swatch showing mixtures of phthalo green, quin gold deep, azo yellow and ultramarine blue

Phthalo Green—How To Tame It

In the last post, I offered some tips for mixing natural-looking landscape greens, the first of which was “avoid tube greens involving phthalo green”.

So, what do you do with the phthalo green (and mixtures using it) you already have? The secret is to tame it a bit so it works for you instead of just taking over the entire painting.

Here’s how:

Mix Something With Phthalo Green to Warm It Up

As you learned in the last post, phthalo green usually needs to be “warmed up” and neutralized to work as a natural-looking landscape green. Try mixing it with various reds, oranges, yellows and even warm purples to see if you get any greens you like for foliage.

In each of the swatches below, I’ve put phthalo green on the left and gradually added more and more of pyrrole red, indian yellow (Daniel Smith), hansa yellow and quinacridone gold deep (Daniel Smith).

I’ve indicated the brand for the two colors—indian yellow and quin gold deep—that are themselves pre-mixed “convenience” colors, because each manufacturer has their own take on these mixtures, so they can vary a lot from one manufacturer to another. But don’t go out and buy my colors. Just try whatever reds, oranges, browns, golds and yellows you happen to have.


trying to calm phthalo green

Mixing phthalo green with warmer colors.


Some of these mixtures might be usable for a natural-looking landscape green, and if I keep playing around, I’m bound to find more.

Use Phthalo Green to “Green Up” Other Mixtures

Another thing you can do is use your phthalo green as an “flavoring agent” for other greens. By this, I mean you can take one of your own mixtures—say, quin gold deep and ultramarine blue, or azo yellow and ultramarine blue—that might be a tad too dull for some situations, and use a little bit of your phthalo green to “green it up” a bit. Try adding just a little bit at a time, like adding a strong seasoning to a soup.

swatch showing mixtures of phthalo green, quin gold deep, azo yellow and ultramarine blue

Using phthalo green to “green up” your own mixed greens.

The secret to doing this successfully is simply to experiment until you get greens you like, and then using the same colors mix them again . . . and again . . . and again . . . until you can mix them easily. If you try to rely on “recipes”, you’ll never remember them. Instead you want to find a group of “go-to” colors that you know inside and out.

If you keep the number of colors you are working with SMALL (no more than 3 or 4 at a time!), this sort of practice takes minutes or hours, not days or weeks. Once you build this familiarity with a few colors, you’ll never have to think about how to mix them. You’ll just look at them and KNOW. (Soooo much more convenient than relying on those silly “color recipe” books!)

If you just finished Watercolor Jumpstart, I hope you are adding colors to your palette one at a time! If so, you might have one tube green that you just bought, and the original 5 colors from class (azo yellow, quin rose, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna).

This is plenty to make lots of great landscape greens (with or without a tube green involved), so if you are struggling with mixing greens don’t add any more until you feel completely comfortable with these.

Use Phthalo Green to Make Other Things Besides Green!

I’ve saved the best for last. My favorite use of phthalo green is to make various turquoise and “midnight blue” mixtures. This is actually the reason I have phthalo green on my palette.

Take a look at what phthalo green does when mixed with blues, violets and magentas. Oooh, I love, love, love these colors!  In fact, I love the mix with ultramarine blue so much I have been known to buy it premixed (Daniel Smith Ultramarine Turquoise).

MIxing phthalo green with magentas, violets and blues.

MIxing phthalo green with magentas, violets and blues.

You might have guessed that phthalo green + blue would give you a turquoise. The real surprise is that phthalo green + violet often gives a slate blue or midnight blue. This is where it really becomes evident how cool phthalo green really is. It has a LOT of blue-ish-ness to it. So the blue in the violet, plus the blue-ish-ness of the phthalo green, plus a bit of red from the violet results in a neutralized purplish blue or neutralized violet.

Unless the “violet” is really, really reddish. I added the Perylene Maroon as an example of that. In that case, there is enough red that instead of getting bluish mixtures, you actually get a pretty nice neutralized green that would be another good foliage green.

These soft, moody neutralized blue-violets and violets are great for reflections in water, and for suggesting shadows and twilight. I find them rather difficult to mix in other ways, but these mixtures are easy for me to mix reliably. (When I do use them in the shadow areas or water in a landscape, that’s when I might also add a subtle touch of phthalo green to my foliage greens for color harmony.)

So now you don’t have to toss those tube greens! Phthalo green doesn’t have to be allowed to barge in and take over. With a little knowledge and experimentation, it can become a trusted and valuable addition to your palette.

Have fun . . . and be green!


Tube greens (left) vs. mixed greens (right).

Better Landscape Greens

The weather is beautiful here. It’s the time of year when a lot of us are feeling that pull to take our paints and sketchbooks outside. It’s also the time of year that a lot of people struggle with GREEN!

Do the greens in your landscapes look flat and unnatural? The likely culprit is a powerful pigment that has sneaked onto your palette and taken over the green range: phthalocyanine green (just say “thalo” green).

You might be thinking, nope, no such color on my palette. But unless you check labels carefully, it might be there without your knowing.  Many manufacturers name it as their own green in its single-pigment form (or give it some fanciful name, like “Brilliant Emerald”). For example, “Winsor Green” and Cheap Joe’s “Joe’s Green” are both phthalocyanine green.

HINT: Get out your magnifying glass and look at those teeny little pigment codes on the label. If it says PG7 or PG36, it’s phthalocyanine green (PG7 is the cooler “blue shade” and PG36 is the slightly warmer “yellow shade”.)

This strong cold green is also a component of many manufacturers’ pre-mixed greens, so you might have it in “sap green”, “permanent green”, “emerald green” “leaf green”, “Hooker’s green”, “viridian hue”, etc.

So, what’s wrong with phthalo green?

Phthalo green is a very strong, pure, somewhat cool green. Take a look at the left side of the swatches below. That’s phthalo green. Not a color you see in many real leaves, is it?

Swatches showing mixtures of phthalo green and reds, oranges or warm yellows

Modifying phthalo green to get more natural foliage colors.


Think of all the brialliant reds, golds and oranges in fall leaves, or the lovely magenta in the stems and leaves of many plants. Although many plants make more of these pigments in the fall, they are there all year long. It’s just that most mature leaves have a lot of the green of chlorophyll mixed in, too. But the warmer colors ARE there. This means you need a little bit of red, orange, or magenta in the mix for your landscape greens to look natural.The presence of a bit of red (the complement of green) slightly grays or neutralizes the greens in foliage.

As you can see in the swatches above, mixing phthalo green with other colors does help to make it look more natural. This is what is done in many of the pre-mixed greens. Some of them have enough other things mixed in to look natural; others don’t. You have to experiment to find out which ones are natural-looking. You can’t go by the printed label, and also ,one manufacturer’s “sap green” may be nothing like another’s.

So, let’s suppose you manage to find a premixed green that does look natural. You’re all set now, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Real foliage—aven within a single plant—is not usually a single uniform green. So if you are going to use premixed greens, you need to either have a bunch of them.

Now, at this point, there are some of you thinking, I have three different natural-looking greens on my palette, and my foliage still looks unnatural. Why?

Because each of those mixtures has phthalo green as the base. In each individual mixture, it might be modified enough to look pretty good, but when you look at the whole painting, the common phthalo green is in everything, and it’s so powerful, it just takes over and dominates the overall look.

To get natural-looking, varied, lively greens, the solution is to simply mix your own! Most people buy premixed greens because they fear they will not be able to keep their own mixes of blue and yellow consistent. But actually, you want variety in the mixture, because that’s what happens in real foliage.

On the sample sheet below, I’ve put various premixed, purchased greens on the left, and greens I mixed myself from a blue and a yellow on the right. The first and last of the tube greens (Holbein’s leaf green and QoR sap green) actually look pretty natural, so it IS possible to find premixed greens that are natural-looking, but you wouldn’t want to use either as the only green in a landscape.

Tube greens (left) vs. mixed greens (right).

Tube greeens (on the left) often contain a lot of phthalo green. Greens you mix yourself (right) often look more natural.

Look at the variety of natural greens on the right. All of these were mixed using two yellows (azo yellow and hansa yellow) and two blues (ultramarine blue and anthroquinone blue, a.k.a. indanthrone or indanthrene blue). (All the samples were mixed with M. Graham brand watercolors; you might get somewhat different results with different brands.)

Check out the mixtures you can make with the blues and yellows you already have. If you’re having trouble getting an olive-green, try mixing a pure blue, like ultramarine blue or cobalt blue, with a somewhat orange-y yellow (e.g. “indian yellow” or “new gamboge”). Or try a pure yellow, like azo yellow, with a slightly purplish blue, like ultramarine violet. This gets a teeny bit of red into the mix in a controllable way.

If you’re having trouble getting a cool green for something like a fir tree, try mixing a warmer green and then adding  a touch of burnt sienna to it. Burnt sienna is a neutralized red-orange, so that also adds a teeny bit of red.

If you’re putting together a field palette, you don’t want to add a ton of colors. Certainly not four or five pre-mixed greens. For most of us, we either have all we need already, or the addition of a carefully chosen yellow or blue will round things out. Your landscapes and florals will look more natural and you’ll have less to cart around.



Three loose little bottle sketches, done right on top of previous "test scraps". All the stray marks already on the page help you let go of "blank page" anxiety.

Loosen Up Your Watercolor Painting—Here’s an Exercise to Try

Every time I lead a class or workshop, more than half of the participants mention the goal of “loosening up”. Here’s a skill-building exercise to help you move in that direction.

Three loose little bottle sketches, done right on top of previous "test scraps". All the stray marks already on the page help you let go of "blank page" anxiety.

Three loose little bottle sketches, done right on top of previous “test scraps”. All the stray marks already on the page help you let go of “blank page” anxiety.

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.

Paint Shapes, Not “Things”

Want your paintings to look unified? It helps to combine “things” into larger shapes, and then use smaller shapes to (partially) separate them. Here’s an exercise to help you practice.

First, set up a still life with a couple of simple objects. Avoid anything that has a lot of pattern, texture, reflections or complicated edges—you want to be able to capture the overall silhouette fairly easily. A couple of pieces of fruit or simple vegetables work well. Or a couple of eggs or smooth stones.

If you like more geometric shapes, you could include things like a simple mug or bowl, or a little box. Try to stay away from anything that will tempt you to get caught up in details or worries over getting the right proportions, so you can stay focused on the main point of the exercise.

Use a desk lamp or a sunny window to set up your still life with a single strong light source, so you have some definite shadows.

Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.

Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.


Next, using a graphite pencil or watercolor pencil, whichever you prefer, lightly draw the outer silhouette only of the objects and their shadows. Most people find it quite difficult to draw just the outer silhouette, so alternately, you could draw everything, and then erase all the interior lines. In the example below, I’ve drawn the lines in ink so they’ll show up in the photo, but you’ll want to make faint pencil lines, just dark enough for you to see where to put your first wash.

Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I've used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.

Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I’ve used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.

Next, fill in the entire silhouette with ONE wash. By “one wash” I mean that you DO NOT stop at the “edge” of any of the objects! Just keep right on going. The entire area should be wet all at the same time.

However, you can change value and color as you go. If you have objects of two different colors, the colors will bleed into one another, but that will actually work to your advantage. By the same token, the color of the objects will bleed into the shadow areas, and that also is a good thing. (To see a more dramatic example of how this works in multiple colors, you might want to watch the Bowl and Lemons demo from my Watercolor Jumpstart class.)

I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing, so don't try to prevent it.

I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing. It will actually help us suggest reflected light, and the overall lighting in the scene, so don’t try to prevent it.

If you haven’t done the Bowl and Lemons exercise, you might find it helpful to paint along with me on that exercise before trying this one. In the Bowl and Lemons exercise, I have made the decisions about what shapes to paint for you. In this exercise, it will be up to you to find the smaller shapes to layer over your first wash to help the viewer distinguish individual “things”.

Next, I’ve chosen to paint the “shadow side” of both pears as one shape. To help me see the overall “shapes” that make up these “things” I use the standard artist trick of squinting until all the detail is lost and all I can see are the larger shapes that make up my setup.

I also lifted a little color on the pear in back to suggest the small highlight. And, because I was hurrying a bit, the shadow under the pear in front was still wet, so my new shape bled into that area. I didn’t worry about that, because I know that I will be layering another shape on top to make the shadows on the table, so that little bleed will get covered up.

As I add new shapes, I keep reminding myself to leave at least some of the previous layer untouched. Doing this helps me resist the temptation to endlessly “fix” stuff by going over the entire first wash and keeps the painting looking fresher.

The new shape layered over the first wash.

The new shape layered over the first wash.

Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.

Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.

Next, I painted another layer over the cast shadows on the table, (plus darkening the stem on the pear in back and adding the little blossom end on the pear in front).

Notice I only needed a small shape to make it possible for the viewer to see the separation between the two pears. Make it a goal to use as little as possible to “separate” two objects. Most of us want to do WAY more than necessary!

The shapes I added in the third layer.

The shapes I added in the third layer.

Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to "separate" the two pears.

Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to “separate” the two pears.

Finally, I darkened the shadow side of the pear in front, added the small, dark shadows directly below each pear, and the dark stem on the pear in front.

Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.

Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.

Done! At this point we can see the two pears as two separate “things” sitting on a surface, casting shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.

Done! At this point, you can see the pears as two separate “things” with cast shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

It’s quite a challenge to learn to see this way, so don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time with this exercise at first. Instead of laboring over each layer, and going back to “fix” your work, give yourself a short time limit—say 5 minutes—to complete each attempt, and then change things around and try again.

Remember, the goal here is to practice the technique, not “make a painting”. You don’t have to show these to anyone, so push yourself to see just how little you can do to suggest things by layering smaller and smaller shapes. Try hard not to ever entirely cover up a previous shape!

Don’t make this a chore! Use it as a warm-up, or when you only have a few minutes to paint. Set a timer, and when the timer goes off, give yourself permission to be done with it.

The more you do this, the more you’ll tune in to this way of looking at the world while planning your paintings. And you’ll also be gaining confidence in the power of a few small shapes to dramatically change how your paintings look, which will help you relax and paint more freely and boldly. And who doesn’t want that? 🙂



One example of using the mandala template in this article.

New Watercolor Mandala Template

I know some of you enjoy using the templates I create for my Watercolor Prayer/Meditation Mandala Mini-Retreats. I created a new one that was very popular at the last mini-retreat, so I decided to share it with you here. This one has some larger open areas for you to add shapes, lettering or images of your own.

One example of using the mandala template in this article.

One example of using the mandala template in this article.

The first image below is the full design, intended for a 16×16″ sheet of watercolor paper or board. The template is for one quarter of the overall design. You can either print out 4 copies and tape them together before tracing the entire design, or you can trace one quarter of the design at a time, until you have traced all 4 corners.

The second image is just the center portion of the larger design, which works well on its own on a smaller sheet of paper (say 8×8″ to 12×12″). There is a download link under each image, to download the template as a PDF file. (If you’re reading this in an email, you will need to click on the article’s title to go to my website in order to be able to make the download links work.)

Enjoy! (Love to see images of your completed mandala—please share images in the comments section!)

4-fold spiral
Download template for the large 4-fold spiral mandala.



4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8" diameter and smaller.

4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8″ diameter and smaller.

Download template for the small 4-fold spiral mandala.
Color swatching for the series I'm working on.

Colorful Thoughts

Color swatching for the series I'm working on.

Color swatching for the new dragonfly series I’m working on.

Having recently accepted an invitation to fill a last-minute gap in the show calendar at Hudson Hospital, I’m in the “final countdown” phase of prepping for a show. No matter how diligent and organized I am, I seem to always require a final frenzy of activity to bring everything together in the last 3-4 weeks before a show.

This time, because there are only about 6 weeks from the time I accepted the invitation to when I have to deliver the work, I’m simultaneously in the “start-up and exploration” phase (the few months of a new body of work). It’s a challenge to stay open to where the work is telling me it wants to go with a looming deadline!

For me, one way to keep from being overwhelmed—and to make sure the work hangs together well—is to select a limited collection of pigment combinations that I use throughout the series. Borrowing a term from fiber artists, I call these my “colorways” for the series.

Each color way includes what I think of as my “primary triad” for the colorway and possibly a fourth or (very rarely) a fifth color. The notion of “primary” really gets stretched here. For example, one colorway that I’m working with now consists of quinacridone deep gold as my “yellow”, phthalo turquoise as my “blue” and permanent violet dark as my “red”. Typically, there is enough overlap in the 3 or 4 colorways within a show that I’m using about 7-8 pigments for the entire series.

For me, the process of choosing these colors takes some experimentation—for most of the decisions I have to make about a painting, I just don’t know how I feel about it until I see it on the page! If you saw my earlier post on this series, you know there were a lot of duds in that first week!

Then I got smart and settled down to do some “swatching”. Actually playing with the pigments—wet-in-wet, premixed on the palette, dropping color into partially dry washes—seems to be an essential step for me. You know how I’m always advising you to “deal with one difficulty at a time”. Yeah. I have to give myself that advice, too.

For me, there’s no substitute for messing around with the actual pigments, but it also helps a lot to read about pigments and color theory.

While I’m immersed in show prep, I thought perhaps you’d enjoy checking out a few of the resources on pigments and color that I find myself returning to again and again.

(And, of course, the best resource of all—your brushes and paints! If you haven’t allowed yourself to just play with color for a while, why not haul out your paints and do a little color exploration of your own!)

History of Color and Pigments

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Virginia Finlay.

Finlay has also recently released a newer book on color with a lot of color plates and examples. The new book is visually appealing, but I think this one is more readable.

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Phillip Ball.

Absolutely fascinating chronicle of the interaction between art movements, art personalities, commercial uses of color (especially dyestuffs), politics, color chemistry and culture. Hands-down my favorite book about color in art.

Practical Information and Learning Activities for Painters on Using Color Effectively

Making Color Sing (25th Anniversary Edition), Jean Dobie, or click here for used copies of the original hardcover on Amazon.

Probably the gentlest introduction to the practical application of color theory in watercolor, with plenty of exercises you can try with your own paints to understand the concepts.

Color Choices, Stephen Quiller

A great introduction to the most common way of discussing color combinations (complementary/split-complementary/monochrome/analogous). Quiller also markets a palette (and recommended colors for it) arranged in a color wheel (with special wells for primaries) to help students learn to mix and understand colors. If you find yourself struggling to mix your own greys or mute color with complements, this book (and perhaps the palette) can be very helpful.

Online and Interactive Color Tools (Just for Fun!)

Color theory:  This whole site is a cornucopia of information about color, pigments, color theory, color vision (and much more). The site’s author, Bruce McEvoy says, accurately “Here is the most comprehensive discussion for artists of color perception, color psychology, “color theory” and color mixing available online, and one of the most comprehensive available anywhere in any format.”

If you’re an iPad user, you can buy one of the classic texts on color theory, Josef Albers’  Interaction of Color made interactive as an iPad app. The entire text of the book is embedded in the app (paid version), and the app allows you to explore his color theory ideas by doing the various exercises and experiments on the iPad as you read the book. (There is a “free” version, but it’s really more of a sample version. The full version seems rather pricey for an app until you realize you’re actually buying a book with added interactivity.)

Golden’s online virtual paint mixer

Test out how various Golden acrylic colors will mix without buying them. Since color is represented very differently on a computer monitor than the way actual paint behaves, this is a more sophisticated piece of software than you might realize at first.

Fun way to “try before you buy”, but also a way to explore the mixing of a lot more pigments than most of us would want to purchase just to practice with. Although there are some differences between the color lines for watercolor and acrylics, much of what you learn here will transfer to watercolors.

X-rite online color perception challenge

Want to find out how good you are at distinguishing different colors? Try this online color perception challenge.

The quality of the monitor you’re using and the lighting in the room can affect your score somewhat, so don’t be dismayed if you don’t score quite as high as you expect. Try again in a darker room or on a high-quality monitor. I’m betting most of you will score quite high on this challenge!

One More Tidbit

Just today, I ran across an article reporting on recent research that suggests our perception of color changes with the seasons. (Yay! Now we have a scientific excuse for constantly messing around with the colors on our palettes.)


Do you have a favorite color resource? Share it in the comments!

I'm still struggling to figure out how to approach a new series, but this little piece is capturing something I want to keep.

What Makes a Good Painting?

That pesky inner critic!

I don’t know about you, but simply telling her to sit down and shut up doesn’t work for me. Oh, I can get her to leave me alone. It just doesn’t lead to paintings I’m happy with. I need my inner critic.

We all need time to explore, experiment and follow the painting where it leads. But in the end, we do want to know “Is it any good?”

But, how do you know if your painting is any good? Given that just about anything you can imagine has been presented as “art” by somebody, somewhere, how can we hope to answer this question?

It seems that the initial default answer seems to be some variation of “It looks just like a photograph!” And, if you are starting out as a painter, and your primary focus is gaining some facility with color-mixing, brushwork, and so on, just trying to just reproduce what you see is a valuable exercise. But in a very short time, most new painters find this unsatisfying. “I want to loosen up,” has to be one of the most often expressed goals of painters everywhere.

We recognize (and admire) technical skill. We also recognize and value qualities like expressiveness, drama, playfulness, freshness, atmosphere, pithiness. But there’s no universal scheme for deciding how much weight these various qualities should have. And still, we look at the painting we just made, and want to know “Is it any good?”

Another way to answer this question is to compare your work to that of artists you admire. Or to look at which paintings are winning awards, and try to paint like that. This can be a useful exercise, too, but as Peter London points out in his excellent book No More Secondhand Art, even if you succeed in painting like Monet, you (and all of the rest of us) will have missed out on something far more important: painting the paintings only you can paint, sharing your unique vision and insight with the world.

So what to do? How can we decide if this painting is any good?

My answer is to judge each of my paintings against my own reasons for painting, and for painting this particular painting.

1. Ask (ahead of time) “Why am I painting this?”

Push yourself to be specific. “It’s just so beautiful!” isn’t enough of an answer. What, specifically, about this subject grabbed your attention? Narrow it down to ONE main idea! (If you can’t narrow it down, that’s great! It means you have the basis for more than one painting.)  It could be “that fabulous orange glow in the sunset” or “the feeling of peace I get from being out on the lake in my canoe at dawn” or “the graceful curve of that dancer’s arms” or “the memory of baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother”.

Another way to ask this question is “What effect would I like this painting to have on a viewer?” Sometimes it helps to even imagine where this painting might be displayed.

Journaling about the characteristics I like to see in my work, and about the connecting threads for a series. Plus, some color swatches. I

Journaling about the characteristics I like to see in my work, and about the connecting threads for a series. Plus, some color swatches. I have to actually see it on paper to know if I like it!

2. Ask, “What, for me, communicates that idea or feeling visually?”

Bonus! You know how everyone talks about how important it is to edit and simplify your scene or subject to have a strong painting? Now you have a basis for making those decisions. No more putting stuff in because “it was really like that!”

After all, when you tell a friend about the gorgeous orange glow in last night’s sunset, you might mention how it was reflected in the lake (since that enhances your story), but you don’t describe the cooler you were using as a footrest, or the fact that you noticed how you really need to replace those ratty sandals. Maybe you throw out the feet and the cooler and let the foreground begin with the reeds at the edge of the water.  (Even if they happen to be in the reference photo you quickly snapped with your phone.)

3. Be prepared to adjust and refine as you work.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever started a painting without doing all your sketches and value plans and color studies beforehand. If your hand is down right now, well . . . Liar, liar, pants on fire!  I do it All.The.Time.

I’m always discovering part of the way through a painting that there is some problem I should have figured out beforehand. Well, okay, you can use that as an opportunity to call yourself stupid, or why you never learn! but I’m not keen on beating myself up, so I decided, “That’s not a bug; that’s a feature!” I do rough drafts! Writers do it. Why shouldn’t we?

Instead of slogging ahead on a painting that I know isn’t going to make me happy, I pause. Now is the time to solve that problem. Maybe I can make an adjustment to get back on track. Maybe it will be more successful to begin again on a fresh sheet of paper, with the problem now solved.

(Don’t forget to notice and keep the stuff that’s working!)

Maybe (oh, happy day!) something better than I could have planned has happened, and it’s time to set aside my original intentions and capitalize on the “happy accident”.

I'm still struggling to figure out how to approach a new series, but this little piece is capturing something I want to keep.

I’m still struggling to figure out how to approach a new series, but this little piece of a “failed” painting is capturing something I want to keep.

4. Evaluate your painting according to your intentions for it. (But accept that you will fall short of the ideal.)

If you’ve been clear and specific about your reasons for painting this painting, and the effect you want it to have on the viewer, you now have a way to answer “Is it any good?”

Does it capture what you wanted to capture? Does it express the feeling you wanted to convey? Will it have the desired effect on a viewer?

One caveat: It’s common for everyone else to think the painting is more successful than you do. They’re not just being nice. And you’re not just being too hard on yourself.

Creating a painting that makes your heart sing is a LOT harder than creating a painting that makes someone else’s heart sing. You know the extraordinary, elusive, powerful emotion that motivated you to paint it. And that’s what you’re comparing it to. Everyone else is experiencing the painting for itself, from their own perspective. For all you know, it may evoke something even more poignant and powerful for someone else.  (Or it might not speak to them at all. That’s going to happen, too.)

Don’t insist that a painting has to perfectly capture the feeling that motivated you to paint it in order to be a good painting. That’s not likely to happen. (But, if you’re lucky, it might sometimes capture something even better, even more powerful. It might teach you something new!)

Art is hard! Saying something meaningful, powerful or original is hard! We only succeed in bits and pieces, here and there, now and then. But it’s important work.

So take your inner critic by the hand and tackle it again together.





Two small "bookshelf" paintings.

Present Your Watercolors Without Glass!

Two small "bookshelf" paintings.

Two small “bookshelf” paintings.

I’ve been presenting my watercolors without glass for quite some time. I love the clean look! Here’s everything you need to know to present your watercolors using this method.

In the video, I demonstrate one way to do this, using the method (and products) I use myself. Below the video is a description of other options, info about the pros and cons of other methods and products, and some info on where to find the products you need.

An alternative method:

For those who prefer the look of a frame, here’s a link to a great description by Australian artist Ian Coles of his method for presenting watercolor without glass, floating within a frame. (Sure wish I had these joinery skills!)


A mat, frame and glass provide works on paper with some sort of rigid support, and protection from damage from water, airborne contaminants, and light. To present a watercolor (or other work on paper) without a glass and frame, we need some other way to provide this support and protection.

To present your watercolor with glass, mat or frame, you’ll need to:

  • choose the type of support you will use
  • apply a fixative to your watercolor to prevent colors from smearing when isolation coat or topcoat is applied
  • apply a topcoat (which may serve as the isolation coat, if you add a removable varnish)
  • mount (using acrylic medium as glue) your work on your chosen support
  • apply an additional topcoat (isolation coat) to seal the work and the support
  • (optional) apply a removable varnish

Options for Supports

Pretty much anything that will provide the work with support and a way to attach hanging hardware to the back will work. I glue my work to Ampersand Gessobord (like this), but you could glue your watercolor to primed (and painted, if you like) canvas, Gatorboard, foamcore, hardwood painting panels, hardboard, MDF.

You can tear your paper so that it is somewhat smaller than the support and mount it so that the board or canvas extends beyond the paper. (Recommended method for mounting on canvas, because it’s tough to trim the edges cleanly to the exactly match the edge of a wrapped canvas.)

Or, you can do as I do and make your paper slightly larger than the support so that you can trim the edges flush with the edge of the support once the painting is glued down (works best with gessobord and other hard boards). (You’ll see this in the video.)

Or, you can make your paper slightly larger than the support to give the effect of the paper simply floating above the wall (mounting on half-inch Gatorfoam, for example). If you do this, the edges of the paper will be unprotected from getting bent or caught on things, so I’d only do this if the hanging location is pretty protected. You could also do this within a deep frame, however, so that the paper appears to float. Just like a normal float-mount, but without requiring glass. This provides the least protection, but you might still consider it worthwhile if you like the look.

Preparing your Support

Gessobord or Canvas

Ampersand Gessobord, as its name implies, already comes with a coating of gesso on the front surface. Many pre-stretched canvases also come already gessoed. These supports need no preparation, unless you wish to paint the surface or edges a coordinating or contrasting color.

Foamboard or Gatorboard

If you are going to use foamboard, I suggest you use the acid-free variety (for example, these).

Regular foamboard tends to warp as the glue dries. For small paintings (e.g. 8×10″), it’s usually not enough to matter. For larger paintings, you can try applying a coat of acrylic medium to BOTH sides, which seems to even things out pretty well. Or, better yet, use heavier Gatorfoam for larger work. (It can be cut with a utility knife or a saw.)

Hardboard, plywood, MDF

Hardboard, plywood or MDF also make good supports. If you use these, it’s a good idea to add a layer of acrylic medium as a barrier to prevent discoloration.  Acrylic medium (which we will use as our glue), will act as a barrier to protect the paper, provided there is enough medium to make sure the paper is not in contact with the wood. To be on the safe side, I’d pre-coat the support with a couple of coats of acrylic medium to seal it before gluing.


You’ll want to spray several thin coats, instead of saturating the paper. You don’t want puddles, and you don’t want to get your watercolor so wet that the color starts moving! A bit of practice with this is a good idea. Make a sample sheet with some fairly heavy applications of paint and get the hang of spraying with those, instead of a painting you really care about!

I usually apply 2-4 thin layers of fixative. At this point, I can judge by appearance if I have a good seal. You might spray thinner or thicker layers than I do. Again, test it out on a sample sheet first!

If you are working on YUPO or Terraskin, or some other extremely slick surface where the slightest moisture might move the paint, you will probably want to skip down to the part about Golden MSA spray varnish.

SpectraFix (lots of potential, but not quite ready for prime-time around here)

If you were at the demo, you heard me talk about SpectraFix. I was recently at a workshop taught by Bob Burridge where I heard about this great (I thought) solution. This fixative is casein (milk protein) and grain alcohol in a pump spray bottle. No hazardous materials (you could probably drink it, although I can think of tastier adult beverages). No worries about spraying indoors—a big plus for lots of us in the winter!

Unfortunately, when we tried it at the demo, there was still some smearing of heavier applications of pigment. I’ve been doing more testing, and I’m pretty sure the problem is humidity. I think if the humidity is about about 65%, SpectraFix may either not dry completely or take a very looooong time to dry enough to stand up to brushing a water-based coat on top. Might be why it works fine in California and not so great in Wisconsin (in summer, at least).

I’m going to rescind my recommendation of Spectra Fix for now and keep testing. If I figure out a way to get reliable results, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m going to recommend sticking with some sort of acrylic spray.

Krylon clear acrylic spray

There are several different Krylon sprays, and many are suitable (read the labels!) for use on watercolors. Sold as a fixative and topcoat and relatively easy to find in art supply stores and some hardware store paint departments. Aerosol can, so you have to spray outside. The gloss finish is the easiest to find, and you can use it even if you want to end up with a matte finish, because you’ll be applying a topcoat and/or varnish over it. The final layer or two determines the gloss, so your topcoat or varnish is the product that will determine whether you have a gloss, satin or matte finish.

Acrylic airbrush medium applied with a mouth atomizer, airbrush, Preval sprayer or misting spray bottle

This is what I use in my airbrush, and I didn’t cover it in the demo because most of you probably don’t have an airbrush, but — duh! — for many years before I bought my airbrush that I just used a mouth atomizer. I don’t know why I didn’t think to mention that option!

If you wind up hyperventilating when you use a mouth atomizer, the Preval sprayer is an alternative. It’s basically a little aerosol spray can that you can fill with your own paint. The Preval sprayer is probably the easiest method, but you do have to buy refill cans of propellent.

Another alternative is to put the airbrush medium in a pump spray bottle that makes a fine mist (like the one the Spectra Fix comes in, or the type used for hair spray). If you choose to do this, I would suggest you empty the airbrush medium out of the spray bottle after each use, thoroughly rinse everything with water, and spray a good amount of water through the nozzle to make sure the acrylic doesn’t dry in the nozzle and clog it.

Golden Archival Varnish (aerosol)

Golden makes a removable acrylic varnish that is mineral-spirits-based and comes in an aerosol can. I’m not a fan of either mineral spirits or aerosol cans BUT if you have a really touchy piece that can’t tolerate even a light mist of water, this is the way to go.

Once you have several coats of this applied, you should be able to proceed carefully with the remaining steps. However, abrasion can remove both watercolor and acrylic from YUPO, even if there is no moisture involved, so you’ll need to be gentle during the mounting step. Again, if you’re working on something besides regular watercolor paper, PLEASE do some testing before you try things out on a painting you care about!

Top Coat (a.k.a Isolation Coat)

After you have fixed your watercolor, you can apply a protective acrylic coat with a brush.  This would be called a topcoat if it’s the final coat. If a removable varnish is applied over it, then this coat is usually called the “isolation coat” because it isolates the painting from the varnish to protect the painting if and when the varnish layer is removed.

Just to make things confusing, a lot of people call this (nonremovable) topcoat layer, “varnish”. However, it makes more sense to use the term “varnish” for a layer that can be removed and re-applied if it gets dirty or contaminated (that’s the historical rationale for varnishing paintings). But, be aware that many acrylic “varnishes” are really just topcoats. (If it’s removable, it will say so, either in the name or in the instructions! Otherwise, assume it’s not.)

I usually apply 2-3 thin layers. This gives me better control, and a nicer finish. Plus, if I miss a spot in one layer, hopefully I’ll catch it in the next.

Acrylic Soft Gel Medium, thinned with water (or liquid acrylic medium, with care)

One option for your topcoat is to use Acrylic Soft Gel Medium, thinned with water so that it brushes out nicely. I can’t give you exact proportions, because different brands have different consistencies of gel. You’ll have to experiment a bit and see what you like.

By the way, I used to wonder why you would thin down a gel medium, instead of just using a liquid medium. The reason thinned gel is recommended is that the liquid mediums have more surfactant, to keep things from settling out and give them a longer shelf life. But “surfactant” is basically soap . . . so more chance of foaming or bubbles. Y

You CAN use liquid medium, though, if you are careful applying it. If you do, it’s recommended that you wipe it down with a damp cloth after it dries and before applying the next coat. This removes most of the surfactant, which can also sometimes cause clouding.

Again, gloss, satin, matte—whatever finish you like is fine. They all protect equally well.  Some people feel that you should use gloss everything up to the final coat or two, so there is no loss of clarity from multiple coats. I can’t tell the difference, so I don’t worry about it.

Minwax Polycrylic (Water-Based NOT Oil-Based Polyurethane!)

Another great tip from Bob Burridge. Polycrylic is cheaper than the “art store” acrylic varnishes, self-levels beautifully, and comes in matte, gloss and satin finishes. According to Burridge, it has UV protection, too. And, if it’s good enough for somebody who’s been selling his paintings all over the world, winning awards and judging the national and international shows, it’s good enough for me. 🙂

Read the label carefully when you buy it, though. It’s sold in hardware stores as a floor and furniture finish. The water-based and oil-based varieties are usually sold side-by-side, but they are NOT THE SAME! The water-based version is an acrylic resin, the oil-based version is polyurethane, which is a different plastic and not what you want (it’s subject to yellowing over time, for one thing).

Acrylic (Non-Removable) “Varnish”

You can also use one of the products sold in art supply stores as Acrylic Varnish for your topcoat or isolation coat. The only downside to this is that it’s probably the most expensive option.

Mounting the Work

Once you’ve applied a couple of layers of topcoat, the painting is protected well enough to move on to mounting it. The “glue” to use for mounting is Acrylic Gel Medium. It sometimes comes in different consistencies—soft, regular, hard—but brands vary. Softer is easier to work with, so if a brand offers the option, go with soft. But any gel medium will work, and you can thin it to a good working consistency, You do not want it as runny as Elmer’s glue, but you do want it thin enough that you can smooth everything down without globs and blobs showing on the front of the work.

DO NOT use Elmer’s or Yes! Paste. They don’t give a strong and durable bond (especially for larger pieces).

I have heard people say Modge Podge works for them, but I’ve never tried it.

Final Topcoat (Isolation Coat) Layer

I apply my final top coat or isolation coat after mounting the work. I apply it to the work AND to the support (and sides of the support, if they will be exposed) all in one coat. This gives me a uniform finish, and little more insurance to seal the edge of the work to the support.

You can apply additional coats to achieve the look you want. I usually DO apply several more coats to the sides of the cradled boards to give the wood a nice finish.  (I also usually apply one coat to the sides of my panels as soon as I take them out of the package, so they won’t be stained if they accidentally encounter some stray paint in my studio.)

Removable Varnish (Optional)

I apply the varnish layers AFTER mounting, in case I scuff up the surface in places during the mounting process, and to help seal everything further.  I apply the final topcoat or varnish to the painting AND the sides of the panels. I usually apply 2 coats to the painting (again just to make sure I don’t skip any spots). I apply as many coats on the sides as I feel I need to get a nice finish on the wood.

Golden water-based UVLS Vanish

Comes in matte, gloss or satin, and you can mix to get the degree of gloss you desire. If you use Golden varnish, you can later remove it with household ammonia (which will not dissolve the isolation coat) and re-varnish. The varnish should be thinned with water before applying! If you try to use it straight out of the jar, it will be too thick and you’ll get brush marks.  Follow the proportions given on the bottle for thinning.

You’ll see that there are also proportions thinning for a spray application, and you might think that would give you a nicer finish. I have an airbrush, so I used to spray the varnish layers. What a waste of time! If you thin to the correct proportions for brushing (and don’t fiddle excessively), this stuff self-levels beautifully. There’s no need to spray it on.

Other Removable Acrylic Varnishes

Several other manufacturers make removable acrylic varnishes (e.g. Holbein). However, I have not been able to find any besides Golden’s that are water-based. Most of the others don’t say what the base is in any obvious way on the label, but a little digging reveals that it is mineral spirits. And, instead of ammonia, you use mineral spirits to remove these varnishes, if need be. I’d rather not have mineral spirits in my studio, so I have not explored these products.

(By the say, Golden also makes a mineral-spirits-based removable varnish, called MSA varnish, which I mentioned as a possible fixative. It can be purchased in an aerosol can. If you want to apply your final varnish as a spray and don’t mind going outside, this is an easy, though pricey, option.)

A word about mouth atomizers for spraying acrylics . . .

I recommend the Pat Dews mouth atomizer, because it’s made for spraying acrylic paint, so you won’t have to blow so hard.

You CAN use the type intended for (spirit-based) fixatives, but it’s hard work!. Almost every time, people look at the price difference and order the inexpensive ones. Then after they hyperventilate for a while, they order the Pat Dews one instead. It really IS worth the price difference, in my opinion, if your going to spray acrylic paints and mediums. The tubes are larger diameter, so they can handle the higher viscosity of acrylics without making you pass out!

Either way, I highly recommend you do a little practicing before you try this out on a painting you love!

Outdoor Products collapsible silicone rubber camping cup and bowl.

I Found the Collapsible Cup!

Many of you have asked about the little collapsible cup I carry with my sketching stuff. I finally found it on Amazon, so now you can have one, too!

The exact one I have seems to only come in a set with a bowl, but there are quite a few other silicone rubber collapsible camping cups listed down in the related products lists at the bottom of the page.

(I swiped the photo from Amazon’s website, so obviously I don’t have the copyright, but I’m guessing they’ll be happy for me to use it to promote their product.)

Outdoor Products collapsible silicone rubber camping cup and bowl.

Outdoor Products collapsible silicone rubber camping cup and bowl.