Tools of My Trade: From Inspiration to Clean-Up

Updated: Feb 19

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, how to source materials, mix pigments, and take care of creation tools. A future master would learn to understand the basic groundwork of their craft in order to make their practice better and sustainable as a means of living. In the United States artistic apprenticeships don't work that way anymore. Today, it seems that unless an emerging artist finds mentor(s) early in their career (but how do you even find one?!), they have to rely on personal trial-and-error, which unfortunately costs them many years and wasted dollars.


Luckily in the modern art world you are not limited by your tools or chosen mediums, 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 artist's studio (i.e. Oil painting). I have also included tidbits about how to store, clean, and organize items in the studio.


My art storefronts of choice are Blick Art Materials, 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 (use their rewards system and annual canvas sale) 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 a sketchbook for 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 their students to think creatively and critically. My retired sketchbooks are stored separately from my active sketchbooks. I usually keep my active books on a shelf with labels on the spine allowing me to grab-and-go as necessary.


For my oil paintings, I use two Moleskine Pro Collection Blank Notebooks in XL -- one for commissions and one for originals. In each book, 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, I write a reflection on the final product regarding color, technique, composition, theme, etc.

Though the Moleskine Pro Collection pages are thinner than a traditional artist sketchbook (paint/marker bleeds through), I like that the pages are pre-numbered, there is a table of contents in the front corresponding with the page #s 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. For these books, 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 to the accompanying pages.

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, (with our without a cradle) this means applying a ground that serves as a layer for your painting to live on. The ground is necessary so the paint doesn't soak into the support and possibly decay, mold, or warp it. The best cost effective option is Blick's White Gesso, though I personally believe Golden's Gesso is the best in quality. Other painters might prefer oil-based primers over Acrylic. It takes 2-3 layers of Gesso (and sanding between each layer if you want a smooth surface) before your surface is ready to go. I have bristle brushes,mini house paint rollers, and sandpaper that I use exclusively for Gesso. If you purchase a pre-stretched canvas, almost all are pre-gessoed and paint-ready.


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


I like to have a wash (mixing a medium with the paint to create a translucent color, I use water) covering 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 for my oils are alizarin crimson, raw ochre, burnet sienna, and cobalt blue -- many artists prefer ochres or umbers as a toned ground. Sometimes a toned ground peaks through the imperfections of one's painting, and can enhance the color you plan to layer on top (look up effects of complimentary colors). You can apply a wash using a clean rag, a large bristle paint brush, or even a foam brush. I usually mix the wash in a reusable glass yogurt container. Some artists choose to have a Toned Ground that is a solid color and not a wash. It depends on what you prefer for your works.


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 usually with a single color with values prior to adding different colors and details which would eventually create my final work.


Now I create outlines of the major parts of the painting using classroom chalk and then fill in my painting like patchwork. 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 the composition outlines to help with placement if using a larger-sized surface. Chalk easy to wash off if you make a mistake, and easy to cover with paint.

I use a Masterson 12x16" Sta-Wet Palette Box with Seal (I actually have three!). It holds 12x16" palette paper that after each use you can toss; I prefer Richeson Grey Matters Palette Paper. The seal on the box 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 or freezer in to make them last a couple days longer. A palette box is not necessary if you don't plan to use the same paints over multiple days - you can always use palette paper on a clipboard and throw it away after each use (if you want to go for a reduce waste option you can use glass/acrylic palettes, or save the palette paper and make a collage with the dried paints later).


Most 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 my traditional palette knives in small plastic stacking containers I found at a thrift store. I have some larger house painting knives that I have used for larger abstract experimentation, but I rarely use them.

I use Water Mixable Oils; my preferred brands are Winsor Newton (I usually buy the 200ml tube) and Royal Talens Cobra (largest tube is 150 ml). I use Winsor Newton Thinner and Linseed Oil to keep with brand continuity when I am utilizing traditional oil painting techniques. In the past I have used Winsor Newton Impasto mixed with paint (50/50) to create textured, messy, impressionistic strokes in my work. I now prefer using the paint without an addition of a medium. I have been using these bins to store my paints and I organize the colors by cool, warm, and tints/shades/neutrals. I use to bins to lay out all my colors when I paint so I can grab a tube easily when I need it, but it also makes for a quick clean-up (if air tight they can also save your paints if you don't close a lid tightly on accident).

I have two reusable cups where I keep my mediums (water, thinner and linseed oil), a reusable mason jar for cleaning water, paper towels, a dishtowel to lay dirty palette knives on, a jar opener for hard to older and hard-to-open paint tubes, 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 now 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! Once common problem I have found with easels is that the bottom shelf isn't flat - throw a piece of flat wood, wood blocks, or mini-canvases on top of that shelf to elevate your work so you can paint the bottom of your painting with ease.


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. Blick offers some vertical solutions for smaller sized canvases and paper, but you can always utilize DIY options.


If you plan to frame works prior to selling them, I would suggest investing in the hardware and tools to do it yourself.

When it comes to cleaning my tools after a painting session, my process is really straight forward. Clean-up should always be calculated into your painting routine - like cooking, if you don't have time to clean-up, you don't have time to do the activity.


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


When I use brushes, I use the Pink Soap on them as well. Hold dirtied brushes, one at a time, under the flowing water and brush them into my hand until the water runs clear. Add a dollop of pink soap and run it again under the water brushing into my hand until it ran clear (repeat as necessary). As a safe guard, use The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Slightly wet the medium, use the brush to work it into a lather, and then run in the water into your hand until it runs clear (usually twice). It sometimes can take up to four good cleanings to get stubborn paints out of a brush -- depending on the bristles and paint choice, your brush might become stained though it might be clean. Finish with Speedball Brushshaper to ensure the integrity of the shapes of my brushes.


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 multi-surface spray cleaner to clean-up water mixable paint from plastic,wood, and most surfaces as long it is within a couple of hours. Make sure to keep you painting area well dusted and free from any pet or human 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 four to five days a week, I have at least five outfits I can wear to paint that I can "be messy in" 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 and I joke that they are Jackson Pollock-inspired. 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/marketing 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 that you don't mind potentially ruining. If you trust yourself, feel free to invest in an apron and wear you everyday clothes to the studio.


For cleaning my hands and forearms, I use The Masters Artist Hand Soap. Follow with your favorite hand cream. In early 2020 I transitioned to wearing gloves. As a word of warning, with gloves it is harder to recognize when their is paint on your hands and it does create more waste, but I found it saves my nails and my sensitive skin from reacting to the paints, and I don't have to stop constantly to clean my hands.


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


What are you favorite tools, products, or items to use in the studio? Comment below!


Keep Creating!


xo, kg



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