Painting lessons

I promised Elizabeth many months ago I would do some how-to posts on painting.  I’ve wanted to teach art for a long time but don’t have the time to do it in person right now.  So posting a few lessons seemed like a good idea.

The more I thought about it though the more overwhelmed I felt.  I have been painting for many years now and drawing for a long as I can remember— what could I say in a few posts that would be useful?  At the same time, there are hundreds of books out there on painting and drawing…what could I possibly add?

In my experience there are two parts to learning any medium.  One is learning your materials.  What are they, what can you do with them?  What do they do easily and what is difficult?  The other part is learning a new way to see.  Learning to draw changes your brain.  You see colors you didn’t see before, you estimate sizes and distances differently.  And you also develop a new kind of vision— you look at a scene you want to paint and start to see it in terms of brushstrokes and pigments.

It might seem like the first of these is something you can teach and that learning to see must be very personal.  In my experience though a good teacher can help with both: introducing you to new materials and giving you exercises and feedback to help you develop your vision.  At the same time, both can really only be learned through experiment and practice.  I can tell you what the difference is between ultramarine and pthalo blue, but you won’t really know until you play with them yourself.

So I thought for this series of posts I would try to do a little bit of both.  I would start with materials and move towards vision.  To keep things simpler I though I would focus on painting rather than drawing, and on abstraction and color more than realism.  I hope that way the posts may be more relevant to the sewists who stop by.  Anyway that’s what I feel like working on myself right now.

So: materials.  The picture at the top shows my painting set-up.  It’s optimized to be easy to set up and keep (reasonably) clean.  On the bottom is a big sheet of acrylic (from a hardware store, I think) which I use to catch drops of paint and keep my table clean enough for sewing.  And on the right in front you can see my palette— another piece of acrylic.  Personally, I like palettes made of acrylic or glass, and perfectly flat.  Again this is to make them easy to clean: you can scrape dried paint off of acrylic or glass without too much trouble (glass is easier to clean but heavier).


The most important thing I’ve found about brushes is having a range of sizes.  These are my oil painting brushes which are sorted into small (size 0-6), medium (size 6-12), and large (housepainting or chip brushes).  Having a range of brush sizes means the finished painting will have a range of different-sized marks.  As I learned, this gives the painting a lot more dynamism and energy.

What brushes you get depends on the medium you use and what you want to achieve.  Nylon brushes hold little paint and are good for controlled lines and details.  Natural fibers hold a lot of paint and are useful for laying down large areas of color.  Bristle is better for thick paint, hair is better for thin.  For watercolor, I’ve found that one large natural sable brush is indispensible for washes.  For oil, I have a large number of inexpensive bristle brushes, so I don’t have to clean them as often between colors.  I just picked up acrylics the other day so I don’t really know what to use.  I’m starting with a small range of nylon brushes and we’ll see how that works.


Rags (or paper towels for watercolor) are as important as brushes.  They are the equivalent of pressing for sewing: the unsexy part of painting that makes the difference between sloppy and professional.  I use rags to clean my brushes between paint applications (which reduces the need for solvents, and keeps my solvent jars cleaner).  I also use them to remove paint from the canvas or control its flow.  I usually paint with a brush in my right hand and a rag in my left.  Gloves are useful if I don’t want to end the evening with a densely painted left hand.


Jars for medium and solvents:

A medium is what binds and hold the pigment in paint.  Adding medium to paint changes its flow and texture.  Solvents are used to clean up and remove paint.  In watercolor, water is both the medium and the solvent.  In oil, mediums are usually a mix of oils, varnish, and turpentine, while the solvent can be turpentine or odorless mineral spirits (OMS).  In acrylic you can buy mediums to make the paint do just about anything, and clean up using water.

Although you can get cool effects by using solvent as a medium, its helpful to physically separate the two into different jars.   As you paint your solvent jar will get dirty, and if you are using the same jar for medium your painting will get dirty too.  For oil, I stick a folded up drain cover in my solvent jar to help get paint off my brushes.  This lets the paint particles settle to the bottom and means I can keep using the same batch of solvent for months.

In watercolor, I often use a single water jar out of laziness but then I need to remember to change it often!

A surface to paint on:

You can paint on just about anything.  Canvas, wood, paper.  I like paper because it has great texture and is easy to store.  Canvas is cheaper if you want to paint large, and has the advantage that you don’t have to frame it to hang it.  Paint and paper are two things where quality really improves with price.  I use heavy weight Arches watercolor paper (140 lb or 300 lb) for watercolor, and also for oil.  To use it for oil or acrylic, you first have to coat it with gesso.  This is a goopy white substance that seals the paper and prevents the oil from soaking into the fibers and making the paper disintegrate.  Watercolor paper comes in big sheets.  To prepare it for painting, I first tear it down using a straightedge, leaving a nice deckled edge:

Then I apply gesso using a house-painting brush.  I apply 2-3 coats, diluting the first ones with a little water to make the gesso flow more easily and soak into the paper.  Each coat will dry within 30 minutes-1 hour.  I’ll often gesso a bunch of paper at a time so I have lots to work with when I’m ready to paint.  I don’t stress too much about how the gesso goes on.  Often it has some texture of its own but that just makes the final painting more interesting.

I used to stretch my own canvas, but now usually buy the pre-made ones from Toile d”Artiste.  These come pre-gessoed so you can just go ahead and paint!  Cheap pre-made canvases are awful.  The coating on them is slick so paint hardly sticks to them.

Exercise: playing with brushes and media

I haven’t mentioned paint yet, because that needs a post (or two) of its own.  A good way to start though is to pick one color (or two) and just play with them. (Credit to my watercolor teacher Glenn Hirsh, who introduced me to this exercise.)  Try diluting your paint very thin and see what happens:

And then try applying it more thickly:

Try out all your different brushes.  How many different kinds of marks can you make with a single brush?  If you keep making the same mark then try holding your brush a different way.  Hold it vertically like a chinese brush.  Hold it thumb-up like you are about to flip a coin.  Try standing up versus sitting down.

I did this exercise myself the other night when I first broke open my acrylic paints.  Here’s what I came up with:


Let me know if you try this and I’ll post a link to it.

Oh and please let me know if any of this information is useful or confusing.  I really would like to teach art someday and I can’t learn without feedback.  Thanks!