There can only be as many ways to start a painting as there are painters. Times that by the number of paintings started, which is to say...almost an infinite number of ways.

I would like to mention some of the ways I begin and some of the ways I have observed other painters approach the initial phase of the process. I would like to underscore the word process, as always, because a painting never really ends. It's life continues with every new set of eyes that view it, it is extended.  But that's off point.

Choosing a format: a format, the dimensions of the material I will work on, is for me, extremely informative. A square will lead me in a totally different direction than a vertical rectangle, than a horizontal rectangle or any other geometric, organic or amorphous shape. So I try and make a choice based on pure intuition in the moment. Sometimes I work with the same format for days or weeks at a time. I find this particularly helpful. Each format requires that you manage the energy of that format area to create a satisfactory balance within the format area and a degree of tension that will keep all the elements in the painting actively in dialogue with one and other.

A format area comes with its own energy, before any mark is laid down. So there is information there before you ever begin. Working with the same or very similar format over and over continues to build an understanding of what will and will not easily work inside of that area. Anything can work, but some marks in a square format, for example, will create either too much balance (a stagnant energy) or no balance.  Truthfully that's ok, because each part of the painting process requires that you continue to invent ways to manage the balance and the energy in the work. So it is all a big challenge and that's one of the exciting parts about making art.

A format will set the tone of a work by either encouraging you to focus on something specific and detailed, or allowing the work to explore a great breadth of space. It can contain or expand the marks and possibly images that eventually arrive there. A format can hint at a close up of an object or it can invite a broad view of a landscape and all the delight of playing with the principles of perspective. 

Here are a few links to works that have different formats, square, vertical rectangle and horizontal rectangle. It is easy to see how the format area offers very different possibilities.

Square Format-

Horizontal Rectangle Format-

Vertical Rectangle Format-

One last note on format, once you choose the shape of the material you will work on, the next question becomes, what are the exact dimensions of that shape, and the answer to this question informs the work yet again offering even more possibilities.