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? 🙂



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.


Sketchers by the pond at Como Conservatory.

9 Tips for Better Sketches (and More Fun!)

Yesterday, 12 intrepid sketchers from the Watercolor Minimalist class at Wet Paint descended on Como Conservatory determined to learn some tips and tricks for sketching on location in a short amount of time and with minimal stuff. It was a gorgeous day, there were beautiful subjects all around us, restrooms and cafe nearby, and not much in the way of wind or bugs. It doesn’t get much better than that!

One of yesterday's sketchers drawing the main conservatory building.

One of yesterday’s sketchers drawing the main conservatory building.

Kudos to everyone who came out and bravely practiced their sketching yesterday! I hope you all had fun and picked up one or two helpful hints.

As I watched everyone working, and talked with people about their frustrations and triumphs, I reflected on how many of us run into trouble because we have some misconceptions about sketching, or maybe we lack good sketching habits. This is sad because people think they’re struggling because they have no talent, when in fact a lot of what they are feeling and experiencing is just normal to everyone who goes out to sketch.

I still get in my own way a lot when I go out to sketch. But, over the years, shifting my strategy and thinking to minimizing the obstacles that I create for myself has helped me have a LOT more fun (and that has helped me actually get out and practice more often), and along the way make at least some sketches that I’m happy with.

If you want to have more fun sketching—and better sketches—here are some ideas to try.

Tip #1: Leave your camera at home (or in your bag).

When I take my camera, I’m too tempted to think, “Before I start I’ll just snap a quick photo for reference.” If I stopped at ONE, maybe it would be helpful. But for me, having my camera in hand usually means I’ll come back with a boatload of hastily-snapped and poorly-composed photos, and one crappy sketch dashed off in 15 minutes when I realized it was almost time to leave.

If you don’t have a camera, then you have to use your sketchbook instead!

Tip #2: Quit trying to find the perfect subject.

I used to spend all my sketching time traipsing around, sure that the very best subject was just around the corner. Wandering around looking for the perfect subject is a recipe for wandering, not sketching.

Tip #3: Warm up with quick exploratory drawings.

Looking for the perfect subject means you spend too much time wandering around instead of sketching. But plopping down and drawing the first thing that suggests itself often means you sketch clichés.

Instead, try this: Take along some cheap copy paper—or designate some pages at the back of your sketchbook—for exploratory drawings. The point of an exploratory drawing is not to “make a picture”; it’s to get your eye and hand warmed up and moving together, and to activate your “artist’s brain”.  You’re going to discard these, so don’t worry about making them look like anything!

Pick a subject—anything—and start drawing quickly. Start anywhere, keep your eyes mostly on the subject, keep your pen or pencil moving rapidly with your eyes, and don’t bother with measuring or being accurate or even being recognizable. If you get bored, abandon the drawing and move on to another exploratory drawing.

As the name implies, exploratory drawings are a way to help you explore possible subjects and compositions. Even though they are often basically scribbles, I find that I see things differently—and do a MUCH better job of choosing a subject and composition—when I have a pen or pencil moving on the page.

Here’s part of a page of exploratory drawings. It’s hard to even tell what they are, and that’s OKAY! These are not “thumbnail drawings”. They’re not complete compositions, and I don’t have to “finish” them in any way. I’m not worrying yet about color or value or anything in particular. I’m just letting my hand lead my eye.

So you can get an idea of how crude and unformed they are, the one in the upper left is the weather vane and top of the roof of the carousel building. Below it is a scribble-drawing of some shapes from a canna lily, where you can also see me playing around with the idea of cropping in very close and sketching just a portion of the flower. On the right is a quick drawing of a lamppost. I knew I wasn’t interested in drawing the lamppost in more detail, but I thought the shape might be a nice addition to a larger scene.

Rough exploratory drawings.

Exploratory drawings. Some are almost just scribbles—that’s fine!

Try taking a few minutes to do 5-10 exploratory drawings before choosing a subject to sketch.  Don’t make a huge chore out of it!  In class, I gave the group 30 minutes to do a bunch of these, but I usually do 5-10 in about 5-10 minutes.

Not only is it time well spent in terms of choosing a better subject and composition than my first impulse, it also helps me relax. Because I know these are going in the trash, my inner critic doesn’t start beating me up right off the bat.

Tip #4: Know (and remind yourself by writing it in your sketchbook) why you’re making this sketch.

How can you know if a sketch is any good, if you don’t know what it’s for?

Instead of making a typed handout for my class yesterday, I thought it would be more fun to make the handout a page in my sketchbook. I write notes in my sketchbooks all the time—including reminders to myself about why I’m out sketching that day, and what drew me to a scene. This kind of page is what results when I take a class myself. My notes are usually part words, part little cartoony images.

A sketchbook page of tips and reminders.

A sketchbook page of tips and reminders.

See all these little sketches of things you might want to take on a sketching trip? Isn’t that more fun than a bullet list? Does it help get you in the mood to sketch?

Close up of part of sketchbook page with "what to bring" suggestions.

See all those little sketches? Are they any good?

But are they accurate renderings? Heck no! Does that make them “bad sketches”? Judging from the reactions of my students, these little drawings were fun and motivating. Crude as they are, they are GOOD sketches, because they served their intended purpose.

Even if you don’t think paintings should look like photos, in the back of your mind you can hear people saying, “Wow! You’re so talented! That looks just like a photo!”  But do you really think it would be more appealing to get a photorealistic drawing of all my sketching supplies? Or a photo?

Yes, it’s great to acquire skill in rendering, but practicing accurate rendering and drawing a charming sketch to capture the feel of your vacation are NOT the same activity. When you try to combine them, you only get frustration and overworked sketches.

If, on the other hand, you ARE practicing accurate rendering, then you don’t need to “complete” a sketch or even make it recognizable. You can draw the part that’s interesting or challenging and then move on to another sketch. If your goal is perspective drawing, you might just draw the main sections of a building. If your goal is to learn to suggest textures, you might seek out and sketch various surfaces.

Know what you’re working on in this sketch and write it down in your sketchbook! Believe me, as soon as you go into “drawing mode”, you’ll lose sight of “I’m practicing suggesting various textures,” and find yourself drawing the entire boulder instead of one-inch of its rough surface. If you’re practicing textures . . .

. . . don’t draw the entire boulder!

Which leads to

Tip #5: Focus on ONE THING per sketch!

I don’t mean one object. I mean, have one purpose for your sketch and don’t add in anything that doesn’t help achieve that purpose. For example, I was most interested in the glass dome of the conservatory building. It was interesting that some portions were translucent, letting the green of the palms show through, some parts were reflective, and some were shadowy. The rest of the building wasn’t all that interesting to me. To capture what interested me, do I need to draw the whole building? Do I need to draw every pane of glass to give you the idea that there are a lot of panes?

Especially when travel sketching where time on one location may be limited and you may be interrupted at any moment, it makes sense to start with the part of the subject that interests you most. Or maybe suggest the overall outline and then go right to the details you like best. (And maybe end there, too!)

I’d put this in a travel journal along with a few words saying where it was drawn. If this is part of my travel journal, the words can tell part of the story and the image can tell another part. Neither one has to do it all!

Palm dome, from the outside.

The glass palm dome and part of the greenhouse for the sunken garden, from the outside.

We all know how to do this. If you were sending a friend a postcard from Italy, you would not use up valuable real estate describing in minute detail every security line you stood in, the texture of the upholstery on the airline seats, the color of the departure lounge, etc. You’d leave out the boring parts!

Give yourself permission to make sketches that are lively postcard snippets or little poems; not the interminable, repetitive, boring narratives that one relative always tells!

Tip #6: Do multiple drafts.

You’ve heard me say it before: writers don’t expect to sit down and write a novel in one draft and not have to edit. Why would we think visual communication is any different?

Before my class arrived yesterday, I did a quick pencil sketch of the conservatory building so I’d be able to use it to demonstrate ways of applying color later. And yep, because I was rushing, I didn’t do any exploratory drawings, or even think much about composition. (My bad!) My purpose was reduced to “get some lines down on the page so I can use the drawing as a base”.

Then, I compounded the problem by using the same drawing to demonstrate four or five techniques, and later, to demonstrate some more ideas while answering questions. But the time I was done, it was muddy, overworked mess with no clear focus.

Yesterday's demo sketch of the conservatory building.

Yesterday’s demo sketch of the conservatory building.

I used to think to myself, “Well, I wrecked that one . . . maybe sometime I’ll go back and try again.”  But if you’re like most of us, you may not have the luxury of running back out to the same location to sketch the scene again.

Each time you sketch a subject (or type of subject), you’ll understand more of the characteristic shapes and figure out ways to suggest shapes, textures and so on. Familiarity with a type of subject matter is the reason experienced sketchers seem to be able to just sit down and make a great sketch on the first try. They’ve actually already solved a lot of the problems for that type of subject before. So making another sketch is a great idea!

If you can’t go back out to sketch the scene again right away, try this: Sketch again from memory.

If you’ve never tried it, you may be very surprised at how much you recall. If there are details you can’t recall, they’re probably details you didn’t care about, or wouldn’t have had time to get to anyway. Leave them out and do the parts you can remember. Even if you don’t remember very much the first few times you do this, you’ll be training your visual memory, and you’ll get better and better.

Besides training your visual memory, drafts allow you to try out different ideas and play with techniques. You might be partway into a sketch before you figure out what techniques you really want to use or what you really find appealing. (That’s part of the function of a sketch!) A second draft gives you a chance to start fresh with a bit more understanding of what you’re trying to achieve.

Here’s round 2, from memory:

Second sketch of conservatory building.

Round 2. I decided to try using mostly line, with some loose washes for interest.

That’s a livelier sketch!  (I think it’s actually also a more accurate rendering.)

But why stop there? The above sketch is mostly line, with some washes for interest. What if I tried a sketch that was most washes with a little line work to sharpen it up?

Third sketch of conservatory buildings.

Round 3.

Better? Worse? Who knows? It’s just a different approach. I liked the second draft as a page in my 9×12″ sketchbook, but this would probably be better for a postcard or an artist trading card where space is limited. I also had fun playing around with making the sky darker so I could have white highlights along the edge of the dome.

It’s hard to see in the photo, but I also experimented with washing a veil of white paint over a few portions of the dome to see if that would give the effect of the sky reflecting in the glass. Leaving out the pond and most of the detail on the bridge railing makes the building more clearly the center of interest.

As I experimented with technique, I also gradually zeroed in on what really captured my interest—the transparency and reflectivity of the glass—leading to the final sketch, which I showed you earlier. I happen to like this one best, but in many ways, it’s the “worst” drawing—incomplete and drawn with a wobbly line and poor proportions. But I actually like that in my travel sketches. So much so that I drew this with my nondominant hand so that drawing wouldn’t look too precise, and I used ink, so I could’t erase.

Palm dome, from the outside.

Palm dome, from the outside.

You might prefer one of the other sketches, or you might not like any of them, but I think you can get an idea of how I used my sketchbook to help fix the scene into my visual memory, and then play as a place to play around with methods and with what interested me about the scene.

Tip #7: Keep a sketchbook that’s just for experimenting and exploring.

As you experiment, you’ll develop your own “bag of tricks” and eventually, you’ll be able to sketch with much more confidence. And, telling yourself that you are exploring options means there’s not so much riding on any particular sketch.

It’s perfectly okay to have sketches you don’t like! They are not “failures”, they’re useful information about what you don’t care for or what doesn’t suit your personality. You won’t know if a technique suits you unless you play around with it. And you may not be able to explain—even to yourself!—what look you are trying to achieve in your work until you catch glimmers of it here and there.

Tip #8: Quit worrying about “talent”.

It seems almost universal to be dissatisfied with your own sketches, and still be charmed by the (possibly even less “accurate”) sketches of others. I don’t think this is just a matter of our tendency to be overly critical of our own efforts.

I think a couple of other things are involved that most of us forget to take into account.

One is that you learn a LOT in the process of making the sketch in the first place. The fact that you can see all the “mistakes” is because you made the sketch. You learn to see more clearly by making a first stab at a line or a shape and then comparing your “guesstimate” again with the scene. So of course you see all the flaws! In a sense, that’s what the process of drawing is all about.

If you draw the same scene again using what you just learned, you’ll fix some of the boo-boos. But you’ll also learn more, so you’ll likely still be dissatisfied with the second sketch. Your sketches can’t catch up! Learn to be at peace with that, and instead reflect on how the process of sketching is teaching you to see more clearly and fully.

The second issue is tougher: you’re the only one comparing your sketch to the ideal you were striving for.

Everyone else is taking it at face value, and they’re delighted! They’re not just being nice when they say they find it charming.

That doesn’t mean you should settle for less. That ideal we are striving towards is what drives us to make our art in the first place. But it’s not easy to chase that ideal! There is great joy in making art, but often frustration goes along with it. Remind yourself that it’s the nature of the beast, and not a reflection on your talent (or your worth as a person).  Keep striving, and at the same time realize that you don’t have to completely achieve your ideal to succeed in delighting another person with your art, even if it’s “just” a quick little sketch!

Tip #9: Find sketching friends.

Nothing helps defuse the self-consciousness of sketching on location than not being the only one! If you want to establish a sketching habit, make a pact with someone else or join a sketching group.

One options in the Twin Cities is Metro Sketchers founded by Liz Carlson at Wet Paint.

Twin Cities artist Roz Stendahl lists some other Twin Cities sketch group options at this page on her website.

If you’re not in the Twin Cities, try checking out Urban Sketchers at to see if there is a chapter in your area or participate online. Or, try searching Google using the keywords Sketch Group or Sketch-Out in your area.

Happy sketching!

What works for you? Share your sketching tips in the comments!









line and wash painting of a campsite with tent and chair

Line-and-Wash—Watercolor Painting Anyone Can Do

A lot of people are still digging out of the most recent swath of snowstorms, but here in Hudson, it’s in the upper 20s, with a forecast of temperatures in the 40s in the coming week. Time to get outside to paint or sketch!

If the idea of painting outside or while traveling is appealing . . . but intimidating . . . a great way to start is to try line-and-wash. Even if you think you are “not an artist” and have no experience drawing or painting, you can still use line-and-wash to enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors, travel, gardening, cooking or other favorite activities.

If you “can’t draw”, I encourage you to jump in and try this anyway. The combination of line and wash seems to give even rather crude, out-of-proportion drawings a sense of charm. Instead of trying to replicate a photo or an architect’s rendering, go for the expressiveness and playfulness of children’s book illustrations.  You don’t have to show your drawings to anyone.

If you keep drawing, your drawings will get better with practice, but that’s not why I urge you to do it.

The real benefit is that you will SEE and appreciate more deeply. You will be amazed how little you’ve actually seen of some very familiar scenes and objects, once you start drawing them.

Don’t be discouraged that your drawings don’t “look right”. In attempting to draw something, you actually see more and learn more about how it looks, so the drawing itself is always behind your perception of the scene. If you draw it again, the drawing will improve, but so will your ability to see.

You’ll learn more as you do the second drawing about how the thing really looks, so your new drawing will still be trying to catch up to your perception. Experienced artists know that the goal is not to make a perfect replica (not even possible, since your drawing is 2D and the world is 3D, plus time!).

The goal is to make a drawing “good enough” for whatever your purpose might be. If your purpose is simply to use the act of drawing to enhance your perception, it doesn’t matter at all what winds up on the paper.  “Seeing more deeply and fully” and “accurately rendering a scene” are two different purposes.

Nothing wrong with working on your rendering skills, but I urge you to do that in some other context. When you’re traveling, or sketching something from your garden, tell your inner critic to go have a cup of tea and leave you in peace.

If you want to keep a travel journal, but you feel self-conscious about “not drawing well”, it may help to make it for a young child instead of for the adults in your life. That can help you let go of how the drawing looks and focus on seeing with the eyes and sense of wonder of a small child.


A small sketchbook, my favorite Cross fountain pen and a waterbrush are all I need.

A small sketchbook, my favorite Cross fountain pen and a waterbrush are all I need.


Start simple. All you need is a pen with watersoluble ink (a Flair felt-tip works well), an inexpensive brush, and a sketchbook or some paper that will hold up to getting a bit wet. This is a great way to use up that student-grade watercolor paper, because you won’t be getting it very wet.

I like to use my favorite Cross fountain pen, and a “waterbrush”—a small brush with its own refillable water reservoir.

As the name implies, line-and-wash consists of a line drawing together with a wash of color (or greys).

If you are working with a watersoluble pen, marker or watercolor pencil, you simply make your drawing, and then use the waterbrush to “drag out” some color from the lines here and there to suggest shadows or darker objects.

Running a wet brush along one side of the line will drag out some of the color, creating a shadow effect.

Running a wet brush along one side of the line will drag out some of the color, creating a shadow effect.

Running the brush over a scribble dissolves some of the color to add shading to a drawing.

Running the brush over a scribble dissolves some of the color to add shading to a drawing.

Line and wash sketches of cowboys and rail station.

You can see both of these techniques in these sketches.

If you like, you can add additional lines on top of the washes once they dry.


Line-and-wash sketch of an interesting window.

Line-and-wash sketch of an interesting window.

When you are ready to add color, you can use a small watercolor travel palette, watersoluble markers (such as Tombow markers) or watercolor pencils.

If you don’t want your black lines to mingle with your colors (most people don’t), you’ll need to use a waterproof pen for this type of work. An ultrafine Sharpie works, or you can use a waterproof art pen, such as a Pigma Micron.

If you don’t have a travel palette, I suggest buying a Crayola brand kids’ watercolor set. The kids’ Crayola set actually has fairly vibrant colors.

They will get used up quickly, and they do fade over time, but for about $2-3, it’s a great way to try line-and-wash painting for cheap. You can refill it with tube watercolors later.

When you start adding color, here’s a guideline: line-and-wash seems to be most successful when it’s either mostly a line drawing with some splashes of color, or mostly a painting with a little line work to give it some definition.

Avoid the temptation to make a tight, detailed drawing and then “color it in”. Not only is that usually less appealing, but it takes the focus away from looking at the scene.  Stay loose with the brush, keep your eyes on the subject more than your page, and have fun!

I’ll leave you with some examples to give you the idea, but the best way to understand this is to do it!

Happy painting!

A line drawing of a fish.

A line drawing of a fish.

A line drawing of a fish. with a few splashes of color.

. . . with a few splashes of color.

A line-and-wash painting of a sailboat.

A line-and-wash painting of a sailboat.

A line and wash painting of two scenes in Shasta National Forest.

This one is mostly wash, with just a little bit of line work added later to sharpen up some details.

line and wash painting of a campsite with tent and chair

Another one that is mostly a painting, with some line for definition.



Watercolor brushes drying on a towel on a slanted board.

12 Tips for Happy Brushes—How to Care for Your Watercolor Brushes

I’m welcoming some new watercolor painters to the medium, so there have been some requests for information about caring for watercolor brushes.

(Even if you know all this, you might want to skip down to item 9. In the third paragraph, there are two links to videos about how brushes are made. The first is a tour of the Escoda brush factory, and the second is a fascinating and charming video of a master Chinese brush maker at work. Apologies if you’ve already seen them; I think I’ve posted both of these before somewhere, but I couldn’t find the links on my site today, so maybe not. Even if they are repeats, they’re worth watching again.)

1. Rinse sizing out of new brushes.

New brushes are often shipped with a watersoluble “glue” holding the bristles together to prevent damage in shipping (even brushes shipped with a plastic cover over the bristles may have sizing in the brush). The bristles will feel hard and crusty, or maybe even be stuck together completely.

If you simply break the bristles free from the sizing while the brush is dry, there will be a residue of sizing in the brush, and it won’t perform well and will dry hard again. At least until you’ve painted with it long enough to gradually rinse the sizing out.

Instead, rinse a new brush under warm running water and use your fingers to soften the sizing and work it out of the bristles. It usually takes 30 seconds to a minute to really rinse all the sizing out. You only have to do this once when you first buy the brush.

2. Wet the brushes you plan to use and let them absorb a little water before you start painting.

Natural hair brushes, especially, need a few moments to absorb water before they will behave predictably. As synthetics have gotten better (closer to the behavior of natural hair) this has become true for them, too.

When you set up to paint, dip the brush you are going to use in clear water, blot off the excess, and leave it resting on your table (preferably tip down).

In addition to allowing the brush hairs a moment to absorb water, this also allows some water to move by capillary action up into the ferrule. If there is some old paint that didn’t get rinsed out entirely, this will give it a little time to dissolve and be rinsed out before it has a chance to unexpectedly sneak into your first wash. Plus, having some water already in the ferrule will dilute any paint that does migrate up that far.

3. Rinse one more time before beginning to paint.

If there was any paint that didn’t get completely washed out after the last painting session, this will give it a chance to get rinsed out now, before it can contaminate your first wash. This is especially handy if you use powerful colors like the phthalo blues and greens, or strong quinacridone reds, violets and oranges. A small amount of these strong colors left in the ferrule can sneak down into your first few brushstrokes. Pretty aggravating if you meant to put down a pure, pale yellow!

4. Don’t leave brushes soaking in your rinse water.

Please don't do this to your brushes!

Please don’t do this to your brushes!

When working in acrylics, it’s common to leave the brush soaking in rinse water to prevent the paint from drying in the brush.  You may also have been taught to do this with watercolor or tempera paint as a child as a way to prevent you from laying a paint-filled brush on the table.

Brushes with fairly stiff bristles and plastic handles can tolerate this, but a soft watercolor brush with a lacquered wooden handle will be quickly ruined this way. The water is absorbed into the wood of the handle, which swells, cracks the lacquered finish and loosens the ferrule (the metal collar that holds the bristles) from the handle.

Even if you only rest the brush tip in water, capillary action and time will draw water up into the ferrule where it can then be absorbed into the wood of the handle.  In some cases, the glue holding the handle to the ferrule will also be damaged and the handle will fall off. In some brushes, the brush hairs are glued in place and the brush may begin shedding hairs if left soaking in water.

Instead, keep a sponge or towel handy to blot the brush dry and lay it down flat or tip down until you need it again.  A brush rest or chopstick rest makes a handy place to rest a brush, but a pair of towels works just fine, too.

If you already have this habit built in from painting in acrylics, one trick is to use a small, light container for rinse water for a while. It’s a bit of a nuisance, because you’ll have to change rinse water more often, but if the container feels likely to tip over from the weight of the brush, it will help remind you not to leave the brush soaking.

I paint in both watercolor and acrylic, and I use different containers for my rinse water as a way to help remind myself not to leave my watercolor brushes soaking. (If you paint in acrylics, you might want to check out my article on clean-up tips for acrylic for ideas about how to keep paint from drying in your acrylic brushes until you finish a painting session and have time to wash them.)

5. Rinse thoroughly with clear water and leave them to dry tip down when you are done for the day.

Watercolor brushes drying on a towel on a slanted board.

Lay your brushes on a towel on a slanted board until they are dry.

It will not harm your brush if some residual watercolor dries in the brush or ferrule. Even if it sits there for twenty years, watercolor can be re-dissolved again in water. But sometimes a bit of color is drawn up into the ferrule by capillary action. If the brush is left to dry tip down, most of this color will move down out of the ferrule, making it easier to rinse out before you begin your next painting session.

I take an extra painting support, prop up one end with a rolled up towel, drape another small towel over the support and lay my brushes on it, tip down, to dry.

6. Don’t put wet brushes in a jar for storage.

It looks pretty, and it keeps your brushes handy, so many people store their brushes, tip up, in a jar. So do I (well, my acrylic brushes, anyway). But not until they are thoroughly dry!

Letting them stand tip up in the jar to dry just encourages water to run down into the ferrule where it has little chance to evaporate. This invites the same problems as leaving your brushes soaking in your rinse water. I have several watercolor brushes with cracked lacquer and loose ferrules because I put them back in jars before they were really dry.

7. Unroll or open up brush carriers as soon as you get home.

If you transport your brushes to a class or a plein air session in a brush carrier, be sure to unroll or open it as soon as you get home to allow moisture to evaporate. It’s better if you can take your brushes out and let them dry completely before re-packing, but this may not be practical in a multi-day workshop or while traveling. But do at least take the time to open up your brush carrier and let your brushes dry out.

In addition to the problems of handles cracking or ferrules loosening, leaving brushes stored in a closed carrier can lead to mold. Many watercolor paints contain ingredients like honey or glycerin to help them stay moist. Although a jar of honey is unlikely to grow mold because of its low water content, molds think the (quite diluted) honey in your paint is yummy!  Once you get mold contamination in your brushes or paints, it can be very difficult to eradicate, so it’s best not to give it a chance to get started.

8. Don’t panic if a brush gets smushed and dries in a wonky shape.

I hear that some of you leap out of bed in the morning looking beautifully put-together, but my hair is prone to bed-head. Luckily, a shower fixes that.

Sometimes a brush slips to the bottom of your tote bag and gets a case of “bed-head”, too. It can be a bit worse than my hair in the morning, because the brush may have been there for days or weeks before being discovered.

Even so, you can reshape the brush using warm water. If it’s been hiding in the bottom of your tote bag for some time, you may have to massage it under warm water for a few minutes before it starts to cooperate. If that’s not enough to do the trick, blot the brush to remove excess water and use hair gel to reshape the bristles and hold them in place. After the brush dries, rinse out the hair gel as you would sizing from a new brush and all should be well. On rare occasions, I’ve had to repeat the process a few times to completely reshape the brush.

9. Don’t try to make a brush come to a better point by trimming it.

Occasionally, you will find a brush hair or two sticking straight out to the side, and the warm-water trick doesn’t fix it. In this case, the brush hair may actually be partially broken, and the best solution is to trim that one hair (or two) off at the ferrule. But don’t try to reshape an entire brush by trimming it.

It simply doesn’t work. The reason a brush comes to a point is that there are longer hairs in the middle AND that each hair (even synthetic ones) has a natural taper to it. Trimming the brush removes the natural taper and makes it LESS likely that you’ll get a good point.

To really understand this—and just because it’s fascinating!—watch this video about how watercolor brushes are made. It helps explain why they’re so expensive, too! Lots of steps done by hand and it’s not a simple skill to learn. (If you liked that one, you might also like this longer series on how traditional Chinese brushes are made.)

There are three common reasons why a brush won’t come to a sharp point:

1. It’s poorly made.

Sadly, there’s no fixing this. The best way to avoid that problem is to buy your brushes (at least the expensive ones) at an art supply store that will let you try the brush in clear water before buying.

Even a high-quality brush can be damaged in shipping or by other customers handling it in the store, so this is especially helpful if the brush does not have any sizing or protective cover. It might still be a perfectly good brush, but trying it out will ensure it hasn’t been damaged.

2. The longest hairs at the tip of the brush have been broken or split.

Depending on your style, a good natural-hair or quality brush may last a few months or a lifetime. You have to be pretty rough with it to break a brush down in a few months, but aggressively stabbing at the paper, scrubbing and dry-brushing can be hard on a brush.

My solution to this is to use one of the wonderful synthetics or synthetic-natural hair blend brushes on the market today, paint with abandon, and buy a new brush after 2 or 3 years.

A size 14 Winsor & Newton series 7 Kolinsky sable brush (long considered the “gold standard” of watercolor brushes) has a list price of $499 as of today! (Although nothing sells for “list price” so you can probably find one on sale for “only” $300-350.) The list price for a size 14 is $1299!!! Yikes!

I don’t know who actually buys these brushes, because you can buy an equally good (actually, I think they are better), Escoda kolinsky size 10 for around $50 – $80 ($120 for a size 14). This was my workhorse brush until about 5 years ago.

But in the last few years, synthetic brushes have gotten so good that I much prefer to buy a far-less-expensive synthetic and not have to worry if I’m treating it gently enough. Not only are they cheaper, but synthetic brushes generally stand up very well to rougher painting techniques. My workhorse brush now is an Escoda Prado or a Silver Black Velvet. I can buy a size 12-16 for under $25 and it will last several years before it no longer comes to a sharp point.  Considering that I paint a lot, and use this brush for most of my painting, that’s not bad.

When I buy a new one, I still use the old one (there are times when you don’t really want a sharp point).

3. Something has dried in the ferrule.

This is much more of a problem with acrylic than watercolor, but even with watercolor, dried paint or binder (gum arabic) in the base of the ferrule prevents the brush hairs from lying as close to one another as they should, so the tip can’t quite come together in a sharp point.

If a brush seems to want to separate into two points, dried gunk in the ferrule is almost always the culprit.

If it’s watercolor causing the problem, plain water will remove it, but it can take a surprisingly long time to dissolve material that is dried inside the ferrule. The rinse water has to make its way up there by capillary action and then back out again.

You can speed the process by grasping the brush handle in one hand and the brush hairs in the other close to the ferrule, and firmly wiggling the whole mass of brush hairs back and forth near the ferrule. If you use a little shampoo or soap, you’ll often be able to see the color coming out of the ferrule in the soap foam, which can help you make sure you are really getting all the dried paint out.

If the dried material is acrylic paint or glue, you can often remove it by working a citrus based cleaner (such as CitraSolv or GooGone) into the brush hairs near the ferrule, and wiggling to help the cleaner move inside the ferrule. Let it sit overnight and then wash using shampoo or castile soap. You may have to repeat this several times to remove dried acrylic paint or glue.

Citrus cleaners sometimes also work for dried masking fluid, but not always, so . . .

10. Never use your good brushes for applying masking fluid!

Masking fluid dries fast! You can ruin a brush in the length of time it takes to mask an small area, as the masking fluid will often dry in the brush near the ferrule while still flowing at the tip.  Don’t risk it!

You do want to apply masking fluid with a decent brush, but stick with a good-quality inexpensive synthetic. Princeton Brush has a line of white- and gold-taklon (nylon) brushes call Snap! that are surprising well-behaved brushes and not expensive.  There are several other lines of white- and gold-taklon (nylon) brushes that are similar. You should be able to find a decent brush for masking for under $5.

Then . . .

11. Before using ANY brush for masking, wet it with soap solution.

I simply dip my masking brush in water and scrub it around on a bar of Ivory soap. I’m especially careful to get some soap worked into the area near the ferrule, to keep masking fluid OUT!

I use plain old Ivory soap because it doesn’t have moisturizers or oils that might affect the flow of water-based media.

Some people use a solution of soap and water, but for me, a bar of soap is quicker and easier.

12. Love them and USE them often!

Okay, your brushes might not last longer if you use them often, but they are definitely happier—and so are you!

cartoon fairy with drippy paintbrush "wand"

A busy brush is a happy brush!