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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kickstarter Project Update - Prepping Panels

Batch of hardboard panels, ready to be prepped

(There is still time to give your support to my Kickstarter project. Here is a link to it for details:

As I mentioned in my previous update, I've received an order of panels I'll be using for the project.  This weekend, I worked on preparing the panels, and I wanted to share that process with you.

It would be far easier and less time-consuming if I bought ready-made panels, but I am picky about the surface I'm painting on.  I like to prepare my own.  Some people just slap on a coat of acrylic gesso, but I go a good deal further than that.

First, I buy precut hardboard panels.  The panels need to be accurately cut, and I've never been able to do that well on my own.  (I'm of the "measure once, cut twice" school of carpentry.)  I find the precut ones have no trouble fitting into ready-made frames.  (These are from Dick Blick:

Alcohol rub
Next, I rub each panel with alcohol to remove any surface oil.  Most of what you get for hardboard these days is what they call "tempered," which means a small amount of oil was used in the manufacturing process to improve durability.  I've checked with my supplier, and these days not enough oil is used to cause the product to not be archival.  (Artists should always use archival materials so they will last the ages.)

Sizing the panels
Waiting for the size to dry
Once the panels are dry, I seal each panel with Gamblin's PVA size.  I brush on a very thin coat.  The coat is enough to keep oil from my paint from penetrating down into the board, which could cause the board to deteriorate; it also keeps any bad chemicals from the hardboard from wicking up into the paint layer.  Basically, it isolates the board from the oil paint.

First layer of acrylic gesso
Texture in the gesso
The PVA dries pretty quickly, so I'm able to put on my first layer of acrylic gesso not long after.  I use random strokes to apply the gesso.  Although each layer of gesso is thin, the gesso itself is thick enough so it holds the strokes and creates a bit of surface texture.  It's this texture I like that I don't get with the "store-bought" painting panels.  (By the way, if I am prepping panels 9x12 or larger, I will brush on a thin coat of gesso on the backside to avoid warping.)

After this first layer dries, I follow with a second layer.  I don't sand between layers, and I again apply the gesso with random strokes.  This second layer is the last, since it creates a white ground upon which to paint that isn't blindlingly white but sufficient to do its job.  (If you apply oil paint transparently, the white ground will bounce light back through the paint and make it glow like stained glass.)

Applying the acrylic matte medium
You can really see the texture the matte medium gives
Once this final layer dries, I brush on a layer of acrylic matte medium.  This layer makes the gesso a little less absorbent.  (I like a certain degree of absorbency in my panels, but not so much that the brush drags.)  It also applies even more texture to the panel.

Sanding the panels
After the acrylic matte medium dries, I give each panel a very light sanding with a fine grit sandpaper to knock off any high points.  The final panel will still have a good deal of tooth and texture to it - just perfect for my painting style.
Final drying
Finally, to make sure the whole package dries sufficiently, I assemble the panels in a sort of "house of cards" that will allow good ventilation.  I do this in a room that is warmer than my studio.  These days, my studio seems to be holding around 54 degrees - a little chilly!

The whole process, not including final drying time as a "house of cards", takes about three days.  So, when you ask how long it took to make a painting, make sure you add that into the calculation!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Plein Air Painting History 101: Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Lecture 2

Waxed paper negative, 1855, by Samuel Smith

One of the many questions I get from painting students has to do with photography. Is it a good idea to paint from photos? It depends on whether you consider the photo a destination or a point of departure. That is, are you merely copying it, or are you using it as a reference for a painting? There's a big difference between the two. Copy photographs, and you get better at - you guessed it - copying photos. Use photos as a reference, memory aid or an inspiration, and you get better as an artist. Why? Because you are improving your creative skill by synthesizing a new work from a variety of sources. Copying a photo doesn't create anything new. It makes a copy.

I'm continuing to read Philip Gilbert Hamerton's book, A Painter's Camp. (Here is my earlier post on him.) During one of his many painting trips to the Scottish Highlands, he began to experiment with photography as an aid to painting. Since his trips happened in the late 1850s, he was one of the very earliest painters to drag the equipment out into the field.

He used something called the "waxed-paper process," one of many photographic technologies that evolved but then died when George Eastman invented his modern process in 1884. Here's an article from 1858 that describes how to prepare waxed-paper for photography:

Even at the time Hamerton published his book, in 1866, he was still uncertain about the value of photography to the painter:
Nobody has ever yet answered the often-suggested question how far photography may be useful to the landscape-painter; and whether, under certain limitations, he can wisely practise it himself. Nor can I answer this question yet, in any decisive way. I have hitherto only practised the waxed-paper process, and cannot speak authoritatively of the limitations of the wet collodion. Besides, I perceive that photographs taken for especial purposes, as memoranda, may be useful to a degree which as yet nobody has any idea of, for such photographs are not to be had in the market, where they would be unsalable, except to artists.

He compares photography to two different ways of painting:
Again, with reference to the study of nature, I dare not as yet advance definite opinions, because my object is so new, that the experience of my predecessors is of little assistance, except in merely technical matters. For instance, Turner's way of study, good for an imaginative painter, is not exact enough for a topographic one; just as in literature, the degree of accuracy in historical facts which suffices for the poet or the novelist is quite unsatisfactory to the historian. On the other hand, what is known as the pre-Raphaelite system, of doing all from nature, is obviously inapplicable to transient effects. Between these two some other system will have to be ultimately traced out, and I am making experiments to that end, which include the painting of a good many pictures, so that it is not likely I shall be able for some time to offer any definite conclusions on this subject either.

Finally, he decides:

Subsequent investigation has convinced me that no artist should ever copy a photograph at all, though most artists do, more or less. But as memoranda of isolated natural facts, photographs are invaluable. By seeking only for one fact in each photograph, you may get, in a large collection, a rich encyclopedia of facts of form. In this way the photograph is very useful to all students of nature; not otherwise. It can never replace good drawing, and is valueless for pictorial purposes, on account of its defective scale of light, and its false translation of colour into shade. [Remember that Hamerton only had black-and-white photography available to him.]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

From the Mailbag: Pinning Pastel Paper to a Board

Pastel on paper showing the white margin left after removing artist's tape.
I used an alcohol wash to "fix" the block-in.

A reader writes:   I am fairly new to pastels, having painted with them for a little over a year.  Sometimes I do not use tape to hold my paper to the easel, but use push pins to pin them to cork board.  At my stage, this seems to work, and I'd like your opinion about the flaws of this method.  Also, since some of the paper edges become "dirty" with pastel dust, yesterday I used a black permanent magic marker to create a uniform border around each piece of sanded paper. I believe the look is preferred and very clean. Can using this type of marker do any damage to the picture? Eventually this border would be covered by a mat or frame.

First, permanent Magic Marker or Sharpie isn't permanent.  It's permanent only in the sense that it won't wash off with water; it will, however, fade quickly over time.  (The Sharpie website says 3-4 months if exposed outdoors; a few years if kept indoors.)  You say you will be covering the border with a mat or frame, so it sounds like this isn't an issue for you.  However, the chemicals found in the dye-based ink may not be acid-free and could cause damage to the mat or pastel paper over time.

Rather than using a Magic Marker to darken the messy border, I would suggest using an archival material.  Pastel makes the most sense, since you can blend it in with the edge of the painting more readily than any other material.  You could use another matte medium, such as gouache.  But if the border will be covered by a mat or frame, who cares?  It's only an issue if you "float" the painting.

Likewise with the holes created by pushpins.  The pins should be located within the 1/4" border that will be covered by the mat or frame.  The only issue I've had with pushpins is when I do a water-based wash such as with acrylic, watercolor or diluted alcohol which will make the paper buckle.  The pushpins create stress points that emphasize the buckling.

To solve the problem, I recommend using artist's tape to tape a border all the way around the paper and to fasten it to a backboard.  When you're done, just carefully peel off the tape - and, presto!  A beautifully clean border.  This even works if you do a wash for your block-in.  If you firmly seal the tape at the edges, the liquid won't leak under the tape, or not much.

A little leak at the corner.  If I'd pressed the tape down more firmly,
it wouldn't have leaked.  But, the mat covers it - so who cares?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Plein Air Painting History 101: Philip Gilbert Hamerton

Phillip Gilbert Hamerton

When Philip Gilbert Hamerton published A Painter's Camp in 1863, the collapsible paint tube, which made plein air painting much more convenient, had only been around for about 20 years.  Hamerton, who eventually gave up being a landscape painter for the apparently more profitable career as art critic, wrote the book to document his adventures in plein air painting in England, Scotland and France.  He thought himself a rare breed:

With no more than such ordinary powers of physical strength and endurance as are to be found amongst average English gentlemen, I have worked from nature on the spot seven or eight hours a day, in the wildest situations, and in the most merciless storms of winter. I have carried through the most delicate processes in color, hour after hour, when shepherds refused to wander on the hills and sheep were lost in the drifted snow.

"The River Yonne" (91cmx152cm) by Philip Gilbert Hamerton

Although much of the book is devoted to Thoreauvian rants against civilization, it is full of adventure that displays the author's eccentricities.  At one point, he ends up shooting and burying the hound that traveled with him because it took to chasing sheep.  At another, he is accompanied by a Scottish shepherd lad who helps lug around his gear.  "Thursday," as Hamerton calls him, because that was the day of the week he arrived on the scene, speaks in dialect.  But Hamerton insists he speak good English, and although Thursday tries, he often fails, and so agrees to a daily thrashing by Hamerton to help break him of the habit.  You get the idea.

"Sens from the Vineyards" (91cmx152cm) by Philip Gilbert Hamerton

Of most interest to me was the "hut" that Hamerton invented to carry with him on his month-long painting adventures:
I have been very busily occupied with the invention of a new hut, which is at last finished, and which appears to promise every accommodation I require in a wonderfully small space. ... It consists entirely of panels, of which the largest are two feet six inches square: these panels can be carried separately on pack-horses, or even on men's backs, and then united together by iron bolts into a strong little building. Four of the largest panels serve as windows, being each of them filled with a large pane of excellent plate-glass. When erected, the walls present a perfectly smooth surface outside, and a panelled interior; the floor being formed in exactly the same manner, with the panelled or coffered side turned towards the earth, and the smooth surface uppermost. By this arrangement, all the wall-bolts are inside, and those of the floor underneath it, which protects them not only from the weather, but from theft, an iron bolt being a great temptation to country people on account of its convenience and utility. The walls are bolted to the floor, which gives great strength to the whole structure, and the panels are carefully ordered, like the stones in a well-built wall, so that the joints of the lower course of panels do not fall below those of the upper. The roof is arched, and covered with waterproof canvas. I have been careful to provide a current of fresh air, by placing ventilators at each end of the arch, which insures a current without inconvenience to the occupant.

He also packed along a cook stove that sat in the center of the hut, venting through the canvas roof.  If you'd like to read more about Hamerton and his painting experiences, here is a link to the Google Books version.

By the way, you can still support my Kickstarter project, "50 for the 50th," in celebration of the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park's 50th anniversary.  I'd love to have your support!  For details, please visit my Kickstarter page:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kickstarter Project: 50 Paintings for the Roosevelt Park's 50th Anniversary

Mr Roosevelt's House
12x24, oil/panel
Painted on-location in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park

I am excited to announce that Kickstarter has approved my painting project for next spring and summer.  From May to July 2014, I will be creating 50 paintings to celebrate the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park's 50th anniversary.

As many of you know, the Park has been very important to me over the last several years.  I began spending significant time on Campobello Island in 2005, which is when Trina and I bought a house there and I established my studio.  I have hiked many miles along the Park's trails, visited some remote spots that few tourists manage to find, and have painted many of the views in hundreds of paintings.  Even though I am in Arizona for the winter, I dream about the green trails of Campobello.

The 50 paintings will be 6"x6" and framed, with the goal of exhibiting them on Campobello.  I am currently negotiating with the Park for an exhibition in August.  After the exhibit, the paintings will be shipped to project backers as one of the rewards.  Additionally, I'll create a book featuring all 50 paintings, a calendar with 12 selected paintings, and a set of notecards - all of which will be rewards for project backers.

Funding for the project has already begun, and the final day for funding is February 15.  It will help me purchase materials plus the time to do the project.  So, time is of the essence!  If you'd like to learn more about this project please visit my project page:

There are several levels of funding, so I hope you will support me in this project.  Thank you!

Monday, December 16, 2013

To Varnish or Not to Varnish

Willard L. Metcalf's Note to Framers and Dealers

I'm doing some research on the varnishing of oil paints right now.  I've known for some time that the French Impressionists were the first to consider varnishing optional.  Part of the reason was aesthetic, in that they liked the look of dried, matte paint.  It gave the painting a more atmospheric feeling.  Also, they felt they had more control over the final effect, since any application of varnish would darken and increase the saturation of some colors.  Finally, it was a revolt against the traditions of the Academy and its Salon.

But what I didn't know is that some artists, such as Degas, preferred the look so much that they went at great lengths to "leach" the oil out of their paints with turpentine prior to painting or spread the paint on newsprint so it would sop up some of the oil, making the paint "short" (having less oil).  Some enhanced the effect by using an absorbent ground to pull the oil away from the visible layer.  All of this dramatically increased the matte look.  In fact, it looked a lot like pastel.*

Interestingly, to protect the surface and to also provide a harmonizing filter through which to view the work, some of the artists framed their oils under glass.  (This practice ended around 1890.)

Unfortunately, not all art dealers understood the artists' intent in not varnishing.  Thinking that brighter colors and more contrast would help sell the paintings, the dealers varnished the paintings anyway.

Toward the end of the Impressionist age, the anti-varnishing movement came west to the US, where some American Impressionists took up the practice.  Willard L. Metcalf wrote on the back of one paintings:  "UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should VARNISH or other mediums be applied to this canvas as they will change certain values and therefore ruin it."

*Readers have asked about the soundness of the approach of leaching oil out of paint.  It's not a good practice, since leaching or thinning the oil too much with solvent will ultimately weaken the paint film and cause flaking or cracking.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Cold Weather Oil Painting - and EBay

Oak Creek Reflections 5x7 oil

We've had a cold snap here in Arizona, as has much of the country.  But if we get a cold start to the day, things always warm up nicely once the sun pops up.  That's what I love about winters in Sedona.

Saturday morning, I was scheduled to paint with the Plein Air Painters of Sedona and the Verde Valley at the Page Springs Fish Hatchery, which lies along Oak Creek. (Check out our website at and, if you're local, feel free to join us!)  It was all of 17 degrees.  As you can see from the photo, I was dressed for it.

Unfortunately, my oil paints weren't.  They were rather chilled, and using them was like trying to apply putty with a brush.  Worse yet, when I decided to add a little medium to loosen up the paint, I discovered that the lid of my medium cup was sealed tight with dried medium.  But I always carry a small painting knife with me, and that was just the tool I needed for painting.  When you have putty, use a knife.  The knife worked well in the cold, as you can see from the images.

The other painters worked in pastel, which is something I can't do when it's cold.  My fingers just don't get limber enough.  Believe me, I've tried!

By the time I started my second painting, it was getting toasty.  I decided to save my brushes and continue with the knife.

If you're thinking of coming out to Sedona for one of my workshops, don't let this post discourage you in the least.  A cold start doesn't mean a cold day.  Unless we have a storm, which is rare in the winter, it'll be warm by the time we get to the field.  Looking at this week's forcast, I see the lows will be below freezing - but the highs will be in the mid-50s.  Just perfect for plein air!

By the way, we have fired up the eBay engine and will be offering a few things there for sale.  Of note this week is an auction for a Paint Sedona workshop week.  Also, I have several truckloads of art magazines that I need to dispose of.  We are bundling these up and selling them, too.  Check out all the auctions and follow them at

Oak Creek Blues 5x7  oil

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fine Art of Pastel - Video Presentation

As you may remember, a couple of weeks ago I gave a short lecture on "The Fine Art of Pastel" for the Sedona Area Guild of Artists in conjunction with a "3 Masters Speak" event for the public.  I posted my slide show from the event shortly thereafter.  Now I'm happy to announce that the video of the lecture is available on my YouTube channel.

For your convenience, here is the lecture.  (For those of you receiving this blog post via e-mail, please go to this link:  It's about 35 minutes long.

The PowerPoint slides in the video are a little hard to read.  I've created a page where you can watch the video and step through the slides yourself at the same time.  Try it!

By the way, we still have space in a few of my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshop weeks.  Please visit for details.  If you're not a painter yourself, you might consider giving a gift to a Paint Sedona workshop to a painter you know.  Let me know if you are interested!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pushing Paint v. Pushing Pixels

Spring Creek Sketch
Medium: Binary Digits, 1280x800px
One reason that I love painting so much is that I worked with computers for many years.  Picking up a brush feels so good after pecking at a keyboard and staring at a screen.  Computer work was like pulling weeds in the vegetable garden; painting is like gamboling through a field with the breeze at my back and the good smell of the earth filling my nose.

So why am I experimenting with plein air sketching on my Kindle Fire HD?

For the longest time, there was an argument among those who run art contests about whether or not digital art should be allowed.  "If your hands don't get dirty, it's not art," was one point.  Another was, how can you possibly compare a painting made with a simple brush to an image created much less directly and with a much more complex tool?  Also, isn't there something unfair about using a collection of circuitry, a stylus and tablet and several hundred dollars' worth of clever software to make art?  And does the end result really qualify as art, since it isn't made by hand?

Well, I'm not going to answer these questions at the risk of causing virtual fistfights among readers.

Regardless, I like to get my hands dirty when I paint.  But I'd seen some sketches that David Hockney had made on his iPhone, plus I've noted that some commercial artists have moved out into the plein air field with their electronics, too.  I wanted to try my hand at pushing pixels in the outdoors.  I liked the idea of taking out a painting kit that is much more portable than any of my "real" plein air gear.

As much as I like my Kindle Fire HD for basic functions like reading books, watching movies, checking e-mail and the like, it contains an eviscerated version of Android.  It can't do everything a "real" tablet can.  But I was able to find an app that would run on it - Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro for Android.  It cost only $4.99.

I played with it in the house first, doing some life sketching.  Black-and-white first to get used to some of the brushes, then a few color studies looking out the window.  I always recommend to students, if they are trying a new medium, that they get comfortable with it in the studio before taking it outdoors.  I'm glad I did, because it saved me a lot of headaches trying to figure out the brush tool and the color mixing.

Saba under the Desk


My worries:
- Not enough brush control
- Not enough color-mixing options
- Battery time
- Screen "washout"

Well, it turns out I didn't have to worry about battery time.  The Kindle Fire HD has a good battery, and even though it wasn't fully charged, I was able to paint a good half-hour or more - and that's with the brightness turned on full to compensate for screen "washout."  I sat on a rock in the shade, and the 8.9" screen was certainly bright enough.  If I'd been in the sun, though, I don't think it would have worked as well.

Brush Tool Options

My concerns about brush control and color-mixing options, however, were realized.  The app doesn't have a simple paint brush.  Oh, it's got every type of pencil you might want (all the way from 4H to 9B), airbrushes, pens, markers and funny little icon brushes, but not a simple paint brush. So, I chose a marker and an airbrush that seemed to make more painterly marks, especially with the soft-edged airbrush.  This, and the half-hour I spent working rapidly, forced me to simplify shapes. That's not a bad thing, as you plein air painters know.

Color Mixing Options

As far as color, working with the app was rather like painting with pastels, especially some of those more garishly-colored sets.  It was difficult to mix neutrals.  My sketches are painted with the color palette of The Jetsons.  If I'd had more time, I might have been able to "finesse" the mixing to get more neutrals.  Changing the opacity of the brush tool - making it more transparent - allowed me to overlay color, rather like scumbling in pastel.  This helped soften some of the intense chroma.  The color selection menu does allow you to reduce and increase intensity, but I found the tiny circle in which you do that to be rather insensitive to my stylus.  Overall, this forced me to simplify colors.  Again, that's not a bad thing.  Now that I'm in the studio, I can return to the sketch - just as I would with a plein air pastel - and refine it at my leisure.

So, what do you expect for $4.99?  I feel I got a good deal, even with the app's drawbacks.

Will I keep using my Kindle Fire HD for plein air sketching?  Probably.  As with any medium, practice will only make you better.  But I won't give it up for "real" paint and pastel - I still like to get my hands dirty.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Talking Too Much to the Paint

Bear Mountain View, 6x12 oil - SOLD
Visit the Sale!

After I've painted a demonstration or a painting for myself - each of which takes a great deal of thought and verbal articulation, either to myself or to my students - I'm usually a little weary.  Especially my head.  But being brain-tired can be a good thing.  Sometimes we talk too much to the paint, and following up with a second painting when you're in this tired state can lead to interesting places.

The painting at the top is one such piece.  After doing a demonstration and making sure my students had what they needed for the next few minutes, I grabbed a knife and went to work.  No preliminary thumbnail sketch, no value or color analysis, no talking to myself.  Just mixed paint and spread it on.  I let intuition and experience take over, giving my brain take a rest.

I was surprised and pleased where this painting took me.  It's different from my usual work:  broad strokes, richer color, more painterly.  I actually felt rather rested when it was all over!

By the way, if you haven't heard it enough, my holiday-studio-clearance-extravaganza continues, and I'm including the piece above.  Click here for the event.

Also, I'm teaching a four-week "Plein Air Essentials" course through Artist's Network University starting December 10.  Click here for details or to register.

Did I mention Paint Sedona?  We have space left in several weeks from now until mid-April.