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.