Monday Morning Art School: how to be a professional artist.

Today’s blog is being released simultaneously with the YouTube version, above. They’re slightly different, of course.

I wince every time I hear someone say “art is a good hobby but you can’t make a living at it.” Of course you can; I know many people who do. Last year, the global art/antiques market had sales of $65 billion. Of this, the US was by far the biggest player. All that art is, or was, made by someone.

However, a career in art is hard work. If you don’t like that, get a day job and keep your art as a hobby. Successful artists are entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs generally work harder and longer than anyone else. There’s a lot of drudgery in an art career—bookkeeping, inventory control, making frames, online sales. On top of that, you have to create your own inventory and somehow keep the creative fire alive.

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

It helps to start when you’re young. As soon as you have a mortgage or car payment, you’re locked into a 9-5 job. Keep your expenses down. If your parents can stand you, live in their basement, but use that time wisely. Too many young people just piss time away.

However, sometimes you come to the realization that you should have been an artist much later in life. I was 38 and had four kids and a mortgage when I had that epiphany. It was doable, but juggling all those responsibilities was a lot harder than it would have been had I started as a youngster.

Either way, you might have to work part-time when you’re getting started. A lot of artists have done it, either in the home or away. Child-care definitely counts as one of those jobs. Don’t magically think that the kids will play quietly at your feet while you’re painting. Käthe Kollwitz made child care a condition of her marriage. We can’t all afford that, but caring for a child is real work and must be factored in as such.

“Beautiful Dream (Rockport Harbor),” oil on canvasboard, 12X16 $1,449.00 framed.

Twenty years ago I would never have said this, but don’t bother with art school. The best art schools are private colleges, and they’re too expensive now. Instead, take classes at an atelier or working studio. Copy works by great artists in your field. Watch and learn from artists around you.

Above all, give yourself time to become good at your craft; working every day is the number one key to greatness.

"Skylarking 2", 18x24, unframed $1855, oil on linen.

The most common problem I encounter in artists is a lack of interest or experience in business. I started there myself, and it was a painful learning curve. If I had it to do again, I’d take business classes at community college or through an adult education program. Instead, I learned slowly, on the job.

You’ll be selling a product no different from any other product, and you can’t afford to turn your nose up at marketing. You’ll spend half your days doing it, so learn to love it. Marketing changes constantly. When I started, we stuck labels and stamps to postcards. Today, we focus on the internet. The one constant is how time-consuming it is.

Monday Morning Art School: five compositional no-nos

There’s more to composition than just avoiding these no-nos, but respecting the bounding box is a good place to start. Treat the edges as if they’re an important part of your composition.

Don’t cut off the corners

This can sometimes be difficult when running an S-curve to the corner of the page, but will make a painting feel boxed in. If you absolutely can’t avoid it, bring the contrast in that corner way down.

Don’t let a line exit through a corner

That’s a variation on the same problem—the energy in the line slams against the corner and is trapped. The viewer’s eye follows with the same effect. Again, if you absolutely can’t avoid it, bring the contrast way down.

Don’t run an unbroken parallel line with the sides of your painting

Nobody told Renaissance painters this, but even Caravaggio gave it up as he matured. An edge at the bottom, an unbroken horizon line, etc., just creates a box-within-a-box. Unless you have a op-art reason for doing it, it results in dead space within your canvas. And it’s a wasted opportunity to use angles beautifully, as Francis Cadell did with his still lives.

Don’t put a focal point on the edge of your painting

Focal points are an invitation for the viewer’s eye to linger, to be drawn in. A focal point at an edge is an invitation for them to just leave.

Avoid shapes just skimming the edge of your canvas

Either bring it in comfortably inside the picture frame, or let the object extend past it. And don’t scrunch trees trying to avoid hitting the edge; that robs them of their majesty. It’s better to start over.

Monday Morning Art School: scaling up a field study

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed.

“I'm wondering if you would do or have done a blog post about transitioning from in-the-field studies to larger studio paintings of the same subject. Or is it better to paint larger in the field?” a reader asked.

If you have the time and stamina to do a large field painting, they’re a great experience. Everyone should try it to see if they (and their equipment) are up to the challenge. However, there are limitations. You can’t finish a large painting in less than one very long day. The light, the tide, and even the weather will change. You can break the painting into two or three morning or afternoon sessions, but you’ll often be painting in radically-different conditions.

Keuka Lake vineyard study, oil on canvas, 9X12, private collection.

My go-to field easel is an Easy-L pochade box. It can hold a canvas up to 18” high. To go larger, I switch to a Take-It easel, which can hold a very large painting. In high winds, that sometimes needs to be pegged down, or it will go sailing.

In watercolor, I work small on my lap. When I work larger, I use a Mabef swivel-head easel because it can hold a full sheet of paper and it swings absolutely flat in a second.

These are expensive options. If I were testing whether I wanted to work big outdoors, I’d lug my studio easel outside, or borrow a friend’s easel to try.

Henry Isaacs simply throws his work at his feet. “I never use an easel, whether the canvas is 8x8″, or 80x80″. I simply place the canvas on the ground, sand, or grass, and continually walk around it painting from all sides, all at once,” he said.

The Tangled Garden, JEH MacDonald, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Even with equipment and stamina questions answered, there are good reasons to start small and work your way up. Small studies are an excellent way of understanding the subject. They capture light and form better than a photograph. They allow you to work on the edge of abstraction, not overworking the material.

When scaling up the painting, it makes sense to grid up from your drawing instead of from a photograph. Make your grid on a bit of plexiglass or clear acrylic instead of on the original painting. I once did a study of boats in watercolor in a notebook and put crop marks over it in Sharpie. Later, I realized it was a bad crop, but it’s unrepairable. You can see that watercolor in this post about the mechanics of scaling up a painting.

Study for The Tangled Garden, JEH MacDonald, JEH MacDonald, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

The Indigenous and Canadian collection at the National Gallery of Canada has an excellent collection of small Group of Seven field studies. Among these are JEH MacDonald’s study for his iconic The Tangled Garden. The study is small, around 8x10” and done on cardboard mounted on plywood. The finished painting is wall-sized, around 48x60”. MacDonald worked out his design, including the complementary color scheme and graceful arching sunflowers, in his field study. The large painting is remarkably faithful to his original idea.

Sometimes it makes sense to add elements to the larger painting to break up the expanses. I’ve included a field study of my own along with its larger painting, at top. The subject was a vineyard along Keuka Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes. I enlarged the tree and added the characteristic rock scree of the Finger Lakes to the foreground. I’m not sure I’d do the same thing today.

Therein lies another lesson: the way we approach painting is constantly evolving, or we become a caricature of ourself. I look at old paintings and often think, “I’d do that differently now.” That doesn’t necessarily mean better; it just means I’ve changed.

Monday Morning Art School: quiet passages

Bracken Fern, 9x12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869.

I’m in Paul Smiths, NY, teaching for Saranac Lake ArtWorks. Yesterday, student Mark Gale asked, “What should I do about this passage,” gesturing to a dark line of spruces. He was, at the time, bookended by Beth Carr and me. She’s been my student for several years, and is a crackerjack painter with impeccable judgment.

“Nothing,” we said in unison. “It's the quiet that allows the rest of the painting to sing,” Beth added.

I spend a lot of time talking to students about patterns of darks and lights, motive lines that drive energy through the painting, and focal points. These are such difficult concepts that I never seem to move on to quiet passages, but every painting has them and needs them. They exist in counterpoint to areas of motion, and they’re equally important.

Spring Greens, oil on archival canvasboard, 9X12, $869.

A quiet passage isn’t an empty passage. It may include figures, trees, brooks and other objects. However, it’s not detailed and doesn’t have high contrast. It’s more of an invitation to imagine than a statement in full.

It needn’t be dark, either. Consider Claude Monet’s haystack paintings. There are passages of luminous color that, nonetheless, recede. They’re not high-contrast or line-driven, but they shimmer with chroma and careful mark-making. “What keeps my heart awake is colorful silence,” he said.

The quiet passage allows the mind to rest. It acts as a foil for the main object.

Quiet passages can be destroyed by excess noodling. Here plein air painters have an advantage—they’re typically worn out long before they can cover every inch of canvas with information. But not always, and the impulse to fill these empty spaces later in the studio can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s one reason I’m not a fan of excessive touch-up of plein air paintings—it can ruin a previously-wonderful design.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $1087.

Yesterday I had my students paint in the boreal bog at Paul Smiths VIC. It’s a landscape of stunted larches and spruces, pitcher plants and sundews, with a lazy river chugging through it. It’s heavy on color and light on structure, making it a challenging subject to paint. My monitor had painted trees and figures along the boardwalk, and asked me what she should do with the rest of the space. There was no way she could fill it in with every tiny tree.

“Essentially, nothing,” I said. It was already shimmering green. Had we had more time, I’d have suggested a bit more in the way of soft brushwork, but the facts were already there, and the quiet of her greens set off the figure on the boardwalk.

Lobster pound, 12X16, oil on canvas, $1594.

Silent passages are where the mind fills in what isn’t there. The human mind seems to rebel against having everything spelled out for it; it loves mystery. Even so-called photorealism uses silent passages; we aren’t even aware of the artist’s judicious editing.

I often use Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Red Hat as an example of the lost-and-found edge, but it’s also a fabulous example of the power of silence. Much is not stated: the drapery in shadow, the carving on the chair, even the modeling in most of the face. These stand as powerful foils for what is stated: her sensuous lips, the feathering of her hat, and her lace collar.

My 2022 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.

Monday Morning Art School: preparation

A drybrush in ink by a young Andrew Wyeth, courtesy American Artist Magazine

James Gurney somehow unearthed a 1942 copy of American Artist Magazine that included an interview with a young Andrew Wyeth on his technique. Wyeth, in his later years, became schtum about method and his estate is highly restrictive about images. As a teacher, this is frustrating. Students could learn much from studying his method and work, even if they have no interest in painting like him. He was one of the principal realist painters of mid-century American art.

This interview was done when Wyeth was a callow 25-year-old, before Christina’s World catapulted him into superstardom.  At that age, he painted watercolor in quick wet washes, into which he dropped or drew off color as needed. “Wyeth’s practice is to skim off the white heat of his emotion and compress it into a half hour of inspired brush work. He is the first to admit the presumption of this kind of attack, and is ready to confess that it fails more often than it succeeds.”

A sketch of a young spruce clinging to a rock. I plan to paint it.

That fast, emotional attack was the influence of abstract-expressionism, and a way to separate himself from his famous illustrator father, NC Wyeth. Even then, it was a far cry from Andrew's studio work, which was intentional, deliberate and labored. That was a function of his chosen medium. Egg tempera is transparent and thus suitable for working in glazes (indirect painting). Layers are laboriously built up, starting from a grisaille that gives definition to the whole.

Wyeth ultimately moved away from the pea-soup approach to watercolor, employing more dry brush and deliberation. That’s hard to see in the limited information available on the internet. I often suggest to students that they visit the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland specifically to look at Wyeth’s watercolors.

The Farnsworth has been as tight about sharing images as the Wyeth family themselves. But they have recently gotten better at putting their extensive collection online. You can find some gems there, including preparatory sketches for Wyeth’s paintings.

The same spruce, in a photo. Why would anyone find this compelling?

In that 1942 interview was the image at top, with the caption, “Wyeth often makes rapid ink sketches like this, on the spot, and then does the watercolor in his studio.” That’s the money shot right there, because Wyeth was employing a traditional technique of painters—creating a greyscale or notan sketch of the subject first.

Wyeth’s method ultimately involved lots of tinkering with the details in the form of sketches and alternate layups for his paintings. What I want my students to see is how much effort and thought he put in before he ever picked up his brush.

On Friday, I watched my workshop students’ kit while they went off to Corea Wharf for lunch. (There was no sacrifice there; I’m not a fan of lobster.) A small spruce, about two feet high, has audaciously laid claim to the top of a granite outcropping. It caught my eye. There can’t be more than a gallon or two of topsoil there. What there is, is poor.

I quickly drew a small sketch of these rocks with the idea of doing a painting later in my studio. Because Ken DeWaard’s voice was nattering in my head, I also took a reference photo. The sketch catches the curve that attracted my eye; the reference photo is completely anodyne. Nobody would choose to paint from it.

I really do follow that same procedure with every painting: sketch, grisaille, color.

Perhaps at age 25 we are in touch with our internal frenzy to the point where we can say something useful without thinking too much, but there comes a time when our minds start to self-regulate. There are variations, but the process has traditionally been something along the lines of sketch-value study-final painting. Without that, we’re left with what Wyeth observed long ago—we fail more often than we succeed.

Monday Morning Art School: more better, faster

My painting for Camden on Canvas, called "So Many Boats!" Sold at auction yesterday.
My painting for Camden on Canvas, called "So Many Boats!" Sold at auction yesterday.

One of the questions we are often asked at plein air painting events is, “Did you really finish that whole painting in one day?” The answer, of course, is yes—or sometimes two or three paintings. We have trained ourselves to be fast, but that didn’t happen by painting large set pieces. It’s by churning out small studies.

My buddy Bobbi Heath recently wrote an excellent post on how to do ten-minute daily exercises in paint. It’s complete and I have little to add, except the rationale for why lots of little paintings will get you to your stylistic goal long before a few major set pieces.

All the chaos of Camden. This was my 'also ran' painting for Camden on Canvas; it was a touch choice.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book I frequently recommend. I’m up in Schoodic and can’t access my copy, so this will be a very loose interpretation of what they actually wrote. They described an art class where the students were divided into two groups—the first would be graded on quality, the second on quantity. It was the students pushed to produce lots of work who, in fact, made the best work. That is because talent, in the end, is really about perseverance and hard work. The artist must paint a lot of duds before he or she creates something that is truly brilliant.

But these duds do not have to be large, serious paintings—a fact I wish I’d realized much earlier, before I cluttered up my studio with so many big canvases. Often, painting students have lovely photos they took on vacation, or of the perfect sunset, and they want to immortalize them in paint. That’s a laudable goal in its own right, but it won’t actually make you a better painter. In fact, their emotional investment in the content might get in the way of pure painting success. Far better to grab a few objects from around the house and paint them, or paint the view out your front window.

Owl's Head, Early Morning, is a painting that started as a quick practice but turned out to be one of my personal favorites.

There’s much to be said for the humble still life. Eric Jacobsen is a wicked good expressionist painter, and he often paints still lives—the busier, the better. I’m not a still-life painter myself; I strongly prefer fresh air. But I do live in the north, where winter can make for unpleasant painting. During a blizzard, the best way I know to stay fresh is to set up a still life in the studio and hack away at it.

That’s why so many of my Zoom classes are based on still life. I understand when students say, “I hate still life,” and that they’d rather paint landscape or portrait. However, they won’t learn half as much from copying a photo as they will learn from painting from life. Still life—as Bobbi Heath says—is the next best thing to painting plein air, in terms of training and growth.

To be honest, I never get my oil paints out for a ten-minute exercise. I’ll paint an apple in gouache or watercolor; the clean-up is easier. (Switching between media teaches you new ways of applying paint, and different ways of looking at things. However, for a beginner, it can be confusing.)

Sometimes watercolor is just what you need for a fast sketch. This was the Pecos River, painted by me.

I have my own interpretation of fast warm-ups; I call them ‘practicing my scales’ or ‘practicing chip shots.’ They usually involve running down to the harbor to paint a few boats before my gallery opens, but they might also be something as silly as painting a basket of beach toys in my driveway. The important thing is the daily discipline, and it’s something I’m concentrating on right now.

My friend Peter Yesis has done a lot of these fast warm ups over his career—for a long time, they were his daily discipline. They served him in good stead at Camden on Canvas this weekend. Peter’s taken a long hiatus due to serious illness, but he knocked this week’s painting out of the park. The brushwork and paint application were assured; the drawing was perfect.

So, if your goal is to get better, fast, try practicing with small, unassuming paintings. They might just end up being masterpieces.

Monday Morning Art School: start with value

Lobster pound, 12X16, oil on canvas, available.
Lobster pound, 12X16, oil on canvas, available.

There’s an old saw that goes, “value does all the work and color gets all the credit.” I tend to not repeat it because value is just one aspect of color. It’s like saying ‘my arm hit that ball and my body gets all the credit.’ Nevertheless, it points out an essential truth.

A review, for those of you who are new to color science:

Value – How light or dark is the pigment?

Hue – Where does the color sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.

Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have?

Spring Greens, 9X12, available.

Value is the key player in our first reading of a painting. It drives our perception and guides us through the painting. When we understand this, we can substitute any hue in a painting—even unreal, high-intensity colors—as long as they’re the proper value.

The inverse is also sadly true. “I substitute off-value color and chroma for accurate value. Then, except for a couple spots of high-chroma yellow, I wonder why my paintings are flat,” a student told me. He took that observation and ran with it, painting only in greyscale for months.

That might be a little extreme, but preparatory work in value is important. If you've never tried value sketching before, start with this set of grey markers and a simple Strathmore Visual Journal (in Bristol finish). Practice simplifying complex scenes into simple value structures.

There are various ways to sharpen our focus on value: notans, value sketches, and grisaille underpaintings being the most popular. However we get there, the first step of a good painting is to see each composition in terms of its value structure.

The same is true in watercolor, of course. Untitled class demo.

Alla prima painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. For example, when people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

All color is relative, meaning it depends on its neighbors. That’s particularly true when it comes to value. Below see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers' Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them

There are three things to remember:

Value judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.

You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.

All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar.

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Monday Morning Art School: is this painting finished?

"Best Buds," oil on canvasboard, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.
"Best Buds," oil on canvasboard, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

On Friday I wrote about a painting I’d been carrying around in the hope of finishing, only to realize that it was already done. That provoked an outpouring of emails. Most of us have had the opposite experience, where we painfully noodle a good painting to death.

Sometimes, paintings are finished but are just plain bad. No amount of reworking can fix a fundamental design flaw. The classic Hail Mary pass in this situation is to add a tchotchke—for example, a seagull in flight. These last-minute additions merely complicate bad design, they don’t resolve it. Sometimes fundamental design flaws can be resolved by recropping the canvas with a knife or saw, but most are destined for the burn pile. This is why painting teachers harp on sketching and planning.

Bracken Fern, 9x12, oil on canvas, available.

Apply formal standards of criticism to your own painting

Assuming the fundamental composition is solid, the painter can analyze his own work against the formal elements of design, which include:

  • Focal point—is there a focal point and series of focal points, and is the viewer’s eye directed to them with contrast, detail and line?
  • Line—is line used effectively and reinforced in the painting?
  • Value—does the painting have a solid value structure? Does it need to be restated or is it clear?
  • Color—is there a cogent color scheme? Is it expansive enough to be interesting?
  • Balance—does the painting hit that sweet spot between static and riotous?
  • Shape and form—are there interesting shapes in the painting?
  • Texture—is there enough paint on the canvas to make the brushwork compelling?
  • Rhythm and movement—is there energy driving you through the canvas?

If any of these elements are unfinished or poorly realized, the painting is not done.

Tom Sawyer's Fence, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1275 unframed.

Listen to your gut.

I don’t like the imperious “Not another brush-stroke!” approach to telling people to not overwork a painting. After all, we can’t know where the finish line is unless we occasionally overshoot it. But our own gut often tells us the same thing. I generally work on paintings until I’m tired of them. That’s my intuition speaking.

Be careful whom you ask for critique

“I painfully witnessed someone undo a beautiful painting yesterday in the figure studio,” a student told me. “I stepped into a continuation of a pose from Monday. The painting was a striking likeness of the model and quite charming. It improved with a background and some tweaks during the first 25-minute sitting. Then the artist asked the studio for suggestions. From there, it was a snowball downhill.

“There were more questions and tweaks at every break during the three-hour session. The portrait ended up muddy, the face too fat, the likeness and charm gone.”

With very few exceptions I don't solicit criticism from my peers. When it’s offered, I carefully consider the source. In most instances, I’m better off setting the work aside and reviewing it when I’ve disengaged emotionally from the work.

Furthermore, that painter was doing a small (9x12) head over a six-hour session. That’s simply too long to fuss over such a tiny canvas. He or she would have learned more doing three two-hour studies in the same time-frame.

Mountain Fog, 12X9, $869 framed, $696 unframed.

Stop when you’re tired.

One of my students has a quilting rule of putting her work away immediately when she hears herself saying, “I’m going to sew just one more seam today.”

I push past that limit every time I sew, and it always results in a long, irritating session with a seam-ripper.

Are you hungry, thirsty or tired? Are you rushing because you only have a few more minutes left to work? If you’re starting to lose focus, stop and put the work away, because whatever you do next won’t be pretty.

Monday Morning Art School: most rules of painting are written in sand, not stone

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, available.
The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, available.

Rules are meant to be learned—and then, after mastery, some can be broken.

A few weeks ago, my plein air class was working on Knox Street in Thomaston. Eric Jacobsen was painting in his own yard nearby. A student asked me the secret to painting bigger canvases. “Bigger brushes,” I told him. “Walk over there and see how Eric’s doing it.” I know Eric’s a generous soul and wouldn’t begrudge him the peek over his shoulder.

It turns out that Eric was limning in big, fat, audacious peonies with a delicate #8 brush. “It thinks like a big brush,” he explained. Even as I smiled at his infectious humor, I understood his point. He wasn’t making sweet little marks with it, but sweeping gestures.

Spring Allee, 14X18, oil on canvas, available.

Most plein air painters create a plan before they start. Depending on the complexity of the painting, this sketch can be either simple or quite detailed; however, it lays out the composition as a series of values. Ken DeWaard, on the other hand, starts with a series of charcoal hash marks across his canvas. Natalia Andreeva is another painter who omits the sketch stage. She believes it makes for fresher work.

Everyone ‘knows’ that watercolor is painted light-to-dark, but I’ve watched Poppy Balser paint in a wall of black spruces and then wash the sky right over it, giving the whole composition a trembling northern glow.

Dark-to-light is one of the principle rules for oil painting, and for good reason; it is very difficult to make corrections over tints in alla prima painting, even when you’ve carefully wiped out your mistake. It’s a rule I often break. Having laid in my darks, I sometimes place the mosaic of lightest lights against it to see how the composition reads. I can do this because I work from a careful sketch. Ken DeWaard has jokingly called my technique ‘paint-by-numbers’.

My set-up for a large plein air painting. Note my sketchbook at my feet, and that I jumped from the darkest darks to capture the clouds before they left.

I teach a protocol that takes students through design, preparation, and execution. I tell my students that what I’m teaching are the most accepted practices in painting, but they’re not the only way to do things—people have broken painting rules since the beginning of time.

Sometimes that ends very badly, as with the canvases of Albert Pinkham Ryder. He was an inveterate tinkerer, working canvases for a decade or longer, applying sequential layers of paint, resin and varnish. He paid no attention to the drying speeds of his materials, and tossed in things like candle wax, asphalt, and non-siccative oils. These weird techniques gave his paintings unparalleled luminosity that dazzled his contemporaries. Sadly, the results were unstable. His paintings darkened, cracked, and sometimes completely disintegrated.

Ryder ignored two fundamental rules of painting: fat over lean, and don’t add weird stuff to your paints. (The latter isn’t really a painting rule but plain common sense.) But, aside from the fundamentals, other rules can be broken, or at least modified. They’re meant to give the artist a good working method and a way of seeing quickly. If, as an artist develops, a particular step becomes a hindrance, it makes sense to get rid of it. But that’s only appropriate after mastering the process in the first place.

Your brushes suck. What are you going to do about it?

While you can paint a good oil painting with a stick (if you know how), decent brushes certainly help.

They used to be my first-string brushes, until some kindly friends staged an intervention.

A few months ago, a student in my Zoom class asked me to check a brush for him. He held it up to the camera.

“Shot. Toss it,” I said.

“How about this one?”

“Total c--p. Toss it.”

“This one?”

“It’s a stub! You can’t paint with a stub!”

A taklon wash brush can be the watercolorist's best friend.

After more of this than I ever expected, we came up with some ground rules for assessing brushes. While watercolor brushes will last forever if you care for them properly, oil painting brushes do wear out. You can’t paint with a brush that’s:

  • Hardened with paint;
  • Splayed (because it has paint dried in the ferrule);
  • Developed a wicked curve (either a manufacturing problem or because it’s sat in solvent);
  • Worn to the point of having no flexible fibers left;
  • Missing chunks of hair.

I’ve puttered endlessly trying to revitalize hardened, splayed or curved brushes, and its simply not worth the effort. Pitch them.

In a pinch, I've found that coconut oil can soften hardening oil brushes. But in most cases, it's not worth trying.

Most of us need fewer brushes than we think, but the difficulty lies in knowing which brushes are appropriate. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The first question is what fiber is appropriate.

  • For alla prima oil painting, hog bristle brushes (synthetics are generally too soft for stiff paint);
  • For indirect oil painting, synthetic or sable along with hog bristle;
  • For acrylic painting, either hog bristle or synthetic brushes, because acrylic paint is softer than oil paint;
  • For watercolor painting, sable or synthetic, including taklon. (It’s too early in the morning for me to consider plucking squirrels. Sorry.)
You can waste a lot of money in the discount bins at art stores.

There is very little application for tiny brushes in painting unless you’re a miniaturist. In watercolor, a ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round are enough to get you started. Add a set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½”. A little pointed brush to sign your name is helpful.

In oils and acrylics, a life list would include:

  • Brights (short flats) in 6, 8, 10, possibly 12, depending on how big you’re going to paint;
  • Rounds: 2, 4, 6;
  • Long (true) flats: 3, 4, 5;
  • Filbert: 2, 4, 6;
  • A few tiny rounds in sable for detail and to sign your name: 2,4;
  • 1” badger blender brush;
  • 2” spalter or hog bristle background brush—this is for blocking.

I generally recommend Princeton brushes to students; they come in a range of quality and material and are good value for money. I’m currently painting with Rosemary & Co. in both watercolor and oils. Other brushes I’ve known and loved include Isabey, and Winsor & Newton. But brushes are a highly-personal thing, and you’re best buying one or two from a maker and running them through their paces before you commit to a relationship.

The best brushes in the world will do you no good if you abuse them. My daughter makes me castile soap, which cleans my oil brushes beautifully. You can buy it in the laundry section of your grocery store. Saddle soap and conditioning brush soap are also excellent products. The important thing is to clean your brushes as soon as you finish a painting session.

Watercolor brushes need nothing more than a good rinse in tepid water. Shake dry and gently reshape the bristles.

All brushes will be ruined if they’re allowed to stand in solvent or water. That’s a terrible habit, so don’t let it develop. Swish them free of solvents and set them down on a paper-towel or in a brush holder.