8 Tips for Mastering Modern Figurative Painting
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. Explore varied subjects
  2. Embrace bold colors
  3. Experiment with scale
  4. Use line to guide the viewer
  5. Play with perspective
  6. Incorporate texture
  7. Mix media for unique effects
  8. Practice observational sketching

Are you ready to take your figurative painting to the next level? Whether you're just starting out or have been dabbing in this art form for years, there's always room for growth. That's why we've compiled a list of eight modern figurative painting tips to help you refine your craft. So, let's dive right in and start creating some masterpieces!

Explore varied subjects

Here's a tip that can really open up your creative horizons: explore a variety of subjects. Yes, it may be easy to stick to what you know, but there's so much more out there! And here's the best part: by experimenting with different subjects, you can discover new techniques and styles that can add a modern twist to your figurative painting.

  • People: People make for great subjects because they're complex and full of emotion. Ever tried painting a person's face? It's an art in itself! You can express so much just by the way you paint their eyes or the curve of their lips.
  • Nature: Painting nature allows you to play with colors, perspectives, and textures. Each leaf, each petal, each wave can tell a story. Plus, nature scenes can be incredibly calming to paint.
  • Abstract concepts: Think love, fear, joy, solitude. These concepts may not have a physical form, but they can be represented in your paintings. For instance, how would you paint 'joy'? Bright colors? Dancing figures? The possibilities are endless.
  • Everyday objects: Sometimes, the most ordinary things can make the most extraordinary subjects. A cup of coffee, a pair of worn-out shoes, a rain-soaked window – they can all take on a new life under your brush.

So, next time you pick up your paintbrush, why not try something new? Who knows, you might just find a new favorite subject to paint. Remember, exploration is the key to mastering modern figurative painting. Happy painting!

Embrace bold colors

One of the most effective modern figurative painting tips is to embrace bold colors. Color can bring your painting to life, adding energy and emotion to your work. So don't be afraid to experiment with bold, vibrant hues!

Here are a few ways you can incorporate bold colors into your painting:

  • Contrasting colors: Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (think red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple) create a vibrant contrast when used together. This can add a dynamic, energetic feel to your painting.
  • Unexpected color choices: Who says the sky has to be blue or grass has to be green? Challenge the norms and surprise your viewers with unexpected color choices. Imagine a pink sky or turquoise grass – doesn't it add a surreal, modern twist to your painting?
  • Saturated colors: Saturated colors are pure, undiluted hues that can make your painting pop. Using these colors can help bring attention to the focal points of your painting.
  • Colorful shadows: Instead of sticking to typical greys and blacks for shadows, try using rich, deep colors like blues, purples, or greens. This can add depth and interest to your painting.

Remember, color is a powerful tool in your artist's arsenal. It can set the mood, highlight important elements, and create a visual impact. So, go ahead and embrace those bold colors in your next painting. You'll be surprised at the difference they can make.

Experiment with scale

Next on our list of modern figurative painting tips is to experiment with scale. The scale of the elements in your painting can drastically impact the overall feel and interpretation of your work. Playing around with scale can make your painting more intriguing and eye-catching.

Here are some ways you can experiment with scale in your artwork:

  • Exaggerate dimensions: You could paint certain elements larger or smaller than they would be in reality. For instance, painting a tiny house under a gigantic tree can create a sense of whimsy and fantasy.
  • Play with perspective: Changing the viewer's perspective can also alter the perceived scale of objects. A close-up view of a flower, for example, can make it appear larger than life.
  • Create contrast: Using a mix of large and small elements in your painting will create contrast and make your work more visually interesting.
  • Focus on details: Sometimes, painting in a larger scale allows you to focus on and highlight intricate details that might go unnoticed in a smaller painting.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to scale in modern figurative painting. So, don't hesitate to step outside your comfort zone and experiment. You might be surprised by the unique and eye-catching pieces you create!

Use line to guide the viewer

Another essential trick in the book of modern figurative painting tips is using line to guide the viewer's eye. The lines in your painting act like invisible arrows, guiding the viewer's gaze across the canvas. They can help to create a sense of flow and can subtly draw attention to the focal points of your painting.

Here are some line-based tricks you can incorporate into your artwork:

  • Directional Lines: These are lines that lead the eye in a certain direction. For example, a path winding into the distance can draw the viewer's eye into the painting.
  • Implied Lines: These are not actual lines, but the viewer's eye perceives them as such. An example would be a line of people waiting at a bus stop or a row of trees in a landscape.
  • Contour Lines: These lines define the edges of a form. By varying the thickness and darkness of these lines, you can create a sense of depth and volume.
  • Expressive Lines: These are lines that express a certain mood or feeling. Jagged lines can create tension, while smooth, flowing lines can evoke a sense of calm.

Whether you're creating a quiet, contemplative scene or a bustling cityscape, the lines in your painting can help to tell your story. So next time you pick up your brush, remember: every line matters.

Play with perspective

Next on our journey through modern figurative painting tips, we dive into the world of perspective. Playing with perspective can open up new possibilities in your artwork. It can add depth, create intrigue, and make your paintings more dynamic.

There's no rule that says you need to stick with a single point of view, either. In fact, a change in perspective can breathe fresh life into a common subject. Picture this: instead of painting a portrait from the typical eye-level view, what if you painted it from above, or below? Suddenly, an ordinary scene can become extraordinary.

Here are a few perspective tricks you can try:

  • One-Point Perspective: This is when all lines converge to a single point in the distance. It's great for creating a strong sense of depth.
  • Two-Point Perspective: This is when lines converge to two points on the horizon. It's fantastic for painting buildings or cityscapes.
  • Three-Point Perspective: This is when lines converge to three points. It's perfect for dramatic angles, like looking up at a skyscraper or down a steep hill.
  • Aerial Perspective: This technique uses color and detail to create the illusion of depth. Objects in the distance are less detailed and have cooler, lighter colors, while closer objects have more detail and warmer, darker colors.

Remember, playing with perspective isn't just about getting the angles right—it's about seeing the world from a new angle. So, why not give it a try and see where it takes you?

Incorporate texture

Texture is another one of the modern figurative painting tips that can add another dimension to your artwork, making it more stimulating and engaging for the viewer. It's a delight for both the eyes and the fingertips, and can capture the attention of anyone who sees your work.

Imagine the roughness of a tree bark, the smoothness of a river stone, or the softness of a feather. Each texture tells a story. You can use texture in your modern figurative painting to evoke emotions, create emphasis, or add visual interest.

Here are some techniques you can use to incorporate texture into your painting:

  • Impasto: This technique involves applying paint thickly so it stands out from the surface. When the paint dries, it creates a texture that can catch the light, adding depth and dimension to your painting.
  • Scumbling: With this technique, you apply a thin layer of light, opaque paint over a dried darker layer. The darker paint shows through in places, creating a textured effect.
  • Glazing: This is when you apply a thin, transparent layer of paint over a dried layer. It can create a glossy texture and add depth to colors.
  • Sgraffito: This technique involves scratching into wet paint to reveal the layers underneath. It can create a variety of textures, from fine lines to large, bold scratches.

Remember, adding texture to your paintings isn't just about creating a tactile experience. It's also about bringing your artwork to life. So, roll up your sleeves and start exploring the world of textures!

Mix media for unique effects

Creating a modern figurative painting isn't just about using a single medium. Mixing different types of media can give your work a unique look and feel that can't be achieved with one medium alone. This is another one of the modern figurative painting tips to consider when you're eager to push the boundaries of your creativity.

For example, you might combine watercolors and pastels to create soft, dreamy effects. Or, you might mix acrylic paints with collage elements for a bold, textured look. Perhaps, you're drawn to the contrast between the bright, saturated colors of markers and the subtle tones of graphite. The options are endless!

Here are a few combinations you might want to try:

  • Oil and Charcoal: Oil paints have a rich, creamy texture that contrasts beautifully with the rough, gritty texture of charcoal. You can use charcoal to sketch out your design, then add depth and color with oil paints.
  • Watercolor and Ink: Watercolors are known for their soft, flowing effects, while ink provides bold, precise lines. The combination can create a striking contrast that brings your figures to life.
  • Pastel and Acrylic: Pastels provide a soft, subtle color palette, while acrylics offer vibrant, saturated colors. Mixing the two can create an exciting tension in your artwork.

Remember, there's no right or wrong way to mix media. The key is to experiment and have fun with it. You never know—you might discover a combination that becomes your signature style!

Practice observational sketching

One of the most effective ways to improve your modern figurative painting skills is by practicing observational sketching. This is one of those modern figurative painting tips that seems simple, but can profoundly impact the quality of your work.

Observational sketching involves drawing from life. You might sketch a person, an object, or a scene exactly as you see it. This helps to develop your eye for detail, your understanding of light and shadow, and your ability to capture the essence of your subject.

Consider this: have you ever noticed how a teapot glows in the afternoon sunlight, or how a friend's face lights up when they laugh? These are the moments to capture in your sketches. They'll bring a touch of reality and emotion to your figurative paintings that viewers will connect with.

Here are a few tips to get started with observational sketching:

  1. Carry a sketchbook with you: You never know when inspiration will strike. Maybe it's a scene at a coffee shop, a sunset over the city, or a passerby with an interesting face. When you have your sketchbook, you can capture these moments as they happen.
  2. Focus on the big shapes first: When you start a sketch, resist the urge to dive into the details. Instead, draw the large shapes first to get the overall structure. Then, you can add in the smaller shapes and details.
  3. Observe the light: Light can dramatically change the mood of a scene. Notice where the light is coming from, where it hits the subject, and where the shadows fall. These observations will help you create a more realistic, engaging image.

By practicing observational sketching on a regular basis, you'll find your figurative paintings become more accurate, expressive, and captivating. It's a small habit that can make a big difference in your artwork!

If you enjoyed our "8 Tips for Mastering Modern Figurative Painting" blog post and want to further develop your painting skills, we highly recommend the workshop 'Classical Painting in the Modern Day' by Eric Drummond. This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and techniques to adapt classical painting methods to your modern figurative art, helping you create truly stunning pieces.