Art Materials

Nature is one of the best places from which to gather reference. I've been working on a piece that is set during twilight. Using my memory, I made several attempts at a twilight color and value scheme in color studies but the look and feel just wasn't coming across. I was trying to get that feeling of the gauzy, dusty, purplish-blue light that seems to cover everything in certain twilight situations I've seen here in Minnesota.

I needed more information. I needed to do some studies from life.

oil paint studies of a creature in twilightA toy dinosaur of similar color to the creature in my painting made a great stand-in set up outside at twilight. The three attempts all happened on different nights with relatively clear sky because there's only about 30-45 minutes to study the general twilight lighting I wanted.
First attempt: Painted all in natural light outside. Toy, canvas, and paint all under the same natural light. When I brought everything inside, the painted study looked like the toy in regular light.
Second attempt: Painted from memory, and using the first study as a guide for shapes. I thought dusty purple was the way to go for the light parts but it still didn't look right.
Third attempt: I set up outside again. The toy was in natural light. I purchased a two-headed LED music stand clip-on light to shine on my canvas and palette. The packaging doesn't list the Kelvin temperature of the light. To me it seems to be a fairly neutral "white light" if not maybe shifted a little cool. Either way, this made a huge difference for my twilight study. I was able to separate what I was seeing on the toy from what I was painting. I like this third attempt the best and will be using the information I gathered about values and colors in my imaginative piece.

Colors used: Permalba White, Winsor Yellow (PY4), Gamblin Quinacridone Magenta (PR122), Gamblin Manganese Blue Hue (PB 15:4), Gamblin Napthol Scarlet (PR 188), Winsor & Newton Permanent Green (PY 138, PG7, PW6), Utrecht Ultramarine Blue (PB29). The first two studies I used pretty much all these colors. The third attempt I used primarily the white, yellow, magenta, and manganese blue hue.

While searching the internet for tips on plein air painting at night, or nocturnes, or plein air at twilight, I found James Gurney's post about painting at night Thanks Mr. Gurney! He lists several different little lights. I ended up going to my local music store and purchased a portable, battery operated, dual-head gooseneck music stand light.

oil painting plein air box with canvas on board and light shining on it
My plein air set up with the clip-on dual-head gooseneck led light


A few of my bristle brushes have splayed out so I experimented on how to reshape them.

On most bristle brushes, the hairs have a slight natural curve to them. But with use they get out of shape. In "Painter's Handbook: Revised and Expanded" by Mark David Gottsegen, he suggests wrapping the bristles in a wax paper sleeve (after cleaning the brushes of course). I couldn't get the paper to stay put so I taped the wrapped brushes to a piece of old mat board. Then I smushed the brushes with another piece of mat board and clipped the edges. Brushes Wrapped with Wax Paper

Lightly Pressed Brushes

This did reshape some of them, a few didn't seem affected, and one is just too far gone. It was nicely reshaped the next day, but as soon as I got a bit of paint and OMS on it the bristles splayed out again (too much dried paint up in the ferrule probably from a rushed day). If I try this again, maybe I'll tape the wax paper sleeve to the ferrules so the brushes doesn't slip out.

Next I'll probably try what The Master's Brush Cleaner company recommends with their product (leaving a clean lather in the bristles to reshape it, let it dry, and then shake the powder off when you're ready to paint). This would be fore bristle brushes. I have no idea how or if this would work with sable brushes. (This isn't the only cleaner out there, do some research and see what you like).

Side note: If you do an internet search you can easily find many ideas for how to care for natural hair oil painting brushes. They all involve these general steps: wiping excess paint off the brush onto a rag and getting the paint out of the bristles using some sort of solvent (getting pretty much all the paint out of the brush before you lather it up so you're not sending paint down the drain or washing your brush with paint and soap), then cleaning and reshaping the brush with some sort of soap/brush cleaner.

For my most recent project I've been drawing on Dura-Lar. It was suggested by another artist who has had excellent results with the stuff.

sneak peekI'm using the .005 matte film. Like with the vellum I used for previous projects, I drew my lines on one side and am building up values on the other. I like doing this because I can preserve my lines while adding values, and then obliterate the lines if and when I choose. It gives me more freedom to experiment with values.

various pencils, eraser, blending stump, paper towel, lead pointerThis particular piece has a foggy setting so I've been doing a lot of smearing and blending.

First I sprinkled the graphite dust from the Staedtler lead pointer (#1) onto the surface. (I figure the dust is there from sharpening my leads so why not use it for something fun).
Then I smeared it around with a paper towel (#2). This brand of towel has some texture so the smearing gave me interesting stripes and streaks. Totally a "happy accident". I also have been using the blending stump (#4) to move the graphite around.

#3 in the image is a B 2mm lead in a lead holder. I used that and an HB 2mm lead to do the line work.

#5 is an HB graphite stick. I hadn't been using it because on the paper I draw on this graphite stick leaves a light mark and I feel like I have to fight with it to build up values. For some reason I decided to give it a shot on the film and was pleasantly surprised by the lovely mid-value tone it left. I've sanded this one down to a chisel tip which is now rounded out from use.

#6 is a Creatacolor Nero etrasoft pencil. I'm using it for the deep accents of dark.

#7 is a General's Layout Extra Black No. 555. I'm using it for enhancing some of the darker values.

I've also tried the Derwent Drawing Ivory Black pencil. It leaves a lovely rich black on the Dura-Lar but the mark looks matte. The other tools leave shiny marks. I'll decide if I like that or not later. It not, I'll need to figure out how to make it look matte.

#8 is my well used nubbin of a kneaded eraser. I've also been using vinyl erasers. The other quality I'm liking about the Dura-Lar is that I can erase repeatedly and I haven't damaged the surface or creased the sheet.

Because of it's durability, I suspect if I create a real dud of a picture, I'm betting I could wipe it down and use it as a starting point for a new picture. That would be an interesting experiment.

I'm not saying this polyester film is the best thing ever. There are a lot of characteristics I'm liking such as that lovely surface that feels like I'm drawing on satin, and there are some things I'm not sure about because I don't have enough information (the environmental aspects of polyester vs. paper). You can make up your own mind. Here's a link to the Dura-Lar product page I purchased my pad from Wet Paint over in St. Paul.

Happy creating

a photo of many drawing pencilsIn the context of getting ideas out and working out a picture, one of the things I learned at The Atelier was that maybe the media is in the way.

There are many things happening when I'm generating ideas and working out a picture (I'm guessing others have a similar experience). I'm sorting out thoughts in my head, maybe writing down key words or phrases to help the idea along, and trying to make the pencil or other media make marks.

If the mark making tool I'm using is difficult to use, getting the idea out on paper feels more difficult. For example, if I'm trying to write and the pen I'm using gets stuck or drags, so do my thoughts. On the other hand, if the pen I'm using glides across the page, I experience more flow of thoughts.

I'm not saying there's a perfect tool out there that will allow the ideas to flow freely and effortlessly and every picture will be AMAZING. What I'm suggesting is this, if getting ideas out seems overly frustrating, maybe experiment with different media, different tools. I try this out sometimes (I'd like to experiment more).

Other sticking points are that my skills aren't up to where my tastes and idea expectations are set, or that I haven't used a certain media enough to be comfortable with it. I'm thinking both of these will take practice, not being afraid of my mistakes, and a plentiful amount of play, experimentation, and doodling to get familiar with the media. I hope to remind myself of this next time I start a project.

Then there's what a tool does for me. Right now I know I think best when creating thumbnail sketches with pencil rather than on the computer. Using a soft pencil lets me skate across the page and makes getting ideas out a little easier. For getting myself in a more open, playful mindset I'm liking kid's crayons which require some effort to make marks because there's some serious drag on the paper and when layering crayon, but I'm willing to trade that physical awkwardness for the mental playground.

There are plenty of resources defining lightfast but I wanted to know what it looked like when something wasn't lightfast.

I wanted to use brown ink as a sketch tool by filling a Niji Waterbrush with it. I was told by one of the sales people at the art supply store that pigment-based ink would clog up the brush and that I should use dye-based ink instead. But I really wanted to use the pigment-based ink because, from what I read, I knew it was more lightfast than the dye-based ink. I wanted to see for myself what the difference was.

I did an experiment based on one of the lightfast tests described in "The Painter's Handbook, Revised and Expanded" by Mark David Gottsegen, 2006, published by Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. I deviated a bit by using thick, white, acid free paper from my sketch book instead of rag paper. On the paper I scribbled two rows of graphite pencil. Then all the way across one row I painted some pigment-based ink and then going down I created a wash with the ink and water. I repeated this process on the second graphite row with the dye-based ink. Next I cut the sheet in half. I taped the loose half in a south facing window where the ink and paper would be hit with the most sunlight. The other half stayed in my sketchbook out of the light.

I checked the strip after about 24 hours and was surprised to see that the dye-based ink had faded to a value of about 60-70% from the original dark brown. The pigment-based ink had a barely noticeable loss of color or value.

Day 2 and 3 showed no noticeable loss in either strip.

Day 4 the pigment-based ink still didn't appear to have changed much. The dye-based ink appeared to have lost a lot more color and value. It was down to about 30% of its original quality.

Day 5, 6, and 7 the pigment-based ink still didn't have a visible change but the dye-based ink appeared orange. Wow, how interesting. I was not expecting that.

a strip of paper with a stripe of brown pigment-based ink over graphite pencil marks and a strip of dye-based brown ink over graphite pencil marksI left the strip in the window for over a month and there wasn't much noticeable change to the colors after day 7. The paper did get lighter and possibly a little yellow compared to the half I left in the sketchbook.

I don't take this result to mean that all my sketches done with pigment-based ink will last forever. There are many variables that affect the longevity of a picture besides the lightfastness of the pigments used. I interpret the result as: if I want my sketches to have a good chance of looking as I intended for a long time (if I put any of them on display) I should stick with my original thought of using the pigment-based ink.

Frustrated with getting marks on paper or keeping a journal? Here's one idea to help ease the frustration: crayons!

Yup, wax crayons.

Here's what I noticed this does for me:
It changes my mindset to one more of play time, a child-like mind of exploring and just being and making.
It removes some of the rules.
It gives me permission to take the whole process less seriously.

Then I gave myself an assignment to focus my practice: color studies.
I'm doing color studies, with his permission, of photos by my friend David Ginsberg. His work is very inspiring and a joy to look at. He paints with light and his eye for color and composition is stunning. His range of design is excellent. Some pieces lean to the abstract, some are more narrative. You can find his work at He does have prints available so don't be shy in contacting him.

crayon color studies on tan toned paper
Color studies done in crayon of photos by David Ginsberg. I'm still learning about how I can layer crayon so I think in some of these I could push the darks darker.

I think doing color studies is helpful in figuring out composition. They offer the opportunity to puzzle out balance, flow, leading the eye, value design, and color design. Doing them in wax crayon forces me to simplify the values, the shapes, and to think more on color relationships and temperatures. I think this is helping me think more in terms of design rather than replicating what I'm seeing and I'm enjoying it.

The studies I've done so far are mainly from Dave's "American Light" collection and one from "Driving Eastward"

Here's a small version of one of his photos from "American Light" to give you an idea of the excellence in Dave's images.

mystery filled photo of a path through bamboo by david ginsberg
"The Bamboo Road" Copyright 2010 by David Ginsberg

So if you're feeling stuck with your mark making, maybe try changing up your media. You might discover something enjoyable.

You need to enlarge and transfer a drawing to your canvas but your usual printing service is currently unavailable. Not a problem. My solution: tiling.

I scan my drawing and resize it to the desired painting size in Photoshop, keeping the resolution somewhere between 150 - 250 ppi. This resolution works just fine on my home office printer. My goal being I want to have a fairly clean, not fuzzy print of the art.

Next I chop up the image in Photoshop, leaving about 1" of overlap where the sections will be joined together.

Here's a screen shot of the image in Photoshop. The blue lines are guides so I can see the 1" overlap and keep it consistent when I cut up the image to make 4 separate images.

Then I print each section out on regular 8.5"x11" 20 lb printer paper. Some programs and printers can do this for you but my printer doesn't have that feature so this solution works great for me.


(Edit: a friend pointed out that there's another way to print the image in pieces. She wrote: Save as a .pdf in the size you want to print and open in Acrobat [I tried it out in Acrobat Reader]. When you select print it will give you the option to print as a poster on multiply sheets including asking about how much overlap you want. Also, if you need to drop a grid overlay on an image, Gimp makes it easy and free. Go to Filters>Render>Pattern>Grid. You can adjust the thickness of the lines and the size of the grid squares. The grid makes lining up pages easier, too.)

Next: tiling.

Don't have a light box, or your light box isn't big enough? No problem, use a window. I tape up the first piece (top right portion of the full picture) onto the window, then with the paper back lit from the window I can align the drawing as I place the additional pieces. I'm using the cheap blue house painters tape but I suspect you could use masking tape. Clear plastic tape might pose a problem when transferring because it's a little too rigid. I want something that won't resist my hard pencil or pen.

I cut away excess white paper where a sheet is placed on top of the previous sheet of paper. This helps align the drawing.



I trim the upper and right edges of the final piece so there's clean overlap.

The last piece. I trim away the excess paper on the upper and right edges so I have clean alignment with the pieces it will lay over.
I put tape on the back of the connection piece, hanging over the edge a bit so the final piece can be stuck to it.

I tape both the front side along the overlap seams, as well as behind. In this way I overlap and connect the 4 sections without leaving too much flapping around. I don't put a long strip of tape along the seams because it interferes too much when I transfer. I'm going to move a few of the pieces of tape on the back into areas where there aren't any lines, or at the very least reduce the size of the tape.

Front of the tiled image still taped to the window.

Now I have a full image ready to transfer to my painting surface. I'm really looking forward to painting this one!

The full image tiled.

I've been told not to paint with regular cooking oil. It's isn't a drying oil. Instead of just accepting this I got curious.

raw umber oil paint test swatches to test drying time of raw umber by itself, with galkyd lite, with walnut alkyd, and with cooking oil by christine mitzuk
Raw Umber oil paint swatches to test drying time of paint, paint with mediums, and paint with cooking oil.

Yesterday I made a little test. I used Raw Umber oil paint (it's one of the faster drying oil colors on it's own). The brand I used has alkali refined linseed oil as the vehicle for the pigment. I used a piece of acrylic primed cotton duck canvas. As for thickness of paint, I covered the canvas so none could be seen through the paint but not so thick that I left brush strokes (except for one accidental spot on the Walnut Alkyd test swatch).

I painted the swatches about 2pm yesterday and checked them about 12:30pm today. Here's what they're like today.

Raw Umber Oil Paint, just paint. Dry to the touch. A little paint came up when I wiped the swatch with a piece of paper towel but not enough to see the canvas.

Raw Umber plus some Galkyd Lite (by Gamblin). Dry to the touch. No paint came up when I wiped the swatch with a piece of paper towel.

Raw Umber plus Walnut Alkyd Medium (by M. Graham & Co.). Dry to the touch except for the one spot where left a slight buildup of paint. That one spot was a little tacky and a teeny bit of paint came up when I touched that one spot. A teeny bit of paint came up when I wiped the flatter area of the swatch with a paper towel, barely discoloring it, but not enough to see the canvas.

a test swatch mixing raw umber oil paint with cooking oil to see if it stays wetRaw Umber plus cooking oil (I used a store brand I had lying around that's made from soybean oil). Tacky and wet. Quite a bit of paint came up when I wiped the swatch with a paper towel. I'm curious if this will ever dry so I'll check it again once a day for the next few days and then maybe once a week for a few weeks. Maybe results would differ if this were a different cooking oil. I still wouldn't recommend painting with cooking oil. We'll see what happens.

March 16, 2016 Update: I checked the swatch of Raw Umber mixed with cooking oil again one and two days after the original blog post.

March 10, 2016 (one day after the post). the paint was only slightly tacky to the touch and very little came up on a paper towel (only a slight discoloration of the paper towel).

March 11, 2016 (two days after the post). The paint was dry to the touch. Only a faint, whisper of color rubbed off on a paper towel dragged across the swatch.

This result is different than what I expected. I thought it would take weeks if not months to dry. Why?

The cooking oil ingredient is "soybean". According to "The Painter's Handbook: Revised and Expanded", by Mark David Gottsegen, 2006, "It [soybean oil] dries much more slowly than linseed oil but has been successfully incorporated into synthetic binders to ensure flexibility (see p. 79)". So soybean oil does dry but slower than linseed oil which I suppose would explain why this swatch dried slower than the swatch of just paint. However, I would NOT use regular soybean oil for painting. As far as I know, it isn't refined into a professional grade oil painting medium so I doubt if a painting created in such a way could be permanent. I want to be known to create quality, professional oil paintings so I will NOT be using this oil to paint with. I will stick with using professional grade artist oil painting mediums.

Mr. Gottsegen also writes about "semidrying oils" (which include corn, olive, peanut, and other types of vegetable oil"  and "nondrying oils" which include motor oil or castor oil (see p. 77). He points out that both these categories of oils are impermanent and should not be used for painting. I think he makes a very valid point that although these materials might be less expensive, "is your reputation worth the money? (see p. 79)."

If you want to know more about art materials, how to stretch your own canvas, how to protect and store art, artist health and safety, I highly recommend this book. It's my go-to resource for topics like this blog post. Gottsegen, Mark David. "The Painter's Handbook: Revised and Expanded". New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006.

bottle of walnut oil alkyd oil paint medium and a bottle of safflower oilI needed a solution for painting without solvents so I turned to M. Graham's Walnut Alkyd Medium, an Artists' Oil Medium. There are several options out there but this is one of the products I have on hand.

I'll be doing an oil painting demo at a sci-fi fantasy convention in a few weeks. When I paint in my studio I have more control over the ventilation but at the convention there will not be any windows to open, no good way to refresh the air, and the space I'll be painting in is fairly small.

I usually use Gamblin Odorless Mineral Spirits(OMS) because they say it has the lowest evaporation rate of the artist OMS currently available. But still, I can smell it as well as the Galkyd Lite. Both contain petroleum distillates. I decided painting without either of these products would be best choice in this situation for myself and others in the space. I chose to try M. Graham's Walnut Alkyd Medium. I've been meaning to give it a shot for a while so now seemed like a great opportunity. I like it for what I'm going to use it for.

Dry time.

white unicorn head on a light blue background painted by christine mitzuk painted in oils with walnut alkyd medium
Unicorn Head Study

The paint plus the Walnut Alkyd Medium dries slower than when I use Galkyd Lite but that's ok. I'm not on a deadline. When I use Galkyd Lite my paint is usually dry in about a day or less, but I don't trowel on the paint.

I made this unicorn study last Saturday (about 4 days ago). Sunday the paint was still a bit wet. Monday the blue was dry to the touch, but the yellows mixed with white were tacky, and the whites were wet. Tuesday the yellowish areas were pretty much dry and the whites were tacky. Today (Wednesday) it is all dry to the touch.

If you want to know the colors. I used : Gamblin flake white replacement (just because I had it lying around) Winsor & Newton Mars Violet Deep (I had been wanting to try this color for a long time), and Yellow Ochre, Daniel Greene Naples Yellow and Manganese blue (got the last 2 on clearance ages ago. Not my favorite Naples yellow but it's a nice color).
If you want to know the colors. I used : Gamblin flake white replacement (just because I had it lying around) Winsor & Newton Mars Violet Deep (I had been wanting to try this color for a long time), and Yellow Ochre, Daniel Greene Naples Yellow and Manganese blue (got the last 2 on clearance ages ago. Not my favorite Naples yellow but it's a nice color).

This time I used Gamblin's Flake White Replacement which is Titanium dioxide and that seems to dry a bit slower for me. I could be applying it thicker than the other areas.

I like the consistency.

For my more finished paintings I like to be able to blend colors, have crisp or soft edges where I need them, and not leave many peaks of paint. The medium helps thin the paint down and allows me to blend a little easier. It made my painting fairly shiny all over. There is one spot that's a little dull so either I didn't use the same amount of medium in that spot or that's where I touched the painting to test for dryness. I'll go over it again with a glaze of some color and walnut medium to even out the sheen.

Easy clean up.

photo of a silicoil brush cleaning jar with safflower oil in it
I have several brush cleaning jars. This one is a Silicoil with Safllower oil (with a tape label describing what's in the jar). I have another with odorless mineral spirits in it (OMS), and still another with cooking oil in it. I don't use them all, all of the time but when I've tried something and kind of like it, why throw it away? The jar of OMS seems to work best for cleaning brushes I've used with Galkyd Lite.

I didn't use solvent for clean up this time. I wiped any excess paint off my brushes with a paper towel like I usually do. Then cleaned out the remaining paint as best I could in my Silicoil jar filled with Safflower oil. Then I washed my brushes with brush soap and water. For the convention I'll just clean my brushes in the safflower oil and wash them when I get home.

Why safflower oil? It's relatively inexpensive and it's a painting oil. I could have purchased some walnut oil or poppy oil but at the time I bought it it was the least expensive painting oil. Why not use the walnut painting medium to clean my brushes? Because it has alkyd added to it which is a dryer and I don't want to goop up my brushes. Why not use regular old cooking oil for clean up? I certainly could do that. In fact I've tried that in the past and I was able to get the oil paint out of my brushes but I had to wash them really really well when I was done (they felt slimy after the first soapy wash). Cooking oil isn't a painting oil, basically it doesn't dry. If I got any of that cooking oil in my painting, it wouldn't really dry well or it would remain tacky.

Side note: when I worked at an art supply store a customer came in with a problem. He had used cooking oil as his painting medium and it wasn't drying so he was hoping to make it dry after the fact.

Other Products

The only other solvent free painting I've done was with the Solvent-Free Gel by Gamblin. I used it on a plein air study. It was great because it was portable (I have a tiny tube). For the plein air study I liked it because I retained my brush strokes of a fairly heavy application of paint. The final study is very glossy though. Maybe I used too much of the medium. I'll have to try it again some time.

Gamblin also has a Solvent-Free Fluid which I haven't tried yet. I've heard good things about it from another artist so maybe I'll give it a shot at some point.

If anyone knows of other mediums or ways to reduce solvent use, I'd love to hear about them.

Happy painting :)

Edit 05/07/2016: ideas for solvent free painting are from Gamblin and from "The Painter's Handbook Revised and Expanded" by Mark David Gottsegen, published by Watson-Guptil Publications/New York, 2006.

Sometimes I need more information to complete a picture but don't have the budget or time to do an elaborate maquette or huge amounts of research. Kneaded eraser to the rescue! This thing has been stalactites, stalagmites, tombstones, a sci-fi piece of diagnostic tech, and various creatures. By sculpting something basic out of it I can get the angle of view and lighting I want. Other times I've used Sculpey to get a bit more detail.

Here are a few examples of the very helpful kneaded eraser. The plastic cover on the art book acted as a handy substitute for water reflections

mitzuk_kneadederaser1 mitzuk_kneadederaser2








I used these "stalagmites" in "Scorpio"

scorpio image created by christine mitzuk for llewellyn's 2015 astrological calendar









I used this kneaded tombstone in "Voodoo Queen (Woman of Power)"








Like a lot of things, making pictures requires flexibility in thinking and using what's available. To my mind, any tool that has more than one use is money well spent.