Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tips and Tricks Blog Carnival


Get the benefit of advice from working artists - tips and tricks to make your painting journey a smoother path.  

Visit the links below to see the participating artists' photos and tips. Some artists are offering giveaways or discounts for the Tips and Tricks Blog Carnival.

Sarah Sedwick

Linda Nickles

Marla Laubisch

Jo MacKenzie

Joanne Grant

Taryn Day

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Drawing on October 22nd.

"Last Touches"
oil on canvas panel
7" x 5"

Click the image to enlarge

When you have limited time, you want every painting to be a masterpiece—unfortunately it doesn't work that way. However, there are some things you can do to maximize your progress in the time available. These painting tips are directed toward beginner painters—they might not be as useful for an experienced artist, but they'll help a newbie overcome some obstacles faster.  (Be aware that I paint in oils; tips may not be applicable to acrylic or watercolor paints.)

Studio Tips

Keep a jar of vegetable oil around to drop your paintbrushes in. So many times I've left my studio for "just a few minutes" and came back five days later. If you put your paintbrushes in oil every time you leave, it will keep them fresh and cleanable. Yes, it's bad to leave your brushes bristle-down in a container. You know what's worse? Letting the paint dry in the brush for a week.
If you use oils paints, you need to be aware of spontaneous combustion. It's a real thing, and a major cause of house fires. I'm not an expert, so consult those who are, and find a safe way to dispose of rags or paper towels that have oil paint or mediums on them.

If you paint plein air, you can't have enough clips. Of course you recognize the clothes pin; the others are generally called "pony clips," and are available at any hardware store. Use them to attach a trash bag to your easel; to secure your canvas so it doesn't get blown into the dirt (that's never happened to me, oh no); to keep your paper palette pad from flapping around; and a myriad of other uses.

1) If you cut your own panels out of Masonite™ (or similar material) as I do: you need to seal ALL the surfaces, including the back and sides. Painting the back will prevent bowing; painting the sides will prevent moisture infiltration, which is very detrimental to hard board like this. I use a craft-grade acrylic paint on the back. 

2) I make a little hanging device out of card stock, and Elmers-glue it onto the back. The hole is made with a paper punch. This is super useful to hang the painting to dry, and it lets your customer hang the painting immediately upon purchasing, even if they don't get it framed.

3) Come up with some sort of unique identifier for your paintings. It may not seem like it now, but in a year or two you'll have so many paintings you can't keep them straight in your mind. It might be a simple consecutive number system, it could include the date—just make sure you can identify each painting uniquely.

Speaking of serial numbers—establish some sort of tracking system for all your paintings. It can be a notebook or a document on the computer. I use a simple Microsoft Word document. Include the serial number, the title of the painting, where it is offered for sale, and its status (for sale, sold, gifted, etc.).

When you cut your board, it pays to devise a cutting diagram. You can't rely on the board to be the exact size it claims to be, so measure it first. Remember that the width of the saw blade matters, you need to take that into account. In my experience, when you're cutting to fit a standard frame size (e.g., 5x7, 8x10) it's best to cut the board just a hair smaller. The quality control at the Cheap Frame Factory isn't very good, and it sucks to have to shave off a piece of your painting to make it fit a frame.

Painting Tips
Grey scales. GET SOME OF THESE. You can make your own or find them in a number of places, often with photographic materials. Remember how Value Is Everything? These will help you determine value. The one on the left was included in a pad of disposable palette sheets; the one on the right I made myself for a workshop.

Here's how it works: Put the scale on a photo reference, and you can see where a particular area falls on the scale. Squint your eyes and you'll see that the sky is somewhere around 3 or 4. Turn the scale over so the white is showing, and you can see what color something really is. The white is a palate cleanser for the eyes—you're not influenced by the surrounding hues. If your scale doesn't have holes in it, make them with a paper punch.

Premix all (or most) of the scene's colors on your palette before you start painting. It may seem tedious, but it's MUCH easier to compare the colors right next to each other than comparing paint already on the canvas with paint on the palette. You can read more about this here.

It's well worth it to finish your paintings with varnish. It evens out inconsistencies of gloss/matte in the paint, and it protects the painting from dust. Dust is actually very harmful; the particles are abrasive and will scratch the painting over time. I like this particular varnish because it can be used on a painting that hasn't fully cured yet - oil paintings can take months to dry completely, and if someone wants to buy my painting I'm not going to make them wait 6 months until I can varnish it :-)  This brand can be used on an oil painting that is dry to the touch. Put it on very thinly with a soft brush.

• Simplifying a photo to a limited number of greys in Photoshop (value, again).

[Before I write about editing photos on the computer, I have to say this: Adjusting your image with software can be a priceless learning tool. But make sure it's a limited tool: use it to build your chops, for a limited amount of time or limited number of paintings. Don't become dependent on it.]

This technique can be really useful when you're overwhelmed with a complicated scene. Value is everything, and if you get it right, the colors don't even matter. See some good examples of that principle here.

This is a photo of a town in Bulgaria, from the Virtual Paintout's April location. To me, this is a fairly complex scene with a lot of shapes and planes. This technique is also useful for a photo where the lights and shadows aren't obvious, such as an overcast day.

Open the image in Photoshop. Then,  Duplicate the Layer so you're working on a copy.

Make sure you've selected the new layer before you start. You can tell it's selected because it's highlighted with blue.

From the "Image" menu, choose "Adjustments: Black and White..."  You'll be presented with a dialog box where you can try out different presets for different effects. Or, just click the "OK" button to use the default.

Then, from the "Image" menu, choose "Posterize..."  You can set the number of greys to use. I generally use 3 to 5 levels; more than that isn't helpful. 

It's so much easier to see the lightest and darkest parts of the painting now, and to make comparisons between shadowed areas.

A caveat: Photoshop will make the lightest parts of your photos white and the darkest parts black. In real life, the scene (and your photo) may not have that extreme of a value range. Maybe there's nothing in the scene that's as light as white or as dark as black. So remember that you're looking at a relative range, and adjust accordingly.

The End.


  1. WOW! So much info. Really appreciate this.

  2. Marla, great tips - I'm bookmarking so I can come back and try each one.

    Excellent job on the carnival, priceless info and fun. Maybe get out a big paintbrush and get the rest of us to make time and do this next year. Really compelling read! Thanks.

  3. Marla, you have outdone us all... so many great tips here in this one post! Thank you for organizing the carnival.

  4. Wow - lots of tips, even for more experienced painters. I love seeing what other painters do.... thanks for sharing.

  5. Great tips Marla! Really interesting post. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for organizing the carnival, Marla! Great tips, too. -Sarah

  7. Thanks everyone - it was great seeing all the tips on your blogs, so many new ideas to try out!

    Don't forget the carnival coming up in mid-December: Painting Demo!

  8. Great tips! Thank you so much for taking the time to post this useful information.

  9. Thanks! and timely. I am getting ready for a show and was wondering how to display all my unframed panels. Some index cards, a hole punch and I'm all set. You saved me a lot of trouble!


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