10 Tips for Hobby Painters from a Professional Artist

About every two weeks someone asks if I give lessons, but unfortunately I barely have enough time to paint much less teach other people how to paint, so everyone gets turned away. After having a hobby painter over for a studio visit today I got to thinking that there are probably some basic tips that I could share for someone who doesn't have the advantage of networking with professional painters.

I'll address some equipment/supply issues as well as the frequent question of "how to paint looser."

1.  Gamsol. Forget the minerals spirits and turpentine. Even the odorless versions are pretty fumy. Gamsol is the safest odorless solvent out there and the favorite of most professional painters.

2.  Papertowels. They're your friends. If you want to keep from getting muddy colors you need to frequently wipe your brushes on papertowels. Another good tip for keeping your colors cleaner is to keep a dark brush and a light brush and try not to mix them up (which is trickier that it sounds). The other advantage is keeping your space clean. You don't want oil paint on your clothes, but more importantly you don't want lead (make you crazy like Nero) or cadmiums (cause damage to your nervous system) getting on your skin. If you just can't get it under control I'd recommend looking into Gamblin paints since I feel like they really focus on safety.

3.  Stand back & Step Back. If you want to have looser brush strokes you're not going to get them if you're sitting down 6 inches from the canvas. You should be standing far enough away that you can completely extend your arm with brush in hand (holding onto the end of the long handle). This way you make strokes with your whole arm, not just your wrist. Step back frequently to check if things are working from a distance. I have a cushy velvet couch at the studio that I like to lounge on while I ponder.

4.  Longs. Did you know that they made long bristle brushes? They make it so much easier to lay the paint down since they're flexible. The extra length also buys you more useful life on the brushes. My favorite sizes are long filberts (slightly rounded on the edge as opposed to brights which are square) in #2-#10 range. I probably use my #6 the most. The goal is to keep the paint at the tip of your brush, not down in the ferrules, so the longs also make this easier.

5.  French Easels. I hate my french easel more than I hate this awful picture of me wearing Brian's shorts. DON'T buy one of these. They are heavy, clunky and tricky to set up if you're not technically inclined. If you're thinking about doing plein air work ask a plein air artist who you trust what they like. I still am undecided as to the best travel/outdoor easel brand, but the clunky french easel would not be in the running.

6.  Attitude. My high school art teacher used to say "when you're frustrated you're learning." This was a huge comfort to me when I was first learning to paint. Another sure attitude adjuster is remembering that you are not Leonardo DaVinci. Your work is not worth $1,000,000 or even $1,000 so who cares if you mess up once in a while. You're learning. And, don't over-invest yourself in a painting that's just never going to work. Figure out where you went wrong, throw it in the garbage and do better next time.  I slashed 5 canvases last year without a second thought (if I don't slash them I run the risk of someone fishing them out of the garbage so they can reappear and haunt me later).

7.  Be a destroyer, or if you want to put it in Ghostbusters terms "Choose the form of the Destructor!" You can destroy it now so that it can be fixed tomorrow or you can destroy it forever by trying to work around a problem instead of correcting it. This is part 2 of the attitude spiel in case you haven't figured that out yet. Don't noodle around the problem, show some initiative and fix it! Be brave and get out your pallet knife and scrape it off while the paint's wet, or let it dry and start over on top. Don't get attached because you worked on it forever. If it's not working it's not working, so play the destroyer and start over fresh tomorrow.

8.  Contagious colors. Titanium white should not be used in mixing darks unless you know what you're doing. I'd be more likely lighten a dark using another color than to use titanium white, because it will make your darks chalky or cloudy looking. Thalos are even more contagious and hard to eliminate, and they make your brushes hell to clean, so use them sparingly.

9.  Premix with a pallette knife. The pallette knife set me free to paint fast and show off some brush strokes. You can premix large pools of color and have big quantities of paint available without slowing down, or trying to be sparing with your paint. I especially like doing this for impressionist style landscapes or for painting clothing, whereas the colors in a portrait are more nuanced and require more customized mixing. 

10.  Fat over thin & light over dark. Ideally, you want your darks to be translucent and thin, and your lights to be opaque and have more impasto (be thicker). Also, you want to start with thinner coats of paint, and finish with thicker. You can address both of these issues by painting dark to light. I paint my darkest and thinnest areas first and slowly work forward to my lightest and thickest. So, if I were to paint a landscape with trees I would put in the dark trunks first, then work in the mid-tones, and lastly, cut in the sky around the trunks and make "sky holes" in the canopy. Crazy. I know. Oh, and you must somehow coordinate this with painting from back to front if you're doing a landscape.

Below is an example of back to front, dark to light, and thin to fat (all at once) in a portrait format.


BONUS TIP: Eat more chocolate.

It may make you fat if you paint too often, but you will paint better.