The Studio Art School: Dorset

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Art tips. Masterclasses. Painting classes and Workshops.


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by Justin and Nicola

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By Justin Cooke, Dec 16 2014 05:04PM

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is one of the most versatile of the paints we use. Here are just a few tips...of which there are many!

Using thick paint

For this picture thick paint was used.

Tip: Use water only for cleaning brushes (which are then dried before being used again). The brush marks and the actual texture of the paint will then show.

Thin underneath, thicker on top.

Tip: Use thick paint over thinner layers to create this look. Water was used sparingly only on the under layers

Acrylic thinned with water.

Tip:You can use acrylic paint much like watercolour, as in this demonstration painting by Nicola. Here she shows how acrylic paint can be used in a delicate and luminous way; qualities usually expected from watercolour.

Building up layers without water

Tip: You can build up thin layers using a technique known as scumbling For this it is essential to keep brushes clean and make sure the paint is dry before working on top.

In this demonstration painting I showed how acrylic paint (because it dries quickly) can be built up in this way. I also showed that a particular brush is needed for this. See the tip on scumbling to see how it's done.

Painting in layers with water

Tip: Do not be afraid to use too much water but let the layers dry.

Layers can also be built up in thin washes of paint. As in this demonstration by Nicola.

By Justin Cooke, Dec 13 2014 08:47PM

A Coloured Ground

A canvas or panel can be painted with a colour prior to being used for a painting. Traditionally this was a mid tone in some sort of earth colour. An alternative name for this is a tonal ground.

Light or Dark

Traditionally earth colours were used to prepare the ground. John Constable describes his prepared canvases as "Flats". A term that describes the flat even tone that he would have learned to use as a student at the Royal Academy in London. Go back a little further and Thomas Gainsborough, (a founding member of the Royal Academy) was using a light brown to prepare his canvases.

A canvas or panel can be painted with a colour prior to being used for a painting. Traditionally this was a mid tone in some sort of earth colour. An alternative name for this is a tonal ground.

Let me introduce you to

Mr and Mrs Andrews

"Thomas Gainsborough - Mr and Mrs Andrews" by Thomas Gainsborough - The National Gallery, London. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This painting was made by Thomas Gainsborough some time between 1748 and 1750. Interestingly for us this painting has been left un-finished.

Take a look at Mrs Andrews's hands in her lap.

You will see that here is an area of the painting that has been left unpainted...waiting for the addition of a baby...maybe. Or perhaps some bagpipes! We can't be sure.

What we see is not bare canvas. We can see the cracking paint of his coloured ground. and it is the light neutral brown that so many artists of that time used for their portrait paintings.

Later,as new brighter colours became available artists found that these colours could look more vivid when painted on a white ground and this is one of the great departures made by the impressionists from their predecessors .

Generally; before Impressionism artists used a tonal ground; Impressionism and after a white ground. Of course there are exceptions. Whistler was one; often using a dark ground, even black, and he was a contemporary of the Impressionists.

Can you use both a tonal and a white ground together?

Yes you can: In this demonstration I'll show you how and you'll see that both have their benefits.

We know bright colours show up best on a white ground, but a tonal ground can unify a painting into a certain mood. Many also find it easier to manage the tonal range in their painting by using a tonal ground. Perhaps by working toward lighter tones and then toward darker ones. But why not prepare a ground that will have the qualities of both.

In this example the paper was prepared with an even grey colour, except those areas that were to be be painted with very bright colours (the beach wind-breaks and parasol for example), these were left as un-painted white paper. Once dry the painting process was continued as normal on top. In this case with little water, pretty much as paint comes straight from the tube.

The paper was quite thin, so if I hold it up to a sunny window you will see the light coming through the areas that were not painted grey. This exaggerates the brighter colours

You may get a better idea if I turn the paper round, and we look at it from the back, with the light shining through.

It looks like this

With our paintings we can not always hold them up to a light and illuminate them from behind in this way. We rely on light being reflected back to us from the paper or canvas. With a white ground more light is reflected back through the paint layer than say a grey ground. So the colours are brighter.

We could definitely use this idea in our painting...and maybe experiment with different colour grounds to achieve different effects.

If you would like to find Mr and Mrs Andrews. Here is where they are.

The National Gallery, London.

Go in the main entrance and straight up the stairs and into the first room. This is the Central Hall. There is a door on the wall on your right, go through that and you'll be in the first of a series of rooms that lead one to another. You need to go on to the fourth room. You'll find Mr and Mrs Andrews there. They are on the left.

Opposite them are some Hogarth paintings, and I always think it looks as if Mr and Mrs Andrews are looking across at the characters in them with a mixture of amusement on his part and barely concealed "well if you must!" from her.

Here is a tip...

Traditionally; artists found it may be useful to use a wooden palette to mix paint when working on a toned ground. Often made of a dark wood such as mahogany or a wood that attained a dark tone over years of use, it made sense to see the colour on their palette as closely as possible to how it would look on a similar coloured ground.

I mentioned Whistler earlier...

I studied Whistler a lot for my dissertation years ago, and always liked the sound of his mahogany table as a palette. The table struck me as a good idea. In my studio I have a long workbench made of recycled pine which has adopted a dark patina with age. It has sheets of glass on top, which I use as palettes and replace from time to time. This would be for oil painting. Occasionally I put a sheet of white paper under the glass if I want to mix colours precisely for use on a white canvas. If using watercolour on white paper, my palette is a collection of white plates, bowls and saucers.

An example painted on a traditional brown ground

Look closely between the brush marks and you will see glimpses of the brown ground colour beneath.

These small amounts of colour, which are all over the painting, help to unify the look. Had the ground colour been blue, the painting may have had a cold, chilly, feel. If I had used red or yellow, it could have given the impression of heat or sunshine. Starting from my mid tone of brown; I painted firstly my lights, then darks and then bolder areas of colour. This was done for speed as it was a demonstration piece for a class. But it is also how you could work if you were outside in front of your subject. It is a very quick way of painting!

By Justin Cooke, Dec 9 2014 08:05PM


Atmospheric Perspective: Giving the appearance of distance by the use of colour and tone; quite often by making distant subjects paler, less saturated with colour and with less distinct outlines.

You do not always have to fade to blue, although this is probably how it is most commonly seen. As this demonstration shows, other colours will work.

In these examples no other useful devices are used give the impression of distance. There are no converging rail lines; no carefully placed people or lampposts of ever decreasing size. The only device we have to show distance is the depletion of colour, tone and definition.

To show greater distance, this could be pushed still further, until the horizon becomes a blur.

Where to see examples

Lots in the British watercolour tradition; and Turner makes use of it exquisitely. That landscape in the background of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa…to give it distance... so it did not overpower the portrait… Leonardo used atmospheric perspective.

Just a note

Atmospheric Perspective is also known as Aerial Perspective. An Aerial Landscape is something else…that's the painting you will do when you’re in a hot air balloon!

How it's done: four examples

Study 1.

A quick study using blue shades. Painted in acrylic paint on acrylic paper.

The white paper was first tinted with a pale pink. For this I used a very thin wash of magenta. This was allowed to dry before painting on top. For speed I used just one brush; a soft, flat square ended brush. Pale cerulean blue was used for distant colours and phthalo blue (phtalocyanine blue) to achieve the darker tones of the foreground. . For the very dark colours mix the phthalo blue and burnt sienna together, this will make a very dark colour (an uneven mix will help give a greater variety of colours), keep some on the side of your pallette. Add some of this mix to your phthalo blue to achieve increasingly darker shades. You should get a near black.

Study 2.

Similar to study 3, but overlaid with a thin wash of titanium white

Study 3.

Using the same magenta tinted paper as the first example, but this time using a pallette of magenta with varying amounts of white, painted a little thicker than before to allow it to be seen on the lightly tinted paper. As in the example above, mix some phthalo blue and burnt sienna together to make a very dark colour, (again an uneven mix will help give a greater variety of colours). Keep some of this new colour on the side of your pallette. Add some of this mix to your magenta to achieve increasingly darker shades. Again it is possible to reach a near black.


Study 4.

This was painted exactly as above but with a rich oarange/yellow in place of magenta. The same mix of phthalo blue and burnt sienna was used to darken the colours in the foreground

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