Afraid of the darks

It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

Northern  New Mexico, 8X10, oil on Ray-Mar board, $522 unframed.

When teaching, I usually find myself sounding out little ditties with my brush rather than playing through the whole score. Nobody can absorb all the nuances of painting in one marathon demonstration; if that’s what they want, they’re better off buying a video and watching it repeatedly. I prefer to paint a passage that shows a solution to whatever problem is bedeviling my class at the moment. Rarely does that result in a fully-realized painting, but I feel that it’s the best way to teach.

Students setting up to paint in a quiet hamlet. What a paradise New Mexico is!

I was doing that yesterday, demonstrating how to hit a dense, rich color on the first strike. Watercolor students are often afraid of the darks, because they know there’s no going back from an incorrectly-placed deep passage. With few exceptions, watercolor doesn’t take correction well.

“That’s the bitch of watercolor,” I said, sadly.

“Ohhh, the Bitch of Watercolor!” someone riposted. “What a great title!”

My students. I love them.

“Enough of that stupid horse!” said Jimmy the Donkey. “Look at my beautiful Roamin’ Nose!” That was the end of that painting.

The diffident watercolorist tries to circumvent their fear of darks by substituting a series of glazes. Glazing has its place, but you can’t use it in lieu of courage. Excessive glazing makes for muddy color and indistinct edges. The end result is lifeless. Paradoxically, that struggle against the darks sucks all the light out of the painting.

Just as watercolorists have problems with darks, some oil painters have an equal and opposite problem with light. They understand intellectually that they work from darks to lights, but they’re somehow unable to make the jump. Sometimes that’s caused by working in bright sunlight, which lies about the true values in our paintings. Or the painter thinks they should lay down a bunch of dark color and then lighten things by adding white into them. That’s a misunderstanding of indirect painting.

White, incorrectly used, makes for chalky color.

New Mexico can sure put on a show with her skies.

The problem may also be that they have too much solvent in the bottom layers. If those layers are too wet, nothing above them stays separated and clean. A good rule of thumb is that solvent gets used in the bottom layer only (and sparingly), paint in the middle layer, and paint and medium in the top layer. The fat-over-lean rule is not only archivally sound, it’s easier to manage.

Confident color is integral to alla prima painting. There is only one way to achieve this:

  • Draw well enough that you have confidence in where you’re placing your color, and,
  • Mix and test your color so you’re sure of it before it hits your finished painting.
My dog buddies came out to visit me, as they do every year. It’s painful to see the grey in their muzzles and the hitch in their gitalong.

“Why this emphasis on process?” a student once asked me. “Shouldn’t art be about freedom of expression?” Well, yes and no. All expression rests on a firm foundation of technique. It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

I’m teaching in Pecos, NM this week. Yee-hah!

Holiday gift guide #1—brushes for oils, acrylics, and watercolor

That Holiday is coming up. I am often asked for gift ideas. Brushes are expensive, and most students limp by with rotten ones rather than spend the money on good brushes. A gift certificate to an art supply store would give the most flexibility, but some people don’t want that.

The brush department is where most painters stand and drool in an art store

Oil and acrylic plein air painters should limit themselves—in general—to long-handled hog bristle brushes. These carry paint most effectively. Shape is a personal preference, but a decent mixture of sizes and shapes gives the greatest flexibility.
Oils and Acrylics
In general, painters are better off with fewer good brushes than a lot of mediocre ones. Sizing is not standard across manufacturers, but a variety between #2 and #12 should suffice for most field work.
Here are the fundamentals:
Brights are stubby flat brushes, useful for short, aggressive strokes and heavy paint application.
Filberts are oval brushes. They carry more paint than a round but the pointed end allows for greater paint-carrying capacity. People who like to blend their edges often like filberts best.
Flats have been my go-to brush for many years. They can be used on edge for fine work, but used on the flat they carry lots of paint and create a bold style.
Rounds are good for details, lines, and fills. I generally carry a few smaller rounds in my kit, but many painters swear by them in all sizes. 
Here are specialty brushes, for the painter who already has a basic kit:
Riggers: These are short-handled, pointed, long round brushes made of sable, and their main mission in life is painting boat rigging and other fine lines.
Fans: While you could use these to daub happy trees, they are really intended for blending. I have a couple in my studio kit, but I don’t carry them in the field.
The basic shapes
Egbert or Double filberts are long, squishy brushes. I have three of these. They are easily damaged and shouldn’t be left to stand in a can of turpentine. They are especially good for figure work, and give a dancing, prancing line.
Spalters are big flat brushes with either long or short handles. I use them to underpaint my studio canvases and as dry blending brushes.
Watercolor painters have the choice between Taklon, squirrel and sable. The latter costs the earth but has the finest paint-carrying capacity.
The three basic shapes are:
Round: this is more pointed than an oil-color round and is suitable for most detail work. Sable takes a point better than synthetics, and this is a place where spending the money would be appropriate. A #10 for regular painters, and a #16 for big painters is a good place to start.
Flat wash: Most painters carry a few of these. I have a .5” and 1”, both of Taklon. These often have an angled end for scraping and burnishing.
Mop/oval wash:This is a big floppy brush useful for laying in large areas. It is usually made of squirrel hair, and is very absorbent.
Hake: Also a wash brush, but of Asian extraction. I find a mop more versatile, but it wouldn’t hurt to have one to play with.
Riggers: These are short-handled, pointed, long round brushes made of sable, and their main mission in life is painting boat rigging and other fine lines.
Script/Liner: A detail brush for outlining and long continuous strokes.

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Message me if you want information about the coming year’s 
classes or this workshop.