Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sanding acrylic gesso.

 I was asked the following in the comments recently. I do want to return to the compressed values subject but I thought I might deal with this quickly tonight;

 I make a lot of my own (canvasses) because I don't like the thinness of the commercially prepared canvasses. I usually apply 3 or 4 layers of acrylic gesso to a heavier than average canvas sanding lightly between each layer. The finished product still comes out rough as sandpaper. I'm afraid to use my favorite brushes on the first layer of paint.What is the fix for this and who makes a good commercially prepared canvas? Thanks!
.....................Myrtle Durgin

I can't think of any reason your canvas would come out rough other than the grade of sandpaper you are using. Your sandpaper must be too fine to take the surface of the gesso down sufficiently. Why don't you switch to a rougher grade of paper, and then use whatever fine paper you are probably already using. It seems a little counter intuitive to use a rougher paper to get a smoother surface than you have been getting. But with only a fine paper you don't rip down the tiny standing ridges left in the gesso from it's application. You need to start with that action and then when those are knocked down you can smooth the gesso out with a finer grade of paper.A middling grit like a 150 might just do both if you don't require a silky or glass like surface. I prefer to have a little more tooth on my substrate.

I keep two only grades of sandpaper in my studio. They are: 80 grit and 150 grit. The 80  will rip a passage of rough or too thick paint off the canvas quickly and mercilessly. You want to stop before you go too far with that! The 150 is good for smoothing things. You might possibly want to follow that up with a 100 grit if you prize a very smooth surface.

I don't use acrylic gesso, I did years ago.  Real gesso is a different beast than the acrylic stuff put up in jars. I never prime my own canvas, preferring instead to buy it preprimed. I also don't like painting on canvas that is not oil primed. I think the paint handles better on an oil ground and looks better when you are finished too.

Here a word of caution,  be very careful about sanding oil paintings. There are lots of deadly cadmiums etc. on that canvas. On your palette or brush they are safe enough as they are bound up in oil. If you sand your pictures they are flying around in the air as a toxic dust which you may aspirate. If I have to sand a painting, I often dip my sandpaper in mineral spirits from my palette and wet sand it. That is somewhat safer anyway.

I NEVER sand  down an entire painting to reclaim the canvas, that releases way too much fine particulate dust. Canvas isn't THAT expensive. You asked me to recommend some canvas, I will recomend several. There are many fine canvasses and I haven't tried them all but here are some with which I am acquainted.

  • CHEAP!  Centurion DLX an oil primed linen that is around150 dollars a roll. It is a little thin but the price is right and I haven't had any problems with it. Find that here
  • More expensive, Claessens type 12 High quality Belgian linen. Also oil primed. Silky under the brush. This is actually whats called a portrait linen. That means it is pretty smooth. Claessens makes rougher linens too if you prefer that. But this is my favorite. Here is that
  • Also more expensive. Fredrix is an American made canvas. Another linen canvas. They make a lot of different sorts I like the Kent best. This used to be a lead primed canvas but is no longer. This is a really nice product. Go here for that.... 
  • I don't use or recommend cotton canvas, but if you want to paint on cotton here is a link to Fredrix cotton canvasses of various grades. Of these I would  prefer the Tyron or the Knickerbocker.
  • The cheap cotton prestretched canvasses sold at the big box retail stores are junk.It would be better to paint on cinder blocks. I will use them sometimes for demo paintings when I am traveling, but they feels dreadful and scratchy under the brush and  their absorbancy sucks the life out of your paint. Some of the big box stores do sell a better quality prestretched linen canvas at a higher price that are OK though.
You must be able to stretch your own canvas. It is not very hard, and it is something that a painter needs to be able to do. It is expensive to throw away the stretchers behind every canvas that doessnt work out. If you stretch your own you can cannibalize those stretcher, use better canvas, save money as you do.

Do you need a Take-it easel? (Gloucester easel) I know of someone who has a gently used one for sale. They want 150 dollars for it, plus shipping and handling, that's an excellent price. Please contact,

Interested in Snowcamp this year? A number of people have contacted me about that. I will announce the dates soon.  Snowcamp is my winter painting workshop held in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Value suppression , the apearance of nature and the" big look"

I have been frantically painting trying to get this years blue night picture out the door for a printing deadline. I have made one of these every year for about thirty years. Here I am though, lets see.................

A reader on the comments page recently asked me:
Please help my confusion on values. I have read and been taught to not use the full spectrum of values because it weakens the painting. Their instruction has been to narrow your values to three no more than four value groups by compressing the values together. By doing this you make a stronger pattern of shapes that holds together, especially from a distance. Please clarify. Looking forward to your response.

This is a big question and I may need more than a single post to answer it.

1)  There is the appearance of nature in light as it sits before you. I think I can readily discern and express about ten different values outside. Before the cast, as an atelier student I was taught with ten values. In practice I use maybe one or two less than that if I am trying to the the look of nature. When I teach, I generally try to point out the difference between nature and the students work. Most of the students I meet in workshops are struggling to get the image successfully and halfway accurately onto the canvas. That is the first skill that a student needs, transcription. This is not necessarily art, it is a skill and anyone can acquire it with some hard work.

Until a student has this ability it seems important to me, to help them "see" nature more clearly. I talk a lot about design, arrangement, color etc. but if I neglect to steer students closer to the look of nature I run the risk of teaching them "how I do things" rather than broader skills they can use themselves. So when I teach I would only suggest to the most advanced students that they paint their values any differently than they see them.

That artists who work in reduced numbers of values agree there are more values than they use seems clear, as they speak of compressing or limiting their values.

2) It is possible, perhaps desirable, to reduce the values in a design to get more unity of effect, a broader look and a clearer assembly of shapes. Usually the effect is one of a stronger, simpler arrangement. But, this is a lens  through which painter looks at nature, and not the appearance of nature itself. Compressing values, means to change them to something else, hopefully more desirable artistically.

This is a design method, and as such, a convention, a personal choice. That's OK, it is art after all, and the art lies in the choices we make about how  the painting will look more than in cold transcription. Below is a sphere with the parts of the light labeled on it.
The sphere above has five separate lights. A tree in light or a head or figure will generally need five separate values to explain itself. Where these five different values come from on the value scale, whatever size (but ten for the sake of this explanation) can be chosen and they could be derived from the middle of the scale or one end or even spread across its length from Stygian darkness to unalloyed white. I find it difficult to work effectively with fewer than five values. I  sometimes will design pictures using three premixed values, but when  I make that into a picture I feel the need to add a few more values here and there. Even this five value system precludes the representation of halftones. Each halftone (modeling in the lights) would add a separate value to the list. I don't present all of this to discourage the practice of suppressing or compressing values. This topic arose out of my listing problems that plague workshop students. I would suggest that the artist should first be able to render in  a full and not a truncated panoply of values before reducing their number.

4) I didn't hear the idea of compressing values until perhaps fifteen years ago, no doubt because of the enormous and beneficial influence of Richard Schmid. I learned something similar in the Gammell Studios though. It was  called the "BIG LOOK". The idea was this....Not to  cut up your big shapes with lots of varying values or details within them. One was to keep their shapes big, or uncluttered. Shapes of similar value would be  conjoined and darks or lights deliberately linked. All of these plus suppression of  detail gave a broader simpler look. Gammell often derided what he  called "looking into the shadows" that is allowing yourself  to refocus your vision  and examine separately from  the lights   the value  changes and detail within the shadows. That is the shadows  would be mistakenly painted as they appeared when examined individually and not as seen  in relationship to the entire scene including the  lights. This was seen as the enemy of the big  look.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

More thoughts on the challenges facing todays workshops participants


Oh! Here I am. Thank you to all of you who have commented on the blog. You have given me several subjects about which I may write. I had a visit from two readers from Utah, they even took me out to dinner. I enjoy meeting you all. Writing this blog is like speaking to a darkened theater where I can not see the audience or gauge their reaction to what I am saying. Workshops are the way I generally meet my readers.. The blog gets a lot of visitors, Sometimes as high as 30,000 a month, but fewer, lately, as I have been posting less often, but it is still a whole lot of people. How odd! considering that writing it is so solitary. More about the workshop problems;

Failure to appreciate the difficulty of painting well I always tell workshop students that learning to paint is no more difficult than learning to play the violin. They are always shocked to hear that. Some of them have decided to paint en plein air (as they call it) because they have supposed it would be easier. Again I am not talking about you, anyone you know or have ever met, I mean those bad people who are far away, those whose taxes should be raised. Painting is wicked hard. No one would ever bother with it except that it is so much fun and  perpetually interesting. I believe it takes about ten years working full time to become a competent painter. That doesn't mean you shouldn't paint if you have less time, it is fun and rewarding. But you wouldn't imagine you could learn to play the violin adequately in less time would you? Still many of my workshop students expect a hundred pounds of progress for ten pounds of application. I love em, but they need to be realistic about the effort it will take. Even the most brilliant teacher can't make that hurdle go away, that is just the way it is.


    • Believing that quality in art is subjective No idea is more destructive to the progress of a painter than this. The comfort it provides the student comes at the expense of advancing ability. The hard truth that there are folks out there who truly paint a whole lot better than you do is daunting, and I am sorry that is scary, but it remains true none the less. When people tell me that art is all subjective and that there is no such thing as one persons art being "better" than another's, I always tell them "I play guitar as well as Hendrix, you might not like it as well, but after all it is so subjective". I  was a high school garage band member with zero talent, by the way. I know some people who play like gods ( you know who you are!). I am comfortable with that. Somebody has to be in the audience. The following are the problems with the subjectiveist model;
    1. Why look to the greats in the art, like Rembrandt or Sargent if they are only superior to your own daubs in the opinion of  people who can be ignored or argued against? 
    2. If all art is equally good, how could you make your own better? Improving your art would only make sense if you could add quality to it. How depressing it would be to look back on your art from a decade ago if it could not have been made better.Why would one work to better their craft if the only possibility was to make it different rather than better?
    3. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I am handsome and other times I see a caviling dork. I see only what I think of myself, and not myself. The eye sees itself only by reflection Shakespeare said. If we argue that all of art is only subjective, then the only way it makes sense to think that our art is improving, would be if it is more what we would have it be. But then our ability to judge it will wax and wane like our opinion of ourselves. Before you say that you always have a great opinion of yourself, realize that would preclude self criticism altogether. That you yourself like your art is a slim recommendation for it in the larger world, and unlikely to convince those outside of your immediate circle of friends. 
    4. It makes it difficult to  utilize the opinions or suggestions of teachers or "masters"  after all, they are not arguably better at painting than we are, only different. Who then are they to criticize our art? Our art is just as fine as anyone else's. 
    5. I don't know any successful or skilled artists who believe this. There must be some who do, but I have met hundreds of painters and can't I think of one. I conclude it is an opinion not held by a significant number of fine artists. Surely it must be useful to emulate or follow the path of those who have had success in painting. There results are extensions of their opinions.
    6. Why would art be singular among all the efforts of man and not have standards, measures or examples of quality? There is better and worse carpentry, whiskey and cancer treatment. If  there is no art better than another,why go to the museum? Wouldn't the greeting card rack at the drugstore be just fine? 

    Well that should do .... I better throw in something less philosophical and more "useful" to counter my ranting and raving. How about this?

    I like my paint to stay "open" all day. But after that I want it to dry. Paint that stays wet for days is a nuisance for me. If I wanted that, I could add poppy oil to my paint. I don't like acrylics because their rapid drying time makes it hard for me to manipulate it before it seizes. In order to speed my drying times I use an alkyd such as Liquin 
    Or  I could add a fast drying paint to my palette. Different brands of paint and different colored pigments dry at different rates. There are two logical places I have found to do this. The first is the white. I can add an alkyd white like Griffin, or use a flake lead that dries quickly ( no lead for you amateurs please! leave that to those of us who will blithely risk poisoning for our art.)

    Lucas paint (available form Jerrys) has a fast drying time. Since, after white, the color I use the most is ultramarine, I will often add the Lucas ultramarine to my palette. Since ultramarine gets into many parts of my canvas it is will pull along the other pigments with it as it dries. And it is cheap..

    Saturday, November 3, 2012

    Some thoughts on the challenges facing today's workshop participants.

    Demo painting from the Canton Mississippi workshop

    Well here I am again, it's been a while! I have been traveling all over the country teaching workshops since last I posted. I went on tour, like a rock band. I have been in the White Mountains, Minnesota,  Newburgh, New York and Mississippi and God knows where else. I can't even remember all of the places I have been. Most were three day gigs, but some were five days. I met a lot of students and had a lot of fun. I like doing workshops, and I love meeting the students. The workshop scene seems to select for an enjoyable group of participants. I run twelve hour days in my workshops, so I eat dinner and often breakfast with the students besides painting with them all day.

    I think I will write about what I have seen out there. There seem to be common problems that many students have, and recently I have been aware of how most of the students have the same things to learn. I get a broad range of students in terms of ability and experience, from beginners to demi-professional, so some of them don't have these shortcomings. Most of them do. Remember, I am not talking about you, or anyone you know, I am  talking about those "other" people who are far away. The common problems are these: (let me chamber a few bullets here)
    • Failure to express the full range of values in the scene before them. Most of the students seem to paint in a few middle tones. I always seem to be telling them, "when you look out there, you see a dark and paint it a dark value. When I look out there, I see a dark and ask myself, which dark is it? I have several to choose from." The students use a single generic dark and a single generic middle tone, etc. They command too few values to explain that at which they are looking. I have been telling them this ;:" Did you learn to read from the Dick and Jane books? " (for you younger readers, Dick and Jane were drab children who said things like "look Jane! see Spot run! Run,run run. See Dick run!!" Spot was a dog. Dick was once a common male name. Jane was a girl's name then, much  like Krystle or  Brittney might be today). he teacher went up to the blackboard and wrote a list of about ten words on the board before she even handed out the book. You had to know about ten words to read even this simple story. The authors of this sorry tome couldn't tell even its banal story without at least ten words. They couldn't write the book with only say... five words, they needed at least ten. If you imagine your value scale to be words you will need about 10 or at least six or seven anyway, to tell the story that is in front of you in the landscape. You students don't have enough words (i.e. values) to tell the story of the landscape in front of you. I suspect that the best cure for this problem would be cast drawing under the eye of a master, but that is atelier training and most people just can't leave their real life behind and do that. I am trying to come up with a systematic approach to curing this problem, I do have an idea. I will get back to you on that.
    • Inadequate paints and equipment. I see lots of mangled brushes, I pick them up and say "this was once a brush!" I will often see a student with two dozen brushes, none of which is in usable condition. They are as stiff as tongue depressors and worn into a point. I see a lot of hues too. Those are colors made for the student market that pretend to be the pigment but are not. Some cheaper pigment has been substituted for the necessary color. Usually this substitute is  pthalocyanine plus some other pigment. I have seen a student with a pthalo pretending to be their ultramarine, their viridian and their cobalt, all on one palette. Half of their colors are really just one pigment, pthalo. I have seen whites with the consistency of joint compound and faux "cadmiums" no more powerful than fruit juice.These students have defeated themselves before they even touch their shattered, frizzled bristles to the paint on their palettes. I also see easels that wobble every time the student makes a stroke on the canvas, weird contraptions made of balsa and recycled aluminum that rock from side to side in the slightest breeze.They look like they were manufactured by someone who had heard of easels but had never actually seen one. A decent easel is going to cost more than a toaster at WalMart, that's just a fact of life. Pharaoh taught the Israelites you cannot make bricks without straw.
    • Bargain canvas. I have seen students working on hyper absorbent canvas that sucks the life out of their paint. It is like painting on a loofah. The brush, instead of gliding sweetly over the canvas, scratches along like it is painting on sandpaper. You can buy a prestretched canvas at Michael's or Hobby Lobby for three dollars, but you shouldn't. If the gas it took you to drive to the store in your 25,000 dollar automobile cost more than the canvas you bought, you ought to walk there and get something that will actually work.
    • A lack of knowledge of the history of painting. Students are constantly telling me about the artists they have read about in American Artist or some other magazine. Most of the time I have never even heard of these artists and when I see their work I am disappointed. I tell workshop participants that I  never look to living artists as my models. These students  know only contemporary painters, many of indifferent ability. To make good paintings it is necessary to know what the great artists of the past have done. If you told me you were learning to play guitar and I asked you what you thought of Chuck Berry and you answered "who?" I wouldn't think you were going to get very far.The great artists of the past dwarf  ALL living artists. I  know of no contemporary artist who is the equal of a Rembrandt or  Rubens. It is absolutely essential to get up on the shoulders of the dead to see beyond the ordinariness of the art of our own time. Very few artists today could have cut it in the nineteenth century. We do a great job with technology and plumbing today, but our ancestors painted better. If you want to paint well read the classic texts and have giants for your heroes.
    I will write more on this in the next post, I need to get some sleep.