Category Archives: Painting Tips

How to salvage a painting you are frustrated with

We’ve all been there. You know, that point in a painting where you say, “this sucks.”  You realize that it is not going the way you envisioned and it is quickly turning into something that you will gladly coat with gesso so you can start over with a new painting.

I always think the same thing. How did I get here? I planned ahead and had excellent reference material. I blocked in my colors and paid attention to the lights and darks. I kept checking the composition as I slowly started to fill it in and develop the details. Then, out of nowhere, I realize that I hate this mess of color in front of me.

Don’t get me wrong. There is something extremely liberating about grabbing out my bucket of gesso and covering over a painting. I simply chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. I never keep unsucesssful paintings around.

But instead of throwing in the towel so easily, I have a few ideas to get you to change your mind about your painting.

Tip #1:  Grab your palette knife and scrape off as much paint as you can. You will still have the general shapes and colors, but you no longer have the piles of paint that were built up as you struggled and struggled to get a certain area perfect.  You might be surprised how a thinned out canvas can reinspire you to go at it again.

Tip #2:  Turn your painting upside down. Many artists do that periodically anyway in order to check composition, color arrangement, and shape design. But it also helps at times to pull you out of a funk with a painting.

Tip #3:  Set it aside. Just put it away while you work on other paintings for a few months. Maybe you just need a break and will get back in the mood. Sometimes I think I simply have lost the mood I had when I envisioned the painting and I have to wait until I get it back in order to continue.

Tip #4: This is the most fun tip of all. I have at times given up on a painting, when I say, “oh what the hell.” I grab a large brush and just do extemely bold brush strokes. If it doesn’t turn out, I was scrapping it anyway. Check out “Indian Creek Canal – Huntsville.” This was actually a painting that I gave up on after blocking in the color. It sat in my studio, unfinished, for almost a year. One day I came up with the idea to paint with only large vertical and horizontal brush strokes. The result was something totally unexpected…and I loved it.

So the next time you are about to shove your palette knife through the center of you canvas, just take a minute and try one of my tips. You never know what will come out of it. Besides, you have nothing to lose.

Advertisements

Oil paint with 7 colors…yes you heard me right!

The title of this post says that I paint with 7 colors (plus white). Actually I paint about 90% of my pictures using only 3 colors.

Take a look at the painting, “Leonard Street Barn.” This was the first painting I ever did with just the 3 colors. As you can see, there is a wide variety of color, both in the lights and in the shadows. It took me only 1 hour to complete this painting on a 9″ by 12″ canvas board. Try counting the colors you see. I did this in a class taught by Jim Connelly. That was when I learned how to truly understand color and when I first began to have actual control over it. Let me explain.

Prior to limiting my palette of colors, I had a whole heaping basket of oil paints. I had several reds, yellows, blues, and of course the whole gamut of earth tones like Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna. It was so confusing to know which colors to grab, and it seemed like the more I used, the more I got confused and my colors failed to blend together well visually on the canvas. Color can be overwhelming.

But all you need is the ability to make black to be able to create the majority of your colors. How do you do that, you might ask?

Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Indian Yellow (or something similar). I can make a perfectly balanced black with mixing just those 3 colors. Add white and you have a gray scale.

Take away a touch of the blue and you have something more brown. Remember brown is really a dark orange, so without the blue you are left with more red and yellow (red and yellow make orange). Simple as that. Take away a little of the red and you are in deep dark green territory. And of course, less yellow means you are in the purple area. Add some of that white and you get your colors. Forget buying Burnt Umber.  Make it.  In fact, a little Ultramarine Blue added to a Burnt Sienna makes the Burnt Umber.

As you can see, you have control now, while automatically allowing for some harmony. Think about it…if you are only using 3 colors, your painting will retain harmony no matter how crazy you get!

Now you might see the holes you have to fill with that palette. What you truly need is a warm and a cool of your blue, yellow, and red. So I have a Cerulean Blue to go with my Ultramarine. That is especially needed for skies near the horizon. Mix the two and you have a Cobalt Blue, so forget buying that one again. I have a cool yellow with a Lemon Yellow and a warmer red with a Cadmium Red.

What is the 7th color? I have a Viridian Green because that is just so unique and rich of a color (you simply can’t make it). Add the Ultramarine Blue to it and you have a great many more deep blues. A touch of Alizarin Crimson with them and you have crazy purples. This 7th color is only for very specific colors and I use it rarely. The main use is for the aqua colors of the Caribbean. Truly, I paint 90% of my paintings with just the 3 main colors.

I suggest you do what I did in the beginning. Put a swatch of paint from all your various tubes on a piece of paper and label them.  Then create all the colors you can from your limited palette.  Make all the greens, from dark to light with the addition of white, etc.  You will soon see that you found your Sap Green right there at one point. That means you do not have to buy another tube of that.

I did that with about 30 tubes of paint. I found each one on my color chart made from my 7 colors. I no longer needed to buy anything but my 7. Did I mention I am cheap?  So not only did it make it easier for me to find the right color, but it saved me money! To me, that is worth the effort right there. And along the way, you will find that you gain more and more control over you colors, and therefore your paintings.

Why oil paint?

Why oil paint? Why not acrylic, watercolor, alkyds, casein, gouache, colored pencil, egg tempera, or pastels?

It is hard to explain, but there is just something about oils that make that medium the king of all mediums. It is not that oils are necessarily the oldest and most reliable way to make a picture. In fact, it is quite possible to paint with oils in a way to jeopardize the longevity of the picture. I guess before I go on about what makes oils so special, I will have to bore many readers with a little art history. Although I have read hundreds of books on art, I was never an art student and I would be careful quoting my little art history lesson to anybody who possesses any real knowledge on the subject.

Well most of us know that people have made pictures since the ice ages and that the earliest societies such as Ancient Egypt had great artists, but art the way we know it was more prominent in the last thousand years. One of the earlier mediums was egg tempera, which – you guessed it – uses egg yolk. “Temperas” are binder agents that support the pigments (actual colors). Egg tempera was first popular in the middle ages in Southern Europe and it dries very rapidly like your morning omelet does on your frying pan (which is a pain to clean off if you don’t soak it immediately). Egg tempera basically has to be applied in thin layers, so the colors tend to not be as rich as with other mediums. Many artists make their own paint – and yes – they use eggs.

Another “dairy” paint is casein, which is derived from milk. Ancient Egyptians painted with casein, which dries with a nice even consistency. That made casein very valuable for painting murals.

Gouache, which was first popular in 12th century Islamic art, on the other hand, is not a muralist’s best friend. Gouache is like watercolor in that it is pigment supported in water, but there is a white chalk added that makes gouache paints heavier and opaque. They dry differently than other mediums because the dark colors dry and become lighter while the lighter colors dry and become darker.

Now take out the white chalk and you have watercolor…essentially. Watercolors are generally used on papaer instead of canvas, which would explain why watercolors became so popular in Europe in the 1400’s after paper became readily available. One of the differences with watercolor compared to the other mediums is that artists paint light to dark, meaning they first paint in the light colors, then darker colors as they progress through the painting, leaving the white of the paper for the lightest lights.

Other mediums that are more typically done on paper are pastels and colored pencils. I never would have thought that artists could make fine art with colored pencils, but I have since seen some of the most beaitful rich pictures done in colored pencils.  There are many techniques to build up the colors to a rich, dark, smooth finish. Heck, 2010’s Art Prize winner was in pencil!

If that sounds like it takes too long, pastels are a good alternative, although more of a messy one. I picture my elementary school days with pastels all over my clothes by the time I finished my project. Pastels were first mentioned by Leonardo De Vinci in 1495 and became very popular for 18th century portraits. Today there are many different types of pastels such as hard pastels, soft pastels, oil pastels, and water-soluable pastels.

The newest kid on the block is acrylic paint, which was first commercially available in the 1950’s. Anybody that has painted a room in their house knows how fast acrylics dry. Pull off the dried paint around the rim of the can and you can easily tell the “plastic” feel of dry acyrlic paint. They are not natural. I don’t mean that because they are weird, I say that because they are actually synthetic.

Another fast drying medium are alkyds, which are just fast drying oil paints. One of the main differences between oils and alkyds is that alkyd paint dries with evaporation while oil paints dry by oxidation.

Now let’s talk oils!

Oils were used in England as early as the 13th century, but not really applied for artisic purposes until the 15th century. Oils dry very slowly, which allows the artist to blend the wet paint hours or even days after the previous layer was applied. As mentioned above, oils can hold a great deal of pigment, which is why oil paintings can be richer in color than some of the other mediums. This ability to capture color is why I switched to oils myself, but other mediums can be used to create just as brillant colors. Other mediums have the history that oils have, if not more. Other mediums show off interesting brush strokes and others can create beautiful soft blended areas just like oils.

So why is there this aura about these smelly, buttery paints? I believe that when most of us think of exceptional art, we think of the Great Masters of the Renaissance Period in Europe, and they mostly painted in oil paint. Maybe that is why many of us associate oils as the medium used for the greatest paintings of all time?

So why do I paint with oils? Maybe I just like the feel, the consistency, the slow drying time, the smell of turpentine in the evening, the ability to paint thin or thick, or maybe the ability to create any color out of only 7 colors and white. Or maybe it is just because I want to be assocaited with the Great Masters. Hey, I  need all the help I can get!

My best friend, my paint brush

Have you ever watched an artist gaze intently at his/her paint brush?

Maybe you overheard your junior high school art teacher whisper oh so quietly to their old wooden handled filbert brush while sitting in the corner of the classroom.

No? Well I know for sure that I am not the only painter with a special relationship with my paint brush. To confess, I actually have more than one brush that I am intimate with. In fact, I have a whole harem, including synthetic brushes and my Eastern European sounding foreign comrade, the Kolinsky sable brush (I even have him in two sizes). 

I am sure you may wonder why the paint brush is so important to artists. Other tools such as paint, easels, canvas, paper, and thinners can affect the quality of a painting. However, the paint brush will directly impact the styel which is unique to the artist.

My paintings just would not be my paintings without my flat or bright style bristle brushes. I will explain this more, but first I have to admit that my relationships with my paint brushes were not always like this. And like most relationships, it has evolved over time.

At first, I simply had a paint brush. I needed one of those to dip into the cup of paint in order to get the paint onto the canvas or paper without getting my fingers all dirty. They meant nothing to me and I would just discard them after misuse, lack of care, and abuse on the canvas. Buying a paint brush was easy too. I would go to a staore, find a size I would like, find the cheapest version of it, and pay for it. Boy those were the days!

As I got older and was able to financially afford higher quality materials, I thought that better paint would change my world. I once thought that a better golf ball would make my drives straighter also, but buying higher quality equipment will not make an athlete into a professional. Buying higher quality art supplies will not make an artist a professional either.

The paint brush, though, becomes part of an expression that makes an artist who they are. It does not make them necessarily a better painter, it just makes them who they are. Of course better paint and canvas can make a better quality painting, and watercolor artists would do themselves a great injustice if they used inferior paper. But each paint brush is designed to handle paint differently. My soft sable brushes are reserved for creating smooth blending for portraits. I use my synthetics to spread large washes of color in the beginning of my painting process.

And I rely heavily on my bristle brushes to create the visible brush strokes. These strokes are what I feel make my paintings interesting and are what I hope the viewers come back to again and again as they discover the variations and patterns, once the intitial emotional impact of the painting fades.

So what type of brush should an artist buy?

Looking at the paint brush section at an art store makes you think you are buying a hunting license. Do you want hog bristle, black sable, mongoose, or white sable? And what about the types of brushes? Do you want a flat or bright? How about a round or filbert, or maybe a fan brush? Is there anything wrong with synthetic brushes? I mean they usually are cheaper, so are they of less quality?

Unfortunately there really is no good information out there to tell you. Believe me, I looked. It really comes down to trial and error. But as you try different brushes, you grow as an artist. Then before you realize it, you start to forge a relationship and your style begins to emerge. Each brush stroke has meaning and only your brushes can help you make that stroke what it needs to be.

Next thing you know, you are alone in your studio, whispering oh so gently to your number 6 bright hog bristle brush!

What goes into a painting

Have you ever wondered what all actually goes into making a painting what it is?

There are plenty of terms to describe various art principles. Most of us have learned at least a little in school about composition, horizon line, value, hue, perspective; and some of us even learned about balance, proprtions, center of interest, and color harmony.

But there is even more, such as the concept of the path of the viewer’s eye, message, brush strokes, emotional impact, the Golden Mean, and secondary points of interest.

You can easily find hundreds of books and articles written about each of those topics separately, but how much of that actually goes into each painting? Some artists are unaware that they are practicing some of the principles and paint how they feel. Other artists have been known to spend hours preparing for just one single brush stroke. I’ve never done that, but I have been known to spend up to twenty minutes to  mix just one color on my palette.

Local Grand Rapids artist, Jim Connelly, once passed on to me that creating a picture is as much about art as it is about science.  It made me think about how there are many artists out there who are very creative, but lack the technical skills. On the flip side, there are artists who have developed tremendous skills, but their paintings lack the life needed to create an emotional impact. It is strange to realize how such a detailed painting seems to need something that beckons you to come back for more once the novelty of it all passes.

So when you are looking at a painting, how do you know if the artist is both creative and skilled?

The creative part is easy. When you look at the picture, do you find it interesting? Do you find yourself thinking about it after you walk away, or returning to it many times to find new and exciting things you never noticed before? Does it make you feel different, change your mood, make you think, or remind you of something nostalgic? Those types of emotional connectinos come from the heart of the artist, but what about the technical skills?

My wife puts it best when she looks at one of my paintings and says that she is not sure why,but it “just does not look right.” Well to get it to look right I have to go back to the basics. The big ones are value, proportion, and composition. If you saw in black and white, you would be seeing the value of each color (dark versus light). The values create dimension, making objects come to life. Similar values create patterns that move your eye around the painting and are so important that an artist can completely play around with colors as long as the values are correct. 

This leads us to composition. A composition has to not only lead the viewer’s eye into a painting, but has to move the viewer around the painting and find places of rest without letting the eye wonder off the sides. I sometimes spend hours trying to determine what a person would see first, then second, then third while looking at my painting. I have to make sure they find the center of interest, but are able to leave it and discover other gems, while still being able to find their way back to that center of interest.

Proportion deals with the relative size of things. You know, “is that vase way too big for that table?” Nothing ruins a contemporary realistic painting like the edge of a building being crooked or a person’s arm too long and bent in the wrong spot. 

To be honest with you, these are only some of the principles most artists think of while doing each painting. Most of these a viewer will never know about because I believe a good artist can mkae the painting look easy. But that is the beauty of a good picture. There can be so much  more than just the fact there is a flower pot on the table that is pretty, or that there are red and blue buildings that remind you of your hometown.

So the next time you find yourself looking at a painting you enjoy, try to look harder. Get up close and look at the brush strokes, or pick out the larger shapes by squinting your eyes. Try to figure out what you first see when you look at the picture, and then what you find yourself looking at next. The reward will be yours, because you will see what the artist sees.

And trust me…that is a wonderful way to look at the world around you.