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July 11, 2007

Painting Frustrations

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, I know. To be a good artist (painter version), it's generally a Good Thing that you have a passion for painting and paint and paint and paint in order to approach on the canvas what your intention is. "Practice makes perfect" therefore is as true in painting as it is in music, athletics, surgery and other activities demand high skill. Talent is also useful.

That's what I read, anyway. And it seems reasonable.

Poor me. [Assumes fetal position, whimpering]

Now that I'm retired from a career of committing demography, I'm trying to become a decent painter, focusing initially on portraits. I have talent at the second or third rate level. I lack burning passion to paint. At least now that we've gotten pretty well settled in Seattle, I have a few hours a day to devote to the activity -- not paint, paint and paint, just paint a little.

Plus I don't have a studio. I work out of a small bedroom. Not much room to store partly-completed canvases. No sink in there, but I'm only a few steps from a bathroom with a sink for cleanup work.

The question becomes one of what kind of paints to use. Not watercolor: hate it. Probably not regular oil paints: long drying time and the need for messy solvents.

I've used Alkyd oil paints that are nice because they dry in a few days. Their downside is that they too require solvents.

I'm presently using water-based oil paints. The advantage is that water is used for thinning and cleanup. The disadvantage is that drying time is comparable to that of regular oils.

Which brings me to the subject of acrylics. Acrylics are water-based and dry within the (half?) hour. I sometimes use acrylics for underpainting before switching to oils. I've also tried to use acrylics to paint entire paintings, but the results have been unsatisfactory. The problem is that acrylics dry so fast that it's often difficult to "work" or blend colors. Yes, there are retarding media that slow drying somewhat, but that helps only a little.

I know that acrylics are popular, and I understand their practical advantages. But how can I get decent results? Change to more of a poster-like style with lots of areas of flat color? Actually break down and use my brain to plan the painting better?

Or should I stick to what I'm doing, eternal amateur arts buff that I am.



posted by Donald at July 11, 2007


Donald: pastels and markers.
*covers and ducks8

Posted by: Tatyana on July 11, 2007 1:57 PM

Try gouache or casein paint. Both are water based (so they dry quickly), but you can work back into them. Also, they are opaque--you can paint over stuff just like oils. They are a bit more difficult to use than oils (the most flexible medium), because the lighter mixtures will dry a bit darker than they look wet, and the darker ones will dry a bit lighter.

Or try pastels. They are perfect for your needs. Don't start out with a huge set--keep it simple at first. You can do all kinds of stuff with them--sketch from life, go outside, and do stuff from photos and/or whatnot. A good set will have the primary and secondary colors and their grays, in about 3 values up and down the value scale. Plus get black and white. Its cheaper than oil painting anyway.

I hope that helps. I hope you keep up drawing and painting, because it will lend a whole new appreciation for artists and their work which is not accessible to those who don't draw and paint. Best of luck.

Posted by: BTM on July 11, 2007 3:08 PM

Hmm. I think the last time I painted with oils was when I was five. The subsequent brush-ruining lead us to acrylics which I used for years. I was never too bothered by the quick dry time- waiting for oils to dry would've driven me crazy.

Maybe it depends on the level of precision your paintings require. Mine certainly weren't photo-realistic or even attempting to be.

Just recently for kicks, I picked up a cheap canvas, almost paint-by-numbers but with no numbers- just pattern, that came with some brushes and acrylics. With the colors they provide I don't even think it's possible to recreate the sample image they provide, but I'm going to do my own version of it for fun. I'll put before and after pics up on my blog once I'm done.

Posted by: claire on July 11, 2007 3:18 PM

I've painted extensively with acrylics, far more than with oils. For me, they work best when you work very quickly, mostly achieving gradations by painting wet into wet or using drybrush effects. It's a good medium for sketching, particularly outdoors. Some practice will get you going in that direction. The problem with acrylics is mostly their lack of, for want of a better term, luminism. That is to say, to really see an finished acrylic painting it needs to be very well lit. In a dim room, acrylics lose all color intensity and can get quite murky. Oils seem to require much less intense illumination to give up their visual effects, especially bright color. I am contemplating trying to paint some canvases for my new house, but am pretty convinced of the need to do them in oil, despite the practical problems of solvents and drying times. (Like you, watercolor seems to inhabit a parallel universe for me, one I have no interest in exploring.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 11, 2007 3:30 PM

Donald, I recommend that you practice your portraits with pencils first. Your sketching and drawing techniques will progress faster with pencils than paint. Once you are satisfied your penciled portraits, add color by switching to paint.

Buy 2mm diameter leads clutch pencils: 6B, 4B, 2B, B, HB (#2), H, 2H
2 hole metal pencil sharpener or sharpening knife
Different erasers for different effects: white plastic eraser, kneadable eraser, art gum eraser

start in upper left hand corner (if right-handed)
draw only shadows
start with hard leads, move to soft
use no more than three lead weights per drawing
leave white around drawing for composition
draw smaller than you see
sharpen pencil to wedge, not point, for different effects

Posted by: Fred on July 11, 2007 4:44 PM

There are a wide range of acrylic mediums including gels, etc. which can add the luminosity/color intensity by virtue of adding tranparency. The transparency can also make "working in" possible, if different from the way one works in in oils. There are also a great number of "optically active" pigments in acrylic that can add very interesting highlights etc. Check out Golden Artist Colors, Inc.

Posted by: Chris White on July 11, 2007 5:56 PM

I have painted ceramic biscuit with acrilic and one thing that I liked to do was mix a coating (satin, or sparkling, and mix it with a metalic color, and use it as a finish over the painted piece. I do not know if it helps, but it is a nice trick.

Other thing that I did was paint strokes of deep colors (all greens, or all yellows, or all blues) and then put a light coat of a very pale color so that the deep colors kind of came through.

I do not know if that helps, but you could experiment having fun with acrylics (of course, I had the little bottles FolkArt and dipped the brush in them each time I wanted the color), and see how they work out.

Posted by: Adriana on July 11, 2007 6:10 PM

Acrylic is plastic paint. Acrylics are not archival, and they are expensive. Plus, they'll clog up your drain if you wash the plasticky junk down the sink. If they ever dry on your paintbrush, forget it, you'll have to throw the brush out (which is ridiculous if you spend money on good watercolor brushes, which are very expensive, but worth it as they last a long while with good care). Stuff sucks. I've used it, and I far prefer casein or gouache for painting. The reason they are so popular is that most art teachers have never used gouache or casein, and they have no idea what they are or how they are used. They all like plastic paint because it dries so fast. There are pluses and minuses to that, but if you want fast drying (or with pastels, no drying) there's more than one option.

Casein is the cheapest watercolor paint. Shiva makes it. Its binder comes from milk, is archival, and is present in some of the oldest painted artworks we have. Harry Anderson the illustrator used it to great effect. Most of the great illustrators of the 50's and 60's used gouache because tight deadlines demanded it. Both gouache and casein dry quickly, are easy to clean up, and can easily be washed out of your brushes with cold water if you get interrupted for a while or just forget to clean them. At least try them out. I paint a lot and know what I am talking about, FWIW.

If you do decide to use casein or gouache, buy a butcher's tray (white ceramic) to use for mixing. For best results to slow the drying of your pure paint piles, get a thoroughly damp paper towel folded up, and squeeze out your paint on it. Keep a spray bottle handy and spritz the paint piles every 15 minutes or so as you work. The damp paper towel will keep the paint from drying out from the bottom, and the spritzing will keep it from drying out on top. You can keep the same pile of paint good for hours this way.

Best of luck.

Posted by: BTM on July 11, 2007 7:13 PM

There's nothing like painting outdoors! I know that you're painting portraits (from drawings? from photographs?) but if you would just give plein-air a chance I'm sure you would find it exhilirating, if also daunting at times. And it doesn't mean finding a sylvan meadow somewhere. I'm sure that within ten minutes of where you live in Seattle there are literally hundreds of cityscapes that your eye will see, if only you look for them. The main thing is to get over the stage fright of being out on the street. Most people won't bother you and the few who do only want to put in a word of encouragement. I've found that a quick "Thank you," sends them on their way. Get yourself a good French easel and go for it. It's an experience like no other. Watch, you'll become an addict, like me.

P.S. I use oils but if that's too messy for you go with acrylics, they'll do.

Posted by: ricpic on July 11, 2007 7:39 PM

Thanks for the input, everyone. Friedrich's point regarding dullness of acrylics was interesting. I've noticed that the couple of acrylic paintings I did looked odd, but hadn't diagnosed the problem. And thank you Chris White for indicating a solution -- I've seen acrylics in galleries & museums and they looked nice and bright, so that explains why.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 12, 2007 12:20 PM

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