because each colour can only be observed accurately when it is seen in relation to all the other colours. If one colour is too bright or of the wrong hue it will only be apparent when every other colour is in it’s place. Plenty of times I have thought that a colour is too dark when in actual fact after painting in the surrounding areas it’s too light. This is why I always tell myself to be patient and wait before ‘correcting’ any colour.


I prefer to add the background last because this method allows me cut in around the subject. If necessary I can redefine or soften edges depending of the effect I’m trying to convey. Firstly though I will load the background tone on to my biggest brush and once again block in. I must leave a small border around the other elements of the painting at this point. This will avoid polluting the background colour with that of the subject. Once I have covered the rest of the panel, I can begin to cut in. I take a small brush loaded with plenty of the background tone and paint in the remaining areas of unpainted panel. I cut around the shape of the subject, being careful not to disturb to the other colours more than necessary. If I do pick up any unwanted colour I will clean it from my brush and refresh it with the background colour before applying any more brush strokes. It’s always worth working carefully where contrasting edges meet to avoid accidentally mixing the colours into each other and therefore diminishing their strength.

Finishing Touches

Finally I can add the final details. The type of details I’m referring to are for example the small white highlight on the rim of a glass jar or a few marks to suggest the dimpled texture of a lemon . This type of detail would have been lost if applied too soon during the painting process so it’s best left until last. I find this stage particularly enjoyable because it’s when the whole piece really comes to life. Sometimes all it takes is the smallest highlight for everything to click into place.

Step Back and Check

Throughout the painting process I regularly take a few of steps back from the easel to view the work and check I’m on the right track. From this distance it will be clear if any areas need further attention. Now that every element of the painting has been taken care of it’s my last chance to step back and assess whether any adjustments are required.

Make Necessary Alterations

If I feel that I need to make any adjustments to the piece then I will be careful not to disturb the rest of the painting and only change areas which really require reworking. Otherwise, there is the potential for overworking the painting and losing the sense of spontaneity and vibrancy.


The final step is to sign the painting with my monogram. To scratch ‘JS’ into the wet paint I use the end of a paintbrush which I have sharpened point specifically for this purpose. I try to make my monogram as small as possible because I don’t want it to detract from the painting, this is especially important for smaller works. I feel that the signature should only be there to identify the artist as opposed to being a feature of the painting itself. This is also why I use a monogram rather than my full name.


The painting is now left to dry. Drying times vary throughout the year depending on atmospheric factors such as the weather and temperature. Usually though my paintings will be touch dry within a few days.


When the painting has thoroughly dried it’s time for varnishing. I mentioned earlier in the process that I don’t use solvents in the painting process but I do use a varnish which contains solvent as it’s pretty much impossible to find solvent free varnish. For me this isn’t such an issue because I only spend a tiny fraction of my time varnishing in comparison to painting. I use Gamblin’s Gamvar varnish as it can be applied and removed fairly easily. Also it can be applied far sooner than traditional permanent varnishes. I have used both the gloss and satin versions of this varnish and to be honest I like them both, it’s really just a matter of preference.


Good framing really brings out the best in a painting. I personally like to use classic ‘scoop’ or ‘spoon’ style mouldings in neutral colours as I feel that they work in both traditional and modern spaces. Once I have decided on the framing style I measure the painting and order my mouldings cut to size. I often use the framing supplier Lion’s chop service for this. When I receive the pre cut mouldings from Lion I join them myself in the studio with my V-nail joiner.

Priming and Painting The Frame

The next step is to prepare the frame for painting. I mask off the back of the frame so that it remains fresh whilst painting. Then I prime the wood with a good quality white wood primer. Once this has dried I apply 2 coats of the desired colour to the front part of the frame, but not the sides as this will be another colour. When this has dried I mask off the front of the frame, leaving only the part of the beveled edge and the sides of the frame. This is so that I can create the two tone effect which I use a lot in my framing at the moment. I then paint the exposed area with a different colour, usually a medium grey tone. When the paint has dried I remove the masking tape and check for areas which may have been missed or need another coat, I then fix these areas with a small brush.

The next step is to place the panel into the frame. If necessary I glue very thin pieces of wood into the rebate to ensure the panel fits securely within the frame. Once I am satisfied with the fit of the panel I will use my tab driver to secure it into the frame. The tab driver fires thin pointed strips of metal horizontally into the rebate of the frame. These flat metal tabs hold the panel in place.

Picture Cord

I measure approximately one third down from top of the frame before marking and fixing D rings. I then cut a length of picture cord to 3x the width between the D rings. I tie 4 knots before finally stitching the ends together by hand to keep the cord neat.

The painting is now framed and ready to hang.

Preparing The Work For Sale

In addition to the painting, varnishing and framing I will also briefly describe how I prepare my work for sale and then finally deliver it.


Before I can make the work available online I must photograph it. I photograph my paintings in the studio with two identical lamps, one on either side of the painting to ensure it is well lit. I also use black fabric to screen off the area in order to reduce reflections. Once I have photographed the piece I check that the photograph resembles the real life image and if necessary I will adjust the contrast, hue etc to make sure the photograph is an accurate representation.

Online Shop

The painting is then added to my online shop along with all the relevant details such as title, price, medium, dimensions and also information regarding delivery and returns.

Receive Order

Once an order is received I carefully pack the painting. Each painting is securely packaged with plenty of protective material to guard it from any potential impacts while in transit.

I use a double box system to create a cushion of space which protects the work. The first box containing the painting is sealed securely and this is then placed inside a larger, strong cardboard box. The void between the two boxes is filled with bubblewrap or another effective cushioning material. Then the box is folded down and taped to ensure that the contents remain secure.

In order to prevent unnecessary waste and to be kinder to the environment I try to reuse or recycle packaging materials such as bubblewrap and cardboard where possible.


I take great care to ensure the whole delivery process goes as smoothly as possible. If the delivery location is local to my studio I will often hand deliver the work. Otherwise the painting will be sent with Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed By 1pm. Delivery is free on all orders.

I hope you have found this behind the scenes guide useful and that it has given you a bit more of an insight to my process. If you have any further questions about my work please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

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