Why does a painter who is all about color start every painting with black?

Tabby Cat portrait painting work in progress
work in progress -Stage 1

“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

My painting technique is nothing like Leonardo da Vinci’s, and I do not think his idea of painting a canvas with a wash of black had any influence on my development as a painter. Nonetheless, his symbolism of light and dark is very true in my own work. Bringing color and light out of darkness is both a technical and symbolic experience for me.

With few, rare exceptions, my paintings always start with black. Not a “wash” as Da Vinci used, but a very deep and solid black surface.

Why? I am not sure that I can articulate the answer. I can only say that it works for me.

I don’t recall when I started doing this either. I think it started after I had done a series of drawings on black papers with Prismacolor pencils. Regardless of when it started, it is now the cornerstone of my painting process.

Tabby Cat portrait painting work in progress
work in progress stage 2

After painting my canvas or board with black, I start blocking in shapes with certain colors. These colors are “underpainting” and serve to set up future layers of color that will be quite different.

Although the photo here is not the best quality (sorry about that), you can see that I allow the black to show through in places, enhancing the textured crevices. This painting is on OSB board, one of my favorite surfaces because of its unusual texture.

By the way, I almost always paint with acrylic paint which dries fairly quickly, so I can paint a number of layers in one sitting.

When I paint my initial layers of color, I tend to paint the outside “negative space” first, using color to define the inner “positive space” shapes. By focusing on the outside shapes as well as the inner ones, I am always cognizant of making the overall composition one that is dynamic and visually balanced.

I also leave a small black edge (from that initial black surface layer) between shapes to give an irregular outline.

Tabby Cat portrait painting work in progress
work in progress stage 3

Once the shapes have been blocked in and the overall composition and shapes are feeling “right” to me, I start adding layers of color that illuminate and add detail and more texture. These colors are still setting up the eventual top colors that will look very different.

Many artists mix their colors on a palette and blend them on the canvas to get different effects. I don’t do that. I never learned how to do that, quite honestly, as I did not take typical painting classes where they teach those techniques.

Tabby Cat portrait painting work in progress
work in progress stage 4

Instead, I mix flat colors in plastic cups and put one color on a time. I “blend” colors with color theory by allowing the underneath colors to mix visually on the painted surface to give a certain color effect.

By painting a transparent red on the pink layer, then a transparent yellow on top of the red (there are 3-4 layers of yellow), I get a different yellow and textures that I would not have achieved by mixing the colors on a palette.

Around the edges of shapes, little bits of the underneath colors are exposed. Although they may not be evident without a closer view, they add to the way the eye sees the overall color and texture of the painting.

The process may sound somewhat scientific and analytical. There is science involving optics and color theory involved, but most of that is beyond my understanding. Although I am always thinking about the way colors interact with each other on the painting surface, and I am skillfully responding to light and dark balances and other visual elements,  the whole process is very serendipitous for me.

I have come to expect different effects from years of experience, but each painting develops on it’s own and it never ends according to plan. Also, painting animals brings an emotional element to the process.

Although all the analytical thinking is going on in the background of my mind, I feel as though I am touching the soul of the animal with each brushstroke. I also am always thinking about how special the animal must be to it’s human companion. The painting is not only a piece of fine art to be valued on it’s artistic merits, but also a celebration of the relationship between the animal and it’s human caretaker.

Gray Maine Coon Cat Contemporary Folk Art Portrait Painting BZTAT
Completed Pet Portrait Painting of Cat named Scout by BZTAT

In this painting of Scout, I decided late in the process to paint a faux frame around image. I often paint faux frames on my Contemporary Folk Art Style portraits, but I usually include it in the composition in the early stages. This time I did not do that, but  I realized later that I wanted it. That was the painting developing on it’s own.

Scout is very much loved by his human, and they both were very pleased with the portrait. 🙂

I have been venturing into teaching others to paint like I do (not sure if there is a name to my style). I have twice taught a pet portrait class to middle school students with amazing results. It takes some patience, but it is not as difficult as it may seem.

I will be holding an Art Mini-Retreat at my private art studio in Alliance, OH on October 18, 2014 where I will be teaching my Custom Folk Art Style Pet Portrait painting technique. I would love to have you join us if you are in the area! Early bird registration is only $60 (before September 15, 2015). You can learn more about the mini-retreat and register here.

If you are not able to come to the retreat, I am looking into ways to hold online classes to teach my technique to students all around the globe. Stay tuned! let me know if online classes may be of interest to you in the comments below.

You, too, could paint like BZTAT!

Life is an Adventure!



  1. Sandra Vitangeli says:

    How interesting and generous of you to share your process of your colorful art of beloved animals.

    Knowing more detail always gives us more understanding and appreciation.

    Thank you.

  2. Whskr says:


    There is another reason for a good solid dark background. Painting onto light or whit means you use considerably more paint and lose control of the outcome. It happened to me! I ended putting on layer after layer of paint when a dark background for the start would have allowed me to stay in control, and save a lot of time, allowing me to focus more on the work.

    Thanks for a great post!


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