Friday, 25 April 2014

Art Materials

Let's talk about art materials. They are quite expensive and some tend to accumulate in the studio unused, which is a waste that few can afford. So, here is what I found can go wrong with materials, and how to avoid waste. Since I mostly paint with acrylics, that's where I have most information to share, but lot of this applies to any medium.

Can we use student-grade paint?

If you can paint well with student grade paint, I am truly impressed. I can't. I tried Liquitex Basic, Windsor Newton student acrylics, and Pebeo brand. My plan was to have big juicy amounts of cheap paint to play with. However, I ended up using them only for the imprimatura (to to tone down the canvas before starting the under-painting). Painting with student grade acrylics feels to me like painting with bubble gum with vague traces of pigment. On the other side, Pebeo is so scarily opaque that even the transparent pigments like burnt sienna can't be made transparent even with a huge amount of medium. I now only use Pebeo black to paint canvas edges.

Do all brands of paint perform the same?

Golden brand is artist grade, and it's very popular because it's slightly cheaper than other brands, it comes in a huge variety of pigments, and it's available everywhere, together with a large variety of mediums, gels, texturizers and other additives. No other brand offers so many different colors as Golden. But my experience is that Golden pigments sometimes vary from batch to batch, and the consistency varies with pigments. For example, Green gold and Quinacridone Gold Yellow harden in the tube a few weeks after opening. I also dislike their tubes because of the tiny screw-tops that warp and become useless, same thing with W&N tubes. Also squeezing the last drops from malformed aluminum tubes is a drag.

Titanium white by most brands is way too transparent so you need many layers to achieve opaque white passages. I tested many brands and Liquitex is the most opaque acrylic white I have found. Liquitex paint also has lovely plastic tubes with great big screw-tops that you can use to stand the tubes upright - I love that. Liquitex sells a product they call "acrylic medium and varnish" which is awesome - it's more transparent and dries harder than equivalent products by any other brand I tried, although at some point I got a few bad batches that behaved more sticky than normally. But, that may also be due to the humidity, temperature and what not.

Should we buy big jars of paint?

Buying paint in jars is always cheaper, but it will only work if you paint fast. If your jars don't get used up within couple months, you need to be extremely hygienic when you take paint out (always use clean, dry palette knife), or the paint will go moldy. If you open them up too often, the paint will dry, or become lumpy, so you won't be able to use it all up, and you'll end up with waste rather than savings.

If you buy bulk jars of acrylic paint (especially if it's on sale), you may not get the same stuff that you buy in tubes. For example stay away from bulk sales of jars of Golden ochre yellow and burn sienna because they seem muddy and way too opaque - at least the last batch that I bought at a bulk Opus sale. Their other pigments that I bought in jars were fine.

What other cheap materials can be useful?

I generally buy the best quality materials and supports for my studio paintings, but I sometimes get canvas panels, cheap gesso and inexpensive paper palette's from Michael's for experimenting.

Canvas canvas panels are great for trying out techniques, I have no objections to them at all.

Cheap gesso is ok, but it's not as white as good stuff, so you'll need more layers. It can also be very gummy to the extent that it's difficult to pour out from the container, but once you dilute it with water it can be used just fine.

Cheap paper palettes roll up when wet which is very annoying, so I don't recommend them.

Canvases must be of the very best quality. Don't ever, ever buy bulk canvases on sale, even by the well respected brands. I had bad experiences with this. Cheap canvases are substandard, often banged up, dimensions are not accurate and some are not even rectangular but all warped up and distorted. I ended up having to re-stretch several paintings when I discovered that none of them fit into standard frames.

Cheap brushes are not worth a mention. My one attempt to use some cheap brushes ended up violently. You don't need that kind of thing in your serene studio.

Rags for glazing and wiping brushes are one thing you can easily save on. I am still too cheap to buy rags, so I cut up husband's old t shirts which work great, although I can get in trouble when he finds out that some of his favorite oldies ended up this way.

My conclusion is that cutting corners always brings some sort of frustration, and very often ends up with waste rather than savings. This was a very expensive lesson to learn, so hopefully my experience will save you a few dollars and a load of frustration.

Happy painting!


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

In The Zone

Salt Spring Islet, oil, 11x14

Last weekend I gave a short training course on composition (see my last post) for a group of fellow artists. There were fifteen people in the class, with different interests, painting styles and personalities. The interesting thing that we all had in common was our love of the creative process. When it came to painting, the room fell silent – we were all “in the zone”.

I used to shake my head at the talks of a mythical “zone”, meditation, “sleep working” and such, and I think that I am starting to understand why. I think that I spend most of my life in the zone. Being the only child, I was left alone for most of the time when I was a kid, did what I wanted and practically lived inside my head, conversing with my arts and crafts. Until someone talked to me and I had to talk back.

After years of adulthood which often took me out of my zone for long periods of time, I feel in the last few years that I am slowly slipping back into conversation with myself and into a space and time impenetrable by others. I noticed the same happening with my art mates in the class. What an amazing feeling!

For me, this happens instantly as soon as I can break out from any eyes, ears and expectations, luckily many times in any given day. In that state, I don’t see a point of discussing or explaining things, or hanging onto them. Everything moves smoothly and joyfully and without any particular importance. I guess I either figured it out or I am losing it in some serious way.

It is very gratifying to take excursions out of this internal life, no matter how wonderful it is, and visit with other artists to share thoughts, inspirations and concerns. A lovely weekend with fellow travelers complements a delicious solitary return to the studio.

Happy Painting!


Tuesday, 8 April 2014


Black Tusk, acrylic, 24x30

Did you ever wonder why some paintings stop us in our tracks and we just can’t take our eyes off them? If you are attracted to elegant and mesmerizing compositions, this post is for you. Next weekend I will share what I know on this subject with a group of local artists, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to write up a blog post as well.

The subject of composition has always intrigued me. There is no doubt that some shapes have more powerful appeal to the viewers than others. Soon after I started painting, I also started searching for a method to apply a unique composition principle to any possible painting, without having all the paintings look the same. For example, "the rule of thirds" or "triangular design" or "circular design", and similar schemes that you may read about are all great designs, but I needed something that has endless variations. Rather than a few set recipes, I was searching for a method to develop many, many recipes.

In the early 90's I was fortunate to learn about Dynamic Symmetry from my teacher and wonderful artist Michael Britton. His source was a book “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry” by a 19th century artist Jay Hambidge. This theory has been rooted in an ancient geometrical design method.

The basic idea is surprisingly simple! We can easily compose harmonious scenes by utilizing a stick and a rope, just as generations of artists and craftsmen did from times immemorial!

Here is a basic method to construct a grid based on golden mean rectangles in six steps:

Looks easy, but the question is how to use this in a painting? And why?

The key to this came to me in three phases:

Construct harmonious and elegant grids based on the Dynamic Symmetry:

This is the 1-6 steps in the picture above. Examples of this design from the history or art, architecture and nature are abundant (see example images at This is just the basic stuff. There are other rectangles that can be used, but for the purpose of this article, I'll stick with this one.

How to apply this to a painting - where to start?

This puzzled me for a while until I decided that it made most sense to start from the main point of interest in the scene I am going to paint. The beginning is a square around that area. I use that square to construct the rest of the grid.

In which direction to start constructing the grid?

This was easy to answer. I move the construction of the grid in the direction where I want the viewers to move their eye from the point of interest.

The rest is always fun! As I develop the painting, I make sure to "lean", "touch", or "direct" shapes with some respect to the Dynamic Symmetry grid, so that the resulting painting inherits some of its harmony. It is important to use this with constraint to avoid overly rigid look. After all, the nature has it's laws, but it's also abundant with chaos.

Here is how it looks like when I overlay an example grid over one of my paintings. There are many shapes and lines in it where the grid leads the painting, but also lot of spontaneous and playful shapes that resist the rules.

For me, this is the most captivating process which keeps me interested in creating new designs. It is said that whatever adds wind to your sails is a good thing!

The composition gets strengthened by adding lines that don't exist in nature. That language has much more impact than a literal painting. The beautiful 'composed' scene, which follows the invented lines, talks to us.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article. As always, if you have comments or questions, give me a shout! I also immensely appreciate when art lovers subscribe to my blog - so if you are interested in reading more of my posts, please do so!

Happy painting!


Saturday, 5 April 2014

Wild Coast

Wild Coast, acrylic, 30x40
This painting has been calling me for months. I took the photo in the Juan de Fuca Park on Vancouver Island last summer. The patterns have mesmerized me. But from some reason I just couldn't get to doing it. Finally it's here and it was just as much joy to paint it as I thought it would be. I love when that happens.

On the other side there are sometimes those paintings that take all my patience and bring me to despair until I finish them. Let's hope the next one will not be one of those!

Happy painting!


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Art Studio Ecosystem

Piper's Lagoon, acrylic, 20x24

Another coastal scene is leaving my studio. As always I am sad to see a painting go, but happy to send it into the world. This one was quite a handful, it even made me clean the place.

Studio is the stage where drama unfolds. Sometimes it’s a comedy, sometimes a tragedy, and sometimes all hell breaks loose. It really is the artist's ecosystem

my studio right after it's been cleaned

My organizing system is patterny. Paints, mediums, brushes and palettes are all around the easel. I also have a cupboard for paperwork, a desk for stationary, cabinet for tools and gadgets, a large shelf for canvases and a nook for books, husband and toys. I like to group similar things. I am bothered when a thing gets into a wrong pile. Maybe it’s a symptom of something. Luckily, that only takes precedence when things aren't going well. On a happy day I couldn't care less about spiders invading the reject canvass pile.

Neat art can come out of messy places and vice verse, but it really can go any which way. It’s probably not a good idea to disturb the ecosystem while things are moving well. 

Happy painting!