Brush Up

Applying Paint Photo

Too often we overlook the full capabilities of the tools in our paint boxes and forget that they were designed to ease our workload and extend the impact of our work. Let’s talk a bit about brushes.

Ancient Egyptian Brush Photo
Ancient Egyptian Brush formed from sticks flayed at one end.

The artist paint brushes in our hands today are the product of centuries of evolution. They are modern marvels, the result of extensive, in the field, use and contemporary engineering. That’s all wasted, however, if we ignore all they can do.

It’s important to use the proper brush for the job at hand. My favorite workhorse brush, when painting with oils or acrylics, is the bristle brush. This baby’s stiffness can move the thickest of paints across a canvas and is great for scumbling, dry brush and impasto techniques. It’s my go to brush for most of my painting needs.

When you’re painting wet into wet, especially in a single session, alla prima, you’ll find the bristle brush less effective in paint over paint application. It’s rigidity tends to pick up the wet paint from lower layers, mixing them with the new paint you’re attempting to apply, preventing you from applying clean new strokes. This is when you want to utilize your sable brushes. A light touch with one of these, will float the new color on top of the previous applied wet layers.

Glazing (transparent layers of color utilizing large amounts of painting mediums) can be accomplished by either bristle or sable brushes. It all depends on the viscosity of your mixture.

I covered the proper brush for the job in more detail in a previous post, “Be Good to Your Brushes & They’ll Be Good to You!

Grasses Image
Thin, overlapping vertical & diagonal strokes for grass.

What I actually wanted to talk about in this post was allowing your brushes to do some of the work for you. All the subjects you paint possess visible characteristics quite different from each other. These characteristic are the result of things like growth patterns, chemical make-up, environment wear, etc. The leaves on a tree present a much different surface characteristic than, say, the granite face of Half Dome, in Yosemite, for example. Yet, it’s easy to ignore this fact and apply paint to canvas in the same uniform manner, when executing all elements in our compositions. Boring!

Clouds Image
Rolling a bristle brush around, with occasional edge flicks to communicate clouds.

Instead, pay attention to how the elements you’re painting grow, what they’re made of, how they move, how their surface reflects light and color and then allow your brushwork to communicate this. The British painter, Alwyn Crawshaw, famous for tv shows, books and videos on painting, suggests you try to become the element you’re painting, “I’m a fluffy little cloud!” Then paint the element accordingly. A bit over the top form me, but I get what he’s saying.

El Cap Detail Image
Crisp vertical strokes for granite.

What does this actually mean: allow your brush to reflect the characteristics of various elements in your paintings? Well, when studying the granite face of a monument like Half Dome or El Capitan, in Yosemite, you’ll notice it has very chiseled characteristics with strong vertical concave and convex up and down forms. A great approach in painting these, might be to use the edge of a flat brush to create vertical strokes, occasionally rolling the brush a bit, from side to side, to vary width in the process.

Leaves Image
Globbed paint then flicked at the edges for leaves.

Foliage on trees often starts with a glob of paint and ends with a flick of the brush towards the edges. With clouds, rolling the brush around, then flicking an edge here and there might be the best solution. Ground is often a series of short horizontal strokes, reflecting the years of overlapping footprints of man and animals. The directions of strokes over a face in a portrait reflect the anatomical structure beneath. Strokes representing a flowing river tell of the repeating pattern it creates as it travels around rocks and over an uneven river bottom.

How you portray the various characteristics of the elements that make up your paintings is a personal choice, there’s no ONE good solution. I’m suggesting that your paintings will be more dynamic, more interesting, if you consider the actual structure, make up, of the elements in your compositions, then reflect this to your audience with how you use your brush in your paint application.

Chasing Shadows

Ahwahnee Bridge Detail Image
“Ahwahnee Bridge (detail),” by Trowzers Akimbo

One of the most difficult concepts for artists to understand or accept, I find, is color theory. It’s a tough buy-in to ask of anyone who’s been taught all their lives that the primary colors are red, blue and yellow (subtractive color) and that when these 3 are combined, a murky black is the result, to now understand, that with light (additive color), the primary colors are red, blue and green and, when combined, result in white. It doesn’t seem possible!

Subtractive Primaries Image           Additive Primaries Image

An extension of that reluctance of acceptance is the fact that shadows on an object are not just darker versions of the color of that object in light, but, in fact, completely different colors. For example, a red apple’s shadows are actually some form of green, not just a darker red. The consequence of this lack of acceptance is artists just adding black to colors to create shadows, resulting in myriad, otherwise beautifully executed, paintings continuing to exhibit dull, dirty, lifeless shadows.

Viewing Color Image
Red light reflected back to eye.

In hope of convincing those holdouts, let’s quickly review how the eye perceives the color of elements in the world. Clean white light is the resulting combination of all colors in the light spectrum. All colors in the light spectrum being those we see, when this white light is refracted, then reflected by a Prism or in a Rainbow. The various subjects we encounter in the world don’t actually have a color, per se. Instead their molecular make-up either absorbs the various colors of the light spectrum or reflects them off the surface of the subject and back to our eyes. So, when you perceive an apple as red, you’re doing so because that apple could not absorb red colored light and reflects that light back to your eyes. All other colors in the light spectrum (blue, purple, green, yellow, etc.) are absorbed by the apple. In the case of shadows, direct light is blocked, in turn, the light color being bounced back to our eyes is also blocked, leaving a combination of all remaining colors of light in the shadow. Confusing? Yes, but there’s a simpler way to remember this!

Color Wheel Image
The Color Wheel

The color wheel is one of the most important tools in an artist’s paintbox. Among other things, it’s your simple guide to the color in shadows. As it turns out, the shadow color of any given color is its compliment. Take the primaries red, blue and yellow. Yellow’s compliment is violet. Remember our discussion above, stating the shadows of any given color are a combination of all the remaining colors in the color spectrum? Well, those astute readers out there have likely already realized that yellow’s compliment, violet, is the combination of the two remaining primary colors, red and blue. The color wheel makes calculation unnecessary and locates each color’s compliment directly across from it on the wheel.

While there are other factors involved in determining the final color of a given shadow, like value, nearby reflected color, color of the surface on which the shadow falls, etc., knowing the base color of shadows, moves you away from black and assists you in using your eyes to determine what’s really there before you.

Carry a small color wheel around with you, use it diligently to help determine color in shadows and you’ll find, in a very short time, that you have it memorized. Your shadow depth will increase and your paintings become more lively!

 

Necking

Dirty Paint Tube Photo
Dirty paint tube neck.

I never used to even consider paint tube hygiene to be of any concern in my painting. I just put up with the built up dried, gooey, messy paint that collected around the neck of my paint tubes, the difficulty this caused in getting the caps to screw on properly and even broken paint tube caps. I just thought this was the way all painters lived: simply a cost of doing business in this bohemian world.

After a lifetime in this “dirty” world, I recently discovered a path to a cleaner life. It requires a change of habit and a bit of diligence, but I think I’m up for the task. I’m tired of grinding concentrated bits of pigment into the floor of my studio or tracking it through the house, when a bit of this goop, unseen, falls from the neck of a tube and ends up on the bottom of my shoe.

Clean Paint Tube Photo
Tube neck after cleaning and oiling.

How do you adapt this change in lifestyle? You start by removing the paint goop from the neck of each paint tube in your paintbox. If the tube is almost empty or the gunk is too difficult to remove, just give up on this tube and begin your new regimen of hygiene, when you’ve used the color up and replaced it with a new tube. Once the paint is removed from the neck, apply a drop of linseed, walnut or safflower oil (your oil of choice) to the threads on the neck of the tube. You won’t believe how smoothly the cap now screws on and off. From there, it’s just a matter of wiping away wet paint from the threads, whenever it begins to collect and applying the oil.

Stay the course and your paint tubes will function like well oiled machines. Ugh!

Painting a 90 Year Old Dog

Buck Painting
“Buck,” 10″ x 8,” oil on canvas.

My pop just celebrated his 90th birthday! My mom will be doing the same in January. Lucky for me, huh? My dad’s unbelievably difficult to buy gifts for. He doesn’t want much, but when he does want or need something, he just goes out and purchases it. Up until recently golf was his passion, so you could always pick him up something associated with that, but a deteriorating back put an end to his time on the greens.

Pop & Buck Photo
My dad at 9, with Buck and his grandparents, Dallas, TX.

So, I had no idea what I was going to get him for this very special birthday. Then my wife, Betty, came up with a great idea. My father had the worst of childhoods. His mother and father split up, when he was very young. When my dad was 5, his father stopped by on the way out of town to say he was pulling up stakes and didn’t know when he’d be able to see him again. My dad didn’t hear from his father again until his was 13 years old and didn’t see him again until he was 35. His mother took off with her boyfriend (later to become my pop’s step-father) around the same time, leaving her parents, my pop’s grandparents, to care for him. This was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stripped of all else, he held two precious possessions, the deep unconditional love of his grandfather and a boston terrier named Buck. Betty suggested I create a painting of Buck for him.

With only a week before the extended family party in L.A., I had to hunker down and make swift progress. My first decision was to work small. They have a small home, filled with the products of their many interests, anyway, so there isn’t a lot of wall space there. I chose an 10″ x 8″ canvas.

Buck Charcoal Layout Image
Charcoal pencil layout sketch.

I had a couple of old photographs of Buck, with my pop and his grandparents from the 1930s. These gave me an indication of the dogs specific markings, but I had to do a lot of online photo research of boston terriers to collect the more detailed information about the breed that I needed. I started with a soft charcoal pencil sketch on the canvas to establish my composition. Hard to maintain a clean line, at this small size, where every mark is magnified, but it will get the job done.

Buck Underpainting Image
My turp wash darks underpainting.

Squinting at my reference, I visualized the gross masses making up my darks, mid-tones and lights. Then, with my eyes fully open (no longer squinting) I moved on to a turpentine wash (actually I use Gamblin’s Gamsol) underpainting, in burnt umber, to establish the orchestration of my darks throughout the painting. Notice how the darks weave in and out of background, mid ground and foreground. It’s these dark shapes that cement your composition together and it’s why I do an underpainting first. Working this way allows me to sneak-up on the finish, closing in on the painting and building my confidence that things are going to work out, more with each step.

Buck End of Day 1 Image
My painting, end of a 6 hr. day 1.

I added basic transparent color washes, to dye each general area, so if I didn’t cover everything completely with opaque paint, I wouldn’t have any bright white holidays (missed areas) showing, before moving on to opaque painting, i.e.: transparent green over the grasses, transparent grays over the black patches on the dog. I always paint dark to light, but sometimes my underpainting darks are dark enough that it makes more sense to move right to the mid-tones and lights, then return to the dark areas and repaint them in the proper colors. At the end of about 6 hrs. on day one, I had most of the work behind me, just detailing the grass and a few adjustments on the dog left.

Buck Day 2 Image
Day 2, I added grass detail.

Day 2 only allowed me 2 or 3 hours of painting time, but I managed to make a few passes on the grasses, adding a couple of dark passes and a couple of light passes. I decided that I liked the idea of leaving the extreme, most distant areas of the grass background rough, but determined I’d need to blur the mid-ground grass details into the background a bit, to make it all work.

With my last day, day 3, I blurred the mid-ground grass detail a little into the background and added a few more light details to the foreground grasses. I also did a little more final detailing on the dog, Buck, to bring us to the finish, shown at the top of this post.

My pop was totally surprised and emotionally touched by the unexpected gift. The painting brought back a lot of pleasant childhood memories he hadn’t visited in quite some time.

Painting & the Digital Preview

Rare Sighting Image

Computers and computer software have played a major role in my working life. As some of you may know, prior to becoming a full-time fine artist, I spent a considerable amount of time earning my living by developing computer games, as chief creative officer. So, I’ve been using image editing applications, like Photoshop (PS), since they first appeared for sale (and many others, before PS arrived on the scene). Finding my way around in apps, like PS, is pretty second nature to me.

Where in the past when I had an idea for a major painting change or addition I wasn’t 100% sure would work, I just had to bite the bullet and try it with paint. When it didn’t work out, I had to scrape out and repair, if I was working with oils, paint over my change, trying to remember what was there before, if working with acrylics or start over from scratch, if working with watercolors. These days, I instead turn to the computer to try out a quick digital preview test, before committing to paint.

You don’t have to be an expert with computer image editing software to perform these digital previews. In most cases you’re just using very basic image editing tools. You also don’t have to purchase Photoshop. There’s a pretty good free image editor offered at: www.pixlr.com that will do the trick.

I’m going to demonstrate my process in Photoshop, but Pixlr works very similarly.

Bear Without Hair Image
The bear before I tried the hair pattern.

When I was painting the bear in my picture, “Rare Sighting,” from the start I’d intended to cover him with some type of hair pattern, but the detailing I put into the bear was a lot of work. I was concerned about adding the hair pattern on top of this great effort, without testing it first. I didn’t want to have to go back and re-render large parts of the bear, painting the pattern out, if the hair turned out to be a mistake. So I turned to PS.

Bear With Hair Image
The bear with the hair pattern on a separate layer.

I shot the bear with my digital camera, but you could use your smart phone or tablet to take the shot. I transferred the digital shot to my computer and opened it in PS. Then I created a separate layer, on top of my digital painting image and I painted the hair pattern on this new layer. An added bonus in working this way is that you can turn the layer off and on, flashing back and forth from the painting with the change to the painting without. Something you could never do, if you just added the change to the actual painting.

You’re not limited to simple, straightforward changes like this one. As you become more proficient with the image editor, you can try out just about anything. I’ve tested glazing, color changes, textures, gradients, shadows, you name it, only executing them in the actual painting if they work. I’ve abandoned as many tests, as those I’ve followed through with, but when I followed through, I did so with complete confidence.

I’ve had some tell me they feel this is cheating. That’s a whole lotta’ bull! As the saying goes, they need to get with the program! To not take advantage of new visualization tools made available in the artist paintbox would just be ridiculous! Save yourself a lot of headaches and give digital previewing a try.

Turpentine, Good to the Last Drop!

Solvents Photo

Did you realize you can easily reclaim your dirty brush cleaning solvent, whether turpentine, Turpenoid or Gamsol? For years I was collecting my dirty solvent in an old closed container for later collection by (or delivery to) a toxic waste center. Then I learned about the simple painting solvent reclamation process.

When dirty brush cleaning solvents are left undisturbed for a period of time, all the paint solids settle to the bottom of the solvent container, with clean solvent, only, left on top. This allows you to pour off the clean solvent into a temporary container, leaving the paint solids, settled in the bottom of the solvent container, behind. Then it’s just a matter of wiping the solids out of the bottom of the container, with paper towels or old disposable rags and disposing of the dirty paper towels or rags properly (I’ll discuss this shortly). You can now pour your reclaimed, clean solvent back into your brush cleaning container.

How long the solids take to settle depends on the paint colors you’ve been using, but they usually settle, for the most part, overnight. If you let them settle for a couple of days you get an even cleaner separation. I generally paint during the working week and take the weekends off to deal with household chores. My approach is to use the solvent all week, let the solids settle over the weekend and do my reclamation before I begin painting on Monday. The reclaimed solvent looks almost like I’ve poured it out clean from it original bottle or can.

Firesafe Can Photo
My “firesafe” can.

Now, what to do with those dirty, paint soaked paper towels or rags. You do know you should have a firesafe can in your studio don’t you? When you paint with oils, the solvents, mediums and paints themselves are highly flammable. Remember those cautionary film strips in elementary school that talked about old oil and paint soaked rags, out in the garage, spontaneously bursting into flame? Well, the rags you’re using while painting, to wipe your brushes, palette, spills, etc., are those spontaneously combustable items they we referring to in those films. All these materials should be isolated, in a firesafe can, while in your studio, until you put them into your regular trash for collection.

I purchased my firesafe can online at www.uline.com or you can ask your local hardware store about one. Keeping your painting rags and other discarded painting materials (old tubes, latex gloves, etc.) in a firesafe can is important, whether you adopt my solvent reclamation routine or not. You don’t want to be responsible for setting your home ablaze, while you’re away from the house or sleeping.

Things My Mother Taught Me

Turp Wash Image
Turp wash underpainting.

I’m a 3rd generation artists. My maternal grandfather was an artist (and a hilariously funny individual). He used to sketch things for us on a little yellow notepad, on demand. He owned a custom bedspread and drapery business, down on South San Pedro Street, in Los Angeles, where he designed and fabricated beautiful custom bedspreads and coordinated draperies for particular individuals, interior designers and hotel chains. He designed many of his own fabrics and all of his quilting patterns.

Girl with Lamb Normal Photo
Normal, non-squinting view of subject.

One of his daughters, my mother, was an even more diverse artist: painting oils, watercolors, creating and teaching ceramics, writing poetry, designing sets for local dramatic productions (acting in some of them), designing and fabricating unbelievable exotic costumes and working as a fashion designer for 30 years.

It goes without saying, that I had lots of support, once I showed an interest in art. My mom shared a lot of creative tools and methods with me, as I was becoming an artist. One of the most valuable, one I still use constantly today, is squinting.

Squinting View Photo
Squinting detail reduction simulation.

Squinting is a great tool in helping you to simplify your subject matter, helping you eliminate details and identify the masses. Before I ever put pencil or brush to canvas, I squint to identify the mass shapes of the darks, mid-values and lights in my subject matter. What I see while squinting is what I indicate in my turp wash underpainting (the armature on which I build my painting).

I open my eyes fully, while painting, of course, to see the actually subtleties of the color and value before me, but I keep the masses in mind throughout the painting process to maintain a simplified, powerful relationship across my value range (darks, mid-tones and lights). If I lose sight of this relationship, I squint again for a refresher.

Turp Wash Small Image
Note actual mass values are determined with eyes open.

I’ve found this to be a wonderful way to separate out surface detail from value (grayscale) substance. I can confidently add as much surface detail (window dressing) as I want to my finished painting, but by squinting I reduce my subject down to basic shapes and values, eliminating any confusion, caused by the detail, in identifying the basic masses from which I want to build my composition.

Special Framing for Soft Pastels

Portrait of Priscilla Bugg Image
“Portrait of Priscilla Bugg,” 16″ x 12,” soft pastel on paper by Trowzers Akimbo in special pastel mat.

A few years ago I came across a great system to use when matting soft pastel artwork for framing. Those of you who frame a lot of work created with this medium have likely noticed that, over time, some of the chalk falls from the artwork and collects along the bottom inside edge of the mat. The system I’ll demonstrate avoids this.

Pastel Board Cut DiagramKey to this system is that you cut your mat with a 45 degree bevel, but reverse the bevel so the 45 degree cut edge faces inward, towards the artwork, not outward towards the glass, as it normally would. When cut correctly, you see a sharp edge on the inside of the mat surrounding your artwork, not the 45 degree cut edge that reveals the center color of the matboard (generally white).

Mat Cut Corner Image
Corner of the top mat, cut using a reverse 45 degree bevel.
Hidden Mat Image
Hidden Mat attached to the back of Top Mat.

Next you need to cut a second hidden mat to be attached to the back of the first top mat to create an airspace between the artwork and the top mat. Any falling pastel chalk dust will fall behind the top mat and come to rest at the bottom of the airspace, out of view.

Since you won’t see this 2nd hidden mat, it’s a great opportunity to use scraps of that hideous colored mat board you have laying around. I cut mine from one piece of board, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use separate strips of board for this function. I size my hidden mat so the viewing opening is 1/4″ smaller, all the way around, than my top mat and 1/2″ smaller, all the way around from the top mat’s outside edge. This way I’m sure no one will be able to see the hidden mat, when viewing my framed artwork from the side and by keeping my overall hidden mat smaller than the top mat, I avoid it getting in the way of the frame, when I put everything together. Remember, that this hidden mat will come into contact with the backer board you’ve attached your artwork to and possibly the artwork itself, so you need to use acid free, archival mat board, if longevity is important to you.

Hinged Image
The mat assembly & backer board hinged together with acid free tape.

From here you just finish the framing following your normal procedure. I hinge my mat board to the backer board with archival tape.

Because I usually create my pastels on normal pastel paper, I couldn’t hinge the artwork to the backer board, as I normally do with works created on other substrates, using Japanese paper for the hinges and wheat starch as the adhesive. The wet wheat starch mixture would cause the paper to buckle, where the attachments were made. So, I used archival polypropylene photo corners, which I purchased at my local art store, to make the attachment.

Corner Image
Archival Polypropylene Photo Corner

That’s it! Use this mating system and you’ll never again have to pull your artwork out of the frame to clean the collected pastel dust from the edge of the mat.