Thursday, September 19, 2019

Working with Gamblin's Cold Wax Medium

Dreams of Our Mother
8x10 oil/cold wax / NFS
In this studio piece, I embedded photographs into the wax
and used a variety of tools to manipulate each layer.

The same painting in raking light to show texture

Look through the web site for Gamblin Artists Colors, and you'll come across a curious product:  Cold Wax Medium.  Most of us oil painters are familiar with the more common mediums, such as the traditional ones made with linseed oil, turpentine and damar resin, or the more modern ones such as Liquin and, of course, Gamblin's own Galkyd.

But Cold Wax Medium?

Wax has been used in painting ever since ancient Rome, and maybe even before that.  Most often, it took the form of encaustic—that is, beeswax that has been softened by heat and to which pigment has been added.  The heated wax is then applied to a surface with a brush or other tool and, when cool, becomes a very durable layer.  More recently, though, a way of using beeswax that does not involve heat was invented.  In the case of Gamblin's Cold Wax Medium, the beeswax is softened with Gamsol (odorless mineral spirits) to make a paste and, to help the wax to harden more quickly, a bit of alkyd resin is added.  No heat is required.

Here are some of the tools I used in the creation of the above painting.

Yes, you can even use a brush!

Cold Wax Medium can be used in three ways.  First, as with any medium, you can mix a little into your paint.  This will thicken the paint and make it somewhat translucent; it will also give it a matte finish upon drying.  Second, you can use it as a varnish.  It will restore the color saturation and value contrast as would any varnish.  You can then buff it, as you would shoe polish, for a more satin finish.  (Does anyone polish shoes these days?)  Third, you can use it more like an encaustic by mixing pigment (or oil paint) directly into it and then apply it with a variety of tools.  In this last method, you also can embed paper and other objects, build it up, scratch it down—the mind boggles at the possibilities.  One of the things I love most about it is that the wax's natural translucency lets me create a depth that I can't achieve with oil paint alone.

To help understand some of the technical matters, I purchased what is the reference book:  Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts and Conversations by Rebecca Crowell and Jerry McLaughlin (Squeegee Press, 2016).  The book gives a history of the medium, discusses different versions of it (Gamblin isn't the only maker), informs about materials and tools, and finally takes the reader through a variety of different methods for using it.  I found it very helpful. The Gamblin site also has a good page on materials and methods

(Update:  Dave Bernard of Gamblin suggests the following:  "Try first blending in 25-50% Galkyd Gel or Solvent-Free Gel into the Cold Wax. It makes a beautiful medium that dries harder and more flexible than using CWM alone.")

You may now be asking:  But how well does Cold Wax Medium work in plein air painting?  I hope to answer that in my next post.

Here's one more oil/cold wax painting from the studio:

Ravens at Sunset
12x9 oil/cold wax

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Great Painting Cull

Sorting out piles:  the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

A few weeks ago, I arrived at my winter studio in New Mexico.  Piled up in wooden boxes and crates and plastic boxes are hundreds of small paintings; stacked up in a closet are scores of larger ones.  Except for the paintings that have sold, these paintings more or less cover the entire Southwest portion of my career as an artist.

That's a lot of years and a lot of paintings.  As with any painter's inventory, the paintings vary in quality.  Some I look at and say, “Wow—did I actually paint that?”  At others, I cringe and wonder why I didn't scrape them off in the field.  Many, however, fall in between these two extremes.

Half-heartedly over the years, I've gone through the paintings and destroyed a few of the cringe-worthy ones.  Right now, though, I want to reduce the inventory even more, so I've embarked on the Great Painting Cull.  I'm being more discriminating with the ones that look merely “okay.”

Over time, we become not just better painters but also better critics.  When we look at our old work, we see the flaws.  Older work no longer pleases us like it did when we were just getting started.

Some artists recommend not discarding old work that no longer meets your current standards.  The reasoning is that there is always something still to learn from them; and also that they remind us of how far we've come.  Personally, I think these are poor reasons.  You already have learned from them—that's why you now recognize the flaws.  And if you need a reminder of your days as a beginner to keep you humble, well, just keep one.

I am, however, saving a few that are technically poor but which still offer pleasant memories.  Some still hold that spark of excitement from when everything was new.  These I'll keep, but hidden away for my eyes only.

What will I do with the culls?  I'm always in need of panels (or paper in the case of pastel) to sketch on.  If the paintings don't have too much surface texture, I'll first use Gamsol to remove any varnish and then give them a light sanding.  Next, I'll paint over them with one of three archival products:  Either Winsor & Newton's Oil Primer, Zinsser's B-I-N (a shellac-based product suspended in ethanol) or KILZ (the oil-based version, not the latex one.)  Once dry, they'll be perfect for sketching.  I also apply a coat of the same to the back where I may have written information about the now-destroyed painting—just in case I paint something I love and want to give it a title.

Pastel paintings, I just take a stiff brush to and erase them outdoors.  Some of my dust may soon be showing up on a countertop near you.

As for the oil paintings with too much surface texture, I'll either scarify them or cut them in half and toss.  Last year, I used one of them to board up an unwanted cat door that came with the house.  There are probably other uses for these, so maybe I'll keep a few on hand for construction projects.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Etiquette for Painting Workshop Instructors

Workshop in St Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada
Learn more about my plein air painting workshops at

Having laid out rules of etiquette for students, it's only fair that I give equal time to instructors. Instructors are also sometimes at fault for bad manners. Lack of manners is sometimes just a lack of awareness. With that in mind, here are some tips for those of you who teach. 
  • Give students what they paid for, and then some. I've heard stories of teachers wandering off for a couple of hours to let students paint on their own, or of only painting a demonstration and then giving no further instruction for the day.  If the students are expecting this, fine. But do deliver what you advertise. It's a good idea before a workshop to review the workshop description so you know what your students expect. 
  • Work with, not against, the workshop volunteers. They may have never worked with you before and may not know what to expect. Discuss with them before the workshop exactly what your needs are (tables, easels, lunches, plein air location list, etc.) but also what their expectations are.  Recognize them publicly for their efforts.
  • Start promptly and finish promptly. If you're still waiting for a student to arrive before beginning the session, don't. Get started right on time. Also, students may have a life outside the workshop, so don't run late. If they traveled for the workshop, they may have come with family or friends who may be expecting them for dinner or a hike. 
  • Don't drag students around all morning looking for the perfect painting spot. Do your homework by getting to the workshop a day early to preview locations. You don't want to be surprised on your first day to discover parking is limited, that there are no restrooms or that the location is too far to drive to. Preview all locations, and make sure you have a couple of alternates. 
  • Give frequent breaks. You may be a marathon painter, but not everyone is. A short break every hour or so will refresh them so they can absorb more. You might use a break yourself. (I know I am guilty of this, and I invite students to stop me!)
  • Respect where your students are coming from skill-wise. Don't forget that you, too, were once a raw beginner. Try to remember what it was like when you were struggling to learn. Teach with patience and understanding. Also, students have different backgrounds, so try to use this variety to enrich the experience for everyone. 
  • Listen to your students. Give them time to ask questions. Treat every question, however basic, as one deserving serious attention. But watch out for the needy student; give equal time to everyone. If someone asks a question that is off-topic, offer to answer it during lunch or a break. Don't be afraid to suggest that the topic is better answered in a different workshop. 
  • Don't paint on student paintings without permission. There's no faster way, of course, to show what you mean than by painting directly on top of a student's work. But some students prefer that you don't touch their paintings. Ask before grabbing a brush. 
  • Be kind, but be also fair and honest. You aren't doing your students any favors by giving nothing but praise. If a painting can be improved in some way, say it. Some students do better with blunt criticism than others; proceed cautiously until you know how much they can take. 
  • Finally, stay upbeat. You may be exhausted after having traveled two solid days to get to the workshop. You may be unhappy with the workshop facilities.  You may be in the middle of some life crisis. Whatever, keep it to yourself. Students don't need to be burdened with any of it. Save your grumpiness for your hotel room. 
And above all, be encouraging!  Not matter how a student may struggle, respect that student's efforts and encourage them where you can.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Etiquette for Painting Workshop Students

Teaching a workshop in Springfield, Illinois.  Every student was perfect!

Who hasn't been in a painting workshop where one student talks constantly without giving the others a chance to speak?

I think we've all been there.  I've been both student and instructor, and I've experienced workshops from each end.  In my view, students will have a more rewarding experience if they remember a few simple rules of etiquette.  And I'm not talking about just first-time students.  This goes for everyone, even workshop junkies, who should know better.

I will say that most of my workshops have had very well-behaved students, and it has been a pleasure to teach every one of you!  I've made some wonderful friends.  But for a very few, and especially for first-timers, I offer the following.  I know it's a lot of "don'ts," but in your mind, you can easily translate that to a lot of "dos."
  • Be on time.  It's distracting to show up late and cause a commotion.
  • Bring what's on the supply list.  If I am teaching a wet underpainting technique in pastel and ask you to bring a certain kind of paper, bring it.  If you don't, you won't be able to practice the technique.
  • Respect the instructor.  Assume he knows more than you about the workshop topic.  If it turns out he doesn't, then disagree politely.  If the instructor argues with you and you know you're right, let it go.  It's only a workshop, and it'll all be over soon.
  • Follow the curriculum.  You're there to learn from the instructor; going your own way is just treading over old ground.   Make an effort to at least try what the instructor is teaching; if it works for you, great, but if not, you can abandon it after the workshop.
  • Follow the rules.  Instructors will often set ground rules for the workshop, such as what time the workshop begins, distance limits for a plein air workshop, and so on.  The rules were set to maximize your experience and to make for a successful workshop.
  • Keep your questions relevant.  Especially during painting demonstrations!  Nothing throws the instructor off-track like questions from left field.  Questions such as "Where'd you study?" are out of place when he is showing you how to mix a neutral grey.  Save that question for a coffee break. Stay on-topic.
  • Respect your fellow students.  Most workshops will have students coming from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels.  If you are more advanced, grit your teeth and bear it; you will still probably learn something.  If you are behind the others, don't be too needy; the others paid as much for attention as you did. 
  • Here are some corollaries to this last rule.  Don't block the view of another student during a demo.  Don't grab space.  Sometimes workshops, especially studio ones, can be crowded, so respect the space of others.  Share!  Also, don't gab while others are trying to concentrate during the painting session.  Don't play with your electronic devices.  Turn them off or, if you must receive a call or text, set them to "vibrate".  Go outside the classroom if you need to check your email or stock prices.  And finally, if in the studio, don't ask to put on some music. No one can ever agree on a playlist.  If you must have music during the painting session, bring earbuds.  But make sure you don't mistakenly send an "I'm not available" signal to the instructor when he makes his rounds.
  • Don't monopolize the critiques.  Everyone, like you, is paying paying for the instructor's feedback, not yours.  Ask questions that are relevant to the topic at hand.
  • Don't critique other student's work during critique sessions unless the instructor has invited you to do so.  Conflicting or additional comments may confuse the student whose work is being critiqued.  (This happens a lot, because those offering critiques think they are being helpful; unfortunately, they aren't.)
  • Ask before photographing or recording.  Most instructors are fine with this, but it's good to ask first.
  • Respect break time for the instructor.  Teaching is very tiring, and we instructors prize our time to recharge.  If you have more questions that the class period permits, try to arrange a suitable time. 
  • Don't ask for a critique on work you didn't do during the workshop, unless the instructor has asked you specifically to do that.  "I brought a dozen paintings I did this past year--can you take a look at them and tell me what you think?"  The instructor can't take class time out to do this, and chances are, cutting into the instructor's personal time outside of class...well, read the above tip about respecting break time.
I think these are all easy rules to follow.  Most times, bad manners are an accident, with the person at fault simply not paying attention.  Being aware of others is the best way to make sure everyone has a happy workshop experience.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Announcing a New Season for the Private Painting Intensive

"Autumn Splendor" 20x28 Pastel
For the Private Painting Intensive, we'll be painting in places like this.

After nearly 2800 miles, Trina, Raku and I are back home in New Mexico.  Unlike most of our cross-country trips, on this one I taught no workshops, and we headed west more or less directly.  (We did stop in the artsy town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for a day to catch our breath.)  One of the reasons we came straight here was so I could get the studio ready for the next season of my Private Painting Intensives.  I'm excited to share my time and knowledge with a few experienced painters who are serious about improving their craft.

If you haven't heard about the program, the idea is simple.  You live in our house, take your meals with us, and you and I work side-by-side in the field and in the studio.  The program is entirely customized to your needs, based on a questionnaire and some recent paintings of yours; I draft a proposal, and with your approval, we proceed.  The cost for the program is only USD $1400, which includes six nights' lodging plus all meals.  (I offer a tuition-only version for $700.)  I also give you three months of followup if you have questions or need critiques.  For this exclusive program, I take only one student at a time, and I have scheduled only a few weeks.  You can find out more about the program and see the schedule at and

Here a few photos from previous sessions. (You can see more photos and read about some of the previous weeks here.)

We paint a lot.

Sometimes, Trina leads a hike!  (By request.  It's not required.)

We usually have a picnic lunch at least once.

We paint even more.
And if the participant is up for it,
we may go to the Zuni pueblo
for a cultural tour with an archaeologist.

By the way, I still have room in the following all-level workshops.  If the Private Painting Intensive isn't for you, I'd love to work with you in Sedona or at Grand Canyon National Park!

October 23-26, 2019:  Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – ONLY 3 SPOTS LEFT - Details at

November 5-8, 2019:  Sedona, Arizona – Details at and

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Master Class: Ultramarine Blue – Cool or Warm?

Same ultramarine blue square in the center, but surrounded by different colors.
Each square of ultramarie looks a little different, depending on what's surrounding it.

Cool or warm?  Well, it's both.  Or can be.  In some ways, it all depends on what you were taught and what art instruction books you've read.  One book will call it warm; another, cool.  To avoid fistfights among artists, it's best simply to describe the color as a blue that leans toward violet.  Other blues, such as cerulean and manganese, lean toward green.  Cobalt is the one blue that doesn't lean either way, and I call it the “primary” blue.

Whether a particular color is cool or warm also depends on context.  Surround ultramarine blue with hot orange, and it might seem quite cool.  Surround it with a neutral grey, and—to my eye—it takes on a warm cast.

We often think of blue as being generally a cool color.  If we look at the spectrum, at one end we have the warm colors of red, orange and yellow.  At the other, we have the cooler colors of green, blue and violet.  Red, orange and yellow “feel” warm to us because our limbic cortex (the so-called “lizard brain”) associates these colors with fire, whereas green, blue and violet “feel” cool because we associate them with ice.

Interestingly, when we are talking about light, as in a spectrum, the temperatures are actually reversed.  In physics, red, orange and yellow have longer wavelengths which require less energy to create them and thus less heat; these are considered cool.  Green, blue and violet have shorter wavelengths which require more energy and thus more heat; these are considered warm.  In the colors of visible light, red is the coolest and violet, the warmest.  The light from a yellow candle flame has a color temperature of about 1850°K (degrees Kelvin).  The light of the clear blue sky toward the pole can be 15,000°K or greater.

If this last paragraph confuses you, don't worry.  It has nothing to do with painting.  Instead, when you pick up a brush, rely on your lizard brain to tell you what looks warm and what looks cool.  And remember, too, that the temperature of a color is influenced by the other colors around it.

Here are two paintings in which each sky is painted with a different blue.  What kind of day does each blue suggest to you?

Cerulean Blue
(Gamblin's cerulean blue has phthalo blue in it.)
Perched 14x11 Oil - Available

Ultramarine Blue
Stand Alone 12x9 Oil - Available

Sunday, September 1, 2019

August's Most Popular Posts

As I mentioned last month, I've started keeping track of my most popular posts.  At the end of each month, I'll announce the top three,  just in case you missed them.  So, without further ado, here are August's top three posts!

#1:  Master Class: Color Palettes and Color Gamut

#2: Choosing the Right Dimensions for your Painting

#3: When is a Painting Finished?

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Airport Sketching

While cleaning up my studio this week, I came across yet another stack of sketchbooks.  Flipping through them, I found many pages of sketches made in airports—more than I thought I'd made.  I guess I fly more than I remember.

Looking to hone your skills at capturing the gesture of the human figure?  Next time you fly, take your sketchbook with you.  Airports offer a motley assortment of figures, from the ragtag to the aristocratic, and a full range of poses, from leisurely lounging to scurrying in fear of missing a connection.

I particularly enjoy sketching someone in a hurry—a carry-on bag often serves as a weight around which to build the figure.  If I'm lucky, I may have 15 seconds to sketch one of these panicked travelers.  That's enough time to go beyond the simple stick figure to a filled-out clothespin and to capture a sense of movement.

These people are in such a hurry they never see me sketching them.  But if I want to make a more careful study of a head or figure, such as  someone watching TV, talking with a companion or enjoying a snack at one of the airport food counters, I have to be more stealthy; these people are more aware of their surroundings.  I usually position my body obliquely, so it seems I'm sketching someone else.  I've never had anyone catch me—yet.

Here are a few more pages from my airport sketchbooks:

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Technical and the Painter

Einstein might have enjoyed the technical side of painting.
But he was busy doing other things.

In my plein air painting workshops, I often have students who are not professional painters.  Painting is, for them, a pleasant pastime yet something they do want to get better at.  Some are thinking of retiring and looking for an endeavor they might pursue in what one might call the “next life”; others have retired and already are deep into that pursuit.  I always enjoy asking them what they do (or did) for a living.

Interestingly, many of them enjoyed technical careers.  It's not unusual for me to have at least one doctor or nurse in my workshops.  (I especially am glad to have on board someone in a medical profession—hiking around outdoors to paint can be a risky business, and you never know when you might need someone like that.)  Over the years, I've had not only doctors and nurses but also architects, engineers, computer programmers, field biologists and even a couple of pilots who helicoptered into Eastport, Maine, for my workshop.

The technical types often ask technical questions.  Sometimes we get into the fat-over-lean rule of oil painting and why it's not applicable to alla prima painting.  Or we discuss what pigments are used in pastel and what PR83 stands for.  Or we talk about how north light temperature averages at 7000°K and why (or why not) that's important.  I do try to limit these discussions so that the non-technical types don't glaze over with boredom.

But I like to tell my students that painting can be as technical as they wish.  If the technical side interests them, they can spend a lifetime learning about it.  And if it doesn't, they can spend a lifetime just enjoying the activity of painting.  Either can provide a very rich experience for many years.  At the very most, all you need to do is learn a few simple concepts.  You don't need to read the technical guide.

Some days, I like to research the technical.  Other days, I just like to pick up a brush and go.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Painting in Public Places and the Dangers Thereof

A Quiet Painting Spot
("Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand, depicting Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant))

A reader writes:  "I am shy about painting outside such as at the public park because of people stopping and asking questions on what I am doing. How do you remain focused when you have an audience?"

When I teach workshops, many of my students are beginners at plein air painting.  They are happiest when we go to some remote, godforsaken yet beautiful corner of the world where no one will find them.  Sensitive to their need to focus, I take them to quiet places where an audience is unlikely.  Sometimes, though, we do get a few visitors.  When this happens, I  intercept them, politely let them know we are having a class, and then, usually, they leave.

When I'm painting alone, though, it's a different matter.   I, too, prefer to paint in a quiet spot, but sometimes I can't, such as at a plein air painting event, where it is expected for artists to be available.  (The idea is both to educate the public and also engage them for the sales event.)  When this happens, I try to keep the chat on-topic.  That is, I talk about my process and what my brush is doing at that moment.  I may stop and hand them a business card - I always carry them - and give an invitation to visit my website and gallery; if it's a painting event, I invite them to the exhibition and sale.  Most folks are polite and will watch a little longer but then wander off.

But sometimes you get the Talker.  This person is legendary among plein air painters.  I'll tolerate this for a few minutes, but I have no problem saying, "I'm sorry, but I have to get back to work."  Being blunt is important, since Talkers are so narcissistic they don't read body language or understand the subtle hints.

There are times, especially when I am painting for myself, when I don't want an encounter.  In this case, I'll find that remote, godforsaken spot of incredible beauty.   But even though the chance of an encounter is small, it still can happen.  To prevent this, here are a few tips:
  • Paint off the trail where you can't be seen (if you're on public land, make sure off-trail hiking is permitted)
  • Back yourself into a corner so you are difficult to approach
  • Scatter your gear around your easel in such a way as to create an obstacle
  • Take along a non-painting friend who is happy to hang out with you (quietly) and who can "run interference"
Some painters suggest listening to music and simply ignoring people, but I find that I like hearing if someone approaches.  I don't want to be surprised.

Oh, I could tell you stories - but I'll wait until you have that brush loaded and ready to go.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Summer Painting Retreat Report

Perched 14x11 Oil - Available

From the trail, edged with beach rose and meadowsweet, I enjoyed a broad vista of miles of ocean, dappled with sun diamonds.  The swells broke so  gently against the dark rocks that they created just a whisper of white foam.  Although my thirteen painters had strung themselves out over several hundred yards, all the way from the candy-striped West Quoddy lighthouse to the dizzyingly-tall cliffs of Gulliver's Hole, I didn't mind the walk as I visited each of them in turn. 

This was my second time offering the Lubec painting retreat, with participants coming from—it's a long list—Quebec, Vermont, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and, yes, even Maine.

Base camp for our forays into the field was the beautifully-renovated and well-appointed West Quoddy Station, a restored US Coast Guard campus.  Perched right at the water's edge on Quoddy Head, a narrow arm of land thrust out into the cold waters of the Grand Manan Channel, it offered us views of Campobello Island and the Lubec Channel.  What's more, because it is only a half-mile from Quoddy Head State Park, it gave us quick access to the West Quoddy Lighthouse, an historic icon and the park's jewel.  From the lighthouse, trails led us to cliffs with views of Grand Manan Island and the Wolf Islands, and when the tide was right, crashing waves cascaded over knife-sharp rocks at the base of the cliffs, kicking spray high into the air.

During the week, we painted not just at Quoddy Head but also in the fishing village of Lubec.  Although the sardine industry is long-gone, some of the historic structures of that time—a smokehouse, skinning shed and others—remain.  Fishing boats, moored in the harbor but swinging with the tides and wind, challenged us, and views of Pope's Folly, Treat Island and Dudley Island gave us more stable subjects to paint.  We also traveled across the border to Campobello Island in Canada, where we drove dusty carriage roads to spectacular views within the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.  A group dinner on the island with a view of the sunset and a scallop dragger toiling in the bay deepened our friendships as fellow artists.

Each morning during our week, I moderated a critique session—a show-and-tell—in which we talked about the previous day's work, painting by painting. This is always one of the most valuable and anticipated events during my retreats.  Although it's important to enjoy a relaxing week of painting, feedback from others helps us to gain an understanding of where we might go next in our craft.  This understanding will help us in our next period of artistic growth, which will happen some time after we have checked out of our hotel rooms, headed home and returned to our own studios.  I encourage retreat participants to add observations to my own, and I always learn something, as well.

I have already scheduled another painting retreat for next year.  The dates are August 9-14, 2020.  I do give preference to past students for the workshop.  If you haven't taken one with me yet but are interested in the retreat, I encourage you to take a workshop with me so you can join me in this adventure.  Please visit, or my main web site,, for more information.

In the meantime, I offer a few photos and images of some of my paintings from the week.

August Light 9x12 - Available

Swell 9x12 Oil - Available

View to Ragged Point 9x12 Pastel - Available

View to Campobello 9x12 Oil - Available

What's a painting day without Gamblin Artists Colors?

Yes, this is me - photo by Trina Stephenson