Technical information, materials, notes, paints

Philip Howe Fine Art
Philip Howe's Art and 3D classes, CLICK HERE
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Angel Paintings
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Fine Art - Figures,Portraits, Other Subjects
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Life Drawings (Figure drawings)
Early work_ 1980's, 1990's
Demos of several Paintings
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Technical Page

After reciving a number of requests I will try to answer some of the questions about overall technique, paints used, various ways to approach painting and some of my thoughts about art in general.
I will try to keep this brief here but more elaborate information on technique can be found in the Demos page and certainly on other sites by a few artists I list in the Other artists links page. The demos also include various techniques that show a different approach to traditional oil painting, like the gouache underpainting application in the demo of The Old Conquistador. Please feel free to comment or inquire as the whole intent here is to share information and learn, as I do, with each piece.

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Glass palette_mediums_mineral spirits_brushes

Palette and colors I prefer-

I use a glass palette, about 3/8" thick, that I bought at a glass shop and asked them to sand off the edges. You can buy milky glass and other tones. I use a slight bluish tone but offset it by placing a warm gray matt underneath it, taped down to a taboret I built. Its about 2x3 ft so it gives me plenty of room to scrape off the colors and work larger areas around. I never have understood the wood palettes as it seems the idea is that the oil in the paint would dry into the wood. With glass, the oil, and mediums, stay with the paint pile and so you get what you mix. I have it just to the side of my working easle, in the same light as the painting is under. A new glass palette is out that is cut to hold like a traditional palette. I have one and its fun to use but why hold a palette in your left arm all the itme when its much easier to have a much larger one just beside you.

I think I get more questions on tube choice, brands and colors, than anything else, so I will list my preference here. I tend to paint opaque in one or two coats then usually hit the dried surface with a layer or two of patina coloring, usually done with some medium and transparent color.

So, my opaque colors are listed first. In all cases I am referring to oil color only and my usual medium is either Walnut oil, or Liquin, which is a thicker medium that really covers the canvas well, dries within a day and leaves a nice overall luster or near gloss that is easy to match with wet paint.

My colors are like my methods, a bit unorthodox but they work for me. I don't have a specific way of placement on a palette, just squirt out enough on the edge of the glass I use and in no particular order.

Opaque oils- Titanium White- The white I prefer is made by Winsor-Newton (WN), but its their cheaper brand- Winton, which I will refer to quite a bit here. #40, or a smoother softer mix #77, called Soft Mixing White. I also like M.Grahams Titanium white as it seems to take a bit longer to dry, probably because of the Walnut oil. If I was interested in solid, out of the tube, even hot color, I might buy more of the expensive tubes but they are rarely needed and the tinting strength is of less use to me than to gray down or kill most of the hotter colors, so the cheaper tubes, usually referred to as 'student grade' work just fine for me. I tend to buy the larger tubes and they last for quite a while.

Yellow Ochre or Mars Yellow, Raw Umber, sometimes raw Sienna, although its more transparent and a bit redder than the Ocher- great for some landscapes with warm ground. I use a lot of Burnt Umber and Ivory Black or Mars Black. I get both those from M. Graham for their slower drying time.

As a general rule, the earth colors, all listed above, tend to dry much faster than other colors, especially the blues and reds, so to balance the drying time better I might add a bit of Oil of Cloves into a pile of say a brown, so that it will dry much slower and not end up going flat or matte while I am still trying to work within the area. Just a drop of the cloves. It gets a bad rap as to cracking or running but I have never experienced any problems, but then, I rarely ever use it unless I want to paint a large piece and keep it all wet as long as I can. My whole goal is wet into wet whenever possible, its the best overall look that I prefer and just feels like a more sophisticated, professional look overall.

More colors-my palette is actually very limited- Terra Rosa or similar red earth color (WN- Windsor-Newton brand) is best for skin tones, tinted with white and a bit of red or magenta added. Permanent Green Light, Winton, which I rarely use, but its good to dull down the reds with. Dioxazine Purple, Winton, or Purple Lake, WN. I tend to use a bit of purple now and then, but usually always toned down.

The only blue I use 95% of the time is Phthalo Blue - Winton, as I can get nearly every other blue from that. Its great for tinting because its so strong, so be careful as it will dominate any mixture, and its excellent to glaze or patina with, usually too strong on its own, so tint with white or other warm hue. Add it to any black for the deepest, darkest black you can get. Makes a great sky base or for marine paintings. Also, Veridian Hue, a deep green, and Phthalo Green. I rarely have those out on the palette though.

Reds- I use just a few- Cadmium Red Light and Deep (Winton or WN, or Grumbacher) Great for fleshy caucasian skin and to kill cooler colors, and Permanent Alizarin Crimson-Winton, for deeper shades of red. Alizarin is a good glazing color as well.

Sometimes I use Cadmium Orange if I am desperate to get a good solid orange on the canvas but its usually too strong. I prefer tinting it or just mixing orange from the Cad Red and a yellow. I rarely use yellow, or green, but a single good one would be Cad yellow Medium or Deep. Cad Light is a bit too pale for my needs and I can get a similar effect by adding white, even to Ochre, for great 'gold' effects.

Usually I can mix nearly every color I need with just a few basic tube hues, no more than 6 or 7 are on my palette most of the time. So here is a short list of my usual basic hues I have on the palette, others I add to sparingly if needed-
Titanium White, Mars or Ivory Black (or Lamp black if a real dark black is needed) Yellow Ocher or Mars Yellow, a warm red like Cadmium Red Light, and a deeper red like Crimson or Cad Red Deep, Phthalo Blue, Burnt Umber or Van Dyke Brown if I want a darker brown, Terra Rosa for a red Earth hue, sometimes Burnt Sienna for a nice rich reddish brown, Permanent Green Light- always toned down with a red or purple, and Dioxazine Purple or similar. Sometimes I add a yellow or an Orange. Basically, then, its one color of each main spectrum range, a white and a black- then a few browns or earth tones. Since I use bright, rich colors I can always gray them down from there so why use a lot of other colors except for special effects.

Here are some interesting odd tube colors for those outside the normal range- Phthalo Turquoise-by Dan Smith, a great blue-green for tinting and glazing. Thalo Red Rose- Grumbacher, again for glazing or patina. Mixed with white and a bit of yellow ochre it can give you a nice skin tone base. I do use a premixed skin tone on occasion, the best one I found is Flesh Tint, WN. just to get a quick middle tone down. The premixed skin tones I have found work well for adding to cooler colors to get nice grays.



Here are my choices for favorite TRANSPARENT colors (usually marked as such on the tubes)- I have tried as many tube colors over the years as I could buy and have at least a hundred laying around but usually just resort to these for special transparent effects, like glazing over a cheek, to add more color or warming or cooling an atmospheric effect. The Liquin Medium (WN) really helps if you learn how to be patient with it and time it right as it drys more quickly than normal linseed oil from the tube.

My favorite brand for many transparent colors is Dan Smith, who makes Quinacridone Gold and I believe other hues that work beautifully for pure glazing but I use them more to overpaint and warm up passages like golden hair, sunlit wood or clothes, etc. They are really worth geting for bringing areas to life that take a bit of planning but give results that are impossible to get with opaque paint alone. I tend to whiten or lighten areas ahead of time and set them up for the later patina or glaze.

Others are-Pink Madder, Holbein- Brown Madder, WN- Pthalo Red Rose, WN- and a couple by M. Graham named Transparent Iron Oxide and Transparent Orange, both great for warm browns.

For cooling areas I guess Phthalo Blue would be a good choice but I rarely do glaze or patina cooler as this tends to look tacky and more illustration like.
Sap Greeen is worth trying. Its a beautiful rich green that is hard to mix and tints well (tinting is where you add white or soften the color toward a pastel look). Sap green looks like a middle value leaf color, great for grass, leaves and folage. I will sometimes paint the leaves more white in contrast and then splash sap green over the dryed area to give it a sunlit affect that you can't get with opaque paint. If you start thinking of the use of transparent colors you will get a far greater range than any pure opaque painting can achieve simply because the effect of light bouncing off a more translucent tint or glaze of color creates a jewell like look that has more brillance to it, even with a minimum of paint. The tendency is to use this look too much and it gets a bit overdone, as a number of my students would do once they found out how easy it was to get nice effects. Since its transparent, a lot of students like the idea of not loosing their drawing and, working transparently from the beginning, your drawing becomes an integral part of the final value range within the painting. I prefer a more opaque approach, or a combination of the two. In other words, where I want the transparent, rich color to come through, I simply paint those areas lighter, or whiter, and let that dry well, then patina the transparent color over that to get a nice controlled sunlight effect just where I want it.

Usually when I have good colors mixed and want to reuse them the next day, if I haven't added any Liquin or faster drying medium, then I scrape the paint into a nice pile at the edge of my palette, easy to do with glass, and add several drops of Walnut oil, mixing it in well with a palette knife. I don't like wasting paint and this gives me a nice base to start with, usually grayed down colors.

The Walnut oil is a bit heavier than linseed oil and I found it gives a feel more like wet into wet paint so I put it on dryed areas, sometimes, when I want that look and to bring the matte paint back to life. Yet another advantage of working quickly and in one pass- finishing the area before it dries as its much easier than working back into it. Liquin excells here. You might also try Gamblin medium, but I found it to be a bit too viscous and dried way to fast for my tastes. Good for illustration work though if you have deadlines. You can also add dryers, or siccatives, (Japan dryer for a few hours working time or Cobalt dryer, for really fast drying time but potential surface cracking), that chemically change the oil to dry fast, but I don't recommend them outside of illustration. I used to use a lot of alternate methods and have never seen any cracking of dramage whatsoever on canvas or panels and I could get thick, impasto passages of oil to dry in around 20 minutes! Or add Alkyd white. But the whole idea for me now is the wet-into-wet approach so I just keep it simple and paint without additives.

Brushes -
My concern for manipulating edges led me to simplify my brush choice and now I use just a couple of types. To get initial softer, blocked in planes of solid color I use either a 1" flat, short handled sable or synthetic, like a Watercolor Brush. Cheaper brands work fine, University, Princeton, and others. Or I use a good, full bristle filbert, around 1/2 to 1" or larger- made by Robert Simmons (Signet). Great for Sargent like strokes. You can get them fatter and rounder or longer and tapered more. Experiment to get the effect you want.
For details or rather, for taking the heavier paint and moving it around in smaller areas, refining edges and just playing with the paint- I use bristle, sable or synthetic flats, filberts and brights. Again, the cheaper brands work fine for me, so long as they hold their edge! Without the sharp edge its harder to get the nice contrast of sharp and soft effects that make realism work. You can even smear or buff wet paint around with a mop brush ( I like WN white mop brushes, they loose less hair) or soft fan brushes, then go back into this out of focus area and punch in sharp edges to get a real dimensional effect. Some artists use palette knives to enhance this look, but I don't like the paint build up as its limits my overpaining and design changes. That may change as my work gets bigger and the figures become larger in scale.
A good synthetic brush I really like is by Grumbacher- called a Bristlette. Its a bit hard to find but they really hold their edge and they are soft, but have a firm feel with the stroke. Robert Simmons also makes excellent sable flats. Occasionally I will use a smaller round sable, but rarely. I can usually get a better line and detail with the corner or edge of a sharp flat and they hold more paint.
Recent experiments (I experiment all the time!) with small, round sables and flats allow me to take heavier passages and just scratch at edges like you might with a color pencil or other raking effect. I am interested in ways to blend or bring two areas or edges together here and there without loosing color and overdoing it. Dragging one area into another or zig-zagging the small strokes seems to work well for larger scale pieces. Another way would be to run linear strokes along the natural edges, or take a soft brush and simply feather the edge, although that usually looks a bit artificial. Spots or impressionistic color into color, ala Klimpt, are really effective as well. There are so many ways to loose edges- its in regaining the sharper edges, the true edges, that it gets tricky and a lot of the success depends on how the artist handles the initial paint buildup and the ability to overpaint those areas with crisp paint strokes, or, paint into the wet paint below with a firm, opaque stroke or edge. I know guys who use their fingers to get the initial effect, and others who fan, splatter, scratch, blot, scumble, even wait for the paint to dry and drybrush over areas to get the look they want. I try whatever works, so long as the end result is of a quality I feel merits having started the painting in the first place and I gave it my best. Experiment whenever you can, especially if there is an area coming up that you don't want to toy with the painting but work it out on a small scrap of canvas until you feel you can freely and comfortably get the effect you want on the final piece. That way the work comes off looking more like you knew what you were doing and wanted it just that way, rather than what looks like an experiment on the final work.

Here is some important information that I have garnished over the years from experience, discussions with other artists and long talks with museum conservators and art restorers.
Toxic Materials- Some of the materials used in oil painting are toxic, that is, bad for your health. I know some of these items are also known carcinogens- cancer causing, and simply should not be used. Nothing is worth losing your health over.
1-Many sprays are very harmful not only breathed in but as they are absorbed into the skin and eyes. ALWAYS spray in a vented room, outside, and with a safe mask, not a simple paper one that does not seal well. Even expensive masks will not prevent the harmful vapor into your lungs. Once in the lungs its easily dispersed into the blood stream and to the brain. Some chemicals, like Acetone, which is common in many sprays, can actually damage brain tissue and lead to memory loss or worse.
I don't want to sound paranoid, but it just good to pass on this information to anyone who will listen.
Among the sprays that are most harmful are those such as fixative, laquers, varnishes and other finishes. I limit myself to just fixative now, having had Vertigo in the past after spraying varnish on and not clearing the room fast enough. My usual method is to spray outside my studio and turn on a fan, then, still holding my breath, get inside and away until the fumes subside. I don't think these chemicals are known to damage the atmosphere, and I keep the spraying to a minimum, just enough fizative to seal a pencil drawing on canvas or panel. It might take 2 light coats, but thats far safer than standing there with a mask on and trying to spray a second coat. You can smell the fumes on your clothes and arms so wipe off the residue before you breath again inside.
Here are chemicals and solvents that I know are harmful- at the top of the list- Damar Varnish. Its the fumes from the reaction to the paint that can lead, in time, to possible health issues. Next, dryers with a pungent or citrus smell. (Don't smell them, just avoid them). Some oil paints themselves can leave residue on the hands, so wearing a rubber glove is a good choice. For the most part I hold a clean rag in my left hand or on my lap over my painting smock. I rarely wash out my brushes, just wipe them off, but occasionally I dip them clean into Mineral Spirits, much safer than Turpentine and with less film left on the painting. Some people are alergic to Turpentine and other solvents and oil painting is not a good option. I have tried those new water based oils and, while they are fun to play with, I found them to work similarly to Casein, although not as opaque, but they often leave a gritty, sandy look that I don't like. Still, they may be an option and do have a nice painterly feel. They take a bit longer to dry and dry uneven so they take getting used to if you are used to oils.
Next, certain mediums may be somewhat harmful. I know I mentioned Liquin before and use it quite a bit in commercial work especially for its unique properties of how it works with the oil paint. However, I have spoken with some artists who say it gives them headaches and at times I think I have felt a little woozy if exposed to it for long periods. I try to air out my studio whenever I can, installing a powerful fan and opening doors, but in winter months I do this less often and oil painting and the mediums will leave a tell tale smell of the 'Artist's studio'. I have tried absorbing material and they really never worked well in my opinion. The best rule is to just play it safe, air out when you can, stay away from the more harmful solvents and mediums and get outside and breath fresh air now and then. It gives you a new perspective and clears the lungs.

As far as painting techniques- I know of a few techniques and materials to stay away from that conservators have told me would be best to not use at all.
First- any fast drying, thin layer of material that is put on between thicker layers of paint. Obviosly many sprays fall into that category. Retouch varnish is not only toxic, but very fragile. So is using Damar varnish between layers to bring back the shine and color depth of the work. The reason why these are impermanent is that they leave a very thin layer like a clear shell, similar to laquer, and any flexing at all will permanently crack that surface, so any layer on top will only add to the inevitable surface cracking. The normal chemical bonding that goes on with heavier paint, or even thin layers of paint without a fragile layer in between, will usually be enough to allow for some flexing of the material. But a thin surface with heavier paint on top and another thin surface between is like putting paint on a sheet of acetate or thin plastic. The plastic will bend and crack while the paint layer will flex, but eventually loose adhesion and flake off or fissure crack in time. I knew an illustrator (more than one) who was proud of his technique using laquer spray over pencil and quick oil washes with laquer in between. Great for illustration where you don't worry about it falling apart, but the artist started doing portrait work with the same technique, then moved to retouch varnish and within a few years a number of his pieces had sizeable cracks and displaced where the underlying color was seen in the cracking. I think a solid wood panel, like masonite or some smooth hardwood, would be much better with this technique as it won't flex. But certainly not on canvas and never roll canvas after its painted. If you do, roll it with the painted side out and over a thick roll or tube. Common sense in most cases and a little forethought should help keep your work safe from the ravenges of time. I have seen early illustrators work in disasterous conditions after only 50 years or so and its a real shame, but seeing fine art equally damaged is just not necessary. I think its part of the artist's responsibility to the work and future owners to at least try to keep the work as archival as possible.
Some colors are fugitive, but anymore, this is not as worrysome with todays manufacturing of process and organic hues. Read the labels and understand the terms, you will find most colors today are relatively safe and archival. The ones to avoid are usually the most intense hues, certainly don't use any fluorescent or metallic tube colors as they are inherantly fugitive and will fade quickly. ( The same goes for dyes in most printers today. Its amazing to me that people still buy expensive prints made from dyes off expensive, but impermanent ink jet and electrostatic printers. Make sure to get a print using true INKS (not dyes or 'ink-dyes') or you will find your print fading within a few years.)
One last point, if you are going to use oils, stick with just the oil paints. If you start combining them with other mediums, like the waterbased oils, oil pastels, sticks, heavy mediums, etc. you are asking the paint to extend itself beyond what it was manufactured to do. A lot of people don't realize that the way a good tube of oil paint comes from a quality manufacturer is its ideal mix of binder to pigment- any additives are simply breaking down what its ideal solution is. Not that you can't add medium, or thin with solvents, just use caution in how far you go.
I feel that acrylic underpainting is fine, despite recent articles to the contrary, so long as the acrylic is not thick, but thinly applied, and the oil has enough tooth to grab the acrylic surface. You can easily abrase the surface with a light scratching of steel wool, just make sure to wipe off any unseen particles with a light brushing.
If I get the chance, I will talk with a museum conservator about the underpainting with acrylic or overpainting with oil. Acrylic over oil is an obvious problem, however, as the acrylic is a more flexible medium and less porous so the binding to the oil beneath will eventually cause it to loose its adherance. Still, I know some artists who do it and get a certain look from it, especially with the gold and metalic acrylics that are even less permanent. Its the art that counts, maybe their intention is for it to only last a few years, I mean, look at some of the neo-expressionists. I think, for my work, I would like to think its going to be around for a while and try to work with respect and enjoyment without worrying about it too much.

Archival supports-
Most of the archival problems inherant with oil painting are due to the support or surface the artists chooses to paint on.
By far the most permanent is a stiff piece of board, one that will not flex and has no inner glue or binder that can cause problems with the gesso applied to its surface.
Masonite (untempered) still seems to be on of the best surfaces, or hardwood thats smooth and yet porous enough to accept the gesso. Another choice might be a stainless steel metal sheet or copper, if its been abrased with a good sandpaper scratched surface. Again, it shouldn't flex, so mount it to a piece of wood backing or frame.
Which brings me to canvas- stretched canvas is a great surface to work on as its so forgiving and the canvas grab or pull is what gives a nice drag to the brush strokes. The problem is its fragile and flexible- it can be pushed in from either side and its rarely tightly stretched. I usually have to stretch it once, let it set for a few days and relax its tauntness, then restretch it much tighter.
Since most of the cracking and damage occurs with stretched or flexible canvas, the obvious solution is to mount it to a stiff board. This can get a bit heavy and not everyone likes that hard effect you get against the brush stroke. I prefer it as I can also project my drawings on it easier. Usually I use acrylic gloss medium as the glue, although I have experiment with other types. I can never get rabbit skin glue to work well enough to hold, nor Yes glue or other brands. Elmers glue works well, if you use a lot of it. The canvas is supposed to breath, but if its a toss between possible, but doubtful, molding underneath the surface and a flexible support that I know will eventually show cracks, I'd go for the mounted canvas. There are some new, ultralight weight canvas mounted panels made commercially which look to be very convenient, but pricey for larger sizes.
Other options- Museum board, a 100% rag solid illustration type board thats thick enough to paint gesso on without warping. Illustration board in general is just watercolor paper glued onto a cheap stock. Whatman water color boards are excellent if you like a great absorbent surface. You can also mount watercolor paper onto a board, but why not just get one already mounted that will accept the gesso? The idea of the gesso is to give the oil paint a solid ground that will not soak in beyond the underlying support. Without it, you would be constantly fighting the absorbent paper beneath. Another solution is to coat WC paper with one or two layers of Acrylic matte or gloss medium. Scratch the final coat with light sandpaper or steel wool to allow the oil to adhere better.
I don't want to go into specific ways to use gesso or the acrylic mediums here, but with a bit of experimenting you will find an ideal surface that suits your painting style and the results can be dramatically different in how the final painting looks simply by preparing the surface properly.
One note about linen canvas vs cotton duck or the newer hybrid flax canvas- after a number of conservators have told me, straight out, that there is very little difference in how long each will last, given that both cotton and linen are equally archival, I figured that was good enough for me. Why spend the extra money on expensive linen? Its the gesso that makes the difference, the acrylic content and how dry or absorbent each manufacturer makes their mix. Traditional gesso used to be much more absorbent and had no acrylic, but modern gesso uses acrylic, or polymer, as part of its binder. You can still get the old fashioned kind or use oil ground, which is a bit slicker and a nice surface overall. I would say that the acrylic gesso you can find in most art stores is more flexible and less prone to cracking and probably the best choice overall. Its also much easier to use and requires no sizing, like rabbit skin glue, to the canvas. Brands vary, I prefer Dan Smiths gesso as it seems the right combination of thickness and opaque in 2 coats, whereas Liquitex and a few other brands seem to have more acrylic filler and require a 3rd coat but the surface feels a bit more fluid when you use oil over it. It all depends on if you want the paint to sit more on the surface or sink in more, as the older gesso was designed to do. For transparent effects, you might consider adding more acrylic to the mix as this will allow the paint to build up on each layer more efficiently. But for opaque painting, especially for alla prima or one pass work, the oil primer or dryer gesso might give the best results.

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