Sunday, October 15, 2006

Keeping a Painting Journal

Recently, an artist showed me how important it is to keep a painting journal. The concept is so simple, I can't believe I worked without one for years. I mean, I've kept writing journals since I was 13, why not a painting journal?

I think what stymied me was the notion that you can't put oil paint on paper. Wrong. You can. Just a little dab of a paint mixture in my journal dries quickly, and I can jot down notes about the colors used and other stuff. This is really useful when I have five or six paintings going at one time, and I can't remember when I worked on each one, what medium I used last, or even the color mixtures.

For example, look at the right-hand side of my journal above. You can see the date 9-26-06 and the name of the painting I was working on, White Iris. Below it you can see all the paint mixtures I used that day. Below each mixture is my note on how I mixed the color.

For example, the first dab is a pale, creamy yellow, one of the main tones in the petals. My note says this mixture was made from TW (Titanium White) and CY (Cadmium Yellow).

Now look at the next dab, it is a smoky pale blue, used for shadow areas in the petals. My note says this was mixed from TW (Titanium White), CB (Cobalt Blue) and CR (Cadmium Red).

And so on, recording every mixture I used that day. When I return to a painting after a week or so and I need to re-mix the exact same colors, I just look them up in my painting journal.

If you look at the bottom of the left-hand side of the journal, you can see the date 9-21-06 and the name of the painting I was working on, Power and Grace. Again, the mixtures I used that day were noted.

If you scroll around in the journal image, you can also see my notes from daily paintings. That way I have a record of when I did them!
Here's another page. Top left-hand side is another entry on 9-24-06 when I worked on Power and Grace. On the right is an entry on 9-26-06 when I worked on Release. This is a hands painting, and I had a lot of flesh mixtures. Since I'm learning how to mix flesh, I like to be able to go back and see what mixtures I used in a particular painting. Plus, whenever I come up with an absolutely fantastic mixture, I can always replicate it later.

If you look closely at this journal page, you can see that my work on Release went on for several days.

Note, this journal is just a little cheapy Jack Richeson Sketch book, with pages that measure 5-1/2" x 8-1/2". I can make notes on both sides of each page, and the dabs of oil paint don't bleed through. They dry in about 20 minutes, so I can easily flip pages during a painting session.

Another helpful tip is to get used to abbreviations for the colors you use, for example CYP is always Cadmium Yellow Pale, AC is always Aliziran Crimson, CSc is always Cadmium Scarlet, COG is always Chromium Oxide Green, and so on.

With this journal, I can measure my success. Often I look back a couple of months and see how much I've learned and grown. It's a great tool and one I couldn't work without.

Have fun keeping a painting journal!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Preparing Canvases

My husband taught school for 30 years and he always told me how much he loved to teach, but he never liked getting ready to teach. I think the same applies to painting. I love to paint, but I'm not crazy about getting ready to paint. But it's a necessary part of the painting process.

Like building a house; you have to have a good, strong foundation. If you don't, it doesn't matter how nice the carpet is or what color the walls are. And when it comes to walls, it won't matter what color paint you use if the taping and texturing underneath wasn't done correctly.

Liken this to a canvas. It's your painting's foundation. And depending on your style, like the color of the walls in your house, it needs a certain texture. This method certainly isn't for everyone, but it works for me. I have a background in drawing and I like smooth surfaces.

Because of my background in drawing I'm a detail painter. I use many coats of paint in my larger works; applied thinly. I use fine sable brushes for applying the paint and blending it in. If I don't have the right texture on my canvas, I'll tear up those brushes in a hurry. And they are expensive. Plus, I love being able to draw on the canvas when I start the painting. It's hard to draw if there's a lot of texture, almost like fingernails on a blackboard, if you ask me.

So creating the right texture is a chore, and always a workout. I wish I had an apprentice to do all the preparatory work! What I really want to do is just paint! Warning, this is not for anyone with a weak back! I work out with weights and it's still a big job. Back to what I said originally, I love to paint, but I'm not that fond of getting ready to paint. But because someone has to do it, it might as well be me.

Also, I learned how to prepare canvases like this from an established artist whom I really admire (Pamela Green). She paints in the Old Master's style that I continue to learn about. Many of the early painters worked on boards that were satiny smooth. As I continue to learn from Pamela and practice the techniques myself, I understand how every step is part of the whole. This first step.

Now - on to the specifics. I use both store bought canvases, and canvases I stretch myself. Here's what I do/use when I prepare a store bought canvas. Note: this technique can also be used to prepare wooden panels. In fact, I use it to prepare my small daily-painting panels The picture above shows me sanding two of these.


  • store bought cotton canvas, any size (I use gallery wrap style and prefer Masterpiece or Art Alternatives brands), or wooden panels
  • acrylic gesso (I use Golden brand)
  • 1 or 2 inch flat housepainting brush

  • glass jar full of water for cleaning brush

  • shop towels (I buy in bulk at Home Depot)
  • latex gloves (I buy in 100-pack at hardware store)
  • baby powder (for keeping the gloves from sticking)

  • 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper

  • 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper

  • 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper

  • Spray bottle full of water
  1. Pub on the gloves. If they stick dust your hands with baby powder. Using the flat housepainting brush, apply three coats of gesso to front of the canvas. Don't need to go around the gallery wrap. Let each coat dry a minimum of 4 hours. Stroke in a different direction on each coat.

  2. After the third coat is dry, spray the canvas with water from the spray bottle. Tear 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper into little squares. Sand the canvas using circular motions. Sand the entire surface several times. After each time, wipe dry with a shop towel and examine for smoothness. The canvas will get smoother each time, but some of the cotton texture and gesso strokes will still be visible in good light. It usually takes 3 sandings in this stage. If the sandpaper drags, spray more water. It should be really wet while sanding. This is a messy process. I wear old clothes and protect the floor.

  3. Apply 2 more coats of gesso, stroking in different directions each time.
  4. After the second coat is dry, spray the canvas with water from the spray bottle. Tear 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper into little squares. Sand the canvas using circular motions, as in step 2. By the time I've gone over the whole canvas several times, it should be really smooth, with all texture and gesso strokes removed.

  5. I usually stop at this point because the canvas is smooth enough. But sometimes I apply another 2 coats of gesso and sand using the 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper if desired. This will give a satin smooth canvas with no texture, almost like paper.
  6. If I apply two coats of gesso in one day, I don't clean my brush each time. I just plop it into the jar of water until the next coat. If it's an overnight dry, I wash the brush clean with water and dish soap.

If I'm doing a large canvas, like the 36" x 48" canvas I used for White Iris, I have to divide the canvas into quarters and sand one section at a time. I break this up over a week's time so my back and shoulders don't give out!

You may wonder why I go to all this trouble when most artists just walk into an art supply store, buy a canvas and begin painting on it immediately. Or why I go to all the trouble of removing the texture that many artists prefer. I guess it's just a matter of preference, and a continued interest in the Old Master's style and the effects I can get with a smooth canvas. When I explain my painting process (in a future post) you will see why the smoothness is beneficial.

If by chance you are really adventurous, you can always stretch your own canvas. I often do and use a 10 lb. unprimed cotton duck and heavy duty stretcher bars from Art Media. Once I stretch it, I apply 3 coats of gesso, sand according to step 2, apply 3 more coats of gesso and sand again according to step 2. Then I proceed to step 3. You can see that preparing an unprimed canvas is a little more work. If you stretch with primed canvas, you can skip that extra step, But I don't like to stretch primed canvas. It's too stiff and hard to work with and I can't get it as tight as when I use unprimed cotton.

Although you can buy portrait canvases that are fairly smooth, I haven't found any canvas manufacturer that produces a canvas as smooth as this method. Most people don't want to go to all the trouble of gessoing and sanding. My thought is that the canvas becomes part of the painting, and because I've invested my heart, soul and a good deal of muscle into it, once the painting is finished it's a part of me. Like if I built my own house. Good luck!

PS: if you're not sure about this whole process, try a small canvas, maybe 8 x 10. It will give you a feel for how it works, and you can decide for yourself whether you want to invest all the time and energy it takes.