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  • Writer's pictureJessica Nacovsky

46: How I Paint (an update)

Howdy! The last time I posted about my painting methods was about a year ago and I've made some changes since then. Namely, rather than a digital collage, I now make a physical collage, and edit that digitally, before painting. I've also given up painting outside. The new apartment lacks a fenced/roofed off patio, and between the wind and the intense reflection of the fence on my Ipad screen, it wasn't working. This is less a how-to, and more of a how-I do.

In short:

I collage interesting elements found in magazines, until I've built an interesting composition. Then I scan that collage, bringing it into to photoshop for any editing, where I enlarge the image file to 16 x 20 inches. Generally, this is when I simplify the color scheme and remove any white noise. Then, I grid both the photoshopped image and the canvas, into 16 x 20 inch boxes. I arrange the colors in order of the rainbow around my palette and copy the digital mockup onto the canvas with oil paint. The first day of painting, I draw the composition outlines, using the grid as a tool. Then, with that layer touch-dry, I move onto painting swatches of color, with my mockup as my guide. The final day is spent touching up any mistakes. A goal, when I paint, is to place pigment confidently. By that, I mean I want to lay the paint in each area of canvas once. With the stroke down, ideally, I'd like never to have to touch that space with another stroke, or any other means of adjusting. If I had to name my style, I'd call it painting with confidence, because while I'm often not, this method is me trying to be.

The longer version:

To start with, I keep a piece of paper ready that is about 8x10 inches. That's the proportions of most of my canvases and that's the size my collage will be. I cut interesting images from magazines/brochures/fliers and arrange them to fill that size paper. I cut a more adequate background to match the final size and tape/glue the elements to that. Neatness is not a priority. Compositionally, I'm creating an illusion, but craft wise, the collage is not the finished piece. Tape lines are okay.

Collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear
Collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear

Then, I scan the collage and open the jpg file into photoshop, or more recently,, a free alterative. I enlarge the digital canvas to 16x20 inches and drag the image layer until it fits the canvas, being careful not to alter its proportions. I play with the brightess/saturation/contrast/etc until the composition has a balance between interest and readability. I save a version of the file. Some of my earlier paintings suffered a vagueness of subject matter do to the transparencies I was attempting. My new pieces shouldn't.

Once the composition looks right, I place a grid across it, dividing the image into inch x inch boxes. I save a gridded version of the file.

Digitally edited collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear
Digitally edited collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear. Here, I flipped the image vertically, to see if the composition was working, and liked it better flipped, so kept it that way.

Once I have my digital collage ready, and a separate gridded version of the same image, I upload them to Google Docs to access from the Ipad. Then I set the Ipad where it’s accessible and visible by my easel to match it while I paint. Before I copy the digital collage onto my canvas, I paint the canvas in a base coat of acrylic paint in a color I don't mind showing between swatches of oil paint in the finished piece (green for a nighttime ghostly glow, red for a warm palette, black is almost always a safe go-to, etc), and once that's dry, I grid the 16x20 inch canvas into 1 inch x 1 inch squares. The grid color shouldn’t be too far off from the canvas color otherwise it will show through the oils. I used to use Prismacolor pencil but have switched to crayon. Both work, but the crayons are cheaper. I don't use 2B pencils because the lines are too crisp and show through light areas of paint.

My palettes are wooden and I cover them with tin foil before laying down color. It's easier to mix, and lift color from the palette when the palette is perfecting flat. Allowing paint to dry on the palette creates an uneven texture that will result in wasting more paint later on. I arrange my palette with oil paints in order of the rainbow. This makes mixing colors later easier, though I always seem to run out of space anyway. When mixing colors, I use a palette knife.

Then I paint with oils, matching my grid. The first day, I’ll quick-sketch the outline with a thin brush. The second day, once the outline is touch-dry, I begin with high saturation, very light, colors, such as white, yellow, paler skin tones, etc, and work my way to darker or muddier colors. If there are areas where white touches dark and a crisp border is needed, having those light area dry first can prevent unseemly mixing layer. I have a preference for seeing the medium in play, so I prefer some raised strokes. If I have a wide area that should read without my being too precious, I might use a palette knife. When I'm done with a session, I leave it on the drying rack. I put my palette in the freezer to preserve it.

Digitally edited collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear, outlined on canvas in oil paint
Collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear, outlined on canvas in oil paint

Digitally edited collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear, outlined, somewhat filled in, on canvas in oil paint
Digitally edited collage of blue man, photo, sunflower, child, and bear, outlined, some filled in, on canvas in oil paint

When my painting is done, I plop it on the drying rack, which is in my laundry room. I don’t let my paintings dry outside for fear of how the humidity might affect them, and to shield them from pollen and insects. Van Gogh may have gotten away with it but I suspect potential buyers would be turned off by a grasshopper in the finished piece.

It's a guy with a blue face, in a red-orange cloak, holding up a picture of three happy children, while a blue boy looks at him, before a background of sky and sunflowers
Here's the finished painting! Cycle Breaker, Oil on Canvas, 20x16 inches

Were I a better planner, before so much as gridding my canvas, I’d already have the hooks and wire hung from the back. Alas, I actually don't attach the hooks nor wire myself, and my assistant (*cough* husband *cough) tends to put that task off until I’m about to submit several pieces to a gallery. I’m super grateful he handles the hanging and framing though, as my measuring/tracing skills are lackluster. Precision is not my strong suit. My grids are the perfect example actually, as I don't bother using a ruler while lining the physical canvas unless the piece will be a portrait (meaning precision is necessary).

As for why I stick with 20 x16 inch canvases? The smallest size allowed in my go-to gallery is 12x12 inch so I’ve got to work larger than that, and I’ve found 20 x 16 inch to be reasonably challenging without being overwhelming. That’s my professional sounding reason. The other, less businessy one is that I used to be able to buy them in bulk for an affordable price. I bought nearly all of my art supplies in bulk before the Covid-19 Pandemic. My last batch of canvases, I ordered 40 at a time, I believe from Blick for $96. As you can see, following the link, the price has drastically increased to $158.64 since then. I used to buy Natural Wood color Illusion Floater Frames in packs of 4, from Jerry’s Artarama, but through Amazon for a better price. However, they are no longer sold on Amazon and Jerry's Artarama is usually out, plus, significantly more expensive than three years ago. In other words, I've been putting off restocking my frame supply, but thankfully, I have enough canvases to hold me over a while longer. I've looked into canvases that don't require framing or that come with frames and so far, I'm not convinced they're more cost effective. My paint brushes, which tend to be rounds, and my palette knives, which vary, I buy in packs. We (my assistant and I) buy coated wire off Amazon because we couldn’t find it at Home Depot. The hooks come with the frames. Most of my paint is Windsor Newton. I buy the 200ml, as opposed to the 30ml, because it's more for less. As for my watercolors, I don't have much to say about the process but I will include here that I paint 10 x 8 inch watercolors because while the watercolor paper is not cheapest at that size, frames are. Also, as long as the paper is matte, slightly textures, and not overly thin, I've gotten away with using non-watercolor intended scrapbooks for watercolor.

Anywho, thanks for stopping by! I put out a new blog post every Monday. Toodles!

TL;DR Advice? If you plan your art beforehand, grid it out and use that grid to simplify copying your mockup onto your canvas. When buying supplies, buy bulk whenever possible(but double check the math & make sure it is actually a better deal per unit). Consider the overall cost of your finished project when shopping. If framing is the bigger expense, plan your pieces to be at a size for more affordable frames. Or, create your piece on a surface that doesn't require a frame. If painting on a wood block means no framing, then that wood block is probably worth being more expensive than a canvas would've been, so long as you have the means to hang it.

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