Category Archives: Experimenting

Art and Emotion

So I stated this new painting at the end of June (small detail shown above). I struggled with it. I was unmotivated to work on it. It was an interesting idea for a technique I’d never seen used before — one of those meaningful, high-concept projects that typically gets picked for juried art shows. Also the type of project that is very much out of my comfort zone. It seemed like I should be excited to work on it, but I just wasn’t.

After having it sit there unfinished on my easel for a few weeks, I finally realized why I couldn’t muster the ambition to keep working on it. It’s all about anxiety. The first layer of this work is a montage of images of things that generate anxiety. Working on it, while artistically fascinating, was emotionally disturbing. I couldn’t look at all those illustrations of anger, angst, hostility, and excess without absorbing some of the negative emotional energy it contains.

I’ve put it away for now. I haven’t decided if I should complete it, or paint over it and start something new on that panel. It would be good art, but certainly not the sort of art someone is going to hang on the wall in their favorite space and gaze at all the time. I’ve definitely decided not to spend long stretches of time on it. If I finish it, it will have to be in small increments interspersed with work on more peaceful and uplifting images.

Some artists use painting to pour out the emotions they are feeling onto the canvas as a cathartic exercise like journaling for writers. I thought that was what this was going to be for me — expressing the way I feel about the way the world is going this year. It turned out that I was absorbing emotion from the painting instead of emptying it into the painting. Not at all what I expected when I attempted broaden my artistic horizons.

Brush Work

I’ve been doing more studying about art than actually making art. One thing I learned is that most of my brushes aren’t meant for oil painting. Since I’m transitioning into oils from acrylics, I thought I ought to transition to the appropriate brushes too. Everybody seemed to be telling me that there are important differences between oil painting brushes and water media brushes. Water media includes acrylics, which was my primary media until recently.

One of my Youtube mentors instructed that sable brushes (real or synthetic) are no good for oil paints because the abrasiveness of the paint will grind away the soft hairs. (Poor, sad brushes). He said, “A brush with no hair is a stick, and you can’t paint with a stick.” He also said that I shouldn’t be using short handled brushes, because those are for watercolorists who work close to their work at a table. For oil painting at an easel, he said I should be using long-handled brushes. He recommended buying the expensive brushes and the cheapest paint. His rationale was that all paint is basically the same, but that the quality of your tools affects the quality of your work.

Then I watched another artist’s video and she used short-handled brushes of all types for both oils and acrylics. She recommended buying the cheapest brushes (though not so cheap that the bristles fall out), and the best quality paint. Her rationale was that the brushes are going to wear out regardless of how well you care for them (faster if you aren’t fastidious with cleaning) and they’ll get tossed and replaced frequently, but the paint becomes a part of the art you create, so you want it to be the best you can buy.

Both sounded like reasonable conclusions. Before I came to any conclusions of my own, I wanted to try out the boar bristle brushes that the arts & crafts stores sell as “oil painting brushes,” because I had little personal experience with those. The experience I did have with them was generally bad. Taking a look at the brushes for sale at a local shop, I determined that my issue with boar bristle brushes was because I had only ever used extremely cheap ones that are about the poorest quality you can get.

Looking at the photo above, a difference in the quality of these brushes — both new — is obvious. The brush on the right is the type I had tried in the past, and I only own it because it came in a large set of miscellaneous brushes. I probably paid around $5 for more than a dozen brushes in that package. The one on the left was a mid-range quality that sells for about $15 per brush, but I got it on clearance for around $4. The nicer looking brush is also more flexible, yet stiff enough to move the paint where it needs to go. The straighter, more even bristles allow it to hold paint and let it flow onto the canvas evenly. There is no way I could control the application of paint with that splayed mess of bristles on the cheap brush.

Now that I’ve tried the better quality boar bristle brushes, I’ve formed some opinions of my own:

  • Price matters much more with boar bristle brushes meant for oils than with soft hair brushes meant for water media.
  • Boar bristles are definitely the better way to go for oil paints, which are much thicker and stickier. Trying to paint with with oils using a soft synthetic sable brush is like trying to push a paperweight around with a peacock feather — it ain’t goin’ nowhere.
  • Oil paint is much, much easier to wash out of brushes — whatever the quality of the brush. Score one for oils over acrylics. (Watercolors are still the easiest to wash out though.)
  • Short handles work fine for me, even when I’m working at a canvas on an easel, because I have to stand pretty close to it anyway. Darn progressive lenses!
  • Walking around the room looking for your glasses while holding a loaded brush in one’s teeth is a very bad idea.

Painting Weather

freshly primed wood panels drying in the garage

I never thought that art would be at the mercy of the weather, but I find myself anxiously watching the forecast. I’ve started painting on wood panels instead of canvases which I want to coat with sprayed-on primer… which requires temperatures between 55 and 85 degrees F and calm winds. For weeks I was waiting for cooler days, and then MUCH cooler days descended upon us rather suddenly, so now I’m hoping it will warm up again at least briefly and that the winds will calm down. I can’t complain too much knowing what they’re dealing with in North Dakota right now — lost crops buried under feet of snow, and having to use the winter supply of hay to feed the cattle so it won’t likely last until the spring thaw.

I want to get all the panels I’ve bought primed and ready to use before winter sets in, so I can paint during those winter days when I’m stuck inside. You may have noticed the spray cans in the photo. Yes, that’s Rustoleum™ automotive primer. I learned that it’s an ideal primer for oil painting. It’s oil-based itself and it’s made to last a decade on your car out there on the road, so it’s going to last for centuries indoors hanging on a wall. I also like that it makes a smoother surface than brushing gesso onto canvas, and a smooth surface is critical when painting highly detailed work. I like it when the best product is also reasonably priced too! I painted those eight square panels with just one can.

The primer comes in white, though I haven’t been able to find it at any of the local home improvement stores. I’ll try the auto parts stores next. I tend to paint dark though, so black primer might work best anyway. If I don’t get any paint on the edges when I’m painting the front, then smooth, black edges will make framing optional. Bonus! Frame-less art seems to be the trend, and it’s certainly more economical, so I’m good with that.

Snow Days Are For Making Art

January-February

It’s been a rough winter weather-wise and we’ve used up our allotment of “snow days” at the school where I work for my day job.  I didn’t sleep away my extra days off.  Well… not a whole day, anyway.  I did the taxes, and then I did art.

The picture on the left is three of my great-grandfathers sisters.  I never met them; neither did my father.  We only have the one photograph of them, but it caught my attention among all the other old family photos.  They seem like people I would like to meet.  They also seemed like people I would like to paint… and so I did — in ink and watercolors.  It had been about thirty-five years since I used that medium, but I think I’ve got the hang of it again.  I titled it, “The Smith Sisters, Circa 1935.”

The middle picture is the result of not being able to decide what to paint.  I eventually decided that I would ditch all of the possible reference photos I was mulling over and just paint a face entirely out of my head.  At first she looked a lot like me.  Then, for a while she looked a lot like the actress Leelee Sobieski.  I think, now that she’s finished, she looks a lot like one of those fictitious princesses created by a certain film company that also owns a few theme parks.  Because she’s monochromatic and I “carved” her out of paint and my imagination, I titled that one “Cameo.”

The fish is just a little sketchbook practice, made with Sharpie pens and Sharpie markers, but I had a lot of fun with him.   I drew the fishy and painted the fictitious portrait while listening to audio books from the Library.  I recommend Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman.  It’s an account of the lives of Vincent Van Gogh and his younger brother Theo, and of their very close relationship.  It was intense.  I mean the book, but their relationship was definitely intense too.

I will be going on a weekend road trip to visit relatives in a few days, and I’m taking my sketchbook along.  The family visit may be all that we do, but if there is some “down time,” I want to be ready with some art supplies.  I’ve never sketched in a moving car, but I might give it a try.  Artistic confidence comes from Practice, Practice, PRACTICE!

 

Finished At Last!

Still LIfe With Hydrangea No. 1 and No. 2

The oil on canvas version of Still Life with Hydrangea (on the right) that I started back in mid-summer is finally finished.  It just needs some drying time and a coat of varnish.  The acrylic version on the left was finished last month, but I thought I’d wait until both were done to “unveil” them.

I started with oil paints that are water-miscible (water-mixable or water soluble — all three mean the same).  I determined that they weren’t all they were marketed to be.  Some colors/brands mix with water better than others.  Some mix better with turpentine substitute (mineral spirits).  Some don’t mix very well with either.  Most colors got gummy at some point and resisted spreading.   I ended up giving in and buying a bottle of Turpenoid® and a set of inexpensive conventional oil paints — the supposedly noxious chemicals that I’d been avoiding all my life for fear that they were dangerous to work with.

I found that I had been silly to wait so long to try oils.  I had always assumed that oil painting required a big bucket of solvent. For that I blame Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting… also my unpleasant experiences with oil-based house paint.  I bought a nifty little stainless steel cup with a spill-proof lid and a grate inside for rubbing the brushes against to clean them.  It only needs a few ounces of solvent and it can be reused over and over again before needing to clean the cup and change the solvent, because the paint solids sink to the bottom under the grate. I can’t believe in all my years of making art, I never learned about this.

I’m sure you knew all about this and you’re shaking your head at my ignorance.  Anyway, I’m very happy with how both paintings turned out and I will be posting them for sale shortly — the oil version will need to dry first.  And I’ll need to keep my fingers out of the paint while it does.  I seem to be getting better at that.

Instructed and Inspired by My Medium

No1 and No2 - both in progress

Still plodding along with the still life.  When I used the wrong mixture for glazing and had to set aside the oil version (on the right) back in August, I expected that it wouldn’t be dry enough to paint the next layer until Christmas.  But it surprised me, and it appears that only a couple months was necessary.  In the meantime, I started on the acrylic version of the same still life (on the left) and it has been going well… mostly.  I’ve experienced some frustrations with the paint drying too fast on the canvas.  (That’s situational irony, right?  My 9th grade English teacher really tried, but I’ve always been a little unclear on that.)

So it wasn’t the subject matter that drove me to give up temporarily on the first canvas, it was the medium.  And while working on the second canvas, the medium is making me itch to go back to work on the first canvas.  I’m learning a lot, and relearning some too, about my mediums.  (Or media, if you prefer–both plurals are correct in an art context; I checked.)  That was pretty much the goal of this project–to learn the properties and possibilities of my materials.

So, even though I’m not finished with either version, I’m already thinking about Still Life with Hydrangea No. 3. I’ve got a whole room full of art supplies.  I could do watercolor next.  Or gouache.  Or ink.  Or watercolor over ink.  Or pastels.  Or charcoal.  Or colored pencil.  Maybe Crayola crayons will suit my mood?

OH, HOLD THE PHONE!  I just recalled that single sheet of art paper that I bought on clearance this summer.  (Only 15¢–I’ll never get out of an art supply store that cheaply again.)  That paper is a rich muted red and that would be the perfect support for a pastel painting of that still life!  I think it maybe the time is approaching to try out that box of pastels.

If at first you don’t succeed [read the directions and] try, try again.

swatches_SMALL

About thirty minutes after I published my last post, I had a face-palm moment.  There was no brown in my set of paints, and there was no true green to mix with red and make brown, BUT there was a tube of yellow in the box that I never bothered to open.  I did have all the pigments I needed to make brown.  I’ll blame that on staying up too late.

After almost two weeks, the still life [see previous post] is still not dry, and I have determined that it probably won’t be dry enough to glaze another layer until sometime after Christmas.  (It only has about five new fingerprints in it, even without the angry doberman.)  While I waited on it, I did some more studying about how to use oils for glazing and how to work with water mixable oils.  I learned that I should have done that reading first, and I should have finished that canvas in acrylics for the look I was after.

Today I was smarter.  I took a cheap canvas that had a hole in it, and I made a chart of swatches to test each color.  The vertical black lines under the swatches are there to help me see how transparent the different colors are.  I labeled everything with an ultra fine Sharpie marker because the swatches won’t help if I don’t recall which tube I squeezed it out of.

I learned a lot.  I now know that one brand is more highly pigmented–at least the two colors I bought.  I learned that the other brand varies widely in consistency.  I learned that both reds take a LOT of washing to come out of the brush.  And I learned that the tube of French Ultramarine doesn’t mix with water like it’s supposed to and it’s also very, very stinky.  It’s not turn-your-stomach stinky, but I would only use it as a last resort if I needed to mix a very particular shade.

I did a smart thing this time… I left the paint on my glass palette, so I can stick my fingers in that instead of the swatches on the canvas to see if it has dried.  Next I need to slap some paint around a practice canvas and try some blending. Then I’ll have a better feel for these paints, and I’ll be ready to use them in an actual painting.  Not tonight though–don’t want to stay up too late again.  Time to feed the cats and catch some ZZZZZzzzzz.

 

Yeah, I’m back in the garage.

 

still life garage workbench SMALL

Two days ago I spent the day at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, which really gave me the itch to get on with painting. Today, I finally opened up the new set of water soluble oil paints that I’ve been planning to try. It didn’t go quite as well as I’d imagined. Half an hour into the project, I was wrestling with a cat in the bathroom, trying to remove Viridian Green from her paws. I’m glad it was the water-soluble type of oil paint because Turpenoid® probably isn’t safe for kitty to be licking off of her paws.

The next problem was that there was no brown paint in the set and brown tones are more square inches of the picture than any other color. Yes, of course I know that you can mix brown from red and green, but there wasn’t a true green either. (Viridian is a blue-green, in case you aren’t familiar.) I wasn’t having much luck coming up with brown, but I did come up with a lot of interesting grays. I’ll need to go back to the store and get a few more tubes in more basic colors.

The next problem was too much linseed oil in my glazing mixture. The blue was amazing, but it started running down into the unpainted areas and staining the white parts. (I may or may not have said a not nice word when that happened.) At that point I decided that it should lay flat to dry and I should continue working on it later.

The final problem is me. I am apparently completely unable to get near a wet canvas without sticking my fingers in the paint. With acrylics, watercolors, or gouache, that isn’t a problem. I even managed to keep my fingers out of the latex paint I used on the studio walls until it dried, but not this stuff. I need an angry doberman to guard it out there in the garage and keep me away from it until it’s dry enough to work on again.

It wasn’t all disappointment.  I do REALLY appreciate the fact that oils don’t dry out on the palette before I’m done using them.  I didn’t do much thinning with water, but when I did, it worked beautifully.  It’s weird mixing water with oil, but it works.