My Favorite–and Slightly Unusual–Studio Tips for Artists

“I’ll never reveal all my painting secrets.”

I was stunned when I heard this from a fellow art teacher.

Was he kidding or was he selfish? I’ll never know, but I think he meant it.

And a decade later, I still don’t understand.

Why devote yourself to teaching only hoard your knowledge like a bag of chips? Teaching and sharing are synonymous, and both are a blast.

Should your students surpass you, it not only shows you’ve done a stellar job. It also lights a fire under your own butt.

And Yet…

I’ve avoided writing this post for ages.

I’ve procrastinated. I’ve made one lame excuse after another:

The topic isn’t right.
The timing isn’t right.
It’s raining.

Truth is, I’ve been afraid of creating more competition, more brutal than we already have. Younger talents are particularly frightening, What I really want to do is slow them down.

Oh, the hypocrisy. It’s time to make this right.

So while my other posts deal with the mental game of creating art, this one shares some of my favorite, geeky studio tips. Which aren’t all original; they just happen to feel like they’re mine…all mine.

Trowel and Smear

You think this is a palette knife, don’t you?

It’s not. It’s life itself.

The power and sensitivity of this simple tool are remarkable. It gives texture, energy, and density all at the same time. If muddy color is the bain of your existence, this is the solution.

The operative word is practice.

Knife painting is clumsy at first—it’ll feel like you’re painting with your foot—and your early attempts will be disastrous. Stay with it and don’t get discouraged  In time, it’ll become natural.

How
Keep your brushes within reach. The key is to apply a load of paint with a knife, then, with a large bristle brush and some elbow grease, scrub the paint into the weave of the canvas. The color doesn’t have to be perfect at this point, an approximation is fine.

Do this right, and you’ll cover lots of ground, mighty fast. That gorgeous paint layer will be a joy to paint back into later on, wet or dry.

Use Sandpaper

The look on students’ faces when I tell them I sandpaper my paintings. It’s the same look I get when I tell them I use a knife. Surprise, disbelief, horror.

But the two go together. Knife texture can build up so much that you have to level it off. Other times, an excess of details forces you to take things out of focus.

Sanding solves both problems. It flattens out bothersome texture and softens those annoying edges.

How
Lie the canvas flat on a table. Dampen a piece of fine sandpaper with mineral spirits. Sand one small area at a time and wipe off the dust with a cloth, also dampened with mineral spirits.

Careful though, some colors are toxic, and you don’t want to breathe the dust. Wear a mask and protective gloves too.

Create a Window

Ever watch a surgeon operate on a patient?

I haven’t either. But almost every inch of the patient is covered to prevent infection. And while there’s little chance your artwork will succumb to deadly infection, it helps sometimes to mask off areas you’re not working.

Here’s why:​
Focus.

The biggest challenge in resolving one area is the urge to resolve another. It’s too easy (and a little maddening) to drift all over the surface of your canvas without nailing something down.

How
Cover 3/4 or your work with paper, leaving a small window to expose one area. Or, with soft vine charcoal, draw a circle around your focal point, and swear you won’t drift outside of it.

Once that area is resolved, move to another one, and repeat the process.

Copy Your Work 

Whether it’s an oil or a charcoal, copying is a wonderful way to loosen up.

With no effort, you’ll intuitively pare each generation of your artwork down to a simpler version than the last. This was a famous exercise of Picasso; illustrated by his Deconstructed Bull Drawings:

How
Place a fresh canvas or sheet of paper next to your original, and copy it. Before you finish, copy the copy, and so on. You can also turn both works upside-down for a fresh perspective.

This gives you a firm grasp of the structure, and an ease in suggesting details

Freeze Your Paint

Oil paint dries quickly at room temperature, and wasted paint can really cost you.

But fear not. Because the stuff doesn’t freeze. No matter how much cold it’s exposed to.

Storing your paint in the freezer slows the drying by 2-3x. And as this may cause problems between you and the person you live with, you can always store your paint outside or in a garage in winter.

Apartment-dwellers can leave it on a fire escape but you didn’t hear that from me.

How
Transfer your unused paint onto a small board sealed with gesso or shellac. Create an airtight seal with plastic wrap, then place it, along with your paint tubes, in a sturdy, waterproof container. Leave the container in a cold place.

When you’re ready to work again, transfer the paint back onto your palette.

Ignore the Palette Hole

Ever lose sensation in your thumb while holding your palette for long stretches?

I call it The Green Thumb.

It happens because the palette hole is, in my opinion, one of those dumb features no one questions. We assume it’s there for good reason as we endure the torture.

But let’s be bold and rebellious, shall we? Let’s not be lemmings.

How

Hold your palette from the bottom with your palm open, the way you’d hold a plate. You can also thread your brushes through the hole and support it that way.

Voila–green thumb begone!

Stand to the Left of Your Canvas (Or to the Right)

How you position yourself can make a big difference in the success of your work.

Standing directly in front of the canvas leaves your arm in an awkward position, forcing it to cross your upper body as you make a paint stroke. It also turns your canvas into a  barrier, blocking the subject from your view.

Moving to one side solves both problems.

How
Right-handers, align your right foot with the area you’re working. Left-handers, do the same with your left foot.

This frees up your painting arm, gets your body out of its own way, and gets your artwork out of your face, so it’s a win-win-win.

Tack and Stack

The heft and smoothness of red oak (available at any Lowe’s or Home Depot) make it my favorite painting surface. An added bonus is that it’s easy to pack, transport and store, with this simple trick:

How
Push an old-fashioned thumbtack into each corner of the piece. You can then place a similar-size work right on top without damaging either one—they’ll even protect each other. A number of these works can be stacked and wrapped together for easy transport.

When it’s showtime, fill the pinholes with paint and sand them down if needed.

This hack has been a godsend during the pandemic, as I’ve been forced to work in small, temporary spaces and move between them.

Final Thought

There’s no such thing as complete originality, not in the art game.

We learn and borrow from each other. We learn from our teachers and they learn from us.

Nobody loves their tools quite like an artist. And why shouldn’t we? Why not make the process as easy as possible?

Why not save your energy for the big challenges, like engaging your subject or breaking old, useless habits?

Good craftsmanship separates the professional from the student, and the master from the professional. It’s also a wonderful confidence-builder. Give it as much care and attention as you give your art.

So what are your favorite studio tricks? Please share them in the comment section below.


You’ll find more of these tips on my Membership Site, available in October 2020.

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