Sunday, December 1, 2013

What's the word? Big Bird.

Posted by: Dave

First off, why did they replace Brian Griffin with some crappy side character on Family Guy?  I was waiting the entire episode for Stewie to rebuild the time machine to go back and set things right.  As I watched the minutes go by, I realized this simply wasn't going to happen.  Brian is dead.  Isn't there enough death in the world where we don't need to be killing off lovable TV characters?  This is more important than art by the way, which is why I am discussing it first.

Anyway, the magpies are well under way at this point and it has been nice to do a painting that is a combination of still life, landscape, and animals as opposed to just "crap on a table."  I am sure people have pretty much figured out that the two magpies represent Kate and I.  One is presenting the other with a gift of something shiny, and as well all know, chicks like shiny things.  I guess it's appropriate as Kate and I just had our 6th anniversary of being under contract.   That's right everyone, I have legally owned half of Kate's stuff for six years.   The only catch to that is, she owns half of my vintage Star Wars figure collection (yes, I have over 40 figures I collected as a kid that are still mint in the box).  I know we will always be together if it's only to keep the collection whole.

In addition, I have really enjoyed setting up a little ecosystem for my new little friends.  Eventually, I will have to create a landscape background.    You can see some of the stages below, but the painting still has a ways to go.

And I know people are going to ask where I got the birds, well, welcome the wide world of Craigslist.  Whether it's a taxidermy bird or a casual encounter, Craigslist has something for everyone. 


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sisters: Part II

Posted by: Kate

...and picking up where we left off...

I laid down an Oleogel couche on Morgan's face and painted merrily away (I would later do some more work to soften the stark lighting and the forms around her mouth).

I used a bristle brush to drag a natural looking hairline onto her forehead.

I Oleogeled Molly's face and painted it too.  It looks like I changed the colours dramatically, but it's just my camera settings.

Arms and hands and all that jazz:

Oiled out the hair, above, and painted it, below.  A light touch, always using the right brushes for the job, and lots of wiping off.

And now for the coverlet:

And because some people asked, here is my experimental palette:

Way different from my last few projects.  Only two colours are repeats and the rest are new.  Now, I like the idea of a set palette in theory, but no one palette is enough for me.  I'm always playing the field and seeing what other colours have to offer.  Maybe one of these days I'll reform my wild ways and settle down with a nice palette and live out my days.  Or maybe I'm not capable of that.  Maybe my problem is that I'm not in love with a palette, just the idea of that palette.  Sigh.

When working out the colour study for this painting I was having a hard time picking my umber, but then I was all, I SHALL USE ALL THREE.  My main flesh colour was Cyprus Umber Dark crossed with Ultramarine Blue Green Shade (which is why I put them next to each other on the palette).  I used French Sienna or Madder Lake whenever something needed to be yellower or redder.  The Green Umber was great in the background, and the Cyprus Burnt Umber Warm was occasionally just the right colour in the flesh tints.  Roman Black, by the way, is a great neutralizer for flesh tint, and I think it will be a permanent addition to my palette.

Here's a final pic of the finished painting, "Sisters," 22x14", oil on dibond:

And you know, I am sooper p.o.ed to discover that the little fiddly touch ups I did in Morgan's face dried way darker than they were supposed to.  I'm going to have to redo them as soon as I can rein in my colossal rage.  But essentially the painting is done.  And it was rewarding to do.  The thing about painting family and friends, which is what I've been doing exclusively since moving to the Island, is that you have more of an emotional connection with the painting as you work.  I got to revisit a lot of old memories while I was working and since Morgan and I were friends at that age when Shit Disturbing becomes your prerogative, it was a fun trip down memory lane on a ten speed bike with a slushie balanced on the handlebars.  I thought to myself, Dante G must have experienced something similar in painting his sister.  It must have been fun to revisit those happy childhood memories...of racing against each other to write sonnets to a set rhyming scheme formulated by their brother.  Gosh, I'm having so much fun just thinking about it I'm weeing myself right now.

Another rollicking Victorian past-time: tableaux vivants!
Lewis Carroll
June 26, 1875
Albumen silver print
4 13/16 x 6 3/8 in.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sisters: Part I

Posted by: Kate

Before quitting university to pursue my like, dream of being an artist, man, I had the good fortune to be exposed to some srsly awesome Victorian poetry in my second year English Lit class when I was nineteen.  Considering the fact that in Canada the legal drinking age for cheap boxed wines is nineteen, the bohemian experience of midnight Victorian poetry reading with the promise of a hangover was all mine.  Yesssss.

If, like me, you like Victorian art, you should probably read Victorian poetry.  The two were hopelessly intertwined.  It was commonplace for painters to seek out inspiration in the work of poets, and vice versa.  If you are an illiterate boor, the deeper meaning of Victorian paintings will always elude you.  That English Lit class served me well in contextualizing Victorian art.  It also taught me how inbred the art scene was back then.  For instance, you may know Christina Rossetti, whom I sometimes call Christina Ricci, as the extraordinarily talented sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and who during her lifetime was regarded as the best living woman poet.  If you don't, she did in fact model for him several times, so you know her face even if you never knew she existed, making you complicit in the Victorian ideal that a woman be seen and not heard.  Oh snap.

Gosh, how much talent can one family hold?  And how bad must the sibling rivalry have been? Another side effect of studying Victorian poetry was it gave me some direct inspiration.  Christina Rossetti wrote a famous poem called "Goblin Market."  Quintessentially Victorian, it reads like a fairytale about the strength and tenacity of sisterly love.  And don't worry.  When I say it's classically Victorian, I do mean that green people are adequately represented, and there is an abundance of pseudo-sexual imagery, and in general you are left feeling slightly uncomfortable--which is funny, because it means that a child of the 21st century is more repressed than a Victorian spinster.  After reading it I thought, gee willikers, there's a painting: the message about how the world may bruise you, break you, or sicken you, but a sister's love and support will see you through the worst of it.  I'll just go ahead and leave the goblins out.

 Below is a original illustration from the poem, which I found recently after finishing the painting.  It illustrates my favourite part of the poem:  "Golden head by golden head/Like two pigeons in one nest/Folded in each other’s wings..."   Lily and Laura sleep side by side, one tormented by nightmares of freaky green people, the other protective.

I had a hard time thinking of a pair of models who could play Lily and Laura.  But I'm nothing if not patient.  I watch paint dry for a living.  Meanwhile, since moving to Vancouver Island I have had the chance to reconnect with an old friend.  The shame was that our reconnection was kind of stilted.  I had some crapola on my platter and I felt like my life was so ugly I didn't really want anyone from my past to look at it.  Eventually we finally met up, and that's when I found out she had gone through some serious crap too--although if it were a contest she probably took gold.  In the span of a few weeks, she had lost both her father and suffered a major break up--which in turn necessitated a serious recalibration of short-term and long-term planning, and caused her to search wildly for a new place to live.  In the span of a few weeks, her life plan, support network, and daily routine was turned on it's head.  Luckily, her best friend since teen years stepped up to the plate and reached a protective, sisterly arm around her.  For several months Morgan lived in Molly's basement apartment, where they shared the same bed because there was only the one.  I felt terrible for Morgan, ashamed of myself for living only and hour away and not knowing any of this had been going on, and duly impressed with Molly.  I imagined Morgan with troubled sleep and Molly wakeful and worrying.  And as that image crystallized in my head, I realized I had found Lily and Laura.

So I'll stop running my mouth off and get on with the work in progress:

Early on I had the idea that I wanted their hair to be a dark mass that bled together in the dim light.  I wanted to emphasize their physical similarities, especially colouring, so that people would think "sisters."

Towards the completion of the drawing I received the criticism that the hands were kind of flat and formless.  Fair enough.  Referencing some anatomy books, I sketched some notes onto my own hand and was able to fix them up.  By the way, I would like to point out that the artists who paint really beautiful hands, HAVE really beautiful hands.  Tara Juneau and Kamille Corry seem to fart out beautiful hands in their paintings.  People like me are unfortunately impaired.

Knowing the painting would be dark, I primed with a darker tone than normal.

I laid in the background first for a frame of reference.  I wanted it to breath and move, dreamlike.  I bounced between brush stroke and smudge, impasto and scumble.  And if you tell me it's against the rules to impasto darks I will come to your studio and knock over your taboret.

Just like that.

The hair had to be subtly different.  Same value, but a little warmer.  Brush strokes observe the movement of the hair.

The sheets are Rublev Flemish White by NatPig, yo.  Thready, thick, and kind of like something I'd like to scrape off of a cinnamon bun and eat.  Painting with Flemish white is a sensuous experience.  It's almost as loaded and awkward as Victorian poetry.

I kept those hands nice and simple for this first pass.  One interesting benefit of working with an umber heavy palette is that your colours dry so rapidly that you can't nitpick.

Painting those faces went very quickly, thanks to big bristle brushes and a narrow chromatic range. 

Painting these two girls required some problem-solving.  When someone lies down, their whole body collapses in on itself--their shoulders hunch, their abdomen curls up, and they seem to shrink in appearance.  Meanwhile, their limbs seem to flatten out and grow thicker and their face also slides over, thanks to gravity.  People often lose their likeness in this pose.  While painting these girls, I made some executive decisions:  I did my best to correct the facial slouch--mostly by re-centering the mouth and jaw.  I also elongated the necks, arms, and torsos--by a small but necessary amount.  The goal is to restore some of the lost likeness, not to create a mannerist aesthetic.

Aaaaand... first pass done.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The best worst advice of my art career.

Posted by: Dave

Being an artist comes with its benefits, but it also comes with one major drawback.   It is one of the only careers where people feel entitled to give you their advice even when it has not been founded on any statistics, first hand knowledge, or insight into the industry.  In fact, I really never ask for it.  So I thought I would reflect back on some of my favorite worst advice in our new section appropriately titled "our best worst advice."  Illustrated by yours truly.

 I did a couple sample cards just for fun:

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Posted by: Dave

A lot of my readers have probably noticed that Kate and I like to plug some small businesses on our blog.  Why? Well, we are a small business and we like to get behind other small businesses who do right by their customers.  Recently, a new art store opened in Toronto in the exact same neighborhood in which I used to live.  Of course, this would only have happened AFTER I left because otherwise it wouldn't be ironic.  They recently tracked down my old favorite linen, L219 which I could no longer find.  It became my unicorn; my unattainable mythological beast.  I would hear whispers of its existence somewhere, then poof, it would vanish and only the rumors and tall tales would remain.  I would hear things like "I dun see a roll that was over 6 yards in length over yonder hills!" or "the rolls only come out at night to feed on farmers sheep and vanish by morning."  Well, ARTiculations found it for me, because they are awesome. 

So, why else is this store so awesome?  First off, because there aren't a lot of stores in Canada that carry nice professional grade art supplies.  Most products like oil paints and brushes you find at the chain stores here are made with recycled human hair from orphan children, truck tires, and even old newspapers.  This isn't really true, but it makes my point more interesting.  ARTiculations carries a variety of products that Kate and I actually use, like Natural Pigments paints, the L series of Linen which uses Lead priming, and high grade brushes. They will even be making those sexy panels we paint on soon enough so if you are lazy like me, you will have a source in Canada to order them from.  So, stop reading this and go buy some stuff.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Die fishy.

Posted by: Dave

So the painting of the fisherman is coming along...slowly.  I spend about an equal amount of time wiping the paint off as I do putting it up.  I am simply looking forward to finishing it at this point and moving on to my supremely awesome painting of Magpies I am going to do.

This brings me to a story which I will try not to present as Buzz Killington.  I got an email recently from someone who was asking what to do when they feel uninspired and have a distaste for their own work.  My response was, yeah, welcome to the club.  I try to be fairly honest with people on the blog (unless it's about how much I can bench press, then I lie...and say less so you all don't feel like sissies) so I want to be clear that almost every painting I do is similar to most people's relationships.  At first, I am all excited as it's the "getting to know you stage"  in the painting.  I fantasize about all the possibilities me and the painting might have.  Is this the one? Will I love this painting above all my other paintings of the past? During this stage I am doing preliminary drawings and studies.  Eventually it's time for a commitment and I get started on the painting and we are official boyfriend girlfriend.  Everything is great for awhile.  We have fun together, joke about how we should have gone bigger with the dimensions, etc.  Then, we start fighting.  It eventually escalates to me telling the painting what a jerk it is and how it doesn't understand my feelings.  Kate has to comfort me and tell me there are more paintings out there and maybe this just isn't the one.  I still sob and reflect on all the good times we had and how I don't want it to be over.  Eventually the painting takes me back and gets finished and we live happily ever after and I forget about how crappy the painting treated me.  Well, that was an awesome metaphor so you all better damn well appreciate it. 

I guess I should talk about technique or something now.  I find it helpful to wash my, use medium, it's awesome.

First painting the face.  Still aways to go on the painting, but soon....soon.

Working on my next setup.  Super high quality taxidermy Magpies you ask?  Damn right.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More Apocalypse-Surviving Panels

Posted by: Kate

A couple of months ago Dave shared his approach to making panels.  Now, I know you all think that Dave and I live in a state of blissful marital harmony, with him checking the oil in my car and me ironing creases into his boxers, but the truth of the matter is that we do have completely incompatible ideas about panel making.  I confess, the darkest moments of my married life have been when Dave has coerced me into helping him make panels.  Normally I try to schedule some sort of errand outside of the house so that I can be gone for a good ten hour period.  And I know you all are like, hey, she jokes around a lot on the blog, but guys, I'm f***ing serious about this one.  I have a couple of different ways of making panels that are different from Dave's approach and I'm going to share those with you now.

But before I get into my personal panel-making, I just want to tell you WHY you should make your own panels:
  1. Cost
  2. Complete control over dimensions
  3. Quality control 
Cost used to be such a big deal for us that Dave and I would have to have sit down conversations about large scale paintings.  Ordering a large panel from the US, including shipping and customs fees, was something we would have to agree to spend the money on.  Now we just laugh maniacally as we throw that aluminum composite panel through the saw blade.  Dimensions are super easy now too.  The other day I cut a panel.  Decided it was an inch too narrow.  Cut a new one from my endless stash of dibond.  No biggie.  Bam.  I can also trim down a painting part way through or after completion.  And finally, I'm really happy with the quality of my panels.  I prepare them myself, so I know that a lot of care went into them.  I'm not wondering to myself, was this store-brand panel primed with a reputable brand of acrylic ground, or is it powdered milk mixed with Elmer's Glue?

So let's make some panels.  The first step is to buy your panel material.  Skip the baltic birch and go right to your local plastics depot for a 4x8' sheet of aluminum composite panel (if you have trouble finding some, call up your local sign-makers and ask them who they buy theirs from).  Unlike birch, this stuff won't splinter when you cut it, warp, crack, or expand/contract with humidity fluctuations.  It is perfectly rigid, though very thin, and won't need bracing, making framing it a cinch.  It's also perfectly smooth.  If you are completely wedded to the romance of using "traditional" materials, get a divorce.  I don't care that plywood's been around since ancient Mesopotamia.  Aluminum composite panel is the space material of the future, the immaculate love child of plastic and metal sent to earth to save sinning artists from creating paintings on inferior supports.

Dave and I cut the aluminum composite panel with an 80 tooth carbide tipped blade on our table saw.  This often leaves a little tag of aluminum that needs to be gently sanded off with 60 grit sandpaper.  I then remove the plastic wrapper and lightly sand the factory priming with 320 grit sandpaper (or finer) wrapped around a sanding block.  I sand until the surface looks matte.  Now, before you apply your ground, it's important to have a clean surface.  So if your dog dragged his bum across your panel in that split second you laid your panel on the ground while you grabbed your priming brush, you need to clean it with some rubbing alcohol.  This will remove the dust, your greasy KFC fingerprints, and the oily residue that the plastic wrapper has left on the surface.  After cleaning the surface thoroughly, avoid touching it with your bare hands.  Let it dry, and then dust the lint from the cotton ball/paper towel off the surface with a clean house paint brush.

Sanding block
I sand in circular motions with very little pressure.

Clean off the dust and grease with some rubbing alcohol

From here I have three options: real chalk gesso, oil ground, or acrylic dispersion ground (aka acrylic gesso).  While Dave likes to use linen, I think this is a big fat waste of time and money.  Sorry, honey, but your frivolous expenditures will put us in the poorhouse ere long.  I used to love painting on oil-primed linen, but the fact of the matter is, it's all primed with zinc and titanium.  Even when they say it's lead-primed, dig a little deeper and you'll find out that the base coat was zinc and only the final coat lead.  I'm just flat out sick of not knowing what is in my art products, so I yanked the bandaid off and quit linen cold turkey.  I also was tired of running out of linen, of finding out that that last yard was speckled with inconsistencies and was completely unusable, the turn around time of ordering a new roll, and the cost of importing, etc etc...


Aluminum composite panels cut to size
320 grit sandpaper
Rubbing alchohol
Paper towels
Brush or roller plus paint tray
Golden White Gesso
Saran Wrap to wrap the brush between coats.  'Cause who wants to clean that brush four times.

This is hands down the easiest of the two methods.  After sanding and degreasing the factory priming, I apply four coats of Golden White Gesso with a brush.  Just so you know, they are misusing the word "gesso" here, since it's not really gesso at all.  When in polite society, you should always call it a "ground."  I apply the ground with a brush, taking care that my brushstrokes are tidy and parallel.  My first coat is horizontal to the picture plane, and the next one vertical.  Repeat.  The reason for this is so that the final coat, which will be the most pronounced, is vertical and does not catch light as strongly.  All those horizontal strokes would cause a lot of reflections under gallery lighting.  This alternation of brush stroke direction creates a very fine faux weave texture that tricks people into thinking they're looking at linen.  I've had competent artists ask me where I buy my linen and how I glue it to my aluminum composite panel, so I like to think my approach creates a pretty convincing substitute for true linen texture.  It's lovely to paint on, too.

The raking light here really exaggerates those brushstrokes

Just wrap that brush.  I've left house painting brushes like this for over a year and the paint does not dry.  I wish I could do this with my oil painting brushes.
Another approach would be to apply the acrylic dispersion ground with a roller.  I'll admit I haven't ventured into that frontier yet.  I've seen some samples of rollered panel that other artists have produced and I am absolutely not into the bobbly eggshell texture.  Now you could sand that, of course, but be sure to use sandable acrylic if you do.  Attempting to sand regular acrylic ground results in a lot of eraser shavings and a bad sand job.


Oil grounds have been around for longer than acrylic dispersion grounds and they too are super sexy to paint on.  I've dabbled with a few brands over the years, the most recent experimentation being with Natural Pigment's Lead Oil Ground (whatever brand you use, make sure there is no zinc in it!).  The disadvantages to the product are that oil grounds take longer to dry, and lead oil grounds in particular can make a bit of a mess.  Panel making is a bit of controlled chaos, with smudges and drips winding up in all sorts of random places in your studio.  I just feel a bit stressed when working with lead oil ground.  However, the Natural Pigments product is really nice to paint on and I see why so many people do.  My extremely small data sample tells me that it doesn't grip quite as ruthlessly to the aluminum composite panel and the acrylic dispersion ground does, though, so I think if I were to make panels this way regularly, I would start off with one coat of acrylic dispersion ground before layering up my oil ground with the same vertical-horizontal brush stroke effect.

GESSO (the real stuff)

Aluminum composite panels cut to size 
320 grit sandpaper
Easy Gesso
Stirring stick or spatula
Rubbing alcohol
Container, preferably with lid
Orbital sander plus 220 grit paper
Dust mask

This method is more work than the former, but I believe that that is only the case because I'm still mastering it.  I'm certain that a couple of batches from now, I will have this down pat.  I use Easy Gesso by Natural Pigments.  It's even easier than the name implies.  They should call it Baby's First Gesso.  I think that if you want to try out gesso to see if it's for you, you cannot go wrong with this product.  The instructions are basically: Measure out gesso.  Add water.  Allow to sit.  Reheat.  Apply.  You don't need a double boiler or anything.  So if you want to take gesso out for a spin to see if it's for you, go ahead and skip the insane and complicated recipes that you'll find on the various artist forums, and skip the scavenger hunt to find a double boiler and a thermometer and a Bunsen burner and an RV and a secluded stretch of New Mexican desert.  Just fish an old yoghurt container out of your recycling and make a batch of Easy Gesso.

It's hard to know how much surface area your batch will cover, so have a bunch of panels ready to use and play it by ear.  Lay down some newspaper to make clean up easier.  Four to eight coats, stirring gently each time before applying.  The first coat will go on very thinly, but each subsequent coat will feel meatier.  You can sand in between layers if you're sanding by hand, but it's far easier to sand at the very end with an orbital sander (trick: rest the sander on the surface of the panel before turning it on.  Derp).  I use 220 grit paper.  If you sand by hand you will have to use something finer, like 320, and you will have a remarkable deltoid in your dominant arm by the end.  And just so you're prepared, there will be a lot of dust.  There will be about ten times more gesso dust coming off those panels than you put in the damn gesso mix to begin with.  You will sand and sand and sand away until your tears of frustration drip onto the panels and give the sandpaper the moisture needed to do that final wet polish.  Or at least that is my experience.  Periodically you should hold the panel up to oblique light to check for ridges or imperfections.  I find that a bright sunny day is the best time to sand gesso.  Nothing beats a bright sunbeam coming in through a window for laying bare any irregularities.

Once the surface is smooth, I brush or wipe off the loose dust and seal the surface to reduce absorbency.  You need to do this last step because gesso is simply too absorbent to paint on otherwise.  Besides being an unpleasant paint surface to work on, the oil in your paint will get sucked into gesso, leaving your pigment resting underbound on the surface, and resulting in a weak paint layer (underbound means a paint does not have enough binder in it to make a strong paint layer).  To reduce absorbency, you have a lot of different options--you can use any drying oil, or a resin like Canada Balsam.  Personally, I use shellac, which I make with flakes from Natural Pigments prepared according to their instructions.

Anhydrous alcohol or methyl hydrate (the former is safer)
Ventilated area
Coffee filter
Water bottle
Small-mouthed jar
Make up sponge

Place a given amount of shellac flakes in the bottom of a jar, level them out, and mark the height of the shellac on the jar with a permanent marker.  Next, fill up the jar with methyl hydrate or anhydrous alcohol to a level that is twice as high as the height of that mark.  This a is a quick and dirty way to get the right ratio.  It should be left overnight to dissolve, after which you should filter it.  I use a coffee filter tucked inside a funnel made out of half a water bottle (this later goes right in the trash).  After filtering it, I keep it in a very narrow mouthed jar, which makes it easy to wet a make up sponge with it.  Apply it quickly and lightly, in rows.  Two to three coats does the trick for me.  Observing it in the light you will see how satiny or shiny the surface becomes.  If you should decide you've put too much on, you can always sand a bit off.  The panel is ready to work with immediately, although I usually tone it first.  To tone a panel, I mix up some paint--usually raw umber and a bit of lead white, dilute it with OMS, and apply with a large brush.  It will need a day or two to dry.

Caper jars are the best for storing your shellac.  The shellac flakes have not yet dissolved in this picture.

Gesso is pretty challenging to paint on.  Because I'm still trying to figure out the perfect amount of shellac to create an optimum level of absorbency, I haven't done any major paintings on a  gesso ground yet.  All of the major paintings you have seen on my blog this past year have been painted on acrylic dispersion ground.  Meanwhile, all of the studies and oil sketches were painted on gesso grounds.

Alright, you may go now.

ADDENDUM:  Aluminum composite panel has many brand names.  Your local retailer might carry Dibond, or Epanel, or Alupanel, or Omega Panel, or something else entirely.  Most suppliers seem to carry 3mm panel.  In a panel three feet across or so, you will notice a little bit of flex.  Once framed, the frame will act as a brace, but you could also avoid this problem by using a thicker dibond (4mm or 6mm).  If flexing is major (something I haven't experienced first hand yet because I don't work very large) you might want to consider avoiding a fragile ground like real gesso, which will crack, and stick instead to a lead oil ground or acrylic ground.

UPDATE 2017: I've gone through and made some small improvements to this article.  I'd like to admit that I've dropped chalk gesso entirely (it was a fun experiment) in favor of the acrylic dispersion ground, which really can't be beat for ease and turn around time.  I can get a couple dozen panels completed in a few hours spread out over one or two days in a big panel prep marathon and it's super easy and doesn't make much mess.  Who could ask for more.