Ideas and techniques for abstract painters


Painting Materials

1. Brushes:

The cheapest brushes with light wood handles and straw coloured bristle usually shed hairs when painting with them so these are good ones to avoid. I prefer the taklon, soft hair brushes. These are well suited to acrylic painting as you can get a flat surface with no texture or textured painting as you choose. They also last well and do not shed hair.

If you use the stiff bristle hair bushes traditionally used for oil painting you will only be able to get textured brush strokes and will not be able to get flat plains of colour. The also carry more paint and tend to get clogged up more than the taklon haired brushes. Taklon brush prices start from around AUD$5 per brush so they are very affordable.

The taklon hair brushes come in a large range of size and are round or flat. The usually have white hair and are not expensive. I recommend having some small round brushes and also larger sized ones. These are great for fine detail and also for dripping washes and running paint on to the canvas because they have a point.

A range of sizes in the flat type are also useful, starting with very small, from a few millimetres and more of the larger sizes which you will use the most such as 1cm and 2cm sizes.

Expensive brushes: There are brushes that cost AUD$40 and more each for a standard size painting brush and have hair from badgers or goats etc, personally I don’t see the value. I have used them and the cheaper ones recommended above work just as well.

2. Paints

The following is a list of colours that are a great basic set.
white (most used, buy a tub rather than a tube)
yellow ochre
lemon yellow
cadmium yellow
crimson red
napthol red
cerulean blue
ultramarine blue
cobalt blue
paynes grey

If painting for the first time I would recommend getting a tub of white, as you will use this most and tubes of the rest. If money is no object then get tubs of all. Paint is one product where you get what you pay for and the investment in good paints makes painting a lot easier and more enjoyable for you, especially if you are a beginner.

Cheap paints, such as primary school grade paints often have thin pigments so it may take 4-5 coats to get solid coverage in one colour on a white canvas. This is time-consuming and frustrating and in the long run it is not worth the trouble of using cheaper paints.

There are colours it is not possible to mix and I recommend you buy them if you want to include them in your paintings. There are a number of jade and turquoise green and blues and also the quincridone colours such as magenta or Quincridone Azo Gold similar to Australian Red Gold.

Recommended Paint Brands:

One of my favourite paints, that I use and highly recommend, is the Golden range of paints. They have fantastic colours, a wonderful thick buttery texture and great coverage on the canvas. I can paint a white canvas in thick red paint and will only need to touch up a few thin areas with one more coat!

The other great feature is that the colours are available in a flow and structure version (liquid cream consistency or super thick). This is a real advantage as you can get the same colour in both ranges which will save you mixing your own. It gives you more flexibility with your painting to have both.

Ara is a French brand of paint that is available in nozzle paint bottles, they have a wonderful range of colours, the paint is thinner than golden as it has to squeeze out the nozzle. The bottles can be used for drawing with paint. It is easy to make thin lines using these and to add line and drawing techniques to your painting. When emptied the Ara bottles can be re-used and filled with colours of your own. The nozzle top can be removed and cleaned out if it clogs up.

Is an Australian brand, it is economical and has a good range of colours. Colours are available in tubs or tubes and it is readily available.

These three brands listed above are all water based and can be mixed with each other to create new colours. The shine may vary between brands and individual paint colours but varnishing or glazing paintings when completed will make them all matt or all gloss, whichever you prefer.

3. Canvases

When I talk about canvases here I am referring to stretcher frames. Again this is another area where you get what you pay for. I only buy good quality canvases. Imagine spending 10 hours working on a painting and then finding that the canvas is warped, the corner edges are not flat and no matter how good your painting the canvas is going to let you down. A disappointing and expensive result because the painting will need to be re-stretched.

When buying canvases look for solid wooden frames (not pressed wood or balsa wood). The frame should not be able to twist by holding the opposite corners. Look along the four edges to see if they are straight and try holding the canvas flat against a wall. If all four corners touch the wall it should be ok. On larger canvases, over 75cm square there needs to be reinforcing in the frame such as a cross-bar or corner brackets.

Cheap canvases can have reasonable quality frames and very cheap canvas. Canvas comes in different weights, they range from 8oz to 10, 12 and 14oz. The 8oz canvas is thinner and the 14oz canvas is thicker. I buy canvas from the roll and prime it myself. The canvas is much better quality than the pre-primed available on most ready-made frames. I prefer 12oz, poly cotton.

Why does it matter?

The thinner cheaper canvas has much more texture, the more expensive canvas has a much finer tooth. If you are painting on a textured canvas it can be difficult to cover the texture, only thick impasto paint all over will cover the texture of the canvas. If you are wanting to achieve good results using washes and glazes the texture of the canvas will really interfere with your painting and you will not be able to get rid of it. On a thin canvas painted with washes, the paint exaggerates the texture of the canvas and detracts from the work.

Specialist art shops will often make canvases to order. You can usually choose between pre-primed and raw canvas which you can prime yourself. If you know a carpenter or handyman see if you can get them to make canvases for you. Buy a good quality canvas to show them what you want. It is easier for a carpenter to make several canvases of the same size as they can set the bench saw up to cut them at the same time. You will need canvas pliers to stretch the canvas over the frame and a staple gun to attach it at the back. Staple guns are available at hardware stores and canvas pliers at specialist art shops.

If you are a beginner you might want to try painting some of your first works on canvas boards.

A little story here to emphasise this point… I was judging an art award with two other artists and we were down to the last few works and having to decide an overall winner. One work, though beautifully painted and wonderfully moody and atmospheric, was done on a cheap canvas that made it look less than professionally presented. At the presentation I spoke with the person who had submitted this work and questioned why they had used a cheap canvas, the reply was, ‘you never know when you are going to do a good work’ and that is the reason you should always use good canvases, because you never know when you are going to do a good work. I have had students do their very first painting and it come out wonderfully. If the work is less than you were expecting then you can always paint over the painting or you can remove the painting and stretch some new canvas over the frame and re-use it. Good quality canvas and frames are a worthwhile investment.

4. Palette

A white palette with a flat surface is good for mixing paints. You can make this yourself out of masonite or a thick plastic off cut. Palettes with fancy french woods and holes to put your thumb through or lots of sections for mixing paints are not that practical. The palettes with lots of sections are really designed for water colours. White ice cream container lids can also be handy. Disposable palettes are also useful but perhaps not so environmentally friendly.

5. Palette Knife

A range of palette knives with different shapes and sizes is essential and like brushes, the cheaper set will do just as well. I use the ones that have a bend in the handle as you tend to get less paint onto your hands. All paint should be mixed with a palette knife not a brush. If you mix paint with a brush, you wear your brushes down prematurely and you also clog up the hairs with paint. The most common way is to mix paints with a palette knife on a palette and then apply with a brush to your canvas.

6. Mediums and Varnish

I find one product here does well for both uses and with additional advantages. A gloss medium and varnish can be used to mix in with your paint to create washes and also can be used to varnish your work when completed. If, at a later point you decide to re-paint some areas or all of the painting you can easily do so and then re-varnish. This is a water based product so there are no toxic fumes and easy clean up. I use either the Golden or Liquitex brands. The golden brand takes longer to dry. Allow a day between coats, two thin coats is sufficient, use straight from the bottle without adding water. Apply one coat from top to bottom and do not re-work after more than a few minutes as the product starts to dry quickly. The Golden has a longer drying time and can be re-worked for longer. Leave several days if you are going to pack works with bubble wrap so the varnish can cure completely otherwise you may have circular marks from the bubble wrap permanently pressed into the varnish.

7. Gel Medium

This is another very versatile product and the cheaper brands seem to work just as well as the more expensive. Gel medium can be mixed with paint to extend it, to create texture by applying it directly to the canvas, as a sealant for collage materials and as a glue to attach materials to your canvas or board. I find one product here does well for all these uses.

8. Glass Jars

Empty jam jars or small to medium-sized jars from olives, salsa dip etc are great to mix your own colours in. Soak the jars to remove the labels and then clean thoroughly. The paints can be mixed directly in the jars and stored securely with the lid fastened. I paint a dab of the colour inside on the lid so the colours are easy to find. This idea works well with tubes as well.

9. Cotton Rags

Cotton rags are very useful, two or three are essential. Make sure they are all cotton, old t-shirts or sheets are good. These can be used to wipe back painted areas on your canvas and to clean up spills. They can also be placed underneath your easel to collect run off when using the wash or dribbling techniques.

10. Artist’s Journal or Visual Diary

This is an invaluable tool for any artist. It is a book of plain cartridge or good drawing paper. They often have spiral binding so you can tear out pages if you want to. Visual diaries come in various sizes, the A4 size or standard photocopy paper size is practical though smaller and larger versions are available.

The visual diary has many uses. It is used to jot down ideas, makes sketches and to list books and artists that you want to look up. I also experiment with colour swatches for paintings and paint them in. You can paste in invitations from exhibitions you have seen and over the years you will develop a whole collection of books full of ideas and inspiration for your paintings. I have a collection of a dozen or so of these books. I use my visual diary to organise exhibitions, the number and sizes of works, to brainstorm ideas for titles and to put in photos of completed works.

As a beginner it is also useful to photograph your work as it progresses and then paste in a series of the photos so you can see the development of your painting. This will help you remember the processes you used in creating it. Sometimes when I wasn’t sure about continuing with a painting or leaving it as it was I would photograph it and then again after the additional work on it was added to see the difference. A visual diary is a must have!

11. Other Mediums

There are hundreds of other mediums on the market that can be used to create texture and different effects with paint. Some will make paint dry slower or add a gritty texture. They are expensive if you start collecting them and in my opinion not really necessary. See the sections on mixed media and techniques for ideas on adding texture to your work.

Health and Safety Tips for the Acrylic Painter’s Studio

Don’t eat, drink or smoke in your painting area
Don’t expose yourself unnecessarily to dangerous chemicals
Don’t work in your bedroom, kitchen or other living area
Don’t wash paint or toxic chemicals down the drain
Don’t work with solvents if you are pregnant (foetal damage may result)
Don’t expose children, pets or friends to solvents and other dangerous art materials
Don’t store art materials in food containers or the domestic fridge
Don’t use eating utensils to mix or store your materials, and don’t prepare or use them in
the kitchen

Safer work practices

What to do with left over paint – scrape excess paint into a jar with a lid to use later, if there isn’t enough to save, scrape it into newspaper and put it in the bin.
Use safer paints where possible (non-toxic or less toxic art materials are available)
Work in a well ventilated area, open an outside door or window, or work outside
Wash your hands when leaving the studio, especially before eating, drinking or smoking
Keep lids on containers and paints when not in immediate use
Label containers clearly

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