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The Tools We Use: Brushes

When considering what to write about this week, I instantly thought of the tools I use daily: my brushes. As the idea arose, I paused. Surely, I had already written about the essential tools that I use in my art practice? I looked through my catalogue of now nearly forty posts and found I had written about materials and mentioned brushes in passing yet had not delved into brushes as a topic. In this post, I write about the brushes I use for acrylic painting. I explain how I select my brushes, the brands I like, and how I care for these important tools.

My acrylic brushes are very old. In fact, I thought about writing on this topic when I noticed that it may be time to invest in some new brushes. My collection is a mix and match of shapes, sizes, brands, and age. Some of the oldest brushes I have were my grandfather’s, whose interest in painting sparked my own. These brushes, together with the other oldest of my collection I have had for over fifteen years. Unfortunately, I can no longer distinguish between which were Opa’s brushes and which I collected myself and date from my teenage years.

Over the years, I have not added many new brushes to my collection. Like many artists, I have unfortunately purchased brushes that, once loaded up with paint, did not work for me. Sometimes they were too cheap and simply weren’t good, but price point isn’t always the problem. Some brushes I selected for their professional categorization but did not like the feel of them or the stroke they achieved. Those have largely fallen out of my collection. Knowing what we want from a brush is an important part of selecting brushes, but I’ve found it to be trial and error when it comes to finding my favourite tools.

A Word About Different Brush Types

There are many resources that describe brush types so I will not outline that here in a systematic way. One resource that I have come across is Montreal-based FC Art, which sells brushes wholesale in North America. From their social media, I’ve learned about brushes and paint. They have some great content on their Instagram account about all things brushes: sizes, materials, medium.

When it comes to brushes, there is no “one size fits all”. Brushes are our tools. The size and type of brush depends on what we want to achieve. You will notice that brushes are typically numbered: the lower the number the thinner the brush. I select my brushes based on my medium, working surface, and my painting style. I work mainly with acrylic paints and thus need a variety of brush sizes and shapes.

When choosing a brush, I keep in mind what I will be using it for. I will use larger, flat brushes for covering a large surface. The “wash” (part of the process I describe here) or the underpainting outlines the main shapes and values of the painting. At this stage, I want loose brush strokes and will need something larger. When I am ready for detail, I will use smaller brushes. These could be flat, round, angled, or thin, depending on the stroke I want.  

Here are a few of my favourite brushes below. They include a newer flat brush, which I use either flat or on its side for sharp lines and details; a rounded/tapered brush for larger areas; a round brush which holds its shape very well; and a brush that is so old and warn down I’m not sure what shape it was! If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the second from the top. Used on its side, this round brush provides a nice and even distribution of paint and with just the tip of the brush, I can dab in highlights. The top three brushes I believe were my Opa’s and, as the photo shows, two of them are now held together with tape (not ideal).

I am not fussy about brand. When buying a brush, I want professional quality, but I am most concerned with finding the right shape and size. I want to make sure I have brushes for the most common strokes I want. Looking through my supplies, I see that I have brushes from Princeton Art & Brush Co., Da Vinci Artist Brushes, Dahler & Rowney, and Liquitex.

Brush Care

I must admit that I haven’t always taken the best care of my brushes. I’ve left them standing too long in water and have waited too long before cleaning them of paint. These things are very bad for your brushes! Such treatment has caused bristles to warp, “ferrules” — the metal piece that attaches bristles to handle — to loosen and handles to deteriorate. After finishing a painting session, I might have rushed washing up, leaving traces of paint to harden over time. It is possible to clean old paint out of brushes with lots of soap, water and patience, but this is hard on the brush and causes damage.

My brush care today involves the following steps:

  1. After use, I soak the brushes in warm water and gently apply “The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver” to the bristles (belly and toe) of the brush. I try to soak the bristle part of the brush while lathering in soap to avoid unnecessary water waste. I am careful not to wet too much of the rest of the brush.
  2. Once most of the pigment is out of the bristles, I rinse the brush in clean warm water. This removes any excess soap.
  3. I use paper towel or an old kitchen towel to dry my brushes enough to relocate them to my workspace.
  4. Using my hands, I smooth out or shape the bristles of the brush. I lay them flat on a dry surface (usually on paper towel) to dry completely. It is important that brushes dry flat to minimize water getting trapped in the brush.

I am always learning new things, both in the practice of painting and writing about painting. For example, today I learned the word “ferrule” for that small metal piece that holds the bristles to the handle! Although it takes time, washing my brushes between painting sessions increases their longevity and it’s really a must. Moreover, washing my brushes now feels like the closing ritual of my painting practice. My brushes are the tools that make my painting possible. With cared for brushes I am ready to begin again in the studio!

Thanks for reading!

I publish a new post every second Wednesday. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe to my blog to get updates on my latest posts.

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When To Move On: Series and Seasons

Since February of this year, I have been working on my Snowy Trees series. Thus far, I have made six paintings, each 30 x 40 cm / 12 x 16 inches, acrylic on canvas. The paintings are lined up along a wall so I can see the collection as whole. I’m pleased with the compositions, cohesion, variety of light and the colour palettes. But a question has arisen: is it time to move on?

From left to right: Snowy Trees VI, Snowy Trees III, Snowy Trees II, Snowy Trees I, 2022.

This is a question that comes up when working on an individual painting or when working on a series. The answer to both is primarily a question of intuition. I just “know” or feel when a painting is done. Towards the end of the process of an individual painting, I will have dealt with the both the large-scale issues of composition and colour and the small-scale issues of detail. I notice that my brush strokes become increasingly intentional, and they are fewer. A dab of white, a step back, another dab, a longer pause to consider and I know to put the brush down (this doesn’t mean it is always easy to do so).

But when to move on from a series? For this, intuition plays a role but so does a sense of feeling that a subject has been sufficiently explored. And alongside this, situational elements, like the changing seasons, play a role in deciding to move on or to keep working on a particular theme, at least for me.

I started the Snowy Trees series wanting to explore the colours of winter, the contrast between soft snow and the strong lines of the trees upon which it rested. Snowy Trees IV reflects the changes in colour as day turns to night, a yellow-orange light shining from the background interior. Snowy Trees III is set in twilight, a soft darkness when the trees outside the window are still visible but just barely. There is a shift taking place and the visibility of the branches will soon be swallowed up by night.

My latest painting, Snowy Trees VI, was inspired when I looked outside my bedroom window one morning. I noticed the vertical trees against a background of layered horizontal trees and snow. A stripe of white was softened by blues, purples, browns, pinks and orangy-rust colours of the tree’s bark. Here is the sixth painting:

Snowy Trees VI, 40 x 30 cm,/ 16 x 12 in., acrylic on canvas, 2022.

I had not planned a specific number of paintings but trusted that a natural conclusion would happen and I would know when it was time to move on. I have been following the seasons, although the weather has been a little erratic! Last week, while walking through a freezing winter storm, I thought for sure, Snowy Trees will continue on! Less than a week after that, temperatures were in the high teens (Celsius), and it was too warm to wear even a light jacket.

Now that the clocks have changed, small bright flowers are peaking out of the earth, and it is officially Spring, I think I am ready to see what’s next and deem my Snowy Trees series complete – at least for this winter! As always, I will be taking inspiration from around me. Warmer weather means I have gotten back to my nature walks and will be collecting new material from which to draw. Inspiration comes from the little buds I see in the front gardens during my neighbourhood walks or a bouquet in my home that changes daily as the flowers open up. I am not sure what will come out next, but like the seasons, I am beginning anew!

Flower bouquet in the home.

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Building A Series: Snowy Trees

At the beginning of February 2022, I wrote about beginning a new series of paintings entitled, Snowy Trees. These paintings were inspired by the trees I saw outside of my window in Ann Arbor and the snow nestled among their branches after a few Midwestern snowstorms. In the weeks since that post, I have continued to build this series and am currently working on the fifth painting. In this post, I share how I have continued to explore Snowy Trees and share my latest work!

The inspiration behind Snowy Trees I & II was simple: I was struck by the contrast between the crisp white snow nestled in the nooks and crannies of the dark, bare winter trees outside my window. I wanted to explore the shapes of the trees: straight and strong, elegant and twisting. On calm snowy days, the February sky was sometimes a steel blue colour; neither bright and sunny nor dark and cloudy, but something in between. This colour felt like a moment held, a sort of pause hanging in the air. It was heavy but comforting. I zoomed in on these elements when creating the first two paintings in my Snowy Trees series. I’m pleased to share that Snowy Trees I (sold) is now available as prints here. Here below are Snowy Trees I and Snowy Trees II.

Snowy Trees III looks quite different than the first two. The aesthetic of this painting is patterned. Instead of focusing in on a tree’s few branches, Snowy Trees III frames several trees overlaying one another. The colour palette too is different. The yellow ochre present in small amounts in I and already more in II is even more prominent in the golden winter leaves in III. Snowy Trees III was inspired by another look out of a (different) window – this time in the early evening twilight. Instead of a steel blue, the night sky has purple, blue and even brown undertones. See my video where I talk about the background of this painting here.

Snowy Trees III, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 cm, 2022, available on webshop
Snowy Trees III, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 cm, 2022, available on webshop

Snowy Trees IV draws upon all earlier Snow Trees, including the third, despite its closeness with the first two paintings in terms of isolated trees. Inspired by the evening sky and the effects of low lighting on snow, Snowy Trees IV continues my exploration of the twilight hours explored in Snowy Trees III. In this painting, the snow on the ground and on the branches is in shadow. Lavenders and shades of blue darken the bright white of the snow and the orange-yellow light from the window indicate that the sun’s gone down and the house is lit from within. The trees themselves are a deep shade of blue.

Snowy Trees IV, acrylic on linen canvas, 30 x 40 cm, 2022, available on webshop.
Snowy Trees IV, acrylic on linen canvas, 30 x 40 cm, 2022, available on webshop.

Finally, I am currently working on Snowy Trees V. This work in progress shows the same group of trees but in the morning sunshine with strong shadows on the side of the structure behind the trees. The trees themselves are brighter in the morning light and the snow has a scattering of shadows created by indentations. This painting is the result of closely looking at the shadows I was seeing outside my window. I noticed the colour and the angle and relationship of the shadows with the trees. A deep purple stands out against an olive-green background. Here is Snowy Trees V (work in progress).

Snowy Trees V – Work in Progress

Discover my full Snowy Trees Series here!

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Then and Now: December 2021, January 2022.

December is the month to wrap up projects and to take stock of the year gone by. While looking back, December, in my family, is also when we come together and make new memories, in the present. This intersection of past-present-future infuses the month with an air of contemplation. As Proust taught us, memory-making and recalling are very much tied to our senses.

In Canada, December brings fresh, crisp snowfall, the smell of cloves and fir trees, the crackling of a fire, the twinkle of lights against a dark night sky. For me, December means a bottomless pot of hot apple cider simmering on the stove and piles of clementine oranges and Christmas baking throughout the house. In this post, I write about my recent ‘then’—what I’ve been up to during my favourite month of the year—and my ‘now’, the first month of 2022!

This December I was in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, where I grew up, vising family. Just before the holidays, I participated in an art fair pop up at The Arches of St. George Street. Lots of work and preparation went into the day (read about that process here) and at the end of it, I was tired but happy!

Hi from my booth at the Saturday, December 18th, 2021, Art Fair Pop Up in Moncton, N.B.

My favourite part about the art fair experience was meeting and talking with people. So much of what I do, whether that be in the studio or in the office, I do alone – that is, with the very important exception of my husband Thomas, who joins me on inspiration walks and helps with all things photography, technology, business, and marketing. Although I know when a painting is finished for me, it really feels complete when I get to connect with collectors and see my work find new homes. It feels wonderful that my watercolours, prints, and cards have homes in New Brunswick.

My booth with Laura K. Smith Paintings greeting cards, original watercolours, and prints of selected acrylic paintings.

In the last days of 2021, I also got to deliver two commissioned paintings. I was asked to make a pair of paintings that depict Fall in the Maritimes; one of a rugged hiking trail, the other of a view of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I worked on these paintings simultaneously to ensure a colour cohesion across the pieces. I am very pleased with the result – here are a few photos of the paintings!

When I contemplate 2021, I think, as we all must, of the continuing global pandemic. Although my 2021 involved some pandemic stress and minor changed plans, I have been able to see my closest family and friends and have stayed healthy. I think back on 2021 with gratitude that I’m able to do what I love everyday. In 2022, I will focus on developing my painting practice. This will involve continuing my education in watercolour painting at The Ann Arbor Art Center, working on commissioned painting projects (commissions now open, visit my page), and developing my acrylic landscape series.

Now, in the early days of the new year, I am finishing up my latest commissioned painting. This one is of birch trees on a bright park lawn in summer. A strong sunlight, coming from the left, illuminates the tree leaves and casts shadows across the grass, making a multi-coloured patchwork landscape. Here’s a sneak peek from early in the process! Stay tuned for the end result!

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Art Fair Preparations: My Holiday Workshop!

Looking around me today, I feel that I am in my own little Santa’s workshop: brown paper packages (not yet tied up with string), cards, prints, watercolour paper, paints, and a variety of tools surround me. I’m getting ready! Yes, for Christmas, but first I’m getting ready to participate in the upcoming art fair pop up at The Arches of St. George Street in Moncton, New Brunswick (Canada) on Saturday, December 18th! Here’s what I’m working on and what you can expect to find on offer from me!

The holiday season is, for me, the season of writing cards. It’s the time of year of thinking especially of others and reflecting on those meaningful relationships in our lives. Some years, I actually achieve my goal of writing to my long list of loved ones; other years, I scramble and only get a few done (or send them in the Spring). With this in mind, I wanted to offer a small collection of cards that would be appropriate for both the holiday season, but also for any time of year and for any occasion. I needed two things for this: a versatile image and a blank card interior for a personal message!

I decided to make greeting cards from four of my Forest Series paintings: “Treelined Path”, “Two Paths”, “Forest Light” and “Forest Staircase”. These four paintings were inspired by my daily walks at the Belgian coast during the early months of the pandemic in 2020. These walks, along dunes and in forests, were a grounding routine in an uncertain time. Focusing on my surroundings and paying close attention to the details, colours, and shapes around me helped me feel connected and peaceful. These four paintings were the beginning of my Forest Series and I hope as cards they convey messages of love, joy, support, kind wishes, new beginnings, and celebration.    

I will also be offering high quality inkjet prints of select paintings, including pieces from my Forest Series, Sculptural Trees Collection, and my Canada Series. As I’d done for my greeting cards, I turned to The Printing House in Halifax for these fine arts inkjet reproduction prints of my work. I was able to compare different printing options with test printing and was very pleased with the communication and customer service from TPH team. I chose some personal and fan favourites to have on offer including, “Horizontal Sculptural Trees” and “Fundy Coast”.  

For the mats (passe-partout), I was able to find exactly what I needed at DeSerres in their variously-sized mat kits. These kits include the front window mat, backing board, and clear protective envelope. The assembly of matting prints takes time and precision (see my recent blogpost on this process here) but I love this meticulous work and feel proud of the finished product. I was also happy to revisit DeSerres since the art supply store was my go-to during my university years in Quebec.

Finally, I’ll be offering some original watercolour pieces at the art pop up next weekend. These include pieces of different subjects and colour palettes but all will be in my main theme of landscapes (see some recent watercolour examples on my website). Inspiration has come from all around me, including the welcome home flowers waiting for me at my family home when I arrived in Moncton and the snowy outdoors that I see all around me.

If you are in Moncton or the surrounding areas, I hope you will come out to The Arches of St George Street and say hello! The lineup of other vendors looks fantastic and I’m sure it will be filled with holiday cheer – the last pop up before Christmas!

Looking forward to seeing familiar and new faces on Saturday, December 18th (10am -3pm).

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Skills Corner: Learning To Mat Artwork

It’s always a good feeling to add any skill – big or small – to your repertoire. Since following a watercolor course at the Ann Arbor Art Center this semester, I’ve made some pieces I’m quite pleased with and wanted to offer for sale. With these finished pieces, the practical question I was facing was how to professionally mat these works. In this blog post, I share what I’ve recently learned about matting artwork and the tools that helped me get a sleek and polished result for my recent watercolour artwork.

Since I most often work with acrylic paint on canvas, I had to reframe how I was thinking about presenting my works, in this case small, 5 x 7 inch, watercolor pieces. Back in October, I had visited the downtown Ann Arbor art fair  – Artoberfest – where I saw some great works by artists, including the work of watercolour artist Janet Alford. I admired her original framed watercolour works as well as the high quality prints of her work, which were nicely matted and presented. I thought back to this experience when thinking about how I would like to present my own artwork. I knew I had to learn more about matting works on paper.

My first stop was Michael’s. There I found the perfect size window frames but these did not come with a backing board to match. Without the tools to cut my own mats, I was looking for a pairing of the front window mat and the backing board. I found what I needed at Blick: the Crescent precut mat board and ordered what I needed for my 5 x 7 inch watercolour pieces. 

My second question was a simple but important one: how do I attach the front and back pieces? To answer this, I turned to You Tube and found this useful video made by the framing company Rinaldin. This video helped me identify two more essential tools for mounting my artwork: a paper folding tool and a special hinging tape. 

Hinging tape is used first to attach the window mat board to the back board, as the man in the video instructs, always along the longest side. The tape I ordered came with a handy adhesive backing so I did not have to wet the fabric (as per the video). 

I used this tool to press the tape down ensuring that the adhesive sticks well and that the mat and the artwork inside will stay in position long term. Using the T-hinge method, I attached my artwork to the back board, making sure of course to center the artwork in the window. 

At the end of the day, this was a small and uncomplicated project, but the result  – a professionally finished and presented artwork – made me feel extremely proud and satisfied!

I had also asked my watercolour painting instructor, Susan Mankowski, for tips about matting artwork and she was kind enough to bring her supplies to our last class yesterday evening. Susan showed the class different window boards and form core we could use for the backing board and we watched a demonstration on how to position, measure and cut our own custom mats. It was interesting to see the mat cutter and all the materials needed for custom matting! Now back to painting!

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Multitasking: Refreshing or Distracting?

Since September, my working method has changed. Back in Belgium, I worked on one project at a time. No matter if I was working small or large, I enjoyed the process of working consistently from start to finish. Since arriving in Michigan, my working method has shifted and these days I am working on multiple things at once. The biggest change is the amount of time I am allocating to experimentation. This results in pieces I may not like or keep as well as new ideas that I incorporate into my work. Such lightbulb moments and times of frustration necessarily accompany my decision to try new mediums and subjects. All this has led me to wonder: are these other artistic activities refreshing and inspiring or simply distracting? In this blog post, I write about my experience in working differently than what was my norm and I share what’s working and what isn’t.

As I’ve written about here, this Fall I’ve been following two community art classes: one, on watercolour; the other, on portrait painting (medium of choice, mine is acrylics). The watercolour course takes me outside of my medium comfort zone and the portrait painting course takes me outside of my subject comfort zone. Between classes, I am keeping up with my more regular work of painting acrylic landscapes. But these additions to my artistic activities are not self contained and were not intended to be. My experience making acrylic landscapes and the newness of working with watercolour and on portraits mutually influence one another.  

A couple of things I’ve appreciated by expanding my artistic activities are:

  • Being able to make images that have a totally different result than what I’ve been used to producing. The same reference photo or idea will yield vastly different results if painted with acrylics or watercolour. I love that I can make layered, opaque paintings with acrylics and that I am learning how to suggest light and shadow through more transparent layers with watercolour. I am having to problem solve colour and value in new ways with a new medium and a new subject and this, in turn, is helping me to trouble shoot issues in my acrylic work. For example, in both courses we were talking about how brighter colours come to the forefront of a painting, while cooler, duller colours recede into the background. This insight/reminder was what I needed to hear to strengthen an acrylic landscape I was working on.
  • Expanding my subjects to include portraits means looking around me in new ways. Painting a face is both the same and different to painting a tree: on the one hand, I am looking at shapes and values for both subjects. On the other, my palette is quite different and what interests me in both subjects is different. When I am painting trees, my favourite part is adding the highlights in between the leaves to express the sunshine. In my brief experience with portraits, I love finding just the right stroke that creates the special expression that makes the image come to life. Knowing when a piece is finished is the same satisfied feeling across subjects, but the journey getting there is different.

A couple of things that have been challenging or that I’ve not enjoyed as much working on multiple projects:

  • Not feeling focussed. When I look around my studio space these days, I have watercolours out, exercises from class, abandoned studies, and some works I may want to go back to but maybe not. I have sketch books, which are now a compilation of landscapes and faces; my acrylics and canvases, pencils, and all kinds of different tools are laying around (maybe I just need to clean up?). While it’s great to have lots to work with, different mediums and different subjects can, some days, leave me feeling a little scattered. What should I be working on today? I have many projects on the go – some that will end as studies, some that will become part of my collection. I am still working out how to take the positives from this abundance without getting paralyzed from overwhelm and indecision.
  • A feeling of not producing enough. While I have lots of work around me, I have about four or five small, finished pieces after a couple months of daily work. Working on many different things at once, it can be difficult to tell if I am advancing with my main work of acrylic landscape painting.

Overall, the experience of working differently, that is, on multiple projects at once, has solidified that I want to prioritize my focus on acrylic landscapes while continuing to explore adjacent artistic activities when I can. In addition to being fun, learning new skills has meant incorporating different techniques and ideas into my process of acrylic landscapes. It has meant adding a useful step of making preliminary (watercolour) sketches for my main projects. These extra activities have encouraged me to be more clear about my priorities and readjust when I feel that my focus is off. Trying out new mediums and subjects has put me in touch with other artists and this is one of the biggest positives. There’s nothing like discussing your work with others, taking about technique, and getting that remove from your own process. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, but learning never is!

Check out the latest episode of the Art Juice podcast which addresses these questions of when to try new things and when to stick to what is working best for you!

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Continuing Education: Portrait Painting

During the first class of Portrait Painting at the Ann Arbor Art Center, we were asked by teacher Tricia Hampo to introduce ourselves and share what brought us to the course. Back in the summer, while researching the courses offered during the Fall semester, I had surprised myself by making a little star next to Portrait Painting on my list of potential courses to follow. My initial intention in following courses was twofold: improving my own style as a landscape painter and meeting new people with similar interests in the area. When my heart skipped a beat upon seeing that the Portrait Painting course had a few spots left, I began to reflect on my reaction and where it might be coming from.

Back in high school and university, I painted a lot of portraits. I came to portraits by the straightforward path of class assignments. What I loved, and tried to do, was capture the expression of the person and what made them unique in my eyes. Much like landscape painting, I was looking for that “click” when the image became something powerful, enabling the viewer to connect emotionally with the work. Sometimes it’s a brushstroke, a highlight, or an essential and intuitive splash of colour in the right place. I love getting the curve of the nose or the hint of a smile just right. Here below are a few examples.

Cut to today and it has been about six years since I last attempted a portrait. My journey took me to landscapes and, until this Fall, that is what I have kept to. But this year abroad and the possibility to follow courses means I can experiment and expand. I decide to continue my education and go for the portrait class!

The first portrait I did in the course was a difficult one, but I am extremely happy with the results. The process looked like this: pencil sketches in black and white and colour, a watercolour sketch, and an acrylic painting. The reminder from the teacher, Tricia, to focus on value over colour was extremely helpful. I started with a black and white sketch of the portrait before introducing colour. Due to the instruction and working among others in a classroom setting, I became very intentional and slowed down my process.  

For my next project, I again started with a few sketchbook drawings in pencil. This allowed me to get familiar with the subject matter and, again, practice patience and practice value. Tricia suggested we work with a limited colour palette – in particular what is called the “Zorn Palette” after Swedish painter Anders Zorn. I used yellow ochre, cadmium red medium, titanium white, and payne’s grey. It is amazing how many colours can be made out of these base colours. While I didn’t exhaust all colour possibilities in this one portrait, the base colours and those I mixed from them fit exactly what I needed for this portrait of child and grandfather. Here are some images of my process and the final product.

While I am continuing to paint landscapes, it’s been great to get back into a subject that I had previously enjoyed and continue to grow and learn with other artists!

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Experimenting With Watercolour: A New-To-Me Medium

I can remember playing with oil paints as a teenager and my impatience while waiting for the layers to dry. I’ve dabbled in pastel and various other drawing tools, like pencil and charcoal. But, for as long as I have been painting, acrylic paints have been my medium of choice. Acrylics were the medium used in the painting courses I followed at university, and they afforded me the possibility to work with vibrant colours and layer quickly and thickly. While I’ve always appreciated the delicacy of watercolour, I had never gotten into it—until this Fall. In this blogpost, I write about my recent experimentation with the new-to-me medium of watercolour paint: the difficult parts, the fun parts, and the surprising parts of working with watercolour.

Moving to a new city (even temporarily) means a fresh start. Over the past month, I’ve enjoyed slowly discovering the city of Ann Arbor—from the many farmer’s markets to the famous “M Den” (the University of Michigan’s merchandise store) and the multiple welcoming art galleries (WSG Gallery, Gutman Gallery). While here, I decided to take a couple of art classes to learn about and experiment with new mediums and to meet others in the art community. I signed up for Intro to Watercolour and Portrait Painting at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

While I have had some experience with portrait painting, I was nervous and excited to try a new-to-me medium. As I wrote about here, my first order of business was to purchase all of the necessary materials for the class. Once I was stocked up, I was ready to go! It’s been just two weeks since the courses have begun but I’ve learned a lot already.

This Intro to Watercolour class is taught by painter and ceramicist Susan Mankowski. So far, we’ve learned some colour theory, watched instructive teacher demos, and have done some exercises that explore various techniques and brush strokes. Between classes, I’ve been practicing at home.

Here are my thoughts on watercolour so far:

The Difficult Part

As an acrylic painter, I’ve found the most difficult part of painting with watercolour is learning to change my relationship to water. Acrylic paint needs much less water. Often, I paint (acrylics) with a nearly dry brush. Water dilutes the pigment of the acrylic paint and weakens the acrylic polymer, which binds the paint to the surface. We want to be careful therefore with water when it comes to acrylic paint. Alternatively, water is (obviously) essential to watercolour paint. It took a few exercises for me to begin to feel comfortable using a water-wet brush.

Apart from the amount of water, I am learning to work with a brush differently. Whereas with acrylics, I am sometimes thickly layering the paint, with watercolour, I am gliding my brush across the surface. We have been using the edges of our brushes and using longer rounded brushes. A new brush, a new stroke, and a different substance loaded on that brush is a completely new experience for me. Challenging but fun!    

The Fun Part

Once, I accepted that experimenting with watercolour would require a different relationship to water, I began to have fun with the fluidity of the medium. I have been loving putting down a thin, almost transparent wash of colour. I like the delicate light look of the pigment on paper. Over the wash, new colours can be introduced, or simply darker colours can enhance or define shapes. I love seeing how a leaf, face or a landscape emerges with this new-to-me medium. Holding rounded brushes loaded with pigment, I feel like I’m working with ink. This experience has already made me curious about other mediums that I have yet to try.

The Surprising Part

What has surprised me thus far about working with watercolour is my experience of a different kind of enjoyment with practicing painting. When I’m working with acrylics, my favourite part is putting in those highlights near the end of the process – very white whites or yellow-white. I love seeing vivid colours pop against one another. What I’m discovering about watercolour is a satisfaction in working the other way: from light to dark. I have to be thoughtful and deliberate in a new way. All painting requires patience. But watercolour needs time to dry in a different way than acrylic. I’ve been slowing down and getting curious about seeing how the paint changes from wet to dry.

What I’m hoping to get out of the class

My main reason for taking these classes was to get out of my solo-studio space and be around other artists. Working from home can be lonely for anyone and it feels nice to create alongside others. Art is the way I am getting acquainted with the city, whether it be attending art fairs (of which there are many) or attending classes.

Additionally and also importantly for me, I wanted to take this year-abroad-opportunity to learn something new. I want to try new mediums, focus on what can be done with different subjects (at the moment, portraits), and to practice, practice, practice! I also want to be able to diversify the kinds of projects I make and sell. I am planning to make smaller watercolour works to this end. This experimentation has also allowed me to feel more comfortable showing my works in progress, sketches, and small experiments on my social media.  

Stay tuned for more watercolour experiments!

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Art Supplies: Stocking Up, Material Lists, and Budgeting

My favourite part of any day is painting. For me, this means sitting at my easel or desk and doing the work of creating: playing with colour and getting lost in the image I’m working on. But before I can settle in, I have to make sure that I am well set up and have everything I need to get to work. An essential part of getting started on any artistic project is having the right supplies on hand. This post is about how I make choices when it comes to what materials I use, how I balance budget and quality, and where I shop.

What Am I Making and For What Purpose?

When it comes to materials, there are some basic questions I ask myself: what do I want to make and for whom or what purpose am I making it? I may make different material choices depending on if I am working on a project that I intend to sell versus working on an experimental project or taking a class.

Last week, I placed a big order of materials to get set up in a new city. Other than my brushes, I needed everything. It was both exciting and overwhelming! I needed materials for two categories: my own professional work and the three courses I’ll be following this semester at the Ann Arbor Art Center. Making this distinction between my work and the course material lists already helped me to plan for my art supply shopping.

The first thing I did was to collect the three individual material lists for the painting and drawing courses in which I’m enrolled. I decided to shop online at Michaels and started filling up my digital cart with everything from artist’s tape and palettes to the specific paint colours indicated by the teachers. This took a lot of time since I was comparing prices and looking for the best options.

When I had everything that I needed for the courses, I added some additional materials which I’ll need for my own practice. This included extra canvases, paints and finishing products like mediums and varnishes. When there was overlap between my course materials and what I need for my own practice—for example, various acrylic paints–I purchased a value size.      

Balancing Budget & Quality

Art supplies can get expensive. I am always thinking about budget and quality when it comes to stocking up on materials. When I am buying materials for the works that I sell, I get the best quality I can.

The brands of acrylic paint I like to use are Winsor & Newton and Golden. Especially Winsor & Newton is an affordable, professional level brand. I have gone to Golden when I am looking for a specific colour to add to my collection. I use Golden for their acrylic mediums and varnishes.

Next week, I will begin following a course on watercolour painting. Because it is for a course, in which we will be practicing and experimenting, I purchased a smaller amount of paints at a fine quality. I am not worried about having a professional grade paint at this point. I purchased the Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colours compact set of 14 half pans. If I continue to work with watercolour, I will reassess what I need and likely invest in larger tubes.  

I stocked up on sketch books, thin canvas panels and a few smaller canvases for my courses. Again, I am thinking about how I will be practicing, experimenting and honing my skills through exercise. I may or may not keep my output and it will likely just be for me. I added some additional canvases of specific sizes for my professional work to my cart. I usually work on cotton or linen stretched canvas. I like a thicker, weightier canvas for my professional work.

It may be obvious, but it is worth stating that it’s hard to do good work with inadequate tools. I buy my paint brushes individually because sets are often of a lesser quality, and I only end up using a few brushes out of a pack anyway. It takes experimentation to know what size, style, and material brush works best for your art. My collection varies and I have my favourite go-to’s for each particular part of a painting (from washes to fine details).

I was buying watercolour brushes for my course and decided on a combination of a small set and one high quality individual brush. I am breaking my rule of not buying sets here because I will be using these brushes for experimentation and practice. If I want to go further with watercolour, I will invest in some good quality professional brushes later on.

Overall, I invest in high quality materials and tools for professional work, worry less when it comes to practice and experimentation, in particular with new mediums, and look for promotions, sales, and value packs of the materials I use most often.

My Go-To Art Supply Stores

In Brussels, my go-to store was Schleiper. This is a large store with everything art and craft related. It’s easy to spend a lot of time here and I love browsing through the aisles, picking up my old favourites and discovering new products to try.

I recently wrote about my trip to The Art Shack in Moncton, New Brunswick where I was very impressed with the customer service provided. When there is a small independent art store nearby, I always prefer to support local and create links in the city I am in. The Art Shack holds a special place in my heart because this was the first place that I bought art supplies when I began painting regularly in my teens.

Now, in Ann Arbor, I went to Michaels to stock up on everything I’ll need this year. I was disappointed with my experience shopping online. I spent a good many hours putting everything in my cart only to be informed, after my purchase, that my order was canceled. Confused, I called customer service. It seems, though I did not receive a clear answer, that it is impossible to order online if one’s credit or debit card has a billing address outside of the United States.

Due to limited options, I drove to the Michael’s store in Brighton, north of Ann Arbor, and filled up my cart again, this time in real life. I ended up getting more deals than I found online and was able to keep my 25% discount that I had had online. It took a while, but overall I’m glad to have found everything I needed at good prices.   

Now I am all set up and ready to paint!

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