Saturday, January 26, 2013

Solvent Free Brush Cleaning...For Oil Painting?

Turpentine Is Dangerous! 

Recently an elderly artist friend of mine passed away due to upper respiratory problems most likely caused by prolonged exposure to turpentine fumes. Day in and day out, painting for countless hours while breathing the fumes from an open container of turpentine sitting just a couple of feet away. This is not good. I love to paint but I’m not prepared to give up my respiratory system...especially when there is such a simple alternative! The only time that I use turpentine is for cleaning my brush after applying a piece's final varnish. That's it...5 minutes and it's closed-up and put away until the next painting is ready for varnish.

For years I have been using walnut oil to clean my brushes with excellent results. It’s an effective brush cleaner, conditions the bristles, and best of all it’s non-toxic. In fact, it’s edible! Because it lasts a lot longer than turps, it's also cheaper. I'm amazed that the following method isn't being taught in art schools as 'the standard' approach to brush cleaning and I've yet to hear any reasonable explanations for the continued archaic misuse of turpentine.

Note: Safflower oil also works well but walnut oil is less viscous which makes it easier to wipe from brushes.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Brush Washer – I use a “Richeson Deluxe Brush Washer”. I've replaced the inner metal strainer with a small plastic spaghetti strainer because porous metal wears down bristles faster than non-porous plastic.

Walnut Oil – I've tried the more expensive "refined" artist-grade walnut oil, but standard grocery store walnut oil is perfect for brush cleaning purposes (which I purchase from my local Vons). I would not suggest using food grade oils as a painting medium. Only artist-grade oils have had the excess fats and other contaminants removed which could adversely effect the chemical properties of your paint.

Note: Because the paint settles to the bottom of the brush washer, it takes me about a year to use one 16oz. can (cost about $9.oo).

LInseed Soap - After experimenting with different popular soaps used for brush cleaning, linseed soap proved to me to be the most gentle and effective. Robert Doak's Linseed Soap has a more liquid/less waxy consistency is my personal preference, but he unfortunately has minimum order requirement. My second choice is Richeson Jack's LInseed Studio Soap.

Hair Conditioner – Any should work.

Solvent free brush cleaning process:

First, wipe away the excess on a towel.

Note: You may not need to clean you brush with oil or soap yet - wiping the brush clean should suffice unless you are moving to a lighter value, a higher chroma or drastically different hue (any of which the excess paint on your brush could muddy your color).

Dip the brush in the walnut oil filled washer, gently dragging the brush in an upward motion (following the contour of the bristles) on the strainer, then dry the brush on a towel being careful not to mash the bristles.

For overnight or long term cleaning (My 'end of the day' routine):

Safflower and Walnut oils are both great for daily brush cleaning, but if you plan to let your brushes sit for more than 24 hours the oil will begin to solidify and destroy the brush, so you'll need to clean them with linseed soap before this happens. Dip the tip of the brush in the linseed soap, then carefully dab and swirl the bristles with the soap and a little water, rinse, and repeat until there is no visible pigment in the rinse. Be careful not to over-work your brushes while cleaning. It’s very easy to hurt the natural shape of your brushes.

Finally, add a very small amount of hair conditioner to the bristles and reshape the tips with your fingers. The conditioner will harden and keep the natural form of your brushes and potentially condition and repair the bristles. The conditioner washes away cleanly when swirled in the brush washer oil.  Wipe excess oil from brush before using.

Oil Paints and Palette

This is my standard 'tried and true' palette. I occasionally incorporate other colors, but they are usually used to achieve a specific effect or to utilize quality of a certain pigement.  

My Standard Pallet

  • Flake & Titanium White (Robert Doak) 
  • Titanium White (Micheal Harding) 
  • Naples Yellow (Micheal Harding) 
  • Yellow Ochre (Micheal Harding) 
  • Cadmium Yellow Light (M. Graham) 
  • Cadmium Red Light (M. Graham) 
  • Alizarin Crimson (M. Graham) 
  • Burnt Sienna (Micheal Harding) 
  • Burnt Umber (Micheal Harding) 
  • Raw Umber (Micheal Harding) 
  • Ultramarine Blue (Micheal Harding) 
  • Lamp Black (Micheal Harding)

Rarely Used Favorites:

  • Blue Ochre Med. (Robert Doak)
  • Cobalt Green Dp. (Robert Doak)
  • Raw Olive Umber (Robert Doak)
  • Trans. Sepia (Robert Doak)
  • Indian Orange (Robert Doak)
  • Etc….
Glass palette - Glass is non-porous and easy to scrape and clean. I spray paint the back of the glass with a middle value neutral grey. The grey aids in the accuracy of color and value mixing.

Mediums, Varnishes and Additives

(transferred form original post - May 2010)

A list of my current favorites…


For Fine Detail:
Italian Wax Medium – Old Masters (brand)

For Heavier Impasto work:
Flemish Maroger – Old Masters (brand)

Liquid Lead – Doak (brand): Used sparingly

Texture Additives:

Tix-O-Gel – Doak (brand): For extremely thick brush work. Strokes keep their shape nicely.

White Sandbox Sand – bought at Home Depot. Ground with a mortar and pestle. The sandy powder yields a very interesting texture.


Liquin Original (Winsor & Newton) – provides a permanent (non-removable), protective coating. Although it isn’t a traditional finishing varnish, it’s common practice for “Trompe L’Oeil” artists to use Liquin as their final coating. Important: only to be applied after the painting has completely dried/oxidized. 1-2 carefully applied, very thin coats leave a uniform matte finish that doesn’t detract from realism effects by adding gloss or visible built-up glossy patches. This was recommend by artist Anthony Waichulis a few years ago and I’ve been very happy with the results ever since.

Damar Varnish – A single uniform coat works well for the final varnish on all “not-so-fine” detailed pieces.

Damar Retouch Varnish (spray can and liquid) – Used to temporarily correct the luminosity, translucency and color of the paint for matching after the paint has dried/oxidized. Use sparingly. Too much build-up will leave glossy patches, which will be amplified by the final varnish coat.

B67 Resin (Doak) – Robert Doak recommended this when I was searching for a high gloss “even” leveling varnish. It was everything Robert said it would be, and more. It is archival and   removable and extremely difficult to work with. Out of the jar it has a honey-like consistency and has to be warmed in a pot of water on a stove-top burner until it’s thin enough to be applied. As it cools it becomes stringy, so the application must be completed very quickly.

Michael Harding Oils Review

(transferred from original post - May 2010)

I have been using Robert Doak oils for years and I would highly recommend them to anyone knowing that they will get a high quality, high pigment load, artist grade paint for the price of student grade. But unfortunately he has a minimum order for shipments and since they’re in New York and I’m in California, buying that one tube of paint that’s desperately needed presents a problem. So I went on a search for a comparable paint that could be ordered in small quantities.

After asking for advise on facebook, seemingly endless googling, and thoroughly reading many different manufacturers websites (keep in mind that I live in the Sierra Mountains so I’m not exactly surrounded artistic input), I finally looked to for some experienced advise.

Note: is an exceptional forum occupied and administrated by some of the worlds finest talent with the primary focus of discussing the science of representational painting.

So, after reading multiple raving reviews by some of the Rational Painting contributors, I decided to give Michael Harding Oils a try and, as luck would have it, Dick Blick carries their line of oil paints.

On first inspection, the tubes looked to be of high quality, but wait…they used actual paint on the label to identify the color of contents in the tube…nice touch Michael!!! It bugs me when I open a tube with the color printed on the label that’s far from the color of the actual paint.

Now to open one: My first thought was that the opening of the tube was a bit small and that this could be an issue for the colors that require a higher pigment load, but after squeezing a little out I realized that the paint has a near perfect consistency - not too buttery, not too grainy, not too chalky or stiff. Some of the smaller paint manufacturers tend to have a big variance in consistency from color-to-color. Although their paints are usually of the highest quality, adding medium to the paint nuts while preparing your palette is required to make the paint ”longer” and more manageable . This is not the case with MH oils and reducing additional steps = more painting time.

Finally, application:

I was surprised to find that all of the colors were very close in consistency without sacrificing opacity. The covering strength is excellent which proves all of the claims of MH’s high pigment load.


I’m now a true fan of Michael Harding Oil Paints! The colors are beautiful and vibrant, the pigment load is high and the covering strength is excellent. The consistency is so perfect that it seems to have been tailor made for my needs. Although I am a loyal user of Robert Doaks ‘flake and titanium white’ and I don’t plan on using any other whites anytime soon, the seven MH colors that I now have are going to be staples in my painting palette and I would highly recommend them to anyone who paints in a similar style.

"Duet" by Slade Wheeler
Painted with Michael Harding Oils and Robert Doak's Flake and Titanium White.

Preparing Painting Panels

(transferred from original post - May 2010)

After experimenting with various woods, thicknesses, supports and grounds, and after extensive research online, books and articles. I believe that I've found a relatively fast, reliable method of preparing high quality wooden panels.


I generally paint on a small scale (16” x 20” maximum) and I've found that building and attaching supports to keep thinner substrates from warping is a step that can be avoided by using thicker high-grade plywood. Although 3/8 inch ply should suffice for sizes under 16 x 20 inches, I prefer to minimize any chances of warping by using ½ inch grade B (or BB) Baltic Birch. There are many types of hardwood ply types and depending on your desired results and application, most will work, but I find the fine grain and overall smooth texture of Baltic Birch ply provides an excellent foundation for a smooth finished panel.
Take care when buying plywood that it is made of one-piece layers stacked horizontal/vertical or so that the grain of each layer runs perpendicular to each succeeding layer. This type of plywood manufacturing is known for it’s exceptional strength and resiliency against warping and bowing.

Materials Needed:
Gesso Types:

There are a lot of artists who will devote hours of painstaking labor into making their materials in the tradition of the old masters or because hand made materials are generally of higher quality (which is why I prepare my own painting surfaces). Store bought panels can have less than desirable finish flaws, warp and even crack. But when it comes to gesso, I feel comfortable in leaving it to the professional manufacturers and I've never had any problems with any over the counter gesso products.

Since the science of painting sometimes brings out the scientist in us, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in experimenting and making artist’s materials, leaving us with little time to paint. In a perfect world we’d have assistants to grind and mix pigments and prepare panels but these days we have to pick our handmade vs. store-bought battles.

The Process:
  1. Cut plywood to size and sand with 200 grit sand paper. Lightly round off the corners and hard edges that can keep the gesso from bonding all the way around the board. Slight scratches, divots and irregularities will eventually be covered with gesso, but you’ll want to sand away any protrusions.
  2. Before applying gesso wipe off any excess dust with a towel and remove residual oils by gently cleaning all sides of the panel with a clean towel and rubbing alcohol. You are now ready to start applying the gesso.
  3. With a soft square brush, my favorite being a 1” Loew-Cornell 1177 Brown Nylon (also great for varnishing), brush on a thin coat of regular acrylic gesso in a horizontal direction to the face. Work the gesso in to the surface and sides and lightly level out the brush strokes. Let it dry for approximately 2 hours.
  4. Once the top and sides have dried thoroughly enough that you feel comfortable flipping it over, lay down a sheet of wax paper and repeat step 2 on the backside of the panel. Be careful to keep the gesso from running onto the face. Let dry for another 2 hours. This coating that will create a strong bond all the way around the panel and will provide a counter layer that will reduce warping and yield a more aesthetically pleasing finished panel. No additional gesso coats are necessary for the back and sides but you can apply them if desired. Let dry for 4 hours.
  5. Once the face is completely dry. Lightly sand all sides with 200 grit sand paper focusing on sanding down high spots and very slightly rounding the edges.
  6. Wipe away dust with a dry towel and apply gesso perpendicular to the first coat. Sand let dry for about 6 hours and repeat this step always apply perpendicular to the previous layer until you have completed 5 coats.
  7. Sand the final regular gesso coat and apply Golden (brand) Sandable Hard Gesso in the same fashion, sanding between coats until you’ve applied at least 3 coats. The Sandable Hard Gesso is excellent for achieving an ivory finish in about half the sanding time. Let completely dry for at least 8 hours.  (You can achive the same finish with only using regualar Gesso for the final coats and omitting the Sandable Hard Gesso)
  8. After the final coat is dry sand with 200 grit sand paper until you have reach your desired surface texture. Personally I like a perfectly smooth ivory-like finish so that the tooth of the panel doesn't detract from the realism effect. Wipe away dust - you are now ready to paint!!!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Self Taught / Why I Blog?

(transferred from original post - May 2010)

“Self Taught” ...two little words that are frowned upon in some circles and praised in others. Sometimes and in certain situations I found myself a little embarrassed by my lack of a formal art education, and until recently, I did my best to evade the subject. But to be an effective representational painter knowledge is nothing short of a “requirement”. In fact, representational painting continues to be as much a science today as it ever was - if not more. The modern eye is more discerning than even a hundred years ago, but we have something that the past masters did not – hundreds of years of representational master works and the ability to study their techniques, materials, triumphs and errors.

At an early age I focused my efforts on learning from the past masters. Recently while flipping through some childhood drawings I came across a Da Vinci study that I dated at the age of 11. Drawing and studying from books was followed by a string of mentors that took special interests in my talents, then junior college courses and sporadic private lessons and workshops. Ok, so I'm not exactly self-taught, but I had a young hunger for knowledge without the bankroll or inclination to pursue an art school degree, so I had to be creative and decisive in my approach to acquiring a classical education with my limited options.  I continue to spend about 10-15 hours a week studying anything and everything related to art and painting…seeking out information with the goal of coming as close to mastering my craft as possible in my lifetime.

Although I do believe that a formal art education (depending on the school and instructors) will arm potential representation artists with an invaluable set of tools, skill sets and networking opportunities, I also believe that all of the information and opportunities can be had in other ways. Depending on your dedication and research choices, seeking out a personal education can be a slower/less condensed process, but there isn't anything that you can’t learn from studying artwork, books, articles, websites or learning from peers, mentors, workshops and last but not least - practice, practice, PRACTICE.

I am personally in great debt to all of the artists and teachers out there who have taken the time to put their pens to paper, to explain their processes, give honest informative critiques, and yes – even “blog”. For a self-taught artist (for lack of a better term) I have been very fortunate in my career, my experiences with artists and teachers, and in turn, I hope that I can help any painters that are looking for answers to their questions.

I welcome all artists that have a something beneficial to add to this blog regarding materials, resources and techniques, to comment or email me so that we can benefit from each other’s knowledge. I hope that you enjoy this blog and I'd love to hear from you. Thanks!!!