Tools of My Trade: From Inspiration to Clean-Up

In the old world of artistic masters, an apprentice would shadow a master artist's career for years - learning not only creative and physical practices of the work, but also managing the business. Masters would teach their students how create a certain effect with the paint, and how to source materials, mix pigments, and take care of their tools. A future working artist would learn and understand the basic groundwork of their craft in order to make their practice better and sustainable as a means of living. Today, it seems that unless emerging artists find a mentor early in their career, they have to rely on personal trial-and-error, which unfortunately costs them many years and wasted dollars.

Luckily in the art world, you are not only as good as your tools allow you to be, but having good ones does help. Truly, finding what works best for you in your practice, at the time and place you are currently in, is what really matters.

I wanted to share what I use in my studio to not only be transparent to potential collectors regarding time, money, and materials that go into making each work, but so that emerging and student artists have some perspective of what is in a working palette knife artist's studio. I have also included tidbits about how to store, clean, and organize items in the studio.

My art storefronts of choice are Dick Blick, Cheap Joes, and Jerry's Artarama. If you can find your tools and supplies at your local art store, please shop small first. You can find most of the items I listed below at bigger chain stores like Michaels and ACMoore.

I am the first to admit that I have too many sketchbooks. Instead of organizing by year, I organize my books by subject -- there is a book for figures, for inked line work, for long -term and short-term travel, a purse sketchbook, backpack sketchbook, and really anything under the sun. I prefer bound books, and rarely use spiral; size varies depending on intended use and the bag it plans to be in. I still have almost all of my student sketchbooks from yesteryear. When leafing through them, it is enlightening to see how far I have evolved as an artist and to discover what prompts still inspire me. (If you are an emerging artist and want some fun creative challenges look into AP 2D/3D Studio Art Prompts usually posted by AP Art Teachers meant to challenge students to think creatively and critically).

For my oil paintings, I use two Moleskine Pro Collection Blank Notebooks in XL -- one for commissions and one for originals. I keep details about each project (size, surface, color palettes, written ideas, research, reference photos), draw multiple thumbnails for potential compositions, and after a work is completed and signed, write a reflection on final product regarding color, technique, composition, theme, etc.

Though the Moleskine Pro Collection pages are thinner than a traditional sketchbook, I like that they are pre-numbered, there is a table of contents in the front that can be filled in, there is a double built-in ribbon bookmark, and there are two folder pockets in the back where I store my thumbnail template and other small paper items. I usually use a #2 pencil, or a Muji gel pen; loose items that correspond with a specific project are usually stapled or glued in. My retired sketchbooks live separately from my active sketchbooks.

After I purchase the surface or support that I want to paint on, I make sure it is prepared for painting. For a wood panel, this means applying a ground to the surface that serves as a layer for your painting to live on. I prefer Blick's White Gesso; though, other painters prefer oil-based primers. If you purchase a pre-stretched canvas, almost all are pre-primed and paint-ready.

If I want part of my support to not be affected by the paint, (such as a white border, or unpainted wood sides) I block it off using painters tape. I use an old Pampered Chef Pan Scrapper (thanks mom!) to ensure there is no air bubbles in the tape and that it is taunt against the ground. You can alternatively use an acrylic rule, or small piece of wood. Be careful! If using on canvas, if you push too hard you can puncture the canvas.

I always add a wash mixed with water (mixing a medium with the paint as a transparent color) to the ground so I am not working on a pure white surface-- this is called a Toned Ground. I find that it is less daunting of a task to start painting on this, and I can utilize the negative space as an impressionistic layer if I like how it looks later on. My favorite toned grounds use alizarin crimson, raw ochre, and cobalt blue -- many artists prefer ochres or umbers as a toned ground. You can apply a wash using a clean rag, a large paint brush, or even a foam brush. I usually mix the wash in a reusable glass yogurt container.

Once the ground is completely dry I can begin creating my painting. Before switching to palette knives as my tool of choice, I used to paint an under-painting with values prior to adding different color and details which would eventually create my final work; now I just create outlines of the major parts of the painting using classroom chalk. I originally used General's Sketch and Wash Graphite Pencils, but chalk is a quick, easy-to-find, and a cost-efficient alternative. With chalk you can create a grid before adding in outlines to help with placement if using a larger-sized support.

I use a Masterson 12x16" Sta-Wet Palette Box with Seal (I actually have three!). It holds a 12x16" palette paper pad that after each use you can toss; I prefer Richeson Grey Matters Palette Paper. The seal allows wet paint to last up to a couple of days. You could always use large shallow food keeper with a locking top if you are looking for something cheaper. FYI - you can store your oils in the fridge to make them last a couple days longer.

All of my palette knives are Blick, RGM, or Liquitex Brands. I have a variety of sizes and styles for different projects (just like you would have different brushes). I have a set for small details, a couple to create specific textures, and others specifically for large-scale paintings, and everything in-between. I store them in small plastic containers I found at a thrift store.

I use Water Mixable Oils; my preferred brands are Winsor Newton (I usually buy the 200ml tube) and Royal Talens Cobra (largest is 150 ml tube). I use Winsor Newton Thinner and Linseed Oil to keep with brand continuity. In the past I have used Winsor Newton Impasto mixed with paint (50/50) to create textured strokes in my work. I have been using these bins to store them and I organize them by cool, warm, and tints/shades/neutrals.

I have two reusable cups where I keep my mediums (thinner and linseed oil), a reusable mason jar for water, paper towels, a dishtowel to lay used palette knives on, and a metal paint tube wringer. I have a pair of scissors, and a tiny craft spoon for getting the last morsels of paint out of the top of the metal tubes.

I have multiple easels and can't say that one brand is better than the other. It just depends on how you like to work. I have a standing easel, travel easels, and multiple tabletops easels. I would recommend having an easel that is versatile for your working style and environment. Good posture is key!

Remember, finding a safe place to store your painting while it dries and after it is framed is just as important as having the studio space to paint.

When it comes to cleaning my tools after a painting session it is really straight forward. Clean-up should always be calculated into your painting routine.

For palette knives, I wipe off the big chunks of paint using a paper towel, and then I place them to the side on a towel until it is time to wash them. At the sink, using lukewarm water, I apply some Speedball Pink Soap to a nail brush and I brush off any leftover paint residue from the knives. With water mixable oil paint, it usually comes off quite fast. Be sure to fully dry your knives from tip to handle using a towel before storing them until their next use.

When I used brushes, I used the Pink Soap to clean them as well. I would hold dirtied brushes, one at a time, under the flowing water and brush them into my hand until the water ran clear. I would then add a dollop of pink soap and run it again under the water brushing into my hand until it ran clear (repeat if necessary). As a safe guard, I would later add another step of using The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. I would slightly wet the medium, use my brush to work into a lather, and then run in the water into my hand until it ran clear (use twice). It sometimes can take up to four good cleanings to get stubborn paints out of a brush. I would finish with Speedball Brushshaper to ensure the integrity of the shapes of my brushes.

For my hands and forearms, I use The Masters Artist Hand Soap. Feel free to follow with your favorite cream.

Due to the fact that I have a dedicated art studio, I don't worry too much about accidentally getting paint on surfaces, but if you need to protect a table, I would highly recommend a natural canvas drop-cloth. You should protect your chairs, floors, and anything that you will lay painting items on. You can use everyday spray cleaner to clean-up water mixable paint from plastic and wood as long it is within 24 hours. Make sure to keep you painting area well dusted and free from any pet hair. You don't want any of that mixing with your paints or drying into one of your final works.

Wearing dedicated painting clothes helps reduce the risk of ruining everything in your wardrobe. Since I paint 5+ days a week, I actually have at least five outfits I can wear to paint in that include layers (a sweatshirt when its cold, a tank when its hot, and accessories for winter/summer En Plein Air painting). I usually wear cheap cotton leggings, torn jeans, stained workout clothes, or any other comfy thrift store finds. Though comfort is key, try not to wear anything too baggy or flowy as it could catch paint and suddenly spread everywhere. I have a pair of Dansko clogs that I only wear in the studio. I wear nitrile gloves as my sensitive skins sometimes reacts to the paints. I have found that most water mixable paints wash off clothes if you throw them in the washer before they dry completely - though whites and blacks are much harder to get out compared to Hues. Tide detergent is your friend. If you are making a promo video and you want to look a little classier than your normal everyday painting self, I suggest buying clothes to paint in for that specific video.

Be sure to follow all directions on products' labels and use them only for their intended use.

Keep Creating!








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