Introduction: Make a Van Gogh Paint by Numbers Artwork

How Paint By Numbers Started
Most people could only dream of painting like Van Gogh - he became one of my favourite artists after reading "Dear Theo" - and I wish I had learnt to paint from a paint by numbers kit. I might have learnt to paint a lot sooner. Here's a simple way to make your own paint by numbers picture, how to paint it and own a masterpiece based on a master artist.

Critics would scorn the paint by numbers method, but it was the Paint By Numbers Inventor, Dan Robbins who noticed Leonardo da Vinci, 500 years prior, numbered his paintings for assistants to fill in . . .. . . well Paint by Numbers was born.

Why paint anyway?
Why bother attempting to paint a Van Gogh when software and canvas inkjet papers can make a printout look like it was painted? Well there are many benefits when you paint - copying a masterpiece - or even painting at all. If you don't have paint why not paint-by-numbers in plasticine  or even playdough

I like how it helps the beginning artists to:
  • develop eye and hand co-ordination
  • observe carefully by sharpening your shape and texture recognition,
  • understand how colour works - why some colours look good together and why others not so good together
  • improving your aesthetic sensitivity a hundred times over
  • turn once boring blobs of paint - humdrum ordinary things turn into interesting things of simple beauty.

Children and adults of all ages, begin to calm down and peace settles once they concentrate on a paint by numbers painting. Grandma Moses began painting beautiful primitives at 78. She said "Anyone can paint if they want to. All they have to do is get a brush and start right in, same as I did."

How Easy is This Instructable?
Watch this video of The Largest Paint by Numbers Painting of a Foot

Well, that just goes to show - everyone could paint as wonderfully as Vincent Van Gogh.....
if they wanted to. God made the world too beautiful to ignore * . *

Here's how to get a foot into the secret world of painting ....

So let's get started!

Step 1: Trace the Artwork on Acetate / Clingwrap

(Please check out How to draw anything instructable Part 1, first, to get through this instructable faster)

1. Choose the artwork you want to copy. Choose a high resolution version that clearly shows up the artist's brush strokes. Print out from computer in colour as a reference point.

2. Grab some acetate or plastic cling wrap and a fine permanent marker.

3. Cover the picture with acetate / cling wrap and trace over each area that has the same colour.

When you can see a slightly darker or light colour - outline that as well.

4. Scan the acetate / plastic wrap tracing.

5. Print out the scanned outlines on paper.

Step 2: Adjust Image in RealWorld Paint Software


1.Open with RealWorld Paint software (freeware).
2. Click Image on the top menu header
3. Click colour adjustments (ctrl+k)
4. Adjust as much as possible until grey tones disappear and black and white image remains.
5. Print to required size as poster

Step 3: Tracing With Computer Software

1. Trace over the painting you want to copy inReal World Paint' (freeware image editor).

This software is nearly like Photoshop.

Create 2 layers. Look at the heading LAYERS. Click add new layer.

One layer is for tracing and one for the Van Gogh picture below it.

A drawing tablet is especially useful. Watch how to trace a picture in RealWorldPaint video here

In Starry Night, I attempted to outline each brush stroke but on getting dizzy with amount of strokes, sketched the directional lines quickly. Taking note which direction to paint the brush strokes later.

2. Delete the background image layer you are copying.

3. Print the traced lines only as a POSTER SIZE in your printer settings.

Step 4: Simplest Method - Attach to Cardboard

Glue poster-size copy together.

I used a glue stick to match both sides exactly.

Step 5: Create a Textured Surface for Painting

Here's how to create a textured surface directly on the computer paper. Its surprising how much filmsy computer paper can take.

There are two ways - using polymer varnish or DIY starch paste.

It will add a strong texturised surface for your painting - both oils and acrylics.

1. Paint your photocopy or traced lines with 2 layers of acrylic medium / polymer acrylic clear varnish.

The kind of brush you use will determine the texture of your painting, use a rough brush to create a rough surface the oils can stick to.

This creates an impermeable surface to paint on with either oils or acrylics.

Step 6: DIY Paint Medium

You could also use wheat starch paste as the varnish. (recipe below)

Rice Starch Glue Paste recipe
3 Tbl Rice flour (or wheat flour starch found in Asian shops)
1 cup water
2 T Salt dissolved in boiling water
optional - Drop of eucalyptus oil to prevent mould

Mix water and flour together till lumps are gone in pot.

Cook until translucent. Keeps in fridge 3 days. This is used instead of PVA for decoupage or papier mache techniques. Extremely strong and dries rock hard.

You could also use this recipe as paint medium to add body to your waterbased paints.

Step 7: Attach to Cardboard

1. Glue to strong cardboard with starch paste or PVA or stick glue.

2. Smooth any wrinkles. Leave to dry in sun.

Acrylic can stick to anything, but will make the picture more interesting with a bit of texture. Its possible to paint on say plastic cling wrap with acrylic paint, but it must be thickly applied.

You might wish to add the rice starch glue with the acrylics (not oils) as an impasto medium .

Step 8: Transfer Traced Lines to Canvas / Fabric (Advanced Technique)

Transfering your traced lines and numbers to canvas or fabric (Advanced tenchnique)
Transfer to your canvas use an overhead projector or carbon paper or the grid method.
Here's a great video showing carbon paper transfer]

1. Place carbon paper underneath the computer printout.
2. Re-trace with red biro or bright colour over the computer printout.

In the video above, the lady prints out a colour photocopy to trace with carbon paper.

Why not use a greyscale copy instead? If you trace over the black white printout it will be easier to see the dark and lighter colours.

(if you don't have any carbon paper experiment with carbon paper from fax machine, it might work too).

Step 9: Work Out the Colours to Mix

In this Van Gogh picture of the room there 2 ways to work out how many colours there are and numbers.

1. Open the image in aReal World Paint freeware software

You need a eyedropper tool - when you click on the different colours in the picture you can then drag that colour to the colour mix box.

In Paint software, click on the eye dropper tool on a colour on your picture you want to store the colours to print out. Now click on the brush tool. Draw any shape. Click on the paint bucket and pour the colour into the shape. It will fill the shape with the colour.


Step 10: Colour Swatches

Print out your swatches ready for mixing.

Check out this excellent colour mixing site by Australian Artist Julie Duell

Step 11: Is the Shade Right?

The other option is to use coloured pencils and colour in the different colours you see and guess by eye then number each colour.

You will need to study carefully the colours you can see - download a free Pantone colour chart at their site to print. There are free colour charts at hardware stores too.

How to recognise and organise colour shades
If you print out a black white version to help you see more clearly the 3 levels of tone every colour has - lightest, medium dark, darkest.

The other colors are white and black.

Black is lighter than "darkest" and white is lighter than "lightest".

To make it easier think of every colour can be classified as three shades of coffee -
1. latte = lightest
2. mocha = medium dark
3. long black = darkest

This helps you to mixing your colours and wondering if its too dark or too light.

Step 12: New Tech Reference

Transfer your image to cd.

Play on your dvd player and watch it on a large screen tv and keep that as your reference to work out the numbers and mix the colours.

This is another option if you'd rather save your printer ink but want to see each colour and stroke more clearly.

Once your worked out your colours, you can see automatically where the colours need to go.

In fact numbering each shape isn't necessary any more because you've already outlined each colour.

Step 13: Filling in - Mixing Paint - Start With Similar Colours

Here's how to get it together.

You may wish to use acrylic paints or oil paints or coloured pencils.

A really helpful book on colour theory is: Color : a course in mastering the art of mixing colors / Betty Edwards. Here's a superb website about '''how to mix colours''' and many step by step painting demonstrations.

1. Paint all the similar numbers at the same time - because if you're using acrylics they tend to dry faster and its difficult sometimes to mix the same shade exactly the next time.

2. Oil paints are lovely to 'butter' your painting with, but the turpentine fumes a bit overwhelming.

If you add a bit of linseed oil that will make the paints thicken up like Van Gogh's confident brush strokes, but may take even longer to dry.

Its easier to smudge the colours accidentally when the paint is still wet.

There are water-based "oil" paints available now, they look oily and can be brushed on thickly = impasto - like Van Gogh chunky brushstrokes - but actually are water-based and enviromentally friendly.

3. Coloured pencils are much easier to control and you can layer new colours until you get the exact tone you want.

The result will be flat rather than appear like the thick, gutsy Van Gogh style.

I think Vincent would have loved using Oil Pastels if they were around in his time.

Step 14: Working Out the Blues

This was a bit tricky matching the blues up.

I microwaved some rice flour , salt and water until it became opaque to make a painting paste.

Continue with similar colours to complete painting.

Step 15: Why Are Vincent Van Gogh's Paintings So Popular and Loved by Millions Today?

I think I'll let Barbara Uleland have the last word:

Well, Van Gogh was one of the great painters.

During his life, he made only 109 dollars in all on his paintings. They are now worth two million dollars...

....And see, a few words he has written in his letters, these many years after his death, have changed my whole life!

By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it. In the same way (as I would tell my class), you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.

To show the creative impulse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then wanting to share it with others, not for the purpose of showing off, but out of generosity."

Van Gogh said: "My only anxiety is what I can do.. In a picture i wish to say something that would console as music does".

"We take beautiful walks together. it is very beautiful here, if one only has an open and simple eye without any beams in it. But if one has that it is beautiful everywhere".

"Painters understand nature and love her and teach us to see her." -Barbara Uleland (If You Want To Write Anything, 1938)