How-To Articles

The Art of Seeing

There’s a trick to Seeing the way an artist does. It’s a trick of the mind not the eyes. It’s even teachable. Once you can See as opposed to just looking, both drawing and painting become amazingly easy. You just paint what you See. On the other hand, if you can’t See it you can’t paint it. I’m not talking about visual acuity here. You can have 20/20 vision and not be able to See like an artist.
In class I discuss several exercises to learn that trick of Seeing I’ve been telling you about. They come highly recommended. The great Leonardo da Vinci wrote about some of them in his notebooks on the art of painting. I’ll bet you even indulged in one of them when you were a small child. Ever lie on the grass staring up at the clouds? Did you imagine pictures in the clouds? I did! I saw castles, dragons, seahorses and puppies up there. That’s one of the easiest ways to start. It trains your brain to work in a different way.
Another way to develop your artist’s eye is to focus on the spaces between things instead of the objects themselves. Pay special attention to the shapes of the sky between the leaves of a tree for example. Notice the shapes between branches. See the spaces between trees. Look around you and study all the in-between shapes. It can also be helpful to observe the outer forms of groups of objects. Perhaps that bouquet of flowers is roughly triangular in form. You’ll find this will help immensely when drawing or composing your paintings.
Try turning a picture upside down and drawing it. Use a complex line drawing for this. I find coloring books useful for this exercise. If you haven’t drawn well in the past you will probably amaze yourself when you turn your drawing upside down and compare it to the right-side-up picture you were copying.
As you try out these tricks of Seeing, be aware of how you feel. Chances are you are experiencing a slightly altered state of conscious. You are shifting into right-brain mode here. That is the state of mind that is best for drawing. It is characterized by a sense of timelessness. You may stop thinking in words altogether. I find this state of mind both relaxing and energizing.
I suggest you read “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and “The Drawing on the Right side of the Brain Workbook”. There are many more exercises to help develop your ability to See in that special way in both of these books. Remember this. Whatever you can See, you can paint. All you have to do is paint what you See.
"Painting embraces all the 10 functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest."
Leonardo da Vinci


Good Painting Habits

I stress good work habits in class because it increases your pleasure in painting and helps to make your art better. We often don’t notice the little things that sap our time, energy and enthusiasm but it can make a big difference in our work if we eliminate them. Efficiency counts. Make these simple practices a permanent part of your painting experience.
1. This may be the most important habit of all. Leave your easel and paints out and ready to paint at a moments notice. I find I can easily talk myself out of painting at all if I have to lay out my materials before I can get down to work. It’s so easy to put off making my art when I have to set up, take it down and clean up afterward. If your space is limited find a small corner somewhere to leave your easel and a small table. A TV tray will do. I’ve also used a plastic storage bin, which makes a great place to store extra tools and supplies when they aren’t in use. If you’re always ready to create, you will paint much more often.
2. Keep your work-in-progress in plain sight. Out of sight is out of mind, you know. My current project sits in the living room even if I’ll be painting it somewhere else. I like to watch my painting while taking my breaks, having dinner or during television commercials. Much of the work of painting involves just looking at your canvas. Really study it. Take notes. Then when you pick up the brush you’ll know exactly what changes you want to make or problems you need to fix. Whatever you do, don’t hide it in the closet or the garage where you never see it.
3. Keep your paint, palette, knife, brushes, and water or solvent jar in front of your dominant hand. That will be on your right side if you are right handed. All you lefties need to reverse this and put everything on your left. I see so many people reaching across in front of their painting to clean brushes or to pick up paint. This causes accidents not to mention physical strain. Your body and your clothes will thank you. Oh, and for safety’s sake, put your drink on the opposite side. You’ll be less likely to wash your brush in your root beer.
4. Position your photo reference on the opposite side of your canvas from your paints and brushes. That is the left side if you are right handed and the right side if you are left handed. It should sit upright at the same angle as the canvas. This will prevent many drawing mistakes. If the angle of your photograph is different from the tilt of your canvas it causes a false perspective. Most of my students use a small stand or easel for their photo. A stand made for typists works quite well.
5. Check your values by squinting when you look at both your subject and your painting. This makes contrast more obvious and color less distracting. Squint often. Get those darks and lights right if you want a strong picture.
6. Step back from your work. Do this often. It will allow you to spot patterns, mistakes, and relationships between objects. You will see the overall composition instead of the details. You can’t see the painting for the brushstrokes when you are working up close. Keep in mind that we normally view finished paintings from a distance. The stretch feels good if you usually paint sitting down too. Here’s a tip for those of you who have physical problems that make it difficult getting out of your chair. Get one of those peepholes like you install in doors so you can see who’s outside. Keep it in your paint box and use it to look at your painting while you work. It gives almost the same effect as viewing your work from a distance. There is some distortion but it’s better than never stepping away to look at your picture at all. Looking over your shoulder through a mirror helps spot problems too.
7. Stand or sit directly facing your canvas. If you are sitting at a table arrange the easel so that it is parallel to the edge of the table right in front of you and comfortably within reach. If you need more distance use longer brushes. You shouldn’t have to lean across the table to work. Your back will be grateful.
8. Last but not least, paint on location as often as possible. There is no substitute for painting your subject in person. Photographs cannot convey all the information from the original scene. Colors are fewer and incorrect, and depth disappears. Contrast is lost and values skewed. Many details don’t show in the photos.
These ideas (when used) will give greater enjoyment to your painting experience and improve the quality of your work. See you in Class. Until then, Happy Painting!

Color Mixing With a Limited Palette

A limited palette simply means that we restrict the colors used to a small number of predetermined paint tubes. You can mix most of the paint you need with only 5 basic colors. Add the 3 optional colors and you can paint any subject and get good realistic color.
I recommend the following Basic Colors:
Cadmium Red Medium
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Ultramarine Blue
Burnt Sienna
Titanium White
These colors can be useful but are optional:
Alizarin Crimson
Yellow Ochre
Pthalo Blue
If you paint a lot of landscapes you may wish to add Sap Green, Pthalo Green and Prussian Blue to your palette of colors. For floral painting I find Magenta and Permanent Rose are essential, and when painting a portrait I like to add Venetian Red to my choices.
I limit my selection of paints for several reasons. First I want to have good color harmony. This is easiest to achieve if I use just a few colors. Also I want my students to learn to mix paint. With only the 5 basic colors it’s a simple matter to learn to mix almost any hue and repeat the mix later. I believe almost anyone can learn to mix by eye just as a musician can play by ear.
There is no need to memorize complicated formulas. It’s simple to remember that red and yellow make orange. Yellow and blue make green and so forth. Looking and really Seeing do the rest. For example to make a particular green, mix one part each of yellow and blue. Look at the color you just mixed. Is it too blue? Too yellow? Is it too bright or too dark? Too green? If the color isn’t right, divide it in half and push one half aside. This is so you won’t have a huge mountain of one color that you don’t need. You’ll probably find uses for the in-between shades you’ll mix trying to get that perfect green.
Now look at your palette. What color looks closest to what you are trying to mix? Add a little of the new color to half of the color you just divided. Take some of the color on your palette knife or brush and hold it up next to the color you are trying to match. Don’t try to judge the color on your palette. The distance and the color of the palette itself will throw you off. Is it right? Closer? If it still needs some adjustment divide it again and add more of the color you think will fix the problem. Maybe it’s too bright a green. Just add a little burnt sienna, red or black to dull the color. Or try a different yellow. Yellow ochre gives you nice natural greens. Divide the color in half again each time you add another color. That way if you make a mistake you still have the original color and all its variations to try again and the extra shades will be useful in other places in your painting. (Remember to spray water on your palette often if you are using acrylics.)
Keep trying till you get it just right. With practice you’ll get just the right shade and value without wasting a lot of paint. It won’t take as long as you think either. Eventually you will mix color without having to think about what you’re doing. It will be almost intuitive.
Because you are only using a few tubes of paint you will quickly learn how all your colors work together. When you are ready to add other colors to your palette, do so one at a time. Experiment to see just how the new color mixes with all of your other paints. Create a few pictures with the new color before you add any others.

Here are a few Guidelines to mix by:

1. Red, Yellow and Blue are Primary colors. You cannot mix them. If you are having trouble getting the color right, switch to a different primary. Cadmium Red instead of Alizarin Crimson is a good example.
2. Green, Orange and Purple are Secondary colors. You have to mix these. I’ll discuss the Color Wheel in a future lesson.
3. Yellow + Blue = Green.
4. Red + Yellow = Orange.
5. Red + Blue = Purple.
6. Black + Yellow = Green.
7. Red + Black = Brown.
8. Burnt Sienna + Ultramarine Blue = Black. You can make a wide range of rich, beautiful Darks by varying the amounts of each color.

9. Use Black or Blue to darken other colors (except yellow).
10. Use Burnt Sienna, Blue or Black to darken Red.
11. Use Burnt Sienna or another Brown to darken any Yellow. If you try to use Black you will get Green.
12. Use White to lighten colors.
13. Use Complementary colors to dull or gray down colors. (I’ll go into that more completely in a future article on colors and their complements.)
14. Use a minute amount of yellow to brighten white. White is the lightest color you have but it is not the brightest. White with a hint of yellow can look brilliant in your painting. Remember that any color looks brighter when placed next to its complement and lighter next to a darker color.
15. Divide your mound of paint in half each time you add a new color so you don’t have too much of any one shade.
That’s all there is to it! The rest is just practice and training your eyes to see color accurately. Practice is the key to your ultimate mastery of color.

Useful Painting Tips

I love to share good ideas and sometimes those ideas deserve an entire article of their own. Then there are those little gems of information that are helpful but not worth going on and on about. Here are a few short tips you’ll find useful.
1. Use hair styling gel to reshape your paintbrushes after cleaning. There’s more about this in the article on brush care but it bears repeating.
2. Keep wet wipes in your paint box for those emergency cleanups and to remove paint from your hands. These are wonderful to have on hand when you are painting on location.
3. Use rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer to clean acrylic paint out of brushes. The hand sanitizer suggestion was from my student Carolyn. Keep some in your painting kit.
4. Squeeze top water bottles are handy to have in your acrylic, watercolor and water miscible oil paint boxes. If you are out and decide to paint on the spur of the moment you are always ready even if there is no other source of water available.
5. If you have a wooden standing easel with a chain holding the back leg you have a paper towel holder. Just run the chain through the cardboard tube in the middle of the roll.
6. Always arrange your palette the same way. You can put them in the order of the spectrum or group warm colors together and cool colors with other cool colors. You won’t waste time looking for the specific hue you need.
7. About palettes: Line up your paints around the edges of the palette to allow maximum mixing area in the middle.
8. Styrofoam plates make good disposable palettes for acrylic or watercolor paints. I suppose you could use them for water miscible oils also if you aren’t using solvents. I like the rectangular sectional plates. The sections make great paint wells if you are painting with thin washes of color.
9. Keep pliers in you paint box for those stubborn tubes of paint that just won’t let go of their lids. Sometimes you may need pliers to loosen tight bolts or screws on your equipment too.
10. Use liquid dish soap to clean your oil painting brushes. It contains a degreaser that helps dissolve the oils and is gentle to your hands.

11. Hang a plastic shopping bag on the ledge of your easel for trash.

12. If you use a wooden palette, oil or varnish it to protect it and make it easier to clean.
13. Stubborn brushes that refuse to be reshaped can be given a new life by dipping them in boiling water for a minute or two. Careful with synthetic brushes or plastic handles as they can melt if heated too long.
14. Save those old scruffy brushes. They paint great foliage and fur.
15. Trim random gaps into a cheap fan brush. Use to paint trees, grass, bushes and fur.
16. Use a strip of thin cardboard dipped edgewise in paint to draw thin lines for power lines and rigging on ships. Bend the cardboard to make curved lines.
17. For perfect placement when drawing your preliminary sketch onto your canvas, draw a mark at the place where you want the top of your subject. Draw marks at the bottom and at each side. Then fit your subject into the marks you’ve just made. This positions your subject perfectly. You’ll never draw too close to the edge or misplace the subject in relation to other objects in your composition again.
18. Keep a small level in your paint box. Check your canvas to make sure it is level on your easel. This is especially useful when painting buildings.
19. Outfit a toolbox with everything you need to hang paintings. This is invaluable for art shows. You’ll need a small level, hooks to hang artwork on your display screens, a ruler, picture wire, screw eyes, saw tooth hangers, a level, hammer, nails, pencil and screws. I also keep black wax shoe polish, gold, silver, and white painter’s pens and gold, copper and silver “Rub n Buff” to touch up frames. Furniture touch-up pens are handy too. Put some extra title cards, labels and price tags in there too.

The Ideal Paint Box

First you’ll need something to carry all your supplies. I suggest a tool or tackle box. The same companies that make them also make boxes designed specifically for paints or other craft supplies but you may find you like a toolbox from the hardware store better. I started with a small toolbox that I picked up at Walmart. My oil painting kit kept outgrowing me so I eventually upgraded to a large toolbox on wheels by Black & Decker. Expect to pay about $30 or $40 for one like mine. It’s big enough to carry all my oils, mediums, brushes and easel. It’s very strong and can double as a seat or table when I’m out in the field.
Below is a list of things you should pack in that nice new paint box of yours. You should have a different kit for each different medium you use. Make sure to keep your oils, watercolors, and acrylics separate. Remember oil and water don’t mix.
1. Paints in all your basic colors
2. Bottle of water or solvent
3. Painting knives
4. Paper towels
5. Palette
6. Brushes
7. Mediums (oils, liquin, gels etc.)
8. Smock or apron
9. Pliers for those hard to open paint tubes
10. Container to wash brushes
11. Small easel if your toolbox is large enough
12. Sponges (In several different textures)
13. Tube keys (These gadgets get all the paint out of your tubes)
14. Hair styling gel (See the article on cleaning brushes)
15. Small bottle of alcohol (Acrylic paint box only)
16. Small squeeze bottle of liquid soap
17. Craft knife
18. Mirror. Use it to look over you shoulder at your painting. You'll be amazed at
      the mistakes you see when you view your picture backwards.
19. Peephole. Get this at a hardware store. It's the same thing you install in a
      door to see who is on the other side before you open it. Use this to get a
      distance view of your work without having to walk so far. This helps if you
      have a very small workspace or if you have difficulty getting out of your chair.
That’s a great start but you’ll probably find tools and supplies you can’t do without to add to the list.

Crossover Skills

I recently recommended an article in a watercolor magazine to one of my students. She asked in an incredulous voice how it could possibly be any use to her as she paints in oils. Well now, that got me thinking. I’ve run across that attitude before and it’s time to do my part to end this particular prejudice.
It doesn’t matter if your medium of choice is watercolor, oil, water miscible oil, acrylic, alkyd, casein, tempera, encaustic, or Genesis paints. You are still painting. You use many of the same skills regardless of the paint. Yes, there are differences but artists employ the same principles of composition, color, value, texture and perspective in all painting. Even sculptors, photographers, cake decorators, garden landscapers, stained glass artists, floral arrangers and architects use those same principles. You can apply what you learn from all the other disciplines to your own work. In fact you should make a point of learning all you can if you wish to grow as an artist.
I find that a familiarity with sculpting lends a greater sense of depth, form and dimension to my painting. My knowledge of color mixing comes in handy when I’m working with polymer clay. An understanding of complementary colors is useful in my work with textiles and jewelry design. I enjoy studying the work of other artists in various fields. I get ideas everywhere and everything I learn enriches every form of art I do.
Of course, as long as you are painting you’ll probably be using a brush (at least part of the time). Certainly many of the brushstrokes we use are applicable to other painting media. Painting is painting after all.
You might also get ideas about new surfaces to use. There are new materials that accept a wide variety of media too. Perhaps you’d like to try handling your acrylics like watercolors and painting on paper instead of canvas. Both acrylics and oils can be used on metal and you can get wonderful effects with that. The possibilities are endless.
Watercolor and oils can both be transparent mediums so some of the techniques work for both. Thin down oils and use them on paper. The oil will bleed but the effects can be interesting. They can be opaque as well. Try painting gouache thickly like oils. Explore making marbled papers. That’s done with oil paints floated on water. Play!
Some media can be mixed. Try using colored pencil and watercolor together. Use acrylics under your oils. Try pastels with watercolor. Experiment. Learn. Create with abandon!

What Do you Mean Fat Over Lean?

Since much of the painting we do in class involves applying many layers of paint I hear this question often from my oil painters. I'll see if I can solve the mystery for you.
First let me explain the difference between fat and lean. Fat paint has more oil in it than lean paint. Lean paint is simply paint that has been mixed with paint thinner or turpentine. A good way to remember this is to pair these words in your mind: Fat = oil & Lean = Thinner.
The rule (especially when working with layers) is always to paint fat over lean. The most important reason for this is to keep your paint from cracking. Oily paint dries more slowly and is more flexible. If the fat layer is painted underneath the lean layers it expands and contracts while drying and the lean paint on top will eventually crack and flake. It may happen in a few months or it may take years but if you want your art to last --remember the rule--.
I tell my students to build the first layer (your foundation) with paint that is mixed very thin with turpentine or mineral spirits. You may use either water or a water mixable thinner if you are using water mixable oil paints. In some cases we may thin down the second layer also. Next, you can use paint straight from the tube. You'll probably mix your colors but try not to add any oil. Later layers have oil blended in. In the last stages of the painting there may be a great deal of oil and other mediums as we are often painting with transparent glazes.
Let me recap. When painting in layers start with a very fast drying under-painting. Thin your paint with turpentine or a fast dry medium. Next use undiluted paint just as it comes from the tube. Subsequent layers should have oil added You can keep adding more oil in successive layers but they should never have less oil than those underneath.

The unVarnished Truth About Protecting Your Art

So, you’ve finished your first painting. Now what? Well, if it’s an oil painting…you wait. You can’t do anything with it until it dries. It should take a few days to a couple of weeks to be dry to the touch. That doesn’t mean it’s really dry however. There are impressionist paintings in museums over a century old that are still wet under the skin. That shouldn’t be a problem for you unless you painted your picture in a heavy impasto technique. Still, it will likely take at least 6 months to a year for your painting to dry all the way through.

“How do you protect it until then?” you might ask. Spray a light coat of Retouch Varnish on your painting. There are several good ones on the market. Just follow the instructions on the can. This will protect the artwork while still allowing it to breathe enough to continue the curing process. Your painting will look better in the mean time as the surface will appear more uniform. Your colors will be deeper and brighter just like when they were wet. After about a year or so you can seal your painting with Damar Varnish. This is available in both spray and brush-on formula in either gloss or matte finish. Read the label and follow the instructions carefully.
Before you start, dust your painting with a clean dry lint-free cloth. If it needs more cleaning than that get in touch with me for more details. If you are using spray varnish, hold the spray can out far enough away from the painting to spray lightly. Keep it moving. It’s much better to apply several diffuse coats than to risk runs. If you decide to use a brush-on varnish use a large, flat, good quality brush with fine, split hairs at the tip. You don’t want your brushstrokes to show. I have some very nice house painting brushes I use for this but sable or synthetic art brushes will do just fine. Your brush should be one to two inches wide. Do not shake or stir your varnish. That will only create bubbles. Lay your canvas flat on a table to work. You’ll want to brush slowly, as quick strokes leave bubbles in the surface. Let the picture dry thoroughly before brushing on a second coat.
Now if you paint in acrylics, varnishing is a bit easier. At the very least you can get it done soon after you finish your painting. Wait a week or three then apply 2 coats of Acrylic Varnish in your choice of matte, satin or gloss. Personally I prefer a gloss finish. Again Read the label and follow the instructions! I’m just filling in the details here. The same warnings I gave you about bubbles in varnishing oils, apply here as well. Use a good brush, don’t shake, and brush slowly. I like to start at one corner and work from side to side using X strokes to avoid obvious brushstroke patterns. When the first coat dries I give the painting a second coat. It is vital that you work slowly to prevent tiny bubbles that make the surface appear milky when dry. Also it’s best to use only two coats because the finish is not perfectly transparent. Too many coats will dull your colors and look like a haze on your painting.
That just about covers the subject of varnishing. I’ll discuss framing and displaying your work in a future article. Until then, Happy Painting and see you in class!

Care and Hanging of Artwork

To transport, put your painting in a plastic bag, then wrap with padding for protection. Use towels, blankets, bubble wrap or other padding. Wrap the artwork in plastic first because lint and fibers from fabric may stick to the varnish.
Do not place anything on the surface of your painting. You may mar the surface or the weight can cause it to warp.
A hot car is a dangerous place for your finished artwork. Avoid leaving it in the heat of either the passenger compartment or the trunk. Varnish can blister.
Paintings on canvas are vulnerable to denting, stretching or tearing. Never lean them against a table corner or any other sharp object.
Never display paintings (any media) in direct sunlight. Colors may fade and art under glass may overheat.
Do not hang your art over or too close to a heat source. This includes radiators, vents and fireplaces. Heat, smoke and ashes can damage your artwork.
Damp or cold locations can also be harmful. Think twice before you hang your work in bathrooms, kitchens and porches.
Don’t put water on the surface of any finished painting.
Do not touch the surface. Oils and acids from your fingers can cause damage or be difficult to remove.
Dust, if necessary, with a clean, dry, soft brush or lint free cloth.