Monday Morning Art School: sinking paint

Test for sinking by running a rag with OMS over the dried passage–if the color comes back, the paint is sunk.

What is sinking paint?

When the top layer of oil paint has been lost to the layer underneath, the surface of the painting can turn grey and lifeless.

The siccative oils in oil paint don’t dry from evaporation; rather they harden in the presence of oxygen. This is the fundamental reason for the fat-over-lean rule. Ignoring it will create other long-term preservation problems besides the ghostly greys settling over your paintings.

Sinking appears slowly over time. A painting that was once boisterously colorful turns dull. The different drying times of pigments means that color will sink unevenly across the canvas, giving it an irregular, blotchy look. Details that were once subtly beautiful will disappear.

That dull film is the pigment granules standing alone, without their enveloping oil. Yes, pigment gives oil paint its color, but without a rich bath of oil to surround it, pigment just looks dull and grey.

Sunset Sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594.

In most cases, the entire painting won’t be affected. There will be passages that look dull to the eye sitting next to glossy, normal paint. Sinking is most visible in the dark passages, particularly when they’ve been applied thinly, as most traditional teachers recommend.

Since sinking only appears in dry paint, you will often see it in paintings you’ve set aside for a few weeks or months. You can quickly tell if you have a sinking-in problem by wiping the offending passages with a light layer of odorless mineral spirits (OMS). If color comes back, it was sunk. Don’t try this on a recently-painted work; the solvent can dislodge not-quite-cured paint.

By the way, underpainting should sink if you leave it unfinished-it’s part of the fat-over-lean rule that you don’t use oils in this layer.

There’s no need for oiling out any layers where you’re going to paint right over them.

How to prevent sinking-in

Sinking has three common causes:

Too much solvent-the painter has not mastered the art of using unadulterated paint or painting mediums in the top layer. He relies too much on solvent instead of mediums to get good flow. The OMS takes the place of the linseed oil binder and then evaporates. That leaves the pigment particles isolated, with no oil surround. Air doesn’t have the same refractive index as linseed oil, so pigments that look dark and beautiful in solution looks dull and grey when the binder disappears.

Not enough oil in the top layer of paint-there’s enough oil in modern paints to make a solid top layer, but only if applied in proper thickness. If you want to paint thin, you must cut your paint with an oil-based medium, not with OMS.

Over-absorbent grounds-acrylic gesso is more absorbent than oil gesso, but a well-prepared acrylic ground is fine. However, a very inexpensive board may not have enough ground to stop oil from seeping through. An aftermarket coating of gesso is a good cure. Non-traditional grounds like paper and raw fabric need very careful preparation.

The Wave, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869

What to do about sinking

Sinking is a case of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure, but it is fixable.

Sometimes, you can see that a passage is sinking while you’re still working on the painting. If this has happened in a bottom layer, ignore it-that’s how it’s supposed to work. If the passage is finished, oiling-out is your best option. Simply brush a very thin layer of medium across the surface in the areas that have turned grey. Then remove the excess with a lint-free painting cloth. You can paint straight onto this slightly tacky surface, or wait for it to dry.

If you find sinking in a thoroughly-dry painting, varnish is your best option. Unlike oiling-out, varnish creates an entirely-separate layer that won’t give future conservators fits.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TXJune and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: don’t be boring

Linda Smiley used the big shapes of shadows to draw us across a very familiar lake scene.

Don’t be boring, I wrote last week. This is the first and greatest rule of composition. “What do you mean by that?” a reader asked in response. This, like obscenity, is one of those things that’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

The subject is never the issue. We’ve all seen a thousand boring paintings of barns, but when Edward Hopper painted them, they were brilliant studies of light and shape. Very familiar subjects can be seen in new and arresting ways. I took the liberty of illustrating this post with paintings by my students; they all took common scenes in the northeast and finished them beautifully.

Most people would paint the fence from the side, but Rebecca Bense drove us right into the picture plane with that shadow.

The easy out

We tend to draw what’s right in front of us without thinking too much of how changing the viewpoint might make for a better painting. Commit to an idea, and squeeze out every ounce of design you can by drawing it repeatedly in different arrangements. That’s as important in landscape as it is in still life. The time you spend trying out new compositions is the most important part of the painting process.

That is not just a question of large shapes, but of values. Even a typical arrangement of trees, point, and water can be made arresting through dark shapes running through them. Contrast draws the eye.

Beth Carr used the chop of snow shadows to create great texture.

What everyone says is not necessarily true

You’ve heard of the rule of thirds, or that you should never center the subject directly on your canvas. What makes you believe these things? Someone told them to you.

Ideas of division of space are culturally-derived and quite complex. Tutankhamun’s golden mask is beautiful and perfectly symmetrical.

You will have an easier time creating a composition if you abide by these shibboleths, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make a better painting. A deep dive into space division is never wasted time. I think about the abstract paintings of Clyfford Still when I start to feel my compositions falling into dullness.

Cassie Sano crossed the tire tracks and the tree shadows to create a weave of interest.

There are some verities

Defining your composition with long unbroken horizontal and vertical lines will make it start out rigid. Look to Frances Cadell for ways to break out of that. Likewise, you don’t want to lead the eye out the corners of your canvas, or put a focal point to close to an edge. ‘Respect the picture plane’ is a good general rule.

The human brain loves the insolvable. That’s why the Golden Ratio and Dynamic Symmetry work better than the rule of thirds in design. That doesn’t mean you need to spend a lifetime studying design arcana; just understand it and better placement will come naturally to you.

Stephen Florimbi didn’t beat the details to death in this lovely creek painting, instead, concentrating on the patterns of light and dark.

Things to avoid

No painting without a series of focal points can succeed. This is where the marsh painting usually fails. The eye needs to be able to walk through, into, and beyond the work. I’m not talking about anything as hackneyed as the winding path or river, but a series of points that draw your eye around the picture in a planned way. These details reward careful study and keep the viewer engaged for long periods of time.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TXJune and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: composition starts at the beginning

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

It’s been said that a painting needs to be compelling at three inches, three feet and thirty feet. That’s simple enough, but how does the artist make that happen?

Looking at a painting from a distance (or on the tiny screen of your phone), you’re not compelled by brushwork or even-mainly-by subject matter. You’re drawn by the internal structure and abstract masses of value and hue on the canvas.

Music, sculpture, poetry, painting, and every other fine art form relies on formal structure to be intelligible. This is easiest to see in music, where even the rank beginner starts by learning chords and patterns. These patterns are (in western music, anyway) pretty universal, and they’re learned long before the student transforms into another Bach or Ray Davies. In other words, you start at the very beginning.

This structure has nothing to do with the subject matter and everything to do with inherent beauty. It starts before the artist first applies paint, in the form of a structural idea-a sketch, or a series of sketches in monochrome, that work out a plan for the painting.

Larky Morning at Rockport Harbor, 11X14, on birch board, $869 unframed.

It starts at the beginning

What composition isn’t is the sudden realization, when you’re halfway finished, that you have a lot of boring canvas with nothing going on. Slapping a sailboat in there isn’t going to fix an essentially deficient construction.

Music is an abstract art because it’s all about tonal relationships, with very little realism needed to make us understand the theme. (Think of the cannonade in the 1812 Overture, which comes at the very end, but we’ve all gotten the point long before that.) A composer doesn’t need little bird sounds to tell us he’s writing about spring, although they can be cute. Done right, the painter doesn’t need to festoon little birdies on his canvas to tell us he’s painting about spring, either. That should already be apparent in the light, structure and tone of his work.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed.

Abstraction is harder for the representational artist to grasp, even when we understand the critical importance of line and abstract shapes. We still must stuff a huge three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional picture plane. That’s a big job and it must be handled with deliberation.

Just as with everything else, some of us are naturally better composers than others, but that only takes us so far. We all fail when we don’t put composition at the beginning of our painting process.

Mountain Fog, 12X9, oil on archival canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Building better paintings

All of us have closets full of bad paintings we can’t resolve. (“How long did that take you?” “Just the ten bad ones I did before I did this one good one.”) In almost every case, the problem is far deeper than modeling or paint application-it comes from ignoring the fundamentals of composition.

How can you avoid this and reduce the number of bad starts in your painting collection?

Respect the picture plane: the four ‘walls’ of your canvas are the most important lines of your painting. All composition must ultimately relate to them.

Armature: the fundamental lines of movement that connect the main elements of the painting must be dynamic and clearly articulated;

Abstract shapes: these are the building blocks of painting; they must relate as values and colors before they ever become real objects.

Don’t be boring: If you’ve seen that combination of tree, hill and sky a thousand times, do something to make it your own.

Then, and only then, can you move on to specific subjects and painterly detail.

“Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order,” wrote one of the fathers of modern painting, Maurice Denis. As the direct heirs of Modernism ourselves, we would do well to listen.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TXJune and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. Why not register today?

This post originally appeared in March, 2021, and has been lightly edited.

Monday Morning Art School: don’t worry about AI just yet

Gathering Storm, Ivan Ayvazovsky, 1899, courtesy Sothebys

The sublime

The 18th century brought the concept of the sublime into our consciousness. That means a quality of greatness beyond counting-what the religious might call the presence of God. It is harmony and horror in equal measure, and it’s meant to apply to every sphere of human endeavor and experience. You might experience the sublime standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, where your appreciation of the sunrise is informed by your awe in realizing that there’s no barrier between you and that huge hole. It is a meeting of our emotional selves with the wonders of creation.

In painting, that experience is articulated in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. It has its parallels in every art form. In the 20th century, the advent of unparalleled efficient death-in-warfare made it appear in poetry, like Wilfred Owen’s tragic, beautiful Dulce et Decorum Est.

“Art is for seeing evil,” writes philosopher Agnes Callard. “Evil’ in this sense includes: hunger, fear, injury, pain, anxiety, injustice, loss, catastrophe, misunderstanding, failure, betrayal, cruelty, boredom, frustration, loneliness, despair, downfall, annihilation.” In short, she’s talking about whatever is the opposite of goodness, beauty, and virtue.

I think that art is for more than that, but it’s a component.

My first attempt to replicate the theme of Gathering Storm with an AI image generator.

AI generated art

A reader asked me my thoughts about Artificial Intelligence (AI)-generated art. I have little experience with it; I’ve tinkered with ChatGPT. It creates a facsimile of human writing, strings of language that are fundamentally meaningless. It’s perfect, then for advertising copy.

What can an equivalent image generator make? If recent news is to be believed, very brilliant facsimiles of artwork. But can this work make intelligent paintings? I decided to try my hand with an easily-available online generator.

My second attempt looks like an evening sail in Penobscot Bay. No drama whatsoever.

I used as a reference, Ivan Ayvazovsky‘s Gathering Storm, above. This painting operates at two levels-first, our sheer terror at the beauty and violence of the sea. Then we notice that the boat appears to be floating rudderless within the storm. It’s both a beautiful painting and a perfect metaphor for aspects of our human existence-the epitome of the sublime in painting.

I thought up a set of descriptors for Aivazovsky’s painting: evening ocean storm squarerigger. The app came up with the image above. Cute, but cartoonish.

On the surface, perhaps, it would make a decent painting, but there’s nothing terrifying or profound about it. I refined that by changing keywords, ending up by adding “bleak,” which just gave me a low-chroma version of the prior iteration. My succession of images are as they appear in this post.

Upping the ‘wild sea’ adjectives just made me lose the boat. And the composition is nothing to write home about.

Tinkering might lead me to much better apps online. But while these images are good, they’re devoid of human emotion or ideas. Yes, they can occasionally get lucky and come up with an image that ‘means’ something, but that requires a human curator to discern. They’re just like Google Image Search with filters.

Adding ‘bleak’ just made me lose the chroma.

The greatest ability we have in painting isn’t our technical skill (as important as that is) but our human intellect, both rational and emotional. The 20th century movement towards content-free art is over, because it can be done better and faster by machines. It doesn’t matter if you’re painting abstraction or landscape; start thinking about what the higher meaning of your work is. If it’s not there, you can be replaced by a computer.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TXJune and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: paint like a pro

Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy of the Atheneum Art List.
Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy the Atheneum Art List.

“It’s the lack of good composition and values that make a painting look like student work,” Bobbi Heath wrote in response to last week’s post on simplifying shapes. That’s where most early artists fail, and why good teachers stress value studies.

“Brushwork, color choices, and level of detail are all questions of style,” she added. “Each of these has a spectrum. A proficient artist can work anywhere in those spectra but they can’t ignore composition.”

Wolf Kahn and Raphael are poles apart in terms of style. One might be more to your taste, but objectively, neither is better than the other-or more representational, for that matter. As stylized as Kahn’s trees are, Raphael’s Vatican Stanze are just as distanced from ‘reality’.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican
Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican

What unites them, and unites all good works of art, is composition. That’s true in painting, sculpture, writing, architecture and music-in fact, throughout the creative sphere. There must be structure there, or “the centre cannot hold,” to trivialize a great W.B. Yeats poem.

In painting and drawing our ideas about composition have remained remarkably static over time. Analyze the space in one of Wayne Thiebaud’s desserts and a Renaissance portrait like Bronzino’s self-possessed young man, and you’ll find they’re using the picture plane in much the same way. There are only so many ways to divide a rectangle.

Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery
Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery

What to think about

Composition rests on the following principles:

  • The human eye responds first to shifts in value, but contrast in chroma and hue also attract our gaze;
  • We follow hard edges and lines;
  • We filter out passages of soft edges and low contrast, and indeed we need them as interludes of rest;
  • We like divisions of space that aren’t easily solved or regular.

I ask my critique students to analyze their compositions based on Edgar Payne‘s exhaustive list of possible compositions in Composition of Outdoor Painting. (This used book is now so expensive that I can no longer recommend buying it. Check it out of the library.) The idea isn’t to slavishly follow one of his designs; it’s to understand whether you have an underlying design in the first place, and how you might strengthen it.

I also ask my students to tell me where the focal points are in their composition, and how they want the viewer to walk through them. If focal points aren’t intelligently designed, and you’re not drawn through them with contrast, line and detail, then it’s back to the (literal) drawing board.

John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is available in reprint. He’s the guy who gave us the idea of numbering our value levels, which I explained in this post from last year.

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson wrote. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

These masses must be linked, whether obviously, subtly, or by implication. Think of a windbreak of separate trees on a hill. They might be disconnected dark shapes, but they’re held together by their rhythm.

The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina
The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina

What to avoid

You’ll note that I’ve said nothing about what’s in front of you, either in your photo or in the real world. Your reference might give you an idea for composition, such as a winding river, a break in the forest, or the strong diagonal of a hillside. But that is your starting point, not your destination.

“Above all, don’t be boring,” I tell my students. This is a lesson from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who often hid the text of his narrative in odd corners, far from the visual focal points. That makes every painting a puzzle to be worked out.

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Monday Morning Art School: Simplify shapes

Foghorn Symphony, Carol L. Douglas, 30x40, private collection. 

A reader sent me photos of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.  “How do you make sense of a scene like this to paint?” he asked.

I’d sit down on a rock and draw, until the focal points and the composition became clear organically. This is not a magic trick; it’s harnessing my subconscious mind in the service of what I know rationally about composition. We draw what we’re interested in, and then draw more of what we’re interested in. It may take several pages in our sketchbook but if we’re relaxed and patient, a composition will emerge.

One of the Petrified Forest photos my reader sent. I couldn't paint from this without drawing from life first.


A rock is a rock is a rock, right?

How different are these petrified trees from the tumble and scree of Maine’s coast? In detail, they’re significantly different—more on that later. But in overall plan, they’re the same idea.

Above is a painting I did of Cape Elizabeth called Foghorn Symphony. Trundy Point is a long spit of rock that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

My sketch of Trundy Point. It doesn't need to be complicated; it's a map, not a masterpiece.

I photographed my sketch as well. This drawing moved Ken DeWaard to accuse me of doing Paint-by-Numbers. In a way he was right, because I was numbering the values from one (sky) to four (deep shadow). The drawing is vastly simplified, of course. Its purpose was to freeze the early-morning light so I could finish this vast 30X40 canvas in the field over two long days. By afternoon, the light is completely reversed, but I had it locked in my mind.

In addition, my drawing allowed me to check my composition before I committed myself.

You’ll get lost if you don’t have a broad plan

My sketchbook sat at my feet after I transferred it to my canvas in broad brushstrokes. I referred to it often.

I painted in one section of rocks before I started on the next. I don’t always work like this, but it’s a good way to not get muddled in a complicated scene. The sections didn’t have their final modeling, but there was enough detail there so I could come back and fill in the light at the end.

I was sacrificing the first axiom of oil painting (darks to lights) in the service of the second (big shapes to small shapes). This only worked because I had a plan in writing, in my sketchbook, where I could easily refer to it. You can edit a grisaille to your heart’s content, but erasing and revising with colors is a sure-fire recipe for mud.

Halfway to blocking in that painting.

You can’t break the rules until you know them

I almost always work with an overall grisaille, but I broke that rule in this case. Fog and light are transient, and I wanted to capture them as fast as possible.

Yes, you can break rules, but it helps if you have a solid grasp on them first. I could only fiddle with the grisaille because I’ve internalized value structure by having done hundreds of them.

Falling Tide, 11X14, Carol Douglas, $1087 framed.

Take time to just look

A tumble of rocks in Arizona is only the same as one in Maine in broad concept. In detail, they’re very different. There are painters who come to Maine and render the rocks as rounded brown lumps, because that’s how rocks in the Midwest look. I’m sure there are Maine painters who go to Sedona and render the red rocks there like granite.

For heaven’s sake, look before you pick up your brush. The cleavage, the color, and the erosion patterns are unique in each rock formation. An hour spent sketching will save you hours of bad painting.

Monday Morning Art School: the artist’s website

Drying Sails, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

Do I need a website?

“Do I need a website? I already have a Facebook page and Instagram.” That’s a common inquiry I get from emerging artists.

I’m the last person to dis the Metaverse—I use it daily. But it has its limits, starting with fact that you don’t own it. If you’ve ever run afoul of FB’s esoteric speech algorithms, you’ll understand its power to shut you down. I once earned a 30-day slowdown with a bit of hyperbole. It had a devastating effect on clicks. It took much longer than my period of detention to recover, because it pushed my blog way down in their display algorithm.

Furthermore, the Metaverse is fleeting. The half-life of a social media post is the amount of time it takes for a post to receive half of its total engagement. FB ranks near the bottom, at 60 minutes, only slightly besting Twitter. That’s fine if you’re advertising t-shirts, but fine art requires intellectual engagement.

Instagram is better, with almost a full day of engagement, but it suffers the limitation of no live links. That means people will buy your painting on IG or not at all. Despite my decent track record of online sales, I’ve never sold a painting through IG, so I use it to create background noise, nothing more.

FB and IG don’t come up on Google search nearly as often as items posted on websites. That means people simply can’t find you if that’s all you’re doing.

Ever-changing Camden Harbor, oil on canvas, $3,188.00

A website today functions almost like a Yellow Pages listing did a generation ago—it not only makes you findable, it denotes a level of reliability to users. Its content is also as static or changeable as you want. We all ‘know’ that we’re supposed to constantly change up content to feed the Google maw, but buyers also want to be able to see your catalogue. Importantly, so too do jurors and gallerists.

Sunset Sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594 framed.

What’s the best host for my website?

That’s a much more difficult question for me to answer, because it depends on your skill level and your interest in managing your own marketing. FASO Fine Artist Websites and Fine Art America are good ‘plug and play’ marketing tools. My friend Poppy Balser has had a FASO account for years, and she’s a nimble, accomplished on-line marketer.

I was most surprised to realize I have a free Google Site. These are intended for small groups, like soccer clubs and school classrooms, but it may provide all the functionality you need to get started.

My website is built on WordPress. It’s powerful for online commerce, but I sometimes feel like a three-year-old who’s been given a Lamborghini. Ultimately, I had to hire a developer to help me put the bones of on-line commerce in place. And it has relatively high running costs if you’re not making a lot of online sales.

Camden Harbor, Midsummer, oil on canvas, 24X36 $3,985.00 framed

Keep it simple

However you design your website, it will benefit from constant pruning. Viewers want to see your most recent work, examples from your catalogue, your blog (if you have one), your upcoming shows, and your CV. Nobody wants to wade through acres of verbiage and layers of windows.

What website host do you use? If you’re willing to share your experience, please respond in the comments section below.

Monday Morning Art School: pie crusts and pie plates for Thanksgiving

In the past, I threw in the pie crust recipe as a teaser to get people to learn how to draw ellipses. These days, pie crust is a dying art, so that might be the most important part.

Drawing the pie plate

The red lines are the ellipse and its vertical and horizontal axes. The two sides of the axes are mirror images of each other, side to side and top to bottom.

When drawing round objects, we have to look for the ellipses, which are just elongated circles. Ellipses have a horizontal and a vertical axis, and they’re always symmetrical (the same on each side) to these axes.

Same axes, just tipped.

This is always true. Even when a dish is canted on its side, the rule doesn’t change; it’s just that the axes are no longer vertical or horizontal to the viewer.

This was where I learned that I couldn’t balance a pie plate on the dashboard in my husband’s old minivan.

As always, I started by taking basic measurements, this time of the ellipse that forms the inside rim of the pie plate. (My measurements won’t match what you see because of lens distortion.)

An ellipse isn’t pointed like a football and it isn’t a race-track oval, either.

The inside rim of the bowl.

It’s possible to draw an ellipse mathematically, but for sketching purposes, just draw a short flat line at each axis intersection and sketch the curve freehand from there.

The horizontal axis for the bottom of the pie plate.

There are actually four different ellipses in this pie plate. For each one, I estimate where the horizontal axis and end points will be. The vertical axis is the same for all of them.

Three of the four ellipses are in place.

Next, I find the horizontal axis for the rim, and repeat with that. Most vessels are just a stack of ellipses; it’s the same idea over and over. Figure out what the height and width of each ellipse is, and draw a new horizontal axis for that ellipse. Then sketch in that ellipse.

Four ellipses stacked on the same vertical axis.

Because of perspective, the outer edge of the rim is never on the same exact horizontal axis as the inner edge, but every ellipse is on the same vertical axis. We must observe, experiment, erase and redraw at times. Here all four ellipses are in place. Doesn’t look much like a pie plate yet, but it will.

The suggestion of rays to set the fluted edges.

If I’d wanted, I could have divided the edge of the dish by quartering it with lines. I could have then drawn smaller and smaller units and gotten the fluted edges exactly proportional. But that isn’t important right now. Instead, I lightly sketched a few crossed lines to help me get the fluting about right. It’s starting to look a little more like a pie plate.

Voila! A pie plate!

Now that you’ve tried this with a pie plate, you can practice with a bowl, a vase, a wine glass, or any other glass vessel.

Double Pie Crust

2.5 cups all-purpose white flour, plus extra to roll out the crusts

2 tablespoons sugar

1 ¼ teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons lard, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.

8 tablespoons butter, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.

7 teaspoons ice water

Thoroughly blend the dry ingredients. (I use a food processor, but the process is the same if you’re cutting the fat in by hand.) Cut in the shortening (lard and butter) with either a pastry blender or by pulsing your food processor with the metal blade. It’s ready when it is the consistency of coarse corn meal. (If it’s smooth, you’ve overblended.) Sprinkle ice water over the top, then mix by hand until you can form a ball of dough. If the dough seems excessively dry, you can add another teaspoon of ice water, but don’t go nuts.

Divide that ball in two and flatten into disks. Wrap each disk in wax paper, toss the wrapped disks into a sealed container and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

Don’t worry if the dough appears to be incompletely mixed or the ball isn’t completely smooth; mine comes out best when it looks like bad skin.

Let the dough warm just slightly before you start to roll it out. And while you don’t want to smother the dough with flour when rolling, you need enough on both the top and the bottom of the crust that it doesn’t stick. If you’re doing this right, you should be able to roll the crust right up onto your rolling pin and unroll it into your pie plate with a neat flourish.

(If you’ve never rolled out a pie crust, watch this.)

I use this crust for single- or double-crusted, fruit and savory pies. (If you make an extra double-batch you can make a turkey pot pie on Friday.)

Persistent clouds along the Upper Wash, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087

When I did Friday’s workshop post, I didn’t have the details on my new Austin workshop. I’m super-psyched about this new offering, which is the brainchild of my student Mark Gale. Austin offers a wealth of possibilities to the plein air painter, ranging from historic architecture, beautiful parks, and the urban energy of this cosmopolitan, quirky capitol city. But, honestly, I’m just as excited about seeing old friends, eating barbeque, and painting bluebonnets.

You can learn more here.

Monday Morning Art School: make your own canvases

Skylarking 2, 18x24, unframed $1855, oil on linen. I stretch my own linen canvases.

“I have a roll of cotton duck kicking around here,” B— asked. “Can I just duct tape a big piece of that to a piece of plywood and put a few coats of acrylic gesso on it? Should I leave a few inches raw around the edge in case it comes out decent, so I can mount it on a stretcher?”

B— needs to know whether her fabric is unshrunk and unsized, or loomstate. Standard sewing fabric won't work. The gesso is meant to shrink the fabric into tautness. Duct tape isn’t designed for that strong pulling stress and will leave a sticky residue. Instead, use staples. Stretcher frames are designed for this process, so it's easiest to stretch canvas on them, although it can be done over plywood.

Start by squaring off the stretchers. Use a mallet to get them true and check all four corners.

She could also buy already-primed linen or canvas. This is easily stapled or taped to a board because the shrinking is done. This is especially handy for class assignments or practicing chip shots.

It’s generally cheaper to buy small canvases and canvasboards than make them yourself. Only when you get to larger sizes, or you want to paint on linen, does DIY becomes a practical option.

Once I had the fabric true on the warp and weft, I carefully folded it in quarters and set it aside.

Stretcher bars are designed to float with atmospheric changes, hence the little wooden “keys” that come with them. There is no benefit in locking down the corners by screwing them together. When it shrinks, a big sheet of loom-state linen or canvas is going to pull the stretchers into compliance. That’s why the grain matters.

Lining up the creases with the marked midpoints of my stretchers assures me the canvas will be truly square.

The weft in fabric (horizontal threads) isn’t always perfectly perpendicular to the warp (vertical threads). The only true straight-edge in fabric is the selvage edge. You want to cut along the grain, but you can’t just assume the weft threads are perpendicular to the selvage.

If it’s out of true, fabric will bag when folded selvage-to-selvage. You can easily square it off with the help of a friend. Fold the fabric in half along the vertical. Grasping each corner firmly, tug diagonally in alternating directions. Eventually, the fabric will square off and fall true. The ends might be cockeyed; ignore them.

Although dressmakers and quilters might use water or steam in this step, you can’t. It will shrink the fabric.

The first staples should be hand-tight, no more.

Once you’re certain the fabric is squared off, fold it in quarters. The creases will be your stapling guides.

Mark each stretcher bar’s midpoint with pencil. Line the creases up with these pencil marks, and your canvas will pull tightly on the square. Your first set of staples should be across the middle of the canvas on the warp. They should be hand-tight, no tighter. Next, staple the vertical midpoints. These four staples should all be hand-tight, without cupping around the staples, and the corners of your canvas should be square. If these four staples yield a straight cross at the right tension, the rest of the canvas will line up true.

You might have to remove and replace staples to get the cross straight, but it’s worth taking the time.

From here use canvas pliers or your hand to pull the canvas tight but not taut. Work out from the center of each side, adding one staple and then rotating the canvas. The goal isn’t to tighten the fabric as taut as you can; the goal is to tighten it as evenly as you can. Watch the fabric grain as you go; if it’s out of line, you’ve messed something up.

Work around the canvas in a circle, adding a staple to each side until you reach the edges. The linen doesn’t need to be drum-tight.

Applying the gesso is easy; just keep it light and even. I use a small piece of ¼” plywood as a strigil rather than a brush; it’s faster and more effective. Make sure the gesso goes around the sides of your canvas. Don’t dilute; good gesso is already the proper thickness.

Trim the edges when you finish.

Check the square again when you’re finished stapling.

Finally, it's time to pour a little acrylic gesso on your loomstate linen.

Use your strigil to push the gesso into the grain. At this stage, less is more; it’s easier to add more gesso than to remove a gloppy excess from a canvas.

Do the edges and clean up any ridges with an old spalter brush and you’re done. Go have a glass of wine; you’ve earned it!

Monday Morning Art School: what do you use for drawing?

For figure drawing, I prefer softer materials, primarily willow charcoal.

“I wonder if you can give me some tips on getting back into drawing,” a reader asked recently. She’s a retired professional artist, so she didn’t need help with the mechanics, just the materials.  “I only have those hard leads that I put in mechanical pencils.  I like drawing with a mechanical pencil and lead but I need leads that are much softer for the kinds of thing I might be drawing, along with the thinner lines I use now. I don’t like clumsy crayon-type of drawing or anything like that.  I am not at all interested in drawing with ink.”

“I also need a good quality sketching paper.  Later I might move into a higher-grade paper if I keep up with this kind of work.”

I always carry a sketchbook with me when painting, and I always start with a drawing.

Although this reader doesn’t need help with the mechanics of drawing, many of my students and readers do. I recommend Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square by Richard E. Scott. Drawing is a technical exercise, not a magic trick. Anyone can learn it.

These days, I do 99% of my drawing in a Strathmore Bristol Visual Journal with a #2 mechanical pencil, using my finger for a stump. I like the hard-press finish and can go off on watercolor or gouache tangents when I feel like it.

My winter mittens. I’ve been saved a world of boredom by always carring a sketchbook and #2 mechanical pencil with me.

But that’s not the kind of finish my reader is seeking. I’m never doing more than a quick sketch for a painting, or drawing in church. Neither need the depth of shading that better materials would supply.

I prefer mechanical pencils because they don’t need a sharpener and eraser. If that appeals, you can buy replacement leads in a variety of densities. These, however, are wider than the pencils one buys at Staples, so they require a matching lead holder, only some of which come with internal erasers.

That exceeds my tolerance for fuss. When I’m doing more finished pencil work, I use woodless pencils. They can be sharpened with a sandpaper pointer. If you like a bigger, bolder look, liquid charcoal and graphite blocks cover a lot of area quickly.

The animals in our annual church Christmas service suddenly came alive.

Another reader suggested I try Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils for a traditional lead pencil that has satisfyingly smooth graphite. And there’s Blackwing, which a writer friend swears is the best pencil in the world. But since I don’t use traditional pencils, your suggestions would be helpful.

Good graphite deserves good paper. You could take a deep dive into a wove paper, but for everyday drawing, I rely on that old standby, Canson Mi-Tientes. It has a different surface on either side and comes in a plethora of colors.

Moving away from mechanical pencils means a good eraser. I use a Pentel stick eraser, but the softer the lead, the less precision you’ll need. I used kneaded erasers for years, but I’m finding them too gummy these days. The Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth Soft Eraser is made of old-fashioned rubber.

Drawing in church leads to some priceless observations, including this teenage boy falling asleep.

And last but certainly not least, there’s the question of pencil sharpeners. I have several, including a wall-mounted one in my studio. None are as durable and reliable as the old metal ones from our school days. In the end, I find the simple, cheap, handheld metal ones where you can replace the blades to be the most reliable.

What products do you love for drawing, and why? Just remember to put your recommendations in the comments below, not on Facebook. That makes them universally accessible to readers from any platform.

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