An artists’ guide to finding brilliant ideas in a pizza delivery box – or wherever else you least expect it.
This painting, and this post, are inspired by a photo of our three vizslas lined up and waiting for pizza scraps to be shared with them. But let’s back up a little bit. Our dogs are always hungry. They love to eat so much. This association with food and love and nurturing is all tied together in our relationship with them. It’s the basis for nicknames, inside jokes, and showing love.
We take a lot of care in feeding our dogs nutritious and tasty-to-them meals. Each morning they have dog food with a side of berry, spinach, and yogurt smoothie. Maybe some apple slices and peppers thrown in for good measure, leftover from lunch prep. Dinners are usually a variation of dog food with one of their favorites – sweet potato, scrambled eggs, leftover roast beef, steamed carrots. “What’s for dinner?” is a question that applies to the dogs as much as it applies to us when we open the fridge to figure out the evening meal.
That all three dogs are such food fanatics is a little surprising, especially for Teelo, who has reversed course in a huge way. From years one through three, Teelo was so busy, and such a picky eater. He was all dog ribs and long skinny teenager legs. We could not tempt with anything. And he could go days with only a few bites of food. To be honest, it was super annoying. The tides have certainly turned and Teelo has spent many years making up for lost time. We lovingly refer to him as, “The Beef Man,” (pretty self-explanatory – he loves it and looks like a pot roast). That Teelo is able to maintain a healthy weight is really only due to our extreme efforts to save him from himself. Teelo even eats a special “satiety blend” dog food to try to keep him sated – it turns out, he cannot be. He’s so clever and dexterous, that in his older (no filter) age he has taken to unzipping my bag packed with food for work, selecting a few snacks, and popping open the Ziploc bags to enjoy. This past January I came in one morning from cleaning snow off the cars to find Teelo in the middle of the living room, finishing off a peanut butter sandwich and carrot sticks (but not the celery, he left that littered around the carpet for me). There was no shame in his eyes for stealing my lunch. What a guy.
In comparison, our gruesome twosome Clicquot and Riggs are a lot less devious, but certainly are no slouches in the begging department and suffer from significant treat FOMO.
And pizza – Pizza trumps all (except roast beef). It is king in the vizsla snack world.
This painting was inspired by our vizslas who love pizza so much that we lovingly refer to them as The Crust Dogs. Example of this used in a sentence: “Make sure you save your crust for The Crust Dogs”.
The Crust Dogs do not discriminate – homemade or delivery. One summer we invested in a pizza oven for our BBQ and literally ate pizza for two months straight. As a hobby my husband set out to perfect his pizza dough-making technique a few years ago and in our house humans and dogs have enjoyed the benefits of this immensely.
At the same time, the dogs have granted the pizza delivery man a stranger-danger exemption – he is not to be scared off, but instead he is a stranger to be trusted, wagged at, toys offered to – and he is welcome to knock on our door in the dark at 10 pm on any random Saturday night – I can’t say that luxury is afforded to anyone else who visits us.
The reference for this painting was a picture I took of all three dogs lined up in front of me, good as gold, my three little angels, waiting for their share of my pizza crust one evening. They are never better behaved than when they are waiting for a valuable handout. This is why, “Dogs waiting for food,” is a standard pose for all dog moms. Other fail safes include, “Dogs sleeping,” and, “Dogs sun-tanning,” (the latter of two sometimes being one and the same – there’s often some overlap there).
This was such a great photo and I knew right away that I had to paint it.
Bringing this painting to life took a long time – the reference photo was taken last summer but I waited until I had transitioned to oils and then waited some more to think on this composition of all three dogs.
A single portrait is a big task, multiple figures poses many more challenges and I spent many months working on other paintings while the reference sketch of three vizslas hung in my art room. Sometimes even if I’m not physically working on a project, having it around to think about is like a type of work. And then when I sat down to finally get started – all those months of pondering it made the painting come together really easily. It was also painted against a backdrop of a lot of personal stuff – I was painting this piece when the email invitation to interview for my new job dinged through on my phone, and I completed the painting over the ensuing weeks of huge life decisions, serious conversations with my husband about what we wanted our future to look like, and the resulting upheaval that a big life decision brings. This painting was one of the very last items packed for storage before our move.
My paintings often play double duty – They capture a moment in time on the surface, but they are also closely tied to the time when I created them and everything I was feeling. While begging for pizza was the comical inspiration for this painting (picture me, I’m behind the lens probably with a slice in one hand, camera phone in the other), what is serious about this piece is how accurately it captures each dog. I love portraiture. I love capturing these moments in time and working through my feelings about my subject matter as I paint. In this case studying their sweet features and ruminating on my love for them.
In this work, each dog looks just like their unique self. Teelo is Big Teelo, standing firm and gazing right at me, looking straight into my soul. Clicquot looks a bit like, hey, how did I end up here? Which is basically her standard. Always late to the party but never left out. The girl with the big, brown eyes. And that is a classic Riggs pose. There he is, with all of his middle-child narrative that we’ve created for him. He’s first in line, continuously inching his bottom forward with his head cocked in a pose that is at once inquisitive, but non-committal, eyes half closed but really fully alert, gaze partially diverted but still totally aware… ready to pounce if pizza is offered (deliberately or by accident).
I love these simple moments with the dogs, with my family. I love remembering them forever through my art. More and more I see my style evolving to remember people, places, memories frozen in time in my work. I find endless inspiration in this idea. A painting is really so much more than what you see. With so much change and uncertainty in my life right now, it’s comforting to reflect on a time and a place when I was at peace. I miss the routine of our quiet Saturday nights with The Crust Dogs. And I look forward to getting that familiar feeling back again. Soon.
Thoughts from the dining room table as we transition to a new life in the Maritimes.
We made it! And just like that, I feel like I literally exploded my old life. We packed up all of our belongings, spent one last night sleeping on the (very bare and very hard) living room floor in our old house, locked the door behind us, and drove forever until we reached our new home.
Except we’re not home, not for a little while yet, because our new home won’t be ready until the summer and my in-laws (very kindly) let us move in with all the animals. And reaching our destination didn’t mean that we were done dealing with the fallout of this life bomb in the least. In the past eight weeks, I feel like it’s been one major butterfly-inducing to-do item after another. I sort of envision this giant thumb just pressing down on me constantly during all waking hours – the pressure has felt so real and intense for so long. But, we made it here physically, and the pieces are ever so slowly falling into place and the pressure is decreasing.
We went out this past Friday for the first time since arriving here – not to go to the gym or run an errand – just a nice, casual evening out. Granted, there was no casual strolling through the streets of Fredericton. It’s been frigidly cold for May and our walk back to the car ended with me running through the parking lot to our car to escape the wind and drizzle – but still, our first evening out and a feeling that things are starting to return to a new “normal”.
During times of stress, I find there are a few constants for myself. I will definitely eat more, and I will definitely create less. With the combination of cold weather and prolonged exposure to high adrenaline – most nights I’ve been crashing with the dogs way earlier than I ever used to. The thought of painting or writing was as unappealing as the Mrs. Dunster’s donut holes have been appetizing – which is to say very.
But, a new colleague and friend helped me to get out of my funk. She connected me back in April with a, “call for artists” for the summer art auction for a local restaurant called Isaac’s Way. One of the most appealing aspects about our new life in Fredericton is how arts friendly this beautiful city is. There is just no shortage of artists’ collectives and groups and galleries and prestigious and wonderful art schools – and I can’t wait to be part of it. Not to mention the beautiful scenery and architecture and rolling hills and life on the St. John river. I love it here. I found out about this ongoing art auction during brunch last summer at Isaac’s Way and I instantly wished that we could live here so that I could participate (and so we moved here, just like that! Ha!). The whole restaurant is set up like a gallery and over the months of the art auction diners and patrons can bid on their favorite paintings. Paintings are donated by New Brunswick artists (hey, that’s me!) and raise funds for various charities.
I was very happy to answer the call for artists, and so excited/flattered/thrilled (pick your favorite ecstatic adjective) to be accepted. Of course, then came the hard part – creating a painting when my entire art room is in storage and my life is in chaos. I knew I could only commit to creating something on the small side. I also didn’t want to invest in a lot of supplies because I have everything I could ever possibly need in a storage container in Ontario. Also, my current “art studio” is limited to a corner of my in-laws dining room table – suffice to say there were a number of logistical, spatial, and monetary considerations at play while I was considering my next masterpiece.
I have a lot of personal photos of Fredericton that I’ve been meaning to use for painting reference, and I’ve really been enjoying urban sketching so it didn’t take me long to narrow my focus to watercolour and ink on my favourite Canson art board.
I ordered a Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Pocket Palette with 12 half pans for its economy of price and space. The set comes with a #5 pocket brush (which is actually horribly tiny with short handle to fit into the palette and which I have never used). I also ordered a pad of Canson Plein Air Watercolor Art Board – this board has a slight texture pressed into it but overall handles like a hot press surface that allows for nice sharp pen lines and quick, expressive paint application.
My economical plan was compromised a little because I had to supplement the too-tiny paintbrush with two Simmons paintbrushes from Endeavors but otherwise this has been my simplest set up in along time. I should also say that despite getting a lot of mileage out of this little palette and enjoying it for the most part, as per the online reviews it was nearly impossible to open when I first received it – my husband had to pry it open with a butter knife and I’ve never closed it again since.
I had my supplies but waited (aka procrastinated) another couple weeks to get started – that initial push to paint after a long time away can be a big barrier to overcome. Like when you take a day off from exercising and it turns into a year. I told myself I would just sketch and paint as much as possible over the next week and whatever came out best I would frame for the artists’ auction. No pressure! I was sketching for the first time in three months and at first it did feel forced but quickly I got back to my “zone.” And then I felt like I had so much to say with my paints, and became very focused and the week that started with a few uncertain lines on a random piece of paper ended with three finished paintings and a sketch for a fourth.
I sketched August Evening at Officer’s Square and eventually it turned into my first post-move painting.
I’ve been really enjoying taking the dogs to the University of New Brunswick for long weekend runs since we moved here and I have so many pictures waiting to be sketched. UNB has to be one of the most scenic, lovely, begging-to-painted universities anywhere.
This is one of my favourites so far, Head of the Class:
The reference photo was taken looking up College Hill at UNB at the Old Arts Building:
I love the gestural, unrehearsed feeling of these paintings and this style I’m developing. Such a nice break from my more “serious” works (which feed my artist soul in a different way). I also keep going back to pictures I took of Queen St. in downtown Fredericton last summer and it’s not the first time I’ve sketched the old Owl’s Nest location – I find these old buildings with their bright colors and different personalities to be so visually appealing and all the years spent visiting the Owl’s Nest Bookstore on vacation tug at my nostalgic heart. I rounded out the big week of art with this painting:
It was a great week for art, and our casual Friday out wasn’t so casual afterall. I had August Evening at Officer’s Square framed for the auction and we had the big fun task of dropping my work off at Isaac’s Way. This is a dream realized – to be displayed in a public place makes me feel so happy and so validated and so honored.
It was a fantastic day and there was nothing left to do except return to the dining room table and get back to it…
Change is hard. I keep saying, I never want to move again. Ever. But like my mother-in-law said to me once, “Sometimes a change is as good as a rest”.
Oh Miss Monkey Bananas Clicquot. Sweet girl with the biggest brown eyes. She joined our family when she was two years old. Clicquot is the younger sister to Teelo and Riggs. I did worry about her blending into our animal menagerie at first, and how that would go. I remember letting her out of the car her first night in our home and she trotted into the house like she owned the joint. She spent the next 48 hours chasing Beesa everywhere and she placed herself firmly and unwaveringly at the top of our animal hierarchy. Since then, she has ruled over our home like the Princess and the Pea with all of her delicate sensibilities and constant demands.
Like clockwork, every night at 9 pm she cries and grunts until you cover her with a blanket. Hers is a pushy, aggressive type of love. Clicquot thinks nothing of climbing up on an already crowded couch and camping out on top of one of her brothers until they make the sensible choice and leave, vacating their spot for her. Or body-checking her grandmother when she comes to visit (sorry mom!). Or head-butting everyone in sight when she knows it’s “walk time”.
She loves the fireplace in the winter, and sun- tanning on the warm deck in the summer. Sometimes you have to save her from her love of heat – turn the fireplace off or bring her in from the sun when it seems like any sane animal or human would’ve had enough. It is impossible to get mad at her, and that is how Clicquot gets away with it all. Really, all she wants is to be warm, and to be loved, and she is not shy to demand either when her meter is running low. And we – we are so happy to supply her with all the cuddles, blankets, and love she could possibly need.
With her almost cartoon-like features, and that face, Clicquot has been a huge source of inspiration for my art. She’s my little vizsla muse.
I realized I’ve done quite a few portraits of Clicquot and I thought I’d share them with you. Miss Monkey Bananas, below, represented a real level up for me. The solitary figure, vibrant colours, and solid background cutting in with confident lines around my subject – this is a style I returned to and experimented with many times in the latter half of 2018.
My husband and I took Clicquot for an epic 35 km backcountry hike at Algonquin Park the summer she came to live with us. We planned it as a bonding experience for just the three of us (the boys stayed with their grandparents and were thoroughly spoiled). Clicquot was such a good little hiker. She stayed right beside me even when we was off-leash, and she was NOT interested in meeting any other hikers, human or canine. We hiked about 17 km the first day and when we arrived at our campsite at Hart Lake we spent the rest of the summer afternoon chilling on the rocky shore. Clicquot was our little lookout dog. This painting makes me want to take her back to the backcountry… such happy memories.
And finally, this painting was inspired entirely by Edward Hopper’s Pensive Lady in Pink, replaced by our own little pensive lady in red. I went through a bit of a Hopper tribute phase in the first half of 2018, covered in this post. Every time I finished a Clicquot painting, I would think of another painting idea, or take another perfect photo of her that was just begging to be painted.
Clicquot 3 x 3
The Clicquot 3 x 3. I love this. This is an ongoing Clicquot project that I started about a year ago and which I would really like to return to and finally complete. My recent sketchbook tour sent me looking through other sketchbooks for fun and I was reminded of this series. This was inspired by a sweet book my husband gave to me many, many years ago: Arty Dogs. In it, dogs are added to famous paintings accompanied by a short story that explains how they ended up there, and it’s just really whimsical and great. It gave me the idea to feature sweet Clicquot in nine different scenes inspired by nine of my favourite artists. Whenever I don’t have another project going on, I try to finish a Clicquot sketch. Lately – that hasn’t been very often and this project needs some attention. I envision finishing all of these on hot press drawing board, with white frames, and hanging on a wall in a 3 x 3 formation (obviously).
This first sketch is inspired by Salvador Dali’s melty clocks and the Persistence of Memory. I absolutely love this quick sketch that I did in about five minutes during lunch at work one day. I hesitate to try to create a more polished, final drawing from this sketch because I think it might be difficult to reproduce the spontaneity.
This is Clicquot standing outside looking into the old Apollo Grill at Hunter and George Streets. Inspired by Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks it puts a local spin on the classic painting. This makes me think of an independent little Clicquot who took a stroll downtown to get herself a hotdog only to find out, “No Dogs Allowed” inside the diner.
This is Clicquot starring in Edvard Munch’s The Scream and reimagined as, what else? The Howl. Clicquot doesn’t howl much. None of the dogs do. Teelo is the only one who ever really has, but the conditions need to be exactly right. He used to howl when we lived in Downtown Toronto, and he was still Downtown Brown. Sometimes when we were out for a walk, a firetruck would pass us with the sirens wailing. If the firetruck approached us from an adequate distance, so that the sirens were going for awhile, Teelo would sit down, throw his dog head back, and hoooooooooowl along with the sirens. Everyone on the sidewalk would turn to look. It was kind of his thing. This sketch reminds me of that, even though Clicquot is the subject.
Oh this is one of my favourites. I made many drafts of this sketch to get it just right. It is inspired by Roy Lichtenstein. We have three Lichtenstein prints hanging in our house. We spent many months trying to source that perfect trio of prints that explore domestic un-bliss and melodrama. I love pop art, I love Lichtenstein’s primary colour, dot-matrix portraits, and this is a combination of the “I don’t care…” sentimentality of Drowning Girl, and Kim Carnes’ song, “Bette Davis Eyes.” I always think of the line, She’s ferocious, and she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush. I’m pretty sure that Teelo and Riggs think Clicquot is a spy sent from outer space, or from our breeder’s house. Hence the title. 😉
I recycled this title for my Beesa painting, This is a Cat. I sketched this with Magritte’s pipe in mind – The Treachery of Images. I like it. It’s cheeky, just like Clicquot.
Another Magritte, another surrealist painting, another portrait of Clicquot. A cross between Magritte’s Green Apple and Decalcomania. I like how it pays tribute to three Magritte works in one. This will be the final composition for the Magritte drawing.
Below is a rough sketch of my Andy Warhol Clicquot Portrait. I think we all know the silk-screen Warhol Monroes on repeat, and the Campbell Soup Cans. This would be neat as a sketch but also as a mixed-media kind of decoupage that combines a black and white photocopy of Clicquot with multiple contrasting colours. I’ll have to think on its final execution a little more. I remember going to see the Warhol exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario on a wintery weekend with my MOM back in grade 10. I wore high heel boots that really hurt my feet and she insisted on taking the subway. After living downtown for ten plus years, taking the subway is no thing at all now but I was quite concerned for our safety on that first roundtrip into the big city. Anyway, the whole exhibit focused on Warhol’s work as a graphic designer. I loved it – I was really interested in graphic design as a career for myself back then and it was so interesting to see it elevated to fine art at the AGO. The exhibit was partly Warhol’s work interwoven with snapshots and pieces of his life. There was even a little display within the exhibit that featured a bottle of Clinique’s Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion that Warhol used. I used the same lotion then, and I use it now! And I’ve been a fan of Warhol since way back then too.
My husband’s favourite artist is William Blake, the British Romantic painter unwittingly responsible for so much of the imagery in the Red Dragon movie (of Hannibal Lecter infamy). Unbelievably, he was a watercolour painter – I think his works are amazing. This is Clicquot howling along with the dragon in a sketch appropriately title, The Great Red Vizsla and the Dragon Clothed in Sun. Not sure if I’ll take my chances and paint the final work as a watercolour too… it’s not always guaranteed to be a success for me.
And that’s the entirety of my works inspired by Clicquot. Now that I’ve had a chance to return to the Clicquot 3 x 3 I hope I’ll be able to make it a priority to finish in the next few months and finally get it framed and on display. I counted and it looks like I’m two sketches shy of having all of my ideas. Kandinsky? Cezanne? Picasso? Seurat? We will see.
Representing my loved ones and my own memories through painting is a huge theme for my work. This is a subject I hope to explore more deeply through portraiture for the rest of 2019. I think it’s interesting to kind of push my own idea of a portrait a bit, paint my subjects from unconventional viewpoints, play with the colour and background and contrast. I have a number of paintings already lined up.
Clicquot has such an easy face to paint – I’m in the middle of a portrait of her and her brothers right now, and as soon as I filled in the darkest parts of her eyes I sat back and thought, I’ve got it! Those expressive features, and her fierce and pushy and lovey personality – we are just so lucky to have Clicquot in our family. I always call her my sweet girl. I feel like she’s been my little girl forever. There was no warming-up period, it was just an instant bond. That first weekend with her in our home my husband had to work. So I ventured out for a solo walk with all.the.dogs. It was unusually hot and when we got home it was quiet in the house. I lay down for a rest after the triple-dog-walk excitement (um, mayhem) and I remember distinctly that Clicquot just jumped right up beside me on the bed and curled close in next to me. It was love. It’s been her spot ever since (not counting her first few nights here when she was crated to stop her from hunting Beesa while we slept 🙄).
And there you have it – Little Miss Monkey Bananas Clicquot. Thank you for reading everyone and happy Monday!
Perhaps the single most important step in the oil painting process, and no, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating one bit.
I tend to get really excited about some random things. Like when my husband surprised me with a new Dyson on Black Friday 2018. I went on about that for weeks. I just wanted to tell everyone about how many canisters I filled just on the first go around the house. It was life-changing. Or when I discovered you can mail order dog food. Did you know you can mail order dog food!? And set a delivery schedule? That was pretty big. Or when we bought a food dehydrator and made our own raisins from grapes. That was really, really cool.
So anyway, usually when I have one of these discoveries I like to tell anyone who will listen. Varnishing my oil paintings is now one of those things. I feel like I can’t stop talking about it because it has made me so inexplicably happy. Everyone has been really polite about me going on about it, but the non-painters inundated with my excitement can only appreciate this so much. This topic is definitely more suited to visitors of my art blog. ☺️
To all the artists reading this: Varnishing is a big deal. Those of you in the know are thinking, well duh. I have always varnished my acrylic paintings, most recently with TriArt gloss varnish. However, my experience using Gamblin Gamvar Gloss Picture Varnish this week is what has left me feeling so impressed. First of all, you should varnish your acrylic and oil paintings to give them a protective surface (watercolorists – obviously varnish will ruin your work, just stick with glass framing). While I appreciate this protective layer, the majority of my happiness is because varnishing has made my oil paintings look so much better.
I finished three oil paintings from November to end of December 2018 (This is a Cat, Big Beesa, and Downtown Brown) and those are the paintings that I varnished for the first time this week. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this day forever.
A bit of a preamble: I was really hesitant to start painting with oil paints in the first place, but now that I’ve made the transition – honestly I don’t know why I put it off for so long. Oh my goodness if you’re considering it – just switch. Like right now. My style of painting improved by leaps and bounds when I committed to acrylic painting on canvas (instead of forcing watercolours on myself, which is still hit and miss to this day) but I just could not stand the drying time. There is nothing worse than going back to work on a section with one more perfecting brushstroke and you hit dry paint and your brush skids across the sticky canvas. I just hate it. And I paint in fairly thin layers so it just happened all the time. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.
However. And this is a big however. One thing that I noticed with the oils almost right away was that, while the painting may have looked amazing and perfect right at the end of a painting session (when all the paint was still wet and shiny and freshly applied), a few days later with a bit of drying – some of the paint seemed uneven. Some areas were still glossy, but some colours that had so much depth when first applied were now matte and dull and uneven too. At first I thought, oh when it’s totally dry it will even out. Not so. For the paintings This is a Cat and Big Beesa, the dark backgrounds were really dramatic when first applied but dried really patchy. No amount of layering fixed this (I tried, and just wasted paint for no reason). It really took away from both paintings.
The streakiness is really evident here in this process pic from Downtown Brown. Those black areas should be totally black:
After Googling this issue (thank you Google!) I learned that this is a fairly common issue for oil painting. This “sunken in” appearance is especially problematic for darker colours where it is more obvious. As for the reason – as usual it seems like a number of reasons are suggested – painting too thin, mixing too many colours, too much solvent. One big issue that faces all oil painters is that oil may not be absorbed from paints uniformly by your painted surface as the paints dry. Combine that with the fact that different oil colours differ in terms of oil content to begin with and you have all the makings for uneven drying and overall appearance in your final painting.
The good news is, there is a solution. The fix for this variation in paint appearance is varnishing (in addition to bestowing all those wonderful protective qualities). I have really, really been looking forward to this final step because I’ve read so much about how this really adds so much to your final painting. I love colour and contrast and I was so disappointed to see that some colours significantly dulled with drying.
I expected the varnish step to even out the surface and that the glossy finish would return and saturate my colours and really make them pop. Gamblin advertises that their Picture Varnish will unify the surface of your painting.
Gamblin is a great company and really committed to artist education. If you have a question and contact them they WILL get back to you with a personalized email. For example, Dave from Gamblin sent me a lovely email response to my question about using graphite for your underdrawing for an oil painting (I had concerns). Anyway, they produced a really handy post about varnishing that covers everything you need to know. I followed it exactly with excellent results.
Gamblin recommends waiting until your painting is touch-dry to varnish. This may be a few weeks or a few months. I paint in pretty thin layers so after a week or so all of my paintings are just about touch dry. I thought I would be extra good and I gave all of my paintings at least a month to dry. I also figured a varnish assembly-line would make the best use of my time.
Step 1: Assemble your tools
Not much to assemble. I had my varnish bottle from which I poured a small quantity into a flat container (old Tupperware repurposed for the art room). I cleared off my flat art room table to place each painting during the varnishing. It’s best to work on a flat surface so the varnish goes on evenly and isn’t drawn downwards by gravity.
I purchased this 2″ Royal and Langnickel Jumbo flatbrush just for varnishing. Soft but firm synthetic bristles and well constructed (no bristles falling out during the actual varnishing and ruining the painting).
If you have a dedicated varnish brush, you don’t need to clean your brush after using Gamvar. You can just let it dry and put it away until your next varnishing party.
Step 2: Varnish!
I laid each painting flat on my big table in the art room. Using my large brush, I dipped it into a flat container holding some Gamvar. I tapped off the brush and then starting at the top of each painting I swept it in long even strokes across the canvas. I worked my way down being careful to lay the varnish down in a thin layer picking up any excess as I go. You want to watch out for any areas where it may pool, especially on amore textured painting surface. The Gamvar needs to be applied very thinly or it will always remain tacky. It dries solely by solvent evaporation and if done correctly will be dry to the touch in a couple days (I checked, mine were dry to the touch in a couple days!). I did ignore the unsolicited advice of a well-meaning sales lady at Michael’s who I chatted with on a recent canvas buying expedition. She advised to rub the varnish in with a cloth. I have no idea how this would be superior but I implore you, do not do this. It seems more likely to ruin your painting. For my 24 x 30″ Big Beesa I dipped my brush into the varnish twice for the entire thing. That’s it.
Here’s a pic of the varnish process halfway thru. The Gamvar immediately saturated the painting, You can see a distinct line about halfway down. The top half is varnished, the bottom half not varnished. The difference is really striking in this photo and that richness was retained when the varnish dried.
Another compare and contrast. Varnish applied on the left side of painting, the red, especially the darkest areas are noticeably more vibrant. The right side is awaiting varnish. It is more dull and muted.
Step 3: Drying
Let your varnished painting(s) dry for a few days in a safe pet-free zone. They should be totally dry to the touch if done properly.
Before and After
All of these pics are totally un-retouched to try to show you the true before and afters.
This is a Cat
You can see the top-down vertical steaks in the black background and the variation in light and dark black throughout even though black was used straight from the tube. I applied two layers of black to the background to try to fix this but it dried the same every time. In the after, you can see that the background is totally uniform and this effect is even more striking in person. All of the colours look more saturated.
I felt that the dark background was even more problematic in this painting. Again I applied multiple layers of paint in the background to no avail. In the after image, again the paint is totally uniform and all of the colours have been restored to their straight-from-the-tube lustre.
This painting was so streaky in the before image. Again the darker colours are a bigger problem but you can see in the varnished image that everything gains a greater intensity and the steaks are lost.
I put so much love and care into all of my paintings that it just makes sense to kind of finish them up and tie everything into a neat package with a final varnish (like the ribbon on a present). The same goes for painting the edges of my canvas and signing my work. It’s the little things that can elevate a painting so much. In terms of the varnish step, the difference is subtle but it is also everything. Not only will you protect your artistic investment, you’re allowing it to reach its full potential.
I’m sorry this turned into a bit of a review of Gamvar varnish but I just can’t get over it. I received it for Christmas from my husband and it’s now one of my favourite presents (the spiky shoes and Neewer lights were the front runners up until now ;)). I think the Gamvar Picture Varnish is an absolutely excellent product. It’s always hard to photograph paintings, especially glossy ones, but in person the paintings have a rich, saturated, unified appearance. A little Gamvar goes an extremely long way. I have a 500ml container and I think it will last me for years of oil painting varnishing. And yes, in case you were wondering (I know I was!) you can use Gamvar Picture Varnish on oil and acrylic paintings.
I hope these impressions will help any of you starting out or on the fence about which product to varnish with. If you have any questions please feel free to write to me in the comments below.
My brief foray into illustration during high school drew heavily on my own life experiences 😉
Today – a fun blast from my past.
But first – We have been inside for nearly two straight days due to an extreme cold weather warning. Monday morning we woke up to wind chills of -40 degrees Celsius. It’s good we got out for a run on Saturday afternoon because as scary cold as that was, this is much, much worse. We can barely get the dogs to go out back to do their dog business. I literally have to push their bums down the deck steps. I’m like a crazy lady running around wearing my husband’s Canadian dinner jacket waving a broom in the air trying to corral the freezing dogs. I think Teelo could hold it just about forever but the potential consequence of this type of bathroom willpower also stresses me out. So, dogs bums pushed down the stairs by the crazy dog lady it is.
And now – may I present to you, Sandy Goes to the Hospital.
I created this cartoon for the old Mississauga Hospital back in grade 10 or 11 when I was volunteering there (and it was still called Mississauga Hospital). I volunteered there for a few years in high school. I had a vague idea that I wanted to go to medical school one day and it seemed like a good strategy to volunteer in a hospital. I helped for a long time as a greeter in Emergency intake which seemed pretty intense and high stress for a fifteen-year-old?!? I don’t think I liked it very much to be honest. Anyway, when I discovered that they were still using the same “welcome to the hospital” colouring book for kids that I received when I got my tonsils out in grade 2 (!) I volunteered my drawing services.
I actually ended up doing a few different art projects through volunteer services but the coloring book came first. They kind of entrusted me to redo the old one, page for page. I’m pretty sure I renamed the main character Sandy because my younger sister and I were heavily, heavily into the move Grease for several years through high school. I’m also pretty sure that the doctor was based on Dr. Carter (played by Noah Wyle) from ER which my sister and I were also heavily into during the NBC Must See TV era. So, so weird in retrospect but hey, there it is.
Sandy was surprisingly chill about being told that she would need to be admitted to the hospital and none of these people have fingers, just mitt hands:
Sunflowers were kind of my thing back in high school, that’s a sunflower on Sandy’s shirt – not the sun or just any old flower.
Sandy was getting her tonsils out because I had also had my tonsils removed years before and this was my closest frame of reference for an operation or medical intervention. In 2019 I think this is now an outpatient procedure – you go to the hospital for a few hours and go home the same day, it’s not really a thing – but in the late 1980s it was still a bit of a big deal. It was like a 10-14 day recovery (off school!!!). I remember being on the couch and watching A LOT of Little House on the Prairie reruns (you didn’t get to choose back then and that’s what was on TV on weekday afternoons apparently). Before the operation I had to go in for a pre-op work-up and you had to stay overnight. That was the most stressful part for me because 7-year-old me had to stay overnight at the hospital by myself after the actual operation.
This was how the actual entrance to the old Mississauga Hospital used to look. And these cartoon people kind of (?) look like my parents except my dad never owned a sweater like that.
I remember I really obsessed over the spelling of paediactric (or pediatric?). Even now this is making my head turn in a funny way to make it look right. I Googled it and it turns out this is a thing to wonder the correct spelling – and both are right. Count on me to use the spelling that seems more pretentious.
Again, so many happy people, including this poor boy with two broken limbs? What on earth?
And THAT is the most terrifying needle I have ever seen:
All together now:
I know that the point of this colouring book was to make the hospital seem friendly (and not scary) and more accessible for little kids but I just cannot get over how deliriously happy the characters in this little colouring book are. It’s pretty funny. I wonder if it’s still in use?
I even got a little bit of press for my work! This beauty of a pic was taken of me in my volunteer smock for The Mississauga News.
And another article in my high school newspaper (I think?):
Looking at these old drawings and clips reminds me that I used to combine my art side and my science side wherever possible. There was a fair amount of cross-over and I always had the prettiest science projects 🙂 There was a time, maybe in grade 11, that I went to the University of Toronto to check out their medical illustration graduate program. Sometimes I think that was a bit of a missed opportunity for me. I imagine myself working from home, holed up in my studio (the dogs are there too) and just spending my days drawing highly technical illustrations of teeth and eyeballs and whatever you might need to fill a science textbook. I think that would’ve been really, really cool. But, like so many things that have kind of gone more technical over the years, my sense is that there’s more computer illustration used now in medical illustration than actual watercolours on paper and that’s not something I would’ve really enjoyed. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on what could’ve been (you know, the whole Frost fork in the road quote, kind of sort of?) and in the very least share these funny little illustrations for you on this cold Tuesday.
Thanks for reading everyone! Hopefully the cold will break later this afternoon and we will finally be able to get the dogs out to walk off some of those crazy sillies that have been building up!!!
Acrylic painting for absolute beginners. Everything you need to know ☺️
If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of my Absolute Beginners painting series, you can check them out here and here.
So, you’ve chosen to paint with acrylics! Excellent choice! Or maybe you’re just reading this post for the heck of it – also excellent! Thank you so much. If you’ve never painted with acrylics before, please, let me be your guide.
Today we are going to paint this (if you want to):
First up, let me explain the basic of acrylic paints in this video below:
What exactly are acrylic paints. Well, as we covered in Part 1, all paint is made up of a binder or vehicle (the stuff that keeps the paint together, sticks to your painting surface, and holds the colour in place once the paint is dry). The pigment is mixed with the binder – this is what gives your paint its colour. Acrylic paint has a similar consistency to oil paint – both are generally pretty-heavy bodied and thick. The binder in acrylic paint is acrylic polymer emulsion. Straight out of the tube acrylic paint is water soluble. So all you really need to thin your paint and work with them is basic water. If you like you can buy a product called retarder which is an additive for increasing the working (drying) time of your acrylic paint. Once acrylic paint dries it is water impermeable and permanent. It is a great paint for beginners.
Basic acrylic painting shopping list
Yay, you get to go shopping! Here’s what you’ll need to get started with acrylics:
Acrylic paint, 60 ml tubes (I recommend TriArt or Golden paints): Alizarin crimson, cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow medium, ultramarine blue, burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, chrome oxide green (optional), Payne’s grey, titanium white
Brushes: Round #6, flat 1/2″ thick, filbert #2 or #4 – short handle if you’ll be working at a table, long handle if working at an easel (I prefer synthetic soft bristles, other option is hog hair, see what you like) – inexpensive is ok, but I don’t recommend dollar store paintbrushes – you would regret it
Pre-stretched canvases – you can buy a bulk pack for a volume discount (12 x 12″ is a good size to go with) and/or pad of inexpensive canvas sheets for practice
Retarder (optional) – Golden makes a good one
Palette: Disposable palette sheets (optional, looks like a pad of paper) – or a piece of plywood or Masonite board – it is up to you
Paint-Along: Still Life With Apple
Here’s what you’ll need for our paint-along:
Cadmium yellow medium
Naphthol red medium (or cadmium red medium from basic palette0
Chrome oxide green (optional)
Click below to watch me paint. You can paint along with me! I recommend you get all your supplies assembled, a nice cozy tea, and then press play! You can follow me, skip around to the parts you need. You’ll have your first painted masterpiece in no time. I’m no Bob Ross but I really try to break it down for viewers. And I apologize for the length! This is my first kind of “paint-with-me” video and there’s definitely a learning curve. But I thought, ah, I’ve got to start somewhere so here we are.
I hope you all enjoyed this little how-to and tutorial. The best way to learn how to paint, is to paint – as much as possible. If you painted along, please please please share your work in the comments below! Any comments? Questions? I love to hear from you!
It’s been awhile since I did a week in review! I think a lot of people start the New Year with big plans for how it’s going to be the best.year.ever. While I’m cautious to make too many grand plans, I know I’m usually as excited as the next person to get a fresh start and plan out my time. Unfortunately Christmas and New Year were a little rough around here this year and it caught up with me in the past few weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time at home, cuddling with the dogs. I haven’t had the feeling of wanting to start any big projects for a couple weeks, and I had a bit of writer’s block. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back, but also sometimes I personally need a bit of a kick in the pants to get back to it when the step back goes on for too long. For anyone out there whose New Years are not going as shiny and sparkly and positive as your favourite celebrity Instagram feeds – I hear you!
Now let’s get to it and on to the week that was. We’re hunkered down this weekend, in the middle of a snowstorm and avoiding the extreme cold temperatures as much as possible. We did venture out for an extremely refreshing run on Saturday afternoon and the three little vizslas were total troopers. Everyone is happier after a little bit of exercise, dogs included.
And away we go! Quickly dogs because it’s cold AF.
The vizslas are genetically programmed to lie in front of fireplaces when the temperatures dip 🙂
I kind of waded back into painting and writing this week after taking a bit of a break from both. I did my favourite combination of personal and art instruction posts. In case you missed something:
I talked about my favourite artist Edward Hopper and my painting Vizsla and the Sun in an Empty Roomhere.
I finally published a massive post all about colour mixing and colour theory – it’s the second post in my Painting for Absolute Beginners series.
I finished a sketchbook and gave a tour of my favourite drawings and paintings.
I also spent some time early this week transferring this sketch to a prepped canvas for an oil painting I hope to get to this weekend. You can see the time-lapse video of me working here above!
I always love watching these and I hope you do too! They are definitely fun to film and edit.
And to round things out, I did get some painting done, just nothing too serious. A bit of a fear of commitment right now, lol. Felt good to shake the cobwebs off – they gather quickly (actually, painting is a LOT like exercise in that it requires the same level of routine to make progress – if you workout every single day, you’re more likely to keep working out everyday. And eating healthy. Miss one workout and I’m a ball on the couch eating an endless stream of Jalapeno Cheetos. Same for painting lol).
This week’s work:
Oh, and lastly I started a Pinterest account for evachristensenart – I’ve never used Pinterest before, ever (apparently that’s weird?) but it seemed like a good idea for getting my ideas out there, especially my how-to posts. Please check me out on Pinterest and let me know how I’m doing. I’m not sure how things are supposed to look, or how I avoided knowing about Pinterest for so long (I swear I don’t live under a rock!), but I definitely feel totally out of the loop now. Thank you to my Pinterest-loving sister-in-law for checking it out for me and helping me to navigate 🙂
Next week is all about getting back on track – exercise, painting, life (hopefully).
Hope you all had a great weekend. Any big plans for next week, art-related or otherwise? Comment away below. Thank you for visiting!
Happy Friday all! I finished a sketchbook yesterday! It feels great! This was an especially good one so I thought I’d give you a little tour to celebrate. I used to treat my sketchbooks a little too preciously. I was afraid to start something unless I was sure it would be really good. I was always worried about wasting any of the pages. I just ended up with a lot of half-used, not very interesting books gathering dust. I’m in a place now where I view it as more of a visual diary. Don’t get me wrong – if something is downright awful, I’ll probably rip the page out – there’s no need to keep a drawing if it makes you cringe every time you look at it. You may not be able to crumple up any other types of life mistakes and toss them in the trash, but you can certainly rip creepy/ugly/awkward/what-were-you-thinking? drawings out of your sketchbook.
Anyway, I date everything in my sketchbook and it ends up being a really nice journal and a great way to look back on work in progress. Some stuff may stay in the sketchbook, other drawings may have been the spark for a great painting or phase of art (my Clicquot phase, my Hopper phase). I love it.
I purchased this sketchbook from Endeavors the Artist Shop in downtown Fredericton on Monday, July 30, 2018. It’s just the best little art store packed with great supplies on Queen Street right across from the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design and Garrison Square (double love!). When my husband used to live in Fredericton he would go to Endeavors when shopping for presents for me 🙂 🙂 :0 so my history with this great store goes way back. I was actually walking around Fredericton all by myself on Sunday, July 29th, during the hottest summer ever in history. The scenery is so nice on Queen Street and you’re close to the water. I was waiting for my husband and I thought, I should find that cute little art store and buy a sketchpad and pen – and a fancy iced coffee! and find some shade to sketch the city. I thought that would be so artsy-chic of me.
Well, Endeavors was closed that Sunday (wuh wuh) and my plans to look like a fabulous artist sketching in the park like it required no effort at all were foiled. We returned the next day, and I loaded up on sketching supplies (including this book) and then had lunch at my favourite lunch place of all time, The Abbey. As an aside – We ate there almost every single day that we were in Fredericton last summer and I couldn’t get enough. Local art work on walls? Check. Creative vegan food served in big bowls? Check. Air-conditioning? Check. I still love that place so much but I digress… (sketchbook tours will make you do that, all the happy memories just come flooding back and you go off on a tangent).
So this sketchbook features a lot of east coast drawings, most from pictures that I took on site, and a few randoms too. What are sketchbooks without the randoms? I started the book on Monday, July 30, 2018, and finished it yesterday, January 17, 2019. Not bad!
Here’s a selection of my favourites 🙂
Owl’s Nest Bookstore, Fredericton. I’ve been visiting this place every time I visit Fredericton with my husband for nearly twenty years now! We were both distressed to see that there was a closing sign up last July. This store was just always absolutely crammed with books, it was actually kind of claustrophobic for me. A downtown institution nonetheless. And an obligatory stop on our semi-annual trek around downtown. We did give it one last wander last summer before I insisted we leave because it was too warm and I felt like bthe store was closing in on me.
The Citadel, in Halifax Nova Scotia. Did I mention that the summer of 2018 was literally the hottest summer on record, like everywhere on earth? Including the Maritimes? Oh my god, it was intolerable. This really came into play when we went to visit the Halifax Citadel atop the treeless Citadel Hill and I forgot to put on sunscreen. We hung out in these tunnels a whole bunch until we felt like we had got our money’s worth. This is a view from one of the underground tunnels, looking out into the blinding sun. That’s my husband at the top of the steps.
My husband at Moxon’s Country Pumpkin. My nephew was in the other half of the drawing but he took on an unfortunately creepy sort of Chucky-like appearance so he’s been cut out of this picture for the sake of my pride. I don’t know what it is about drawing/painting kids – when it goes wrong it goes really wrong.
Backstreet Records – also on Queen Street, Fredericton. My husband has been shopping @backstreetrecords forever, and this is another one of our usual Freddy stops. This drawing was pretty good but then I feel like I ruined it a bit with my limited pack of pastels that I bought on a whim when I purchased this sketchbook. Not a huge fan of pastels to begin with so I don’t really know what I was thinking??? these ones certainly didn’t do anything to convert me to a pastel artist, they just made a mess.
Le Coq Bistro in Halifax. Of the few days we were there, this was hands-down the best meal that we had. It didn’t hurt that the air-conditioning was perfect and it was a great escape from the heat. We drove east in search of seafood and authentic donairs. I never would have guessed our most memorable dinner would have been French food. But @lecoqbistro was so lovely, we just couldn’t stop talking about it. I loved the food here, loved the atmosphere. My sketch is a little busy, but at least the dinner was very good, and looking at this reminds me of our really nice Haligonian date night.
I saw this little dog chilling out on Richmond Street in Charlottetown, PEI on another horribly hot day in August. His people were having brunch and he seemed pretty happy out beside them in the shade. I imagine that his name was probably something awesome like Milkbone. Our dogs are always on high alert so they would never chill on a curb like this, ever. I’m jealous of people with really chill dogs because they are living my dog fantasy. We don’t do stuff like this with our dogs, ever.
Down at the Khyber! I love this sketch. I love this building. Down at #thekhyber is one of my favourite albums of all time, steeped in personal happy memories and feelings and finding the actual Khyber was so awesome. I took many photos at many different angles of this awesome building. The above drawing led to a great little watercolour painting that was part of a really productive week last fall where I felt like everything I touched with my watercolour brush was awesome.
Another great view of The Khyber 🙂 Just loved those angles and the pretty architecture.
St. Paul’s Church in Downtown Halifax. We were walking around one evening and this striking building just called out to be photographed. This sketch is one of my favourites! Now that I’m writing about it here in my sketchbook tour I’m wondering why I didn’t paint this with the rest of my east coast watercolours??? I especially like all of the horizontal lines and how simple it looks. It was really easy to draw which is always the way with sketches you end up liking most. Love the perspective. Maybe this one is worth another look for a painting? The tough part is, any attempts to reproduce this will lose something in the reproduction process and I have a feeling that the spontaneity of the drawing is part of what makes me like it so much.
Cavendish Beach at sunset in August. We got to PEI after driving over the terrifying, vertigo-inducing bridge, we had a traditional lobster dinner, we got Cow’s Ice Cream, and then we drove up to Cavendish Park and dipped our toes in the ocean and called it a day. I loved these little red and white huts along the beach.
When we got to Halifax we walked all along the Harbour as the sun was setting. The reflection of orange light from the pier on inky blue-black water was so pretty. I took a ton of photos for reference and returned to them recently. It’s nice to reminisce about summer from the depths of winter. These harbour sketches inspired two paintings in one evening which is kind of a record for me. I was particularly happy with the perspective of the sketch above, and the resulting painting which I talk about in this post.
A few more studies of the pier at night.
These drawings turned into a fun little painting session and time-lapse video captured here.
Oh, and here are the dogs:
I’ve been doing these random cartoons of my funny little vizslas for awhile now. It started when Teelo and Riggs were the original gruesome twosome and continued when Clicquot joined the mix. They just have the most hilarious little personalities and facial expressions. This particular cartoon is just an illustration of their random food-related nonsense nicknames. OMG I love my dogs so much.
More vizsla cartooning. I imagine that in addition to being totally crazy Clicquot is also very stern and scares the boys.
I didn’t paint in my sketchbook very often but this view across from Garrison Square in Fredericton turned out pretty nicely I think and I really should return to this for a painting. I love Maritime architecture. Brightly painted wood in a rainbow of colours and all sorts of interesting lines and designs. I also love pen and watercolour paintings but I have yet to find a totally perfect pen. I tend to use fine Sharpies which are pretty good. My Micron Pigma pens, although highly rated, have been pretty disappointing. Most pens are good at first but once they start drying at all… that’s it, they’re of no use to me.
And here we are, the last few pages from my sketchbook:
The past few weeks were a bit of an artistic slump. It was so busy, busy, busy right up to and after Christmas, and then a bit of a rough time caught up with me. So even though at first I felt like I wanted to be busy and was painting and writing and running and cleaning and getting everything done… all of a sudden over the past week or two I felt like I had just had enough, and needed a bit of a break. So my incredibly prolific run came to an end and evachristensenart endured a bit of a radio silence as a result.
Anyway, two weekends ago my husband and I visited downtown with my idea of wanting to walk around and get some great pics to continue my watercolour and ink series closer to home. Not the best idea in a mid-January deep-freeze. We walked pretty quick, it was painfully cold, but I got my pics and my notes. I liked my east coast series so much my idea was to do the same with local landmarks and interesting-to-me places. These two paintings are my favourite downtown stores. I love the perspective in the painting above and I have tried three times to reproduce this as a more polished, final painting – each time was a huge fail. Not sure if I’ll try again as I’m just wasting my favourite Canson artboard at this point. Stay tuned I guess…
This particular sketch below was one of my most popular ever on Instagram. Maybe it’s the perspective? I like it quite a bit myself. Not sure if I’ll try another version outside of my sketchbook as that hasn’t been going too well for me recently. We will see. Sometimes I will put something away for a few months and then when the time is right I’ll be able to come back to it with the right perspective.
I finished the last pages of my sketchbook with notes and illustrations for my post all about colour theory. The art nerd in me thinks colour charts are so pretty and it was so much fun to create these for the post. It’s true – you know you’re doing something you love when it doesn’t feel like work. That’s how this blog and creating teaching-type posts feels for me.
I’m hesitant to take any pages out of my sketchbook but I’d love to frame some of these drawings and paintings. Especially now that I’ve had a chance to do a bit of a retrospective with this tour.
The Pentalic Nature Sketch Sketchpad was pretty good! The paper is 130 lb, acid-free, and has a cold-press texture. You have to have a light touch with any watercolour or wet media that you use because the paper does warp pretty easily. I loved the heavy chipboard back – It makes the sketchpad really sturdy, substantial. The texture is really nice for pen work. Like I said I usually use fine tip Sharpies and those worked really well here. I still feel like I haven’t found my pen soulmate but I suppose I can check out the pen situation this weekend when I go out to get a new sketchbook. Exciting!
I hope you enjoyed my sketchbook tour. Lots of east coast memories here @fredtourism. I may not be a real Freddy by geography, but after nearly twenty years of visits, I like to consider myself a Frederictonian by heart – or in the very least by marriage. Shout-outs to all of our favourite places: New Brunswick College of Craft and Design #NBCCD (if only I could be a student again), The Abbey Café #theabbycafe, @backstreetrecords, @beaverbrook_ag, @chesspiececafe. #Downtownfredericton we will be back soon 🙂
Thanks for reading everyone and welcome to the weekend!
I was writing what I thought was the second post of my Painting for Absolute Beginners series (you can check out the first post, How to Paint for Absolute Beginners Part 1, here) when I digressed into colour theory, and I realized – this really deserves its own post. So, may I present to you Painting for Absolute Beginners – Part 2. Colour Theory.
To begin with, regardless of which type of paint you choose to paint with, the “rules” of colour mixing are pretty universal. Whether you’re working with watercolour or acrylic or oil – red plus yellow generally makes some sort of orange. And blue plus red makes some sort of purple. There are just a few finer details you might want to consider and that’s what I’m going to discuss here.
Colour theory – so boring right? Wrong! Unless you’re just planning on throwing some paint, any old paint, at a canvas – this is the stuff that all painting is made of. Realists and abstract expressionists can finally find common ground here. Colour is everything (well, design, technical ability, narrative quality are good too – but for today’s post – let’s agree that colour is everything). Colour theory is very intuitive, and heavily studied, but there’s a little information that can help you out if you are starting from scratch.
Side note: For any scientists (mainly physicists) out there – this is strictly a bit of artist’s colour theory, ,and a little bit of advice from what works well for me. We’re certainly not talking about how your eyes perceive different wavelengths of light and the physics of optics. That was way too out there in Grade 12 and we’re not going back there now. Just had to get that out there…
Traditional colour theory: Red + Blue = ?
Traditional colour theory dates to around the 18th century when there was a push to kind of formalize the painting process and the canon of art instruction. A good first step in this colour theory is that there are three primary pigment colours – red, yellow, and blue. These colours are special because they can’t be mixed from any other colours.
In theory, the primary colours can’t be mixed from any other colours. If you take even one physics course that covers the science of optics, your mind will be blown because that’s not technically how it works in the science world, but it IS essentially how it works on your paint palette. When you mix two primary colours together, you get… a secondary colour. There are three basic secondary colours made from the three possible pairs above. These are orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue), and purple (blue + red):
When you mix two primary colours together, the resulting secondary colour lacks a little… oomph. In general these mixed colours are a little less bright, a little less intense – they are less colourful. Sometimes you will have to adjust for this in your mixtures to get just the right amount of colour and tone and hue. In fact, these less colourful mixes make sense as they’re one step closer to neutral grey which we will discuss later.
You will often see colours arranged in a colour wheel. Here are the primary colours, and the shared secondary colours appear between them.
When paint-makers make paint, they usually try to find a natural or “pure” source for a pigment, versus relying on a mixture. As we discussed, mixtures tend to be a little less brilliant, a little more muddy. So if there is a pure or primary pigment they will tend to pick that for their paint. Some pigments are naturally occurring – like a lot of the earth tones. The pigment in raw umber is natural raw umber. Alizarin lake contains naturally- occurring quinacridone pigment. Ultramarine blue was very expensive because it originally used ground lapis lazuli powder mined in Afghanistan. Today, synthetic ultramarine pigment is used which costs a lot less. Many synthetic pigments are used in modern paint which is often more economical and also safer in some cases (historical colours see to have an abundance of lead, cadmium, and other toxins and carcinogens). For some colours, like green, there are very few pigments that are found naturally. In these cases, paint-makers will turn to mixtures or chemically-derived compounds.
I want to point out something about colour permanence. When you shop for paint colours, you may notice that, in addition to other info, the tubes may be labelled with the word “permanence” or “lightfastness”. Lightfastness is a property of colourants like paint. It describes how resistant a specific colour (pigment) is to fading when exposed to light. You may have noticed that old paintings look light and faded. This is because exposure to sunlight breaks down the chemical bonds in pigments. You can see this in an old watercolour chart (above) that’s been hanging on my bulletin board by the window since 2015. The burnt sienna isn’t looking too great these days but the ultramarine blue is holding on nicely. Lightfastness doesn’t necessarily have to do with paint quality. There are some colours that contain volatile pigments. In general you want paints with a lightfastness of ASTM I. Oil paints tend to be more lightfast than watercolour – the oil binder encapsulates the pigment better and has a bit of a protective quality. Just wanted to point that out. 😉
You’re hot then you’re cold: Warm versus cool colours.
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as looking at something orange, and mixing any old yellow plus any old red to paint it. Colours do in fact have a “temperature” – you may have heard of colours being described as warm or cool before. Think of a snowy, cold painting – probably lots of ultramarine blue in the shadows cast on the snow. Or a warm sunset painting – probably lots of reds, oranges, and yellows in the tropical sky. Part of this is psychological – how a colour or colour scheme makes you feel. A painting of a crackling orange camp fire will probably look warm, while a painting of a stormy, grey sea will probably appear cool. For the same colour, a warmer hue will tend towards being more red, while the cooler hue will tend towards more blue.
When you’re mixing colours, this can be an issue. There are cool yellows (think lemons) and warm blues (think turquoise beaches). If you are looking at an object, you need to determine if it is warm or cool or somewhere in between and mix colours accordingly. When you mix a warm colour with a cool colour and vice versa, that tends to produce a muddy mix. It’s best to stay within like “temperatures” when colour mixing. Here are some examples of warm AND cool primary colours:
This idea of warm and cool colours can also be illustrated with phone filters:
You… Complete me… Complementary colours.
Colours that are located directly across from each other in the colour wheel are called complementary colours. These are special pairs of colours that, when placed directly next to each other, create the strongest visual contrast. For any horoscope buffs out there, it’s like astrological signs – opposites attract! The shadow cast by an object often contains some of its complementary colour.
Not so boring neutrals
When you mix two complementary colours together, you get what is called neutral grey. This is an excellent way to mix shadows. I know people tend to think you can just use black in place of a cast shadow, but strictly-speaking that’s not necessarily true. The impressionists really celebrated the rainbow of colours present in all levels of light in their paintings. Shadows contain all sorts of colours and neutral grey in varying mixes is a great place to start.
Paint it black!
No don’t. Everyone should use black sparingly, but you may need it from time-to-time. On the opposite end, watercolourists will use the white of their paper, but acrylic and oil painters will arm themselves with their favourite white, and probably use a lot of it! As I mentioned, there is a tendency to darken colours with black, but that’s not always the best way for representational painting. You can mix colours with neutral grey to darken them. Whenever you mix colours, you may shift the hue – you may unexpectedly make the colour more warm or more cool which may require subsequent mixing and adjustments. For example, yellow plus black can result in a greenish-blue tint because of the interactions between the different pigments and how your eyes perceive them. In colour theory, a tint is a mixture with white, and a shade is a mixture with black as illustrated below:
Putting it all together – A basic painter’s palette for absolute beginners 😉
For a basic painter’s palette, I would recommend the following colours (and this list is tried and true, going way back to my very first watercolour palette – it still works well!)
**I’ve added Payne’s grey as a staple colour over the years because it is just so great for adding depth and shadows – it’s a mix of blue and black and incredibly useful. Payne’s grey and burnt umber are always my most used paints regardless of the type of paint I’m using.
I think it’s best to start with less in terms of colour. You can get a reasonable approximation of many observed colours with the list provided here and as you learn more you can add judiciously to your palette. Sometimes there may be a modern colour that you observe that you will not be able to mix no matter how hard you try (fluorescent orange would be an extreme example). In this case you would have to purchase.
Note – you don’t need black to start! Try to work around it. Use your complementary colours, neutral grey, even Payne’s grey. Acrylic and oil painters will also want to add titanium white to your shopping list (or your favourite white – there are a few with different properties, I personally like titanium for its strong tinting strength and opacity).
A note on green and black.
Green is not a primary colour and there are not a lot of naturally-occurring green pigments. The picture above shows some examples of green. You can always mix green yourself with the palette I suggested. Sap green is a dark, earthy green with beautiful yellow undertones that you can purchase. It’s a favourite of mine. Turquoise and permanent green are a little less natural looking for painting landscapes but have their uses – always use green carefully. Especially with oil painting it can kind of infiltrate and infect and tint your whole palette if you’re not careful, you can easily cast everything in a sickly glow.
Black was one of the first pigments used by prehistoric artists – charcoal was one of the first drawing tools after fire was invented. 😝 We’ve touched on black a few times but this is important so here we are again. If you don’t have black in your palette, one work-around mix is ultramarine blue plus burnt umber as shown above – it gives you a really rich, earthy black colour. Some examples of blacks you can purchase are lamp black and ivory lack. Every line of good quality paint will offer a few blacks and these all have different properties (much likes whites). You can see the lamp black above is more transparent than the ivory black which has better covering power. Ivory black is a good, all-purpose black. Note my personal favourite, Payne’s grey on the end which can be used as a kind of black-alternative. It’s a cool black, and is a mix of ultramarine blue and ivory black.
Putting it all together.
I created this very quick painting as an exercise to show a little colour theory in practice. I used gouache paints. I started with lemon yellow, which is both fitting name-wise and colour wise. It’s a coolish yellow. I went back in with a lemon yellow darkened with some purple. I started with a more yellow mixture that I progressively darkened with more purple until I achieved a neutral grey for the most shaded areas. I used a light purple background to make the yellow lemons pop, and amplified that effect with a bright purple tabletop. I darkened the shaded areas of the table with a little more purple toned with corresponding neutral grey. I highlighted the lemon with some opaque white. No black used but representational highlights and shading achieved. The colour scheme is pleasing because it makes use of complementary colours.
This was a long post to write, but in fact this has been a very, very quick discussion of colour theory in a really tiny nutshell. If you look up colour theory online there are so many useful resources and so much has been written about this topic. For beginner painters reading this: When you go to mix colours, try not to get too lost in the details. It really is something that is learned with time, it does become intuitive, and you will kind of memorize your go-tos. It is truly more of an art than a science. I’ve tried to give you some guiding principles to follow, but there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules.
I do recommend that you try to take a more holistic approach when you’re trying to figure out how to paint something, and how to mix your colours. Really study what you are painting. Say you’re painting a portrait of a brunette. The brown in her hair – are there blonde (yellow) highlights? Is there a red undertone? Is it dark brown, veering more towards black and more towards cool undertones (like raw umber and Payne’s grey?).
When you study the world around you, when you really look at it, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of colours in someone’s hair, in the petals of a flower, in the dark of the shadows cast by a building on a sunny day. The more you can perceive those, and suggest these colours and transitions between colours in your work, the closer you will get to representing the world as you see it, through your painting.
And that’s it!
For those of you starting out, I hope this helps! For all of you who have taken the time to read this, I thank you! Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below.