What subject to choose for a painting?


choisir un sujet pour une peinture débutant


The best subject for a painting is the one that is just challenging enough for you so that you can complete it and be happy with the result.

We never feel good at a new skill without technique and practice. I teach painting to students of all levels and my goal is to make them succeed at each painting they do, even their first.

I will give you ideas of what to paint at different levels. One caveat though, figurative painting is very much about drawing skills. You can develop your drawing skills and painting skills at the same time or separately. For this post, I will consider that both skills are being developed simultaneously.


Have never painted before OR think they are TERRIBLE!

I recommend doing simple shapes in monochrome paint (black and white)

élève dessinant

Choice of painting subject (all monochrome):

  • Geometric shapes (cube, sphere, cone, cylinder)
  • Fruit
  • Simple flowers (ex. daisy)

What to master at this stage:

  1. Drawing simple forms
  2. Introduction to perspective
  3. Measuring form at a distance and transposing 3D object to a 2D surface
  4. Introduction to light and shadow
  5. Value scales and how to control values

échelle de valeur

This is the first painting by one of my beginner students

choisir un sujet pour une peinture débutant

2-Beginner-Intermediate student

Depending on the drawing skills, I would advise doing at least one more monochrome painting subject to make sure that the student understands that the value system is what creates form and gives the illusion of light. Color can be viewed as a dressing on top of the form.

Choice of painting subject (all monochrome):

  • Details of animals
  • Details of human anatomy (eye, mouth, foot)
  • Landscape with good lighting structure
  • Still life with a single light source

What to master at this stage:

  1. Drawing more complex subjects by breaking them down into large shapes
  2. Comparing abstract shapes, positive (the objects) and negative (outside the objects)
  3. Transitions between shapes-value
  4. Soft and hard edges
  5. How to vary brush strokes and pattern repetition (ex. hair of the horse below)

This is a painting by one of my beginner-intermediate students

choisir un sujet pour une peinture intermédiaire

3-Intermediate student

Time to introduce color! Introduction of a limited palette consisting of the three primaries (yellow, red and blue), white and black.

Choice of painting subjects:

  • Fruits
  • Simple landscapes
  • Flowers
  • Simple still life

What to master at this stage:

  1. Understanding the color wheel
  2. Color mixing – how to create secondary and tertiary colors from primary colors
  3. Color temperature, color intensity and how to neutralize a color
  4. How to organize a palette and the concept of color-value

poire peinte

4-Intermediate-advanced student

At this level, students should have a good mastery of value, colors, and shapes. It is time to take more complex subjects.

Choice of painting subjects:

  • Bowls of fruits
  • Elaborate landscapes
  • Bouquet of flowers
  • Complex still life

What to master at this stage:

  1. Drawing complex shapes by simplifying larger elements and breaking them into smaller shapes
  2. Painting in layers (block-in, elaboration, finishing)
  3. Paint transparency and opacity
  4. Color theory and harmony

This is a painting by one of my intermediate-advanced students

choisir un sujet pour une peinture intermédiaire et avancé

5-Advanced student

At this level, subjects are a matter of preference but the difficulty level should always be just challenging enough. The techniques are pretty much the same as for other levels but the subject complexity makes them longer to complete.

Choice of painting subjects:

  • Portrait
  • Complete human form
  • Complex landscape
  • Interior scenes

What to master at this stage:

  • Glazing and scumbling
  • Analysis of the human head and features
  • Basic anatomy
  • Compositions (how to arrange elements in a painting)
  • Alla prima techniques, impasto.

This is a painting by one of my advanced students

choisir un sujet pour une peinture avancé


The choice of a painting subject should be done with regards to the skill level of the student. It is only by choosing the right degree of difficulty that we can have a satisfactory result.

If someone thinks they are terrible at painting or have no talent, it is almost invariably because they are painting subjects that are too complex and for which they have not received adequate instruction.

So, one step at a time and painting will be a joy!

As a portrait artist, Eric enjoys sharing his knowledge with his students in his Atelier classes and online on artzok.com. His paintings merge the rich traditions of the past, the scientific knowledge of the last decades and a contemporary spontaneity that gives a breath of life to his art.