When Is Size Not a Dimension? (Clue: Paper)

Deckled Edge paper

When is size not a dimension is the art version of the riddle “When is a door not a door?”

When we’re talking about paper, size does mean how big a sheet of paper is, but also what stops a sheet of paper reacting like paper towel when you add paint to it. It’s what makes paint sit “on” the surface to some extent rather than immediately soaking in and spreading. Most Western paper is internally sized, meaning it’s mixed in during the making of the paper, rather than externally sized (“painted on top”) or unsized.

Manufacturers use the terms “watercolour” / “acrylic” / “mixed media” / “drawing” paper to help guide us amidst the overwhelming array of choices. Typically:

  • Drawing paper is very smooth, allowing for fine detail, and usually a lighter weight.
  • Acrylic or oil painting paper is sometimes textured like canvas, sometimes smooth, and sometimes already primed with gesso.
  • Watercolour paper has three finishes and comes in the biggest range of weights
    — hot pressed, smooth
    — not = not hot pressed; slight texture
    — rough = bumpy
  • Mixed media paper is typically slightly textured and a little heavier so will take some wet but not too much.
  • Pastel paper has a textured surface, sometimes a sandpaper-like surface, to help hold pastel.

But just because it’s sold as “watercolour paper” doesn’t mean “thou shalt not adulterate this sheet of paper with acrylics, it’s made for watercolour and nothing but watercolour”. We can use any medium on any paper, though the results obviously depend on the surface of the paper and its weight (thickness), i.e. the characteristics of that individual sheet

You can draw on watercolour paper, you can use watercolour on drawing paper; you can use acrylic and oil paint on watercolour paper; you can use water on pastel paper to turn the pastel into paint. But you cannot expect thin paper to handle paint in the same way thick paper does. You can’t expect pencil to behave on a textured paper in the same way as it does on smooth paper.

You don’t need to gesso (use primer) paper to use acrylic on it, you can use it as is, with thick or thin paint. Adding gesso seals and changes the surface and gives a different effect to plain paper. A layer of not-too dilute acrylic on paper or acrylic medium seals the surface too, stopping it giving watercoloury effects. Gessoing paper before using oil paint stops the oil leaching out into the fibres.

If a painting dries buckled, you can flatten it by spraying the reverse to dampen the sheey and letting it dry between boards.

There isn’t a right or wrong side to most paper as it’s internally sized, but there is a difference to the surface of each side, sometimes minimal, sometimes obvious.

If the paper you’re using is balling up and tearing, switch to a thicker paper or use less liquid as that’s the surface of the paper being damaged. Heavier weight paper as it takes more working and buckles less, and dries less quickly than thin as the core retains moisture.

Thicker paper may be more expensive but you can usually paint on both sides so you get two goes with it. If you’re using watercolour as you even can put it under a tap and wash the paint off; while it won’t be as good as new and you can damage the surface if you’re aggressive, it’s good for experimenting.

Deckled Edge paper

Does Destroying a Painting Mean You’re Giving Up?

Don’t pull the plug too quickly

The short answer: No.

The long answer: No, it means you’re recognising that it isn’t worth spending more time or effort on that particular painting. Not every painting is going to be successful and it’s unrealistic to expect it, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

A line I’ve remembered from the book “Art and Fear” is ”The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.” (Looking it up, I see it was 2005 I reviewed it; read review here.)

I think destroying paintings becomes problematic only if you’re consistently stopping at the same point, never trying to push past it and find out if you might resolve it. It’s already not working, so you don’t have to worry about ruining it.

I also don’t think something should be destroyed on the same day it was created, or you stopped working on it, because once there’s a bit of time between making it and reviewing it we can be more objective. I go through my paintings on paper two or three times a year and sort out the ones to keep, the ones to be torn up, and the maybe ones who get another look before I decide.

Confidence in Your Own (Artistic) Potential to Find (Art) Solutions

Sign that reads this path is dangerous

I was skimming an article on “feeling the fear but doing it anyway” on Entrepreneur when I was stopped by the words s the words: “Confidence comes when you’ve accepted your own potential to find solutions“. It felt like an explanation of what’s at the core of painting intuitively.

You have a repertoire of art techniques and materials to hand, and select from these to create potential as well as solve problems of your own making in a painting. You trust you’re not a one-trick pony and can reproduce an effect more often than not because practice underpins it. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but helps us continue.

When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may influence the outcome. Embrace the uncertainty and see if you can find the ride intriguing. Do something and see what results, respond to that, and to that, and to that. That’s painting with intuition.

Sign that reads this path is dangerous

I’m curious about how you define painting intuitively? Leave a comment on my blog and let me know.

Art FAQ: Will It Lead to Better Results?

Venn Diagram Artistic Growth

“I can see how experimenting and letting go of the outcome can increase the joy of painting but how does that square with the desire to improve continually and do your best work? Does one just have to trust that experimenting will lead to better results in time? ” — Eddie

My short answer is “yes”.

My longer answer starts with seeing the journey as circuitous and tangential not linear, much as it would be easier if it were.

Being open to trying new things, materials, subjects, approaches simply to see what happens, to see where it may lead you. Taking the bits you find interesting and intriguing further on the journey (not necessarily the same as the bits you like or others regard as successful) whilst shrugging off what turned out to be hideous, discarding that which was unenjoyable. Always remembering, some things may be a matter of wrong place, wrong time; it’s not necessarily a never again situation. Then mixing the new with the existing, the familiar and the favourites.

Happy accidents become familiar by deliberately trying to repeat the result. Even with not entirely controllable techniques predictability increases with repetition as you acquire knowledge of the range of possible results, and how you might respond to these.

Spending time looking at what you’ve done, pinpointing what you like and don’t, what you might try again and won’t, is part of the journey. Don’t throw things out too soon, in the emotion of the moment. Do it dispassionately at a later date.

It should be like pure science, research to see what happens and to learn, driven by curiosty, rather than applied science, driven by a desired outcome. Intertwined but with different approaches, hopes and expectations, for different times and projects.

Paint, play, ponder, paint, that’s my path.

In an interview I read earlier today, author Susan Steinberg describes her writing process in a way that I think fits painting and drawing too, of it emerging not coming out fully formed first time:

“There are several writers who have told me that they assume that when I sit down to write, that I write a sentence and then I don’t move on until that sentence is perfect. And then I write the next sentence and that’s how I write. And when they find out that that I make the biggest mess you can imagine. I just write and write and it doesn’t always make sense and I go really far out there and then pull back and start to pare it down.”
(source: Susan Steinberg on the Value of Writing an Ugly Draft by Diane Cook, Literary Hub, 23 August 2019)

Updated Advice on Acrylic Paint to Water Ratio

Paint Brushes
Artist Marion Boddy-Evans in her studio

There’s now one less thing to worry about when painting, and it’s how much water you can or should mix with acrylic paint without ruining its adhesion. Golden Artist Colors (a USA employee-owned company renowned for its artist’s quality paint and techical info) have updated their advice:

“For years our standard advice was that a 1:1 ratio was very safe for most of our paints and mediums; plus, it had the advantage of being easy to remember while greatly erring on the side of caution. However, our current testing shows you can go a lot further than that before encountering significant issues. Just how far? We think you will be surprised.”

The article gets into the specifics, but for me this is the takeaway:

“We got no adhesion failure of any of our paints, no matter how thinned down with water, when applied on top of acrylic gesso.”

In the FAQ on thinning acrylics I wrote for Painting.About.com in 2006 (my original version, as here, not the current surreal rewritten-by-who-knows-who version) I’d said this:

“When it comes to thinning acrylics, the only ‘rule’ is to not mix acrylic paint with more than 50 per cent water. Any more than this and it may loose its adhesive qualities and peel off at some stage. You can mix in as much acrylic medium (glazing, texture paste, etc) as you like because it’s got the acrylic resin in it that acts as the ‘glue’ that makes the paint ‘stick’. (Golden describe their mediums as ‘colorless paint’! )”

If painting on a large canvas, I tend to use glazing medium as well as water to thin paint because in addition to adding “glue” it also increases working time (slows drying). Mostly I simply don’t think about it, and merrily spray paint with water to make it drip and run.

Where I have encountered adhesion issues is with water-thinned acrylic ink lifting as I brush over it, despite being touch dry. Leaving it overnight helps, presumably as the paint binder then cures. I sometimes then also apply a layer of glazing medium with a soft brush, leaving this overnight again, before continuing on top. But mostly if I find it’s lifting — you see the colour appearing on the brush — I just keep going and deal with it.

Minch Seascape painting horizon

The Wrong Side of the Paper?

“Does a sheet of paper have a right and a wrong side” is one of those questions that I think gets answered with that frustrating “it depends”.

It depends whether there’s any texture to the surface and whether it’s primed painting paper or not. The latter is the easy: it will be primed on one side only, so that’s the “right side” (not that you can’t use the other side too). The former depends on which texture you like the best., you can use either.

The watercolour paper I’m using (350gsm Seawhite of Brighton NOT) has a gridded texture on one side and slight bumps on the other. I mostly prefer the latter, because I find the grid can tell a contradictory story if I end up highlighting it with, for example, wet paint catching on the ridges as it dries vertically, by dry brushing, or using oil pastel run across the surface lightly.

In the photo below you see the difference between the two sides (click on the photo to enlarge it). I was working on two A3 sheets side by side, and inadvertently had one the wrong way around.

Is it a difference most other people would notice? Probably not. Would someone else prefer the side I think is the “wrong” side? Probably. Does it matter. No. The right side is the side you like, and if anyone says otherwise they’re on the wrong side.

What are your thoughts? Post a comment below.

PS: A big thank you to Christine M; you know why.

How I Do It : Splattering Paint

So having discovered my phone has a slow-motion option on its videos, I’ve been playing with it a bit. This short clip shows how I splatter paint, a technique I use a lot for my sheep and seascape paintings.

It’s a “happy accident” technique you learn to control through practice. The consistency of the paint is crucial, and that you learn through trial-and-error.

If you don’t see the video above, click on this link.

The quality of the video isn’t brilliant because it was done late afternoon in low winter light. And imagine my phone balance precariously on my tripod, held by various bulldogclips. Perhaps I ought to set a Patreon goal that relates to better video equipment?

The Rule of Odds

Monsieur P big pencil

Monsieur P big pencilThe Rule of Odds in art runs along the lines of “whatever odd thing you do, people will put it down to your being arty”.

No, wait, that’s the Rule of Oddbods.

The Rule of Odds in art is that a composition will be more dynamic if there’s an odd number of elements in the composition, say three or seven, rather than an even number, say two or six. The reasoning is that having an odd number  means your brain can’t pair them up or group them as easily, that there’s somehow always one thing left over, which keeps your eyes moving across the composition.

Why do we pair things up naturally? Perhaps it’s because our body is designed in pairs: two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, and so on. (Okay, only one nose, but it’s got two nostrils!) Whether we’re painting apples, apple trees, or apple-eating creatures (aka still-life, landscape, or figures), the same Rule of Odds applies.

Take a look at the brushes in the jar in these two versions of a painting.

Rule of odds and evens in art

If I asked you to count the brushes in the left-hand photo, you’d likely be able to do so quickly — once glance and you’ve taken it all in. Whereas in the right-hand version you’d have to spend a little more time and you may, ultimately, be uncertain because some brushes are hidden behind others — you’re spending longer looking and engaging with the composition.

It’s the Rule of Odds in action. That I painted this scene at all, well that’s the Rule of Oddbods.

If a Paint Tube Cap Breaks

“I have a question regarding acrylic paint in tubes. When the lid breaks, as it so often does on a new tube, is it okay to keep the paint in a small glass jar and should I add water to it to keep it from going solid.” — Lyn

Yes, and if the lid is airtight you shouldn’t have to add water to it. You’ll easily tell if it’s drying though, and then a little water does the trick, just don’t leave it for weeks before you check! If in doubt, put a piece of clingfilm over the top before screwing on the lid for a tighter seal.

It’s worth saving caps from used-up tubes as spares (in wherever you put your tubes, not in a never-to-be-found-again safe place). Also check the size of other things with caps, starting with your toothpaste, as often while the cap itself is bigger overall than a paint tube’s but the screw thread is the same size.

If you’re in a hurry, invert the tube in a container with a little water, enough to cover the broken cap.

Paint Tubes From My Stash Skye Artist

Did I Stop Too Late? (or When is a Painting Finished?)

When is a Painting Finished? Step 2

When is a painting finished is one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions. I usually say “sooner rather than later” because you can always add to a painting tomorrow. But conversely, if you don’t push a painting past a certain point, how do you develop? The danger is to under-work a painting for fear of over-working it.

These photos are from a painting where I was consciously thinking of this. I’d set out with the intention of using opaque colours on top of transparent, to explore the possibilities. (It partly comes from looking at Joan Eardley‘s paintings again.) At various points in the painting I very nearly stopped because I really liked where it was. But instead I kept going because I wanted to go further, to see where the journey might lead.

Should I have stopped painting at this point:

When is a Painting Finished? Step 1
Acrylic ink on A2 paper. Payne’s grey and a yellow.

Or should I have stopped painting at this point:
When is a Painting Finished? Step 2

Or should I have stopped painting at this point:
When is a Painting Finished? Step 3

Or should I have stopped painting at this point: When is a Painting Finished? Step 4

This is where I did stop (the changes to the step above are minimal): When is a Painting Finished?

Was it the right point to stop painting? Yes, in that I like the result, the layers of colour, the opaque colour over transparent, and that I pursued the version of the painting I had envisaged when I started through several points at which I was tempted to stop. No, because I regret I don’t have that minimalist version in the very first photo.

I could have stopped and started a new version to push further. Would I still have ended up at the same final point with the interruption(s)? That’s impossible to know and ultimately not the right question to be asking. The better question is: how do I feel about what I did do and where I ended up, not what I might have done but didn’t.