How I Paint

Someone recently asked me to post a description of my methods/technique in painting. I don’t feel like I have any big secrets; I definitely need more practice.

I took an oil painting class years ago, but my partner hates the smell and is paranoid about the health effects, so, out of regard for her, I use acrylics — although I have a hard time with acrylic sometimes. But it dries much faster so I can get a painting done in days rather than weeks.
I usually thin with water; liquitex makes a painting medium that I add a few drops to a small jar of water that makes the acrylic paint flow a little easier.

I made the mistake of buying some cheap “Dick Blick” brand Acrylics years ago, but since I am cash poor, I can’t afford to replace them until I use them up. I much prefer the Liquitex brand (although it is much more expensive).

I’m trying to become more disciplined in my painting by trying to paint gradually and trying to plan so I paint from background to foreground (if that makes sense). I used to just start painting and then would try to fill in background around whatever I had painted and it created a lot of work for me and I think the overall effect suffered. So I am trying to be a bit more methodical. If I want to paint a tree against a light sky, I have discovered it is a LOT easier to paint the sky first and then paint the tree in over it. Seems obvious now but I really didn’t think about it before.

I don’t think acrylics blend very well (at least I have not yet worked out HOW to blend them well — looking at the work of others tells me I have more to learn in this regard) so transitions, from light blue to dark blue, are tricky. I paint on watercolor or Bristol paper which I have coated with a couple layers of Fredrix white painting ground. I have to tape the paper to a sheet of masonite or smooth plywood so it does not curl up. If I’m painting something for reproduction, I usually paint at what I call 65% — so if a picture is intended to be printed 10 inches wide, I paint it 16.6 inches wide. Graphic stores used to sell a ‘proportion wheel’ that I use to figure this out — it has two wheels with measurements marked on them, one indicated ‘repro’ size and the other indicating ‘finish’ size and a window that tells you what your percentage will be.

I usually apply 2-3 coats of the Fredrix ground and let it dry between coats, then sand off any rough spots or chunks. Then I sketch in what I want to paint with a light pencil (like a 2h). I usually start by painting things in their base color — sometimes I do a layer underneath of dark areas/shadows in a burnt sienna or similar earth tone, then laying ‘local color’ over it. I have to constantly remind myself not to get too caught up in details but try to just ‘rough in’ the whole painting. Periodically I try to remember to stop and look at the whole thing to make sure it is ‘working’ visually. That is another area in which I need to become more disciplined.
I try to remember to decide where my light sources in the painting will be, early on, and add highlights and shadows to match.

I generally start with a bigger brush, and, as I get further along I switch to a smaller one. I use a ‘flat’ brush for targe areas of color and smaller sables for details.

The majority of the time seems to be spent fixing stuff. I’ll paint in something and then look at it again later and realize it looks wrong, so I’ll try to fix it, etc., and then just keep repeating until I like how it looks. I’m working on getting a little more experimental with paint application — I used an old toothbrush to create a spatter pattern on one of my paintings a while ago and I really like it, so I think I should work on that some more. I also need to work on my color sense — many of my paintings look too ‘primary’ colored when I look at them later — or seem to be too light and without significant areas of contrast; I’ve been looking at some old pulp magazine covers and really digging those; I’d like to insert some more of that ‘noir’ look in my paintings.

I’d like to get better at blending, color work and fine details. I find that acrylic turns kind of thick and crumbly pretty quickly, so sometimes I struggle a bit, but I think I need to make more disciplined attempts at paint control and mixing — including experiments with thin layers of colors over other colors (which was easier for me in oil paints).

Scanning the painting is a pain in the butt. I have to remove the paper from the board and scan it in sections, then use an image editing program to stitch the sections together. The bigger the painting, the harder it is. Therefore I find it easier to just shoot a picture with a digital camera if I need a ‘work in progress shot.’ Someday I dream of buying a more expensive Canon or similar digital SLR with ~12 megapixel resolution that can use a quality lens (but, with current finances, that is unlikely). Right now I have an Olympus camera with 2 megapixels that works OK for snapshots of works in progress, but I’d like to be able to shoot final art with the camera rather than the scanner.

3 Comments on “How I Paint”

  1. Marjasall says:

    In addition to extenders that you can mix with your paint, a spray bottle full of water (one that creates a mist), is a handy tool when working with acrylics. Give your painting a quick misting every once in awhile while you're working to keep the paint moist. Then you can blend longer. Be sparing though – too many sprays at once and it will run.

  2. Thanks for the response and the insight. I always love to hear how other artists work. I'm terrible with paints but always dabble in it from time to time.

  3. Now I'm going to have to get on the stick and order some acrylics (mostly I just need white). I order through Daniel Sith Artists supply and they carry quite a line of extenders and acrylic medium that makes the accrylic more the texture of oils (so it blends better). Haven't painted in quite some time but I've been getting the itch lately.

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