A Journal of a Painting – Part 1


This series of posts will be an experiment of sorts. I will be documenting my progress of a painting that I plan to submit to the 2013 Artistic Excellence Competition. I consider myself only a competent painter and try to improve my technique whenever I can. Competitions like the one I’m submitting to are usually a good measuring stick of my progress. The deadline is July 17th, so I’ll need to knock this out in a hurry. I’ll may even have to delay posts to get this piece knock out.

In the Beginning

In the beginning was an idea. The rules are wide-open as far as content and media are concerned. But this contest is being held by Southwest Art Magazine. What type of entries do you think their judges will pick? If we take a look at last year’s winners, we’ll notice that none of the pieces are particularly radical. Most of the themes are pretty common for what you’d find in any main-stream art magazine. No porno-hot chicks barely covered in armor, wielding a sword. I consider the styles photo-realistic or edging close to photo-realism. So if you’re paying attention, you’ll have a pretty clear idea as to what type of art to submit. That means I’ll have to play to my audience or in this case, my judges. (There’s money on the line dammit!)


Everybody loves kittens! (Unless you’re a heartless soul who also hates puppies…) And ever since my mother was duped into running a cat-farm, I’ve had the good fortune of building up a good library of kitten-photos. I had four candidates that might appeal to my targets. The trouble is deciding which will work. They all look good. (Or so far.)

kittens at play photo
kitten photo
Kitten photo Kitten in pot photo

My next task was to sketch out thumbnails of each of the photos in pencil. I had to keep in mind my target size, and ensure that the roughs were in proportion. The nice thing about roughs are that you get your ideas down on paper quickly. We all have numerous great ideas vaguely floating around in our minds, but not all of those ideas are worth using. Getting it all down on paper helps us quickly find and eliminate the failures, and focus on the ones with potential.

thumbnail sketches of kitten photos.
Thumbnail sketches of kitten photos from sketchbook.

You’ll notice my roughs employ the image transfer technique I covered in Yes, You Too Can Draw. Before I toss an idea aside, I want to be pretty accurate in my roughs. Quickly getting correct proportions down requires a good eye. So it’s not easy to do. Little tricks like image transferring help to smoothing things over. (Especially if you’re doing this while on the road.) In PhotoShop, I created a grid on top of each photo, and made prints of them. That eliminates the need for a ruler when creating my thumbnails.

Kitten in the Pot

After studying my results, I chose to go with the photo of the kitten sitting in a flower pot. I believe that this was a gut decision. Plus it plays well with the Rule of Thirds.

Kitten in pot photo
The photo I plan to paint.

The Pencils

The media that I chose is acrylic paint on a sheet of [amazon asin=B000NM5SSE&text=Daler-Rowney Acrylic Pad&chan=amazon default]. The paper in the acrylic pad tries to simulate primed canvas that’s not too textured. For the most part it holds up well to the standard application of acrylic paint as well as washes. It also does pretty well against heavy erasing. Amazingly it aptly accepted the H2 lead in my mechanical pencil. On any other support, H2 lead would be barely visible.

With my mechanical pencil and a steel ruler, I create a fresh transfer grid. Then I grab my printout of the original photo with the grid overlay, and little by little drew my picture.

By the time I was done, I noticed some distortions in my pencils. The big one is that the head is oddly shaped and possibly too big. I scanned my pencils, and stitched the halves together (It’s slightly bigger than my scanner) together in PhotoShop using the Photomerge feature. I flip the scan horizontally in Photoshop to better spot errors. Image menu >> Image Rotation >> Flip Canvas Horizontally

I created new layer at the top of the stack. On this layer, I’ll mark out my corrections in red. Once I’m satisfied with the changes I’ll need to make, I’ll make a new printout.  The new printout acts as my guide. Then I directly make the changes in pencil.

Scan of pencils with corrections made in PhotoShop

Acrylic Madness

I honestly don’t have a favorite brand of acrylic paint. I have a habit of buying [amazon asin=B0012F98P0&text=Winsor and Newton&chan=amazon default] or [amazon asin=B00251GHLI&text=Liquitex&chan=amazon default]. I’ve also purchased and used cheaper brands. The only real difference between the brand-names and the cheaper acrylics is that most cheaper acrylics use a chemically created pigment. Brand-names will use pigments that are found in nature. (That makes the paint more expensive.) The only time someone like Liquitex will use chemically produced pigment are either in their consumer lines of paint or if the pigment is naturally toxic. If you’re just starting out, there’s nothing wrong with saving some money and buying the cheap stuff. I wouldn’t expect any of the garbage that I’ve produced in the past to end up in a museum any time soon. Neither should you.

I have ton of brushes. Most of the brushes I use have some type of natural hair. Sable is a good example. I do have a few synthetic brushes. They’re either nylon or some type of cheap plastic. I tend to lean more towards brushes with natural hair due to the better experience I’ve had with them. When a sable brush starts splitting a part and loosing hairs, you can coerce it into behaving properly. When a synthetic brush goes to pot and starts fanning out, there’s not much you can do. My workhorse has been a [amazon asin=B00CLDK05E&text=#3 Winsor and Newton University Series 233&chan=amazon default] round synthetic brush. It’s been a great brush so far, and I’ve yet to obliterate it. The bristles don’t keep a nice point, yet I can easily use it for either thin or thick applications of paint. I also used a cheap chiseled brush that I bought at Micheal’s Art and Crafts. It’s only useful for broad, sloppy washes.

Winsor & Newton University Series 233 round brush

Good maintenance (like washing your brushes after every session), can make brushes last for a very long time. So far the only soap that has been able to get most of the gunk out of my brushes has been [amazon asin=B00506RRL4&text=The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver&chan=amazon default]. Even if I didn’t post an affiliate link, I still swear by it. I used to do a ton of work with brush and india ink. Before the Master’s, india ink would devastate my poor sable brushes. Now I can extend their life-spans to at least a year with regular use in india ink.

Another thing I recommend is buying a roll of [amazon asin=B004CZPL4E&text=painter’s tape&chan=amazon default]. It’s basically a “low-tack” version of masking tape. Even with long-term use, you’re less likely to tear up your paper or support. This can be purchased at any hardware store.

I have a cool little water jar that has a stainless steel coil inside. I bought it over a decade ago at Hobby Lobby. I wish I could remember the name of the company that makes it because even though it was originally produced for oil painters, it goes a great job at cleaning off acrylic. The other thing I use is a spray bottle. In my case, I recycled an old hair spray bottle. But you can buy spray bottles pretty cheap and without the hassle of cleaning it out just about anywhere.  I even see them at dollar stores. The point of the spray bottle is to prevent the paint in my palettes from drying up. Acrylic paint is notorious for drying up really fast. Especially under a hot lamp.

Water jar with steal coil inside

I use two types of palettes for two different purposes. I use a plastic palette on top of a wet paper towel (a sponge will work also) that sits inside an air tight container. I hate wasting paint. This setup preserves them for however long I want. The paint inside the plastic palette will be colors that I’ll constantly use. My other palette is a sheet of [amazon asin=B000KNJ4ZE&text=Canson Disposable Palette&chan=amazon default] paper. (I’ve also used a Winsor and Newton version.) This palette will be used for mixing colors on the fly. The paint I use won’t last the day or even five minutes. I don’t have any emotional attachment or suffer any guilt if the paint dries up.

My plastic palette

The Under Painting

This is a tip I picked up from one of [amazon asin=068481904X&text=Borris Valejo’s books&chan=amazon default]. I always start with an under painting or value study. I don’t have the mental discipline to pick out the correct values from a color photo. Lacking a value study, I’ll often times lack contrast in my paintings. Similar to Valejo, I’ll use a mix of burn sienna and raw umber. Black and white will be used to modify my values. In PhotoShop, I’ll go into my Layers palette and add a Black and White Adjustment Layer to desaturate the photo and a Levels Adjustment Layer to adjust the contrast. Then I’ll drop in a Fill Color Adjustment Layer and set it to a color that’s pretty close to what I’ll be painting with. The Fill Color layer gets its mode changed to Color. When that happens, all of the values get saturated by the Fill Color. Then I make another print out.

Kitten photo prepped in PhotoShop for value study

I’m a glazer. I get my best results from layering thin, water-down sheets of color. It makes it easier to blend values in acrylic. The down-side to glazing is when it’s time to scan in the final result, the light from the scanner seeps into the layers paint, bounces off the white primer, and illuminates it like a car tail light. The result looks awful and is next to impossible to fix in PhotoShop. With this in mind, I’ve made a decision to lay in opaque layers of paint and try to use the oil technique of blending colors directly on the canvas. Like all good plans, this one goes to hell the moment I start. I suppose glazing is habitual. Plus directly matching more subtile values is easier said then done. Acrylic paint almost always dries darker than when wet. I remind myself now and then to apply opaque strokes. The scan I made doesn’t look as bad. The value study took around four days to knock out. I don’t spend 12-hour days working on it.


Final value study of Kitten in Pot
Final value study.

Until Next Time…

Here’s where we’ll pick up:

painting during the Ugly Stage

If you’ve ever spent any time painting, you’ll recognize what’s going on here. That’s right gang, it’s “the Ugly Stage”. The period of time loaded with landmines. Plenty of opportunities to screw this up. Join me next time, as I attempt to work my way through the Ugly Stage of this painting.

Happy Painting!

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