An Expert’s Secrets for Painting Interiors

Painting an interior view offers an intimate glimpse into another life, another environment, another time. I mean really — don’t you enjoy seeing the light in your neighbors’ windows as you drive by at night? Light through a window: there’s a warm camaraderie there.

Morning Light at Seven Hearths by Dorothy Lorenze

Morning Light at Seven Hearths by Dorothy Lorenze

Traditionally, interior paintings are part of a subset known as “genre” paintings to distinguish them from portraits, landscape, still life and historic or religious themes.

Genre refers to scenes of everyday life rather than grand imagery. The warm intimate paintings of domestic vignettes by Dutch artists Johannes Vermeer or Jan Steen and the moody, spare interiors of Danish artists Vilhelm Hammershøi and Carl Vilhelm Holsøe are excellent examples.

Some of the unique challenges to creating an effective interior painting include:

Accurate perspective

Without it, the visual space will not be believable. Perspective is complicated. The concepts and rules are explained in this free guide.

Center of interest

Always important, but it can be especially difficult to narrow down in a complex view.

Capturing mood

Consider the emotions your view inspires and work with value, color and line quality to support or enhance it.

Depth of field

Distance is created not only by angular perspective but also with careful handling of hard and soft edges as well as contrasts in value and color.


Interior scenes often have many small details, creating a rich environment. While it may not always be true that “less is more,” certainly “everything” can be too much! Make a conscious decision to minimize areas that do not help the composition.

interior painting,studio

J Alden Weir Studio Annex ©Dorothy Lorenze

This view of Julian Alden Weir’s studio annex contained many more objects. Including all would have made them hard to distinguish. Contrasting edges are also shown here. The hard edge of the sink brings it forward while soft edges on the window mullions make that area recede.

When planning and designing your interior, consider some of these strategies and tips:

Creating contrast

As with all paintings, the area of greatest contrast is where the viewer’s eye is drawn. It might be created where light streams through a window. Or where a reflection brightens a dark area. Positioning a high contrast area is critical to creating a balanced painting. Consider the Rule of Thirds when designing your composition.

Using a view finder

One way to test your composition is by looking through a view finder. You can buy a small, adjustable plastic window to visually frame your scene. Or simply take photos on your phone and test-crop them to determine the most balanced and compelling view. Interiors take time to paint, so don’t shortchange this important step.

Getting perfect alignment

Once you get started, be sure that all true horizontals align with the horizon. In other words, the front edges of any furniture, shelves, etc., that you see straight on will be parallel with one another and precisely horizontal. Measure from the top edge of your canvas to check.

For verticals, measure from the side of the canvas to insure that they align. You can also make a “plumb line” (string with a weight tied to it). Hold the end of the string and let the weight hang. This creates a true vertical that you can align visually in front of your scene and compare with your work.

With interior painting it’s important to check perspective frequently — it can get lost while attention is drawn to patterns and texture.

Quiet Pantry at Weir Farm by Dorothy Lorenze

Quiet Pantry at Weir Farm by Dorothy Lorenze

And as you paint, keep these tips in mind:

As you work, bear in mind the reason you’ve chosen the scene. Maybe it’s the opulent objects or simply a serene mood. Whether it’s a palatial dining room, busy café or abandoned building with bare walls, you can find rich interest.

Avoid painting large areas flat and monochromatic, as if you were painting actual walls! Even empty walls will be interesting if you blend subtle broken color into your brushstrokes. Take a look at work the Danish painters who fill their sparse interiors with peace… or foreboding!

abandoned prison, interior

Haunted Penitence by Dorothy Lorenze

Painting interiors is challenging as there is so much going on — but challenge is good! Working on the light, texture and patterns inherent to interiors will advance your painting expertise in all other subject areas. Plus, you get to “enter” another world while you paint. Who can say how that might enrich your life?

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