Equipment and Tools

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

DIY sculpture stand made from a wood stool, some plumbing parts, part of a laminated shelf, and a hex wrench.

I want to sculpt more but I didn't really have a good spot to do it. Based on the sculpture stands I've seen I created my own.

I wanted something with adjustable height, fairly lightweight, easy to move, stable, and something I could make myself. I can't weld but can handle power tools so the idea of using a wood stool came to mind.

I showed one of the guys at the hardware store what I wanted to do and he suggested a flange from the plumbing section. From there I just poked around the plumbing isle to see what else I could put together. I bounced some ideas off my husband too. He suggested alternating sides when drilling holes for the height adjustment, and found the old hex wrench to use as the peg. He also suggested the coupling to insert into the main hole to create stability for the stand's neck. (Kids you're going to need an adult if you decide to make one of these things).

Items used:
  • a wood stool
  • metal plumbing flange with 1.5" hole
  • 4 bolts with wingnuts, washers
  • 2' section of 1.5" diameter pvc pipe
  • 1.5" diameter pvc coupling (I believe this is what it's called. Basically it looks like a pvc collar without any threading)
  • 1.5" diameter pvc trap adapter
  • PVC Primer and PVC Cement (Read the directions if you decide to use these things. Definitely not for kids.)
  • Gorilla Glue (again, read the directions if you decide to use these things. Also definitely not for kids.)
  • laminated particle board
  • an old hex wrench
  • ruler
  • pencil
  • drill
  • file (to even out the hole I cut in the stool)
  • various drill bits (to make holes in the board for the bolts to fit through, to gouge out the top of the holes a bit so the bolt heads would sink below the board surface, and to drill holes in the pipe for the height adjustment peg)
  • circular saw
  • saw horses
  • hole saw with arbor
  • level
  • rubber mallet
Top of the stand with countersunk bolts.
Top of the stand with countersunk bolts.

I had to cut down the board to a balanced square. Then I measured, and aligned marks for the bolt holes. I countersunk the bolts so when I put an armature on the stand, it'll sit flat. Next I attached the flange to the board with the bolts, washers, and wing nuts.

Next I carefully drilled holes through the pvc pipe, alternating sides.

Underside of the stand where the flange is attached to the board.
Underside of the stand where the flange is attached to the board.

Then we used the PVC Primer, and PVC Cement to attach the trap adapter to the pipe. We let that set up. Then the PVC trap adapter/pipe combo screwed nicely into the flange.

I measured for center, and then cut a hole in the stool seat with the hole saw. We couldn't find a blade the exact size I needed so I had to file down some of the wood to make the hole large enough for the pipe.

The collar, some of the adjustment holes, and the hex wrench used as the adjustment peg.
The collar, some of the adjustment holes, and the hex wrench used as the adjustment peg.

This is where I discovered that the pipe and platform weren't very stable just sitting in the hole. My husband had the brilliant idea to get a pvc collar (turned out what we needed was a pvc coupling) to set into the hole. I sanded a bit more out of the hole in the stool so the coupling could fit in it. Then I prepped the interior of the wood hole and applied the glue to set the coupling. Working quickly I made sure it was level, making adjustments with gentle taps of the rubber mallet. I added a little more glue around the outer seam to make sure that the collar was nice and secure.

And done.

Now I just need to rejigger my studio a bit to make room for it. I'm excited! I wonder what I'll make first...


hanging organizer for file folders made from fabricSlowly but surely I've been getting my work space more organized. Recently I made a file organizer for various projects and tasks. I wanted to use some of the supplies I already had around the house so opted to sew my own (plus I enjoy making things so this worked well for me). I did some searching and found a pretty helpful blog post for sewing my own wall organizer.

For those that are interested, here's the link to the blog post I found for a DIY Fabric Wall Organizer. There are others on the internet, this one just made the most sense to me:

There are a few differences between the organizer I made and the blog post I found. Instead of 3 pockets I wanted 5, and I wanted them to overlap to conserve space. I made the backing fabric a bit longer to fit 5 pockets. With a little trial and error and I learned what I needed to do to make this work. I followed most of the directions from the Spoonflower blog post but to get the pockets to overlap I started with the top pocket first. I figured out how much overlap I wanted for each pocket (I positioned and pinned all pockets in place, measured as I went along, then removed them all except the top pocket, #1). I basted the sides of pocket #1 first, then stitched along the bottom only between the two folded sides, being careful not to stitch over the gussets. Then I added one pocket at a time, following a similar procedure to how I attached pocket #1. I placed one pocket at a time. The folded gussets tucked nicely into each other as I overlapped each pocket.

The other difference is that I didn't have any grommets large enough so instead I used a bit of the bias tape to create a loop at the top. I did 2 rows of stitching to reinforce the attachment of the loop to the backing.

To hang my folder organizer, I just use a picture hanger.

I like it. I did have to purchase a few items to complete the project (the bias tape, and the extra stiff interfacing, but I did manage to use what I already had for the majority of the organizer). It's a welcome addition of bright color in these dreary winter months. Plus the 5 different colored pockets allow me to organize projects by their urgency. Red being projects with closer deadlines, and blue/purple being tasks to do as I have time but aren't urgent. And of course the folders have titles that I can read from across the room, I'm just not showing them in the photo.

If you need something to organize your work, and you're not into making your own thing, some keywords I used to find options were: wall organizer, file organizer, hanging folder organizer.

Sheets of business cards that can be popped out of the thick paper with clean edges.
Sheets of business cards that can be popped out of the thick paper with clean edges.

This saved me some time so I thought I'd share.

I needed display labels for my art for a show. Instead of printing them out on card stock and cutting them out by hand, or mounting the labels on foam board, a friend suggested I try something different. I gave it a try.

This time around I printed the labels out on sheets of business card stock that are available in packs at the local office supply store. The sheets are NOT perforated so the card edges are clean when broken apart. The pack costs a bit more than a few sheets of card stock but, like I said, it saved some time, enough time to make it worth it to me. Heck, what can I say, I like getting to bed at a reasonable time before a show. Plus I think it looked very clean and professional.

I put the text in a template and printed it out on regular paper first to check the text size, design, and proofread the text. After making some adjustments I printed the text out on the lovely business card sheets, and that was that.

picture of somewhat fine grit sandpaper and a picture matI like to have a clean presentation of my work. Sure that outer edge of the mat might be hidden under a frame eventually, but that's not what a customer sees. They see the matted print.

Sometimes when cutting a picture mat the outer edge gets fuzz or looks jagged. Sometimes I also find this on the cut mats I order. To clean up the outer edge (not the mat window edge but the outer dimension) I'll take a piece of somewhat fine grit sandpaper and, avoiding the mat surface, I gently knock off the fuzz on the cut edge. It works for me most of the time but some boards just don't clean up well.

When working on a picture it's easy for things to look "right" after a time, even when there's a drawing error. Here's a list of several ways I use to check my work, looking for drawing errors, or weak design.

Shrink it

I shrink my work to check if the design reads well, if there's unity with the values, if the silhouette is clear, if the details I want to show are visible.  Here are the ways I do this:

  • Reducing LensReducing Lens - pretty handy. It looks like a magnifying lens but the lens in slightly concave. Unfortunately I don't know if they're made anymore.
  • Binoculars in reverse - look through the opposite end of a pair of binoculars.
  • Camera phone - these days I think the camera phone is probably more available to most people that the previous 2 options. Take a picture of the work and review it on the phone even smaller.
  • Step away or decrease the magnification - when working on a computer it's easy to get caught in the chair, zooming in on a project. Scoot the chair back or stand up. Or reduce the magnification so the image is about as big as your thumb.

Reverse it

I'm so used to looking at a drawing or painting in one orientation that reversing or flipping the way I look at it oftentimes reveals some distortions or drawing errors.

  • Hold it up in front of a mirror.
  • Hold a mirror up at your brow, position the mirror so you see the art by looking up into the mirror.
  • Put the drawing upside-down on the floor, easel, or table.

New Environment

Take the picture outside, into a different room, or just turn out the lights. Viewing it in a different lighting situation oftentimes reveals strengths and weaknesses in the value structure or size relationships in a piece.


Squinting helps group values to see if they hold together as a whole design. Values or shapes that are out of place can also become a little more noticeable.

Standard Measurements

It's great to have photo reference and photos lie. By knowing some guidelines for standard measurements of human anatomy, the lies can be countered. Andrew Loomis' book "Figure Drawing for All It's Worth" is a great resource for this. If you can get if from your local bookstore, all the better.

Second Pair of Eyes

Sometimes I just can't see the errors anymore. It just looks "right". Having someone else look at the picture helps a lot. This could be a peer review group, or a trusted friend or family member. It seems like most people can at the very least say that something seems off even if they can't specifically name it.

If anyone has other ways they use to check their work I'd love to hear about them!

I like sketching. In my explorations to keep it fun and simple, there are a few technical issues I'm trying to resolve. Part of the "issues" have to do with personal preference for comfort, ease of use, and immediacy of art making. Plus exploring different options and combinations of tools is fun for me.

  • I want to be able to grab my sketch kit and just go. All the stuff in one place, ready to go. Not a lot of prep time to get out the door and sketch.
  • I want to have the option of making mini paintings or just playing around. If I like how they turn out I can sell them. If I don't like how they turn out I can just flip over the paper and take another crack at it. Personal preference: I don't like the idea of cutting a sheet out of a sketchbook.
  • Pages not laying flat in a bound journal. I could solve that by using a spiral bound journal, but for me the spiral interrupts the page too much.
  • Not having a sketchbook/journal that can handle gouache. There are some nice ones out there now, but I'm not quite willing to shell out $15-$20 just yet.

Several things came together for my current sketch kit to solve some of these "issues". I rediscovered this blue pack I had laying around. It's from the North Light Book Club (got it years ago). The paper pack a friend gave me fits perfectly in it (thanks Roz!). I just needed a surface to put the paper on. I did some brainstorming and kept my eyes open when I was out and about in case I came across something that might be a solution.

Here's where a trip to a local second hand shop came in handy. I was so excited! I found a coated, cardboard clipboard for just $0.79. The clip part is a flat design so it fits in the pack. Since it's cardboard I was easily able to trim it down with my utility knife to a size that would accommodate the paper and fit in the pack. Excellent.

My Sketch Pack as of June 2015

  1. Whiskey Painters Standard Palette filled with M. Graham and Schmincke gouache (bought the palette from Wet Paint in St. Paul, MN). Colors left to right, top to bottom: Quinacridone Violet; Naphthol Red; Gamboge; Hansa Yellow;  Sap Green; Cerulean Blue; Ultramarine Blue; Dark Blue Indigo PB60 (Schmincke); Burnt Sienna (Schmincke); Quinacridone Rose; empty space; Titanium White.
  2. Viva paper towels or something equally sturdy and absorbent
  3. Plastic water cup with screw on lid
  4. 2 oz. tube of M. Graham Titanium White Gouache
  5. Niji Waterbrush (flat and medium round)
  6. Pencil and sharpener
  7. Flat synthetic brushes (1/4", 1/2", 1")
  8. Round Utrecht Traveler Brushes (size 1, 5, 8). The brushes are in 2 parts. To store them, the brushes and handles separate and then you tuck the bristle end inside the handle.
  9. Pack of paper just a bit larger than 5"x7". I've been liking the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper. I'm also trying out the Richeson Recycled paper with gouache.
  10. Cardboard clipboard trimmed down

So far I like the set-up. I'll give it another try this weekend at the MetroSketchers meetup at Coldwater Spring.

the painter's handbook by mark gottsegen
My well used copy of The Painter's Handbook, by Mark Gottsegen.

As the name suggests, "The Painters Handbook: Revised and Expanded" by Mark David Gottsegen is a reference for painting. I think it's excellent. I've had for years. I mainly use it for information relating to oil painting and studio/materials safety but it also covers other paints and other useful information.

It is broken into three parts and is quite thorough. He digs into the nooks and crannies of practically every technical part of the painting process. Part one talks about the basics: tools and equipment; supports; sizes and grounds; binders; solvents and thinners; varnishes, balsams, driers, preservatives, and retarders; pigments. Part two covers paint making and painting methods: making your own paints; oil paints; water-thinned paints; temperas; encaustic; pastel; synthetic binders; mural paints and techniques. Part three covers picture protection (matting, storage) and restoration.

Mr. Gottsegen covered a lot of the technical aspects of painting. Whenever I have a question, I can nearly always find the answer in this book. I find it very easy to find the information I need (and not just because of all the page markers I've added, it's very well designed) and his step by step directions for some of the procedures are very helpful. Plus he included little diagrams where necessary for some of the procedures.

You can most likely buy it from your favorite local art supply store, or online. Happy reading!

"The Painter's Handbook: Revised and Expanded"
By Mark David Gottsegen
Published by Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006
ISBN 0-8230-3496-8.

color mixing board and tools with raw umber
My Raw Umber color mixing board in progress. I'll be making a board for each color of the Paxton Palette.
The idea is have a dominant color for each board. When mixing, the goal is to change the main color just enough so you can tell what color was mixed with it, but not so much that you can't tell what the dominant color is anymore.
The glove is Nitrile not Latex. Nitrile is supposed to be better rated for dealing with solvents. I use odorless mineral spirits to clean up my palette and tools.
The completed board in the upper right is on loan from Cyd Wicker so I'd have a better idea of what these things might look like.

Several weeks back I posted a bit about mixing the Richard Schmid color boards. Here are a few more pointers.

  • Instead of using Matte Medium as surface prep for the canvas board, use Matte Varnish (I've been using Liquitex). Using the Matte Varnish was a recommendation from someone else. To see the difference for myself I coated one board with the Matte Medium and one with Matte Varnish. The varnish prevents sinking in much better than the Matte Medium. For this exercise I think it'll be just fine but I don't recommend laying down coat of varnish for an oil painting.
  • I'm working left to right because I'm right handed. I suspect if you're left handed, working right to left would be easier (less opportunity to drag your hand through paint).
  • I broke a palette knife. The smallish diamond shaped one at the bottom of this photo. I was applying too much pressure through my arm to incorporate the paint. The longer palette knife is working much better. The flexibility of the blade does most of the work of mixing. I still use a smallish diamond shaped palette knife to apply the mixtures to the squares.
The lower, small diamond palette knife is a 1001 from Utrecht. The longer palette knife is a 897 from Richeson. This is what I had access to when shopping. They seem to work pretty well. I have no idea where or when I bought the Richeson knife. I've had it for a while.
The lower, small diamond palette knife is a 1001 from Utrecht. The longer palette knife is a 897 from Richeson. This is what I had access to when shopping. They seem to work pretty well. I have no idea where or when I bought the Richeson knife. I've had it for a while.
  • Much less paint is needed than you think, but that varies slightly from paint to paint. Some have MUCH stronger pigment strength than others.
  • When mixing, first mix the two colors. Next test a tiny little bit with some white to see if the balance of color looks good (if the parent color looks like it's affected by the added color but not overpowered). Then mix the in between values. Test a little of each on the board. Adjust as necessary. Ideally each value should seem like it could be an even mixture of its two neighboring values.
  • Always wipe down the mixing area with a bit of solvent in between mixing each strip of color/value.
  • Don't go for perfection. I've decided that I give myself 2 attempts at mixing the color and 7 values. Then I move on. If the color mix and values of a particular string of squares still doesn't look "right" when I'm done with the board, then I'll scrape that string off and try again. Sometimes having the other color/value strings mixed helps in determining the balance for the one that I was struggling with.
  • I end up with some excess paint every time (I'm hoping to better gauge the amount of paint I need as I go). I tried storing it in a container but there was too much air and the paint dried out. Now I'm storing the excess in a small resealable plastic snack bag (like Ziploc). I use the long palette knife to scrape down the palette and put it in the bag. So far it's all staying juicy. I'm hoping to have an interesting neutral when I'm done that I could use for value studies or something. We'll see.

color mixing board and tools with raw umber
My Raw Umber color mixing board in progress. I'll be making a board for each color of the Paxton Palette.
The idea is have a dominant color for each board. When mixing, the goal is to change the main color just enough so you can tell what color was mixed with it, but not so much that you can't tell what the dominant color is anymore.
The glove is Nitrile not Latex. Nitrile is supposed to be better rated for dealing with solvents. I use odorless mineral spirits to clean up my palette and tools.

Based off Richard Schmid's boards as he describes them in his book "Alla Prima Everything I Know About Painting", I'm creating color boards using the Paxton Palette. (We use the Paxton Palette at The Atelier).

  • Ivory Black
  • Raw Umber
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Indian Red
  • Light Red
  • Cadmium Red Light (this is a replacement for Vermillion)
  • Cremnitz White or Flake White which both contain lead (I'm using Winsor & Newton Flake White Hue - a combination of Zinc and Titanium)
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Naples Yellow
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Viridian Green
  • Ultramarine Blue (I'm using French Ultramarine Blue)

The board itself is a store bought canvas board covered with a coat of matte medium (ideally to prevent sinking in and dulling of the color and value when the paint finally dries). I've had color theory classes. I've mixed paint. Just not it this methodical way. What I've learned so far:

  • Raw Umber is an underrated color. It makes such beautiful low chroma colors.
  • I've been limiting myself in my color mixing and usage. This was completely unintentional. I think the limitations developed though getting comfortable with certain mixes and my own aesthetic. This color mixing is shaking that up.
  • Each color has a tipping point. It's that point where I finally have added enough white to see a difference. Or that point where I've added enough of one color to alter another.
  • The more I do, the faster I get. I'm hoping this is because I'm seeing values better.
  • The mixing exercises can be time consuming but very much worth the effort.