Category Archives: Materials & Equipment

My Viewing/Drying Mantle

The other day, one of my favorite artist-bloggers Michael Chesley Johnson wrote about his “Viewing Mantle”, on his blog, “A Plein Air Painter’s Blog”. He writes, “In my opinion, an artist really needs to live with his paintings in a place of calm in order to render a fair judgement.”

This hit home with me. I recall as a software engineer I would at times spend hours looking at the same code, missing the bug that I was trying to find. Only after stepping away for bit was I able to come back to that code and see the problem–usually immediately. The same applies to my paintings. You can spend hours working on a painting, seeing nothing but it. You need to rest your eyes, and better yet, put the painting away before you over-work it and look at it in fresh eyes the next day.

Another reason I have my own viewing mantel is to see my work in the same lighting conditions that the average collector would have. We’d like to think our paintings will installed perfect spotlights illuminating the work in a dark calm room, but of course, that’s not the case. Most rooms have indirect sunlight during the day and indirect incandescent at night. Usually, much less light than you had when you painted it outdoors or a well lit studio.

So, step back. Place your work in a place of calm in your home, under lighting conditions less than ideal. You’ll see where that last stroke needs to go, or where the values aren’t reading. Happy Painting!


Observation 3: Equipment Matters

“You don’t get hung up on the scalple if you’re a surgeon. You get hung up on what the scalple will do.”Artie Shaw
All group painting activities I’ve been involved in has included discussions about equipment. Everyone is always checking out everyone else’s setup. We all face too many obstacles when creating art, so don’t add another one–especially when it’s under your control–by not considering carefully your setup. There are endless ways to configure your studio or plein air kit, and not everything I do will be right for you, but here are some things I’ve learned:
  • Consistent paint quality. Even while a student (I still am!), don’t buy the so-called “student grade” paints. They’re somewhat less expensive, but you’ll pay for it in frustration and poor quality results. When you’re learning, you need to learn with the materials that you’ll paint with for a life time. Whatever brand of paint you choose, when you know you’re happy, stick with it. Most of my paint is by Classic Artist Oils. They are incredibly cheap in large quantities (10 oz “guns”) and used by many masters, including Ken Auster and Ovanes Berberian. I do use Gamblin occasionally (especially their mediums, which I love). Their Permanent Alizarin is allegedly the only true permanent Alizarin Crimson on the market.
    • Are “Student Grade” Oils really cheaper? I did a quick price comparison using the Winsor Newton prices on Dick Blick vs. Classic Artist Oils. Even with a sale running right now at Dick Blick (far below retail prices), the high quality Classic Artist Oils rival Winsor Newton’s WINTON student grade. Eg, For Ultramarine Blue, the price per oz was: WINTON: $2.13/oz; Winsor Newton Artist Oils: $4.90/oz; and Classic Artist Oils: $2.40/oz. So even while on SALE, Winsor Newton’s Artists Oils cost double the price of Classic Artists Oils and comparable in price to W/N student grade WINTON oils. It pays to buy in larger quantity.
  • Your easel is your foundation. Easels can be the most difficult decision you’ll make for outdoor painting. I use OpenBoxM for small kits that I take hiking, and a Soltek easel for larger works outdoors that don’t require too far of a hike. Be warned, however, Solteks break constantly. I’m currently testing a 12×16″ palette OpenBoxM easel as my primary outdoor kit. So far, so good. I’m phasing out my Soltek due to technical difficulties. If I could afford it, I may buy two like Ken Auster, who assumes one will always be in the shop while one is in working condition.

OpenBoxM Easel
OpenBoxM 12×16″ Palette Pochade, Tripod Mounted

Soltek Easel
Soltek Easel, all-in-one, but unreliable

  • Brushes with body. Flimsy brushes without enough hair are frustrating! I use only pure hog hair bristles brushes, and sometimes the synthetic/natural bristle blends by Ultrect. Brands I trust include: Dick Blick Masterstroke; Robert Simmons; Winsor Newton Rathbone and Utrecht.
  • Painting surface is objective. Of all materials, I think the surface you paint on is the most personal. I prefer a smooth surface with just the right amount of tooth. For me, that’s a double-primed linen (naturally, the most expensive!). It just “feels right”. My advice is to try everything, every surface with every combination of preparation (gesso, primer, etc). I use RayMar’s double-primed linen panels (as well as their panel carriers for storage).
  • Studio light intensity and color must match the viewers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve painted a work in my studio that I thought was perfect, only to see a dark, less intense version in the gallery or home of the collector. Just as you don’t paint in direct sunlight outdoors (because it results in dull, dark paintings when viewed indoors), you should moderate your indoor studio lighting. I tend to paint indoors with too much light, and when that painting is put in my living room (for example), it looks much less impressive. I try to get in the habit now of placing a painting I’m working on in my living room with typical nighttime “indoor light” to see how it looks.
  • Use anything and everything. One of my favorite artists to watch is Camille Przwodek. She’ll use anything and everything at her disposal to make a painting work: the end of a brush, a scraper, paper towel. No one is going to judge your painting’s quality someday based on traditional technique, it’s the end result that matters to them. So use the opposite end of the brush, your fingers, whatever you need to create the effect you need.
Here’s my “studio” set up in my garage. Someday, I’ll have have my dream studio with a crackling fireplace in the corner (far away from the solvents!), windows overlooking the Pacific ocean, spacious and with rugs and comfortable furniture. For now, it’s a cold garage I share with my jealous car.When I work indoors, I’ll usually work from either a small plein air study as reference, or from my digital photo library. When the latter, I connect my MacBook to the TV to project the image. This is MUCH better than working from printed photographs. You could alternatively paint from the laptop screen, but I prefer a larger reference.
What did I leave out? Let me know in Comments, and I’ll add to this post.

Should you varnish your paintings?

I’ve had both collectors and artists ask me about varnishing. In my experience, most plein air painters seem to skip this important step. Perhaps it’s because we sell work right off the easel! No time to let the painting dry…

I think varnishing is important, both for the presentation and preservation of your work. I know I was skeptical initially, until I started regularly varnishing, and experiementing with varnish types. I found that the oft-used “retouch varnishes” created too much glare. My goal is to have a uniform surface, one in which the richness of the darks show through, yet don’t overpower the light pigments.

The best solution I’ve found is Gamblin’s Gamvar varnish, mixed with about 10% cold wax medium. Gamvar is mixed by the artist, so you know it’s fresh. You’re given the solvent and varnish crystals. Gamblin recommends you mix the varnish and keep it for a year, no more. I don’t like a strong reflection on the surface, so I mix about 10% cold wax medum. This mixture gives me the depth of color I want, with no glare!

When I see paintings that aren’t varnished, I almost want to get my kit out and do it for them. Look at the difference in this detail of a painting I’m varnishing. I’ve put two strokes of my Gamvar/Cold Wax Medium mixture. The yellow arrows indicate the border between varnished and unvarnished sections of the painting. Look how much richer the darks are! You should also note that it doesn’t have much impact on lights. Varnish brings out the richness of dark to midtone parts of the canvas.

Here are the Gamlin products I used to varnish: Gamvar and Gamblin Cold Wax Medium. Their site also has this great FAQ on varnishing. Try it, and let me know how it works for you.

Happy painting!

Toning Canvas

If you’re a painter and have been exposed to many other working artists (in workshops, plein air events, etc) you’ll notice some commonalities in how we paint, and certainly lots of individual differences. One significant difference I’ve noticed to the practice of toning your canvas. Most plein air artists agree that a start white canvas working outdoors (even in the shade) is very hard on the eyes. It also detracts–I think–from one my goals, which is freedom. I want to be loose! Have fun! I don’t want to see bits of stark white showing up here and there. It’s a distraction.

Artists have solved this problem by toning their canvas, either at their painting site or in the studio. For the uninitiated: toning is the practice of deadening the white of a canvas with a color, usually in a light to mid-value range. Toning on site has it’s advantages: you can select the undertone to match the scene more closely. However, the disadvantage I see is that I believe it usually results in slightly more grayish, muddy colors. And I love color.

What color to tone? This is a rather difficult question, there are so many exceptions, and by the way, some artists only tone one color all the time. I vary my tone. Ted Georschner tones with a Yellow Ocher; Ken Auster tones with a medium value gray. Both undeniably master artists, so there is no right or wrong answer. Its what you’re comfortable with.

I tone an equal number of linen canvas boards with Yellow Ocher and with Gray. I’ve studied with both Ted and Ken, and I’ve seen the value in both–depending upon the circumstances. Basically, I use a Grey tone on paintings where the light is Grey-ish (eg, night scenes, cloudy days, etc). I use a Yellow Ocher tone when I want a strong feeling of sun light. The details of two different paintings below demonstrate each approach. The gray I use is a Golden Acrylic Gesso, and I mix the gray myself using a combination of Paynes Gray and Cadmium Red (both acrylic, of course). The Yellow Ocher is Classic Artist Oils, right out of the tube.

This is a detail from a snow scene in which I used a gray toned board. It was quite cloudy, and there was a lot of gray in the picture. Made life easier.
This is also a snow scene detail, but there was bright sunlight strong. The bits of Yellow showing through the canvas add a sense of light.

So, what’s right for you? You’ll never know, until you experiment. Happy Painting!

PS. A toned canvas must be dry thoroughly before you apply paint, because it can easily wipe off. I dry my toned canvases (and even finished paintings) in my oven. Don’t laugh! I have about a dozen pilot lights in this old Wedgwood stove, may as well use that energy for some purpose. I leave them in for a day or two (no more, otherwise the boards can warp).