Gouache top coat

29 September, 2019.

I was recently prowling through the internet in search of an answer to one topic, when I inadvertently stumbled across something interesting on a gouache artist’s page: Dorland’s Wax Medium. The artist uses this medium as a top coat once a gouache painting is thoroughly dry to protect and seal it. After mulling it over a bit, I decided to visit Amazon to see if this was an expensive product. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sold on the idea of wiping a moist medium over the top of a re-wettable painted surface. So I would have been relieved to discover it was unrealistically priced at $250 an ounce. Instead, I found it for about ten dollars in the size shown here.

After it had arrived, I let the box sit around for a while. Frankly, I was scared to rub it onto a painting or sketch – even one I didn’t like. So I eventually settled on the page you see here. I’d purchased a couple tubes of new colors a few weeks ago and wanted to see how they looked on gray paper. This test sheet had just been lying around on my drawing table since then and would eventually have been tossed into the waste bin. In other words, a perfect sacrificial lamb for the wax medium.

As you can see in this second image, I’ve wiped the product onto a portion of the painted area. It appears to have had little effect on the orange, but it has appreciably darkened the blue. Not sure how I feel about that, personally. You also lose that quality I love about gouache, which is the totally matte look. The wax leaves a painting with a sort of shine to it. (Although I’m told that it lessens to a more “velvet” finish after about 24 hours.)

On the one hand, it’s interesting to find a product that will protect gouache. On the other – hmmm… is it still “gouache” if it’s glossy? I need to cogitate on this dilemma for a while.

Working from a reference photograph

27 September, 2019.

I’ll be frank. I usually avoid working from a reference photo simply because it’s too easy for me to get too literal. If you follow my sketches, I think it’s very clear they are pretty far from literal representations. Teaching art to children is challenging for a lot of reasons, one of which is time: I must squeeze bite sized chunks into 45 minute lessons. And that, of course, makes working from life a damn near impossible challenge. So I teach still life using student created reference photos, which also allows kids to learn a little bit about using a grid, digital technology, and a little bit about gouache (or tempera.)

We start by photographing simple images of inanimate objects. All of my kids have iPads, so that makes this part easy. As I thought about what I wanted to paint for my demonstration, I happened to notice this fruit as I stared blankly into the refrigerator. I liked the light and shadows, so I made a quick iPhone photo. Like my students, I often make photos that have much more in the image than I plan to include in my drawing – it’s a perfect opportunity to talk about cropping and composition and how to simplify. It’s also a great time to introduce a grid.

If you’re interested in HOW I got the grid combined with the photo, click here to follow the step-by-step in my Flickr album.

An iPad is a pretty great tool for quickly working out a composition. It’s also an excellent way to figure out where the lightest lights and darkest darks are located.

I’ll “posterize” a copy of the image, simplifying the values into about four distinct ranges. This helps to visualize where dominant shadows and highlights are located in a reference photograph.

Using a grid, I can very quickly plot out an accurate rendering. Although I seldom follow a grid myself, I find it’s a great way for students to build immediate confidence in their ability to draw a recognizable object.

I like to establish the darkest values first using a gray ground.

Then I block in the lightest values. I don’t worry too much about detail. Those can come later.

Now that the value range has been established, it’s a lot easier to develop believable forms. All other values must fall between the lightest light and the darkest dark.

With most of the values blocked in, a relatively believable image begins to emerge.

Gouache on Stillman and Birn gray paper.

Daniel Smith Ultimate Mixing Set

17 September, 2019.

Even before the 2019 Urban Sketchers Symposium, sketchers I spoke with were praising Daniel Smith watercolors. My own kit is comprised of several different brands and while my core palette seldom changes much, I often experiment with those peripheral colors with which I choose to supplement the basic triad. During the Symposium there was no shortage of painters and sketchers who swear by the Daniel Smith line of watercolors. I wound up with quite a few products to test, including watercolors from Van Gogh, QOR, White Nights, Renesans, Aquarius, and Daniel Smith.

The “Daniel Smith Ultimate Mixing Set” is an intriguing name. This kit of fifteen colors was curated by the marvelous Jane Blundell who states “Whether the aim is to paint botanicals, landscapes, urban scenes, animals, portraits – or any other subject – this set of fifteen colors will enable you to mix all the colors that you need.”

That’s a pretty bold statement. After all, most of us approach color quite differently, so the idea of “one kit to bind them all” begs to be put to the test. Although many of the colors in this collection appear on my own palette, there are enough differences – subtle and otherwise – that it will likely take some getting used to before a successful sketch emerges.

Greens, in particular, tend to give many painters fits. With only a single green in the “ultimate” mixing kit one clearly has to rely on mixing from the various triad combinations to represent the light and shadow of grass and foliage. On my own palette, I tend to rely on the “raw” green as mixer only – something I utilize to neutralize intensely bright warm colors like red or magenta. Not including a bunch of greens in this kit appeals to me because I prefer the subtle range of warms/cools/neutrals possible from mixing various blues and yellows.

This kit excels at neutral and subtle greens. It is also possible to create bright greens using the Pthalo Green BS and Hansa Yellow Medium included in the kit, but the range of warm neutrals (Quinacridone Gold, Goethite, Raw Umber) combine nicely with the range of blues (Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, and Pthalo Blue GS).

Another pigment that intrigues me is Jane’s Grey, which I believe was developed in conjunction with Jane Blundell. It’s slightly cool, so pairs nicely with the yellows and the cool reds (Permanent Alizarin and Quinacridone Rose). I love creating different grays, and this kit does that very well indeed. Meanwhile, the range of greens possible is quite surprising.

What I don’t like. Buff Titanium… I can’t see where it would be useful. (I’d love to be proven wrong, by the way!) It’s too opaque for my tastes and I wasn’t able to mix it successfully with any of the pigments in this kit. And while it may come in handy in some obscure way, it occupies “real estate” on the palette that might otherwise be taken up by a more useful pigment. I’m unsure what pigment I’ll add once that spot is vacated. What would you include?

I have no issues with Burnt Sienna in general, however – and this could just be my imagination – it does seem to me that this pigment has grown increasingly weak/washed out over the past decade. I tested the Daniel Smith Transparent Red Oxide at the Symposium and liked it a lot. Would it make an acceptable substitute? I mostly use neutrals in mixtures, so it’s going to take a little trial and error before I have a better idea.

The product is packaged with two travel cases, which is a real plus. And while the case seems hardy enough, and the half pans fit securely, I take issue with the limited mixing surface. My favorite travel kit is made by Winsor & Newton, and has more than triple the mixing surface. It’s a little larger than the Daniel Smith case, but provides so much more mixing area because one surface retracts into the case. Score one for Winsor & Newton on this characteristic.

The paint. This is what got sketchers excited: the half pans activate easily, and go down smoothly. Picking up paint with a brush feels creamy. Every tube of Daniel Smith I have is of excellent quality and it seems to me that the half pans are of equal quality. Time for me to make some sketches to see how it works for me in actual practice.

Do you use Daniel Smith half pans? How about any of the other watercolors I mentioned above? I’d love to hear your experience.

Another day, another train wreck.

15 September, 2019.

Yes, I tortured myself again by painting in gouache on day two of the three-day Brush Creek Art Walk.

First off, I had a reasonably good idea what and where I wanted to paint. Walking along the path, the location I had in mind never materialized. The canopy of trees I had thought were just down the path was… somewhere else? Who knows.

While the shadows were on my kit, the colors felt “right,” but as the direct sun moved overhead they began to feel cartoonish to me. I was almost thankful that an unexpected event pulled me away from my sketch earlier than planned. I packed the car thinking I hated this sketch, but looking at it later on I am less critical.

I dunno. Sunday afternoon is the final event and I feel like I need to retreat into a place of comfort with pens and maybe watercolor. Gouache is making me work too hard.


Two small 5 x 7 paintings so far. They look ok under mat and frame, but I almost feel like the presentation is disguising some real technical flaws. Waaaa!

Gouache on Stillman and Birn gray paper, glued to mat board.

Open relationship

14 September, 2019.

My relationship with gouache is complicated. I want to love it; my first thoughts as I begin to mix and lay down paint is that I think I want something exclusive. But it’s not long before my thoughts begin to wander. I fantasize about my pens and just a splash of watercolor. I mean, let’s be honest. Gouache makes you work hard. Pens are easy and forgiving. If I run out of water, or my paint dries too quickly, my pen is always there waiting, cooing seductively: Just a few lines, that’s all you need. It’s all you want.

Last night I painted in gouache at the Brush Creek Art Walk Friday Night Nocturne quick paint event. I felt like I needed to push myself, to do something really uncomfortable – so I packed gouache in my kit. But the paint dried on my palette so damn fast! It doesn’t really allow me to be splashy and spontaneous… it’s so… deliberate.

It really makes you wonder why in the world I decided to paint with the damn stuff again at this morning’s event.

Gouache on Stillman and Birn gray paper, glued to mat board.

Talens Ecoline Brush Pen

10 September, 2019.

I tried out a gray Ecoline watercolor brush pen that was given to me as a sample at the USk Symposium. Not bad. I kind of like it.

It’s watercolor, not permanent ink. The nib is “brush-like” – i.e., it’s shaped a bit like a pointed round brush and is kinda sorta flexible. Sorta. I’ve only got the one, so I don’t know if it will blend at all when combined with other markers. I did discover that it really doesn’t reactivate enough with a wet brush to create any sort of wash at all. Instead, it kind of softens some of the harder drawn edges.

Still, it seems like a handy marker to use for small sketches. These, for instance were all drawn on a single 9 x 12 inch page, so they are about the size of a playing card. The point was sharp enough to effectively control it for small fills and thin lines; fills were easily accomplished by using the flat of the brush.

I think I’d find it less desirable for larger sketches though. For one thing, the crudity of fills are somewhat charming in a smaller drawing, but I feel like that characteristic would just look sloppy in a bigger one. I’m also not sure what kind of life expectancy to anticipate. Many other similar markers were fine so long as they remained juicy. Once they begin to dry out they quickly become useless. I’m curious to see if this behaves similarly.

“Little Italy”

9 September, 2019.

I’ve often cycled through or near the Columbus Park neighborhood on group rides, but the nature of those really doesn’t accommodate stopping for a few minutes to make a sketch. We zoom through the place on the way to the River Market.

But we’re there long enough for me to take in the old Catholic Church, the 19th century and early 20th century architecture, and the various places that comprise what was once referred to as “Little Italy.” I’ve wanted to explore the neighborhood in much more leisurely fashion for a while, and Saturday’s sketch out allowed me the opportunity to do so.

Looking west, down Missouri Avenue, I see how the buildings along the street are being reclaimed and restored, seemingly in harmony with those who’ve lived their entire lives in this neighborhood. I’ve no idea what it’s like to reside in “the family home,” a house where multiple generations of a family have lived, loved, and passed along – but it sounds wonderful, in an achingly, nostalgically romantic sort of way.

Chatting with a woman on the street, I’m told that she’s been to three funerals at the church down the street this year: three residents who were born here and never left, not in ninety-plus years. All three were “spinsters.” All three loved their homes.

Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” marker in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Columbus Park

8 September, 2019.

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means that Urban Sketchers Kansas City gathers together at a prearranged location to record the place in line and color. This month we documented the venerable old Columbus Park neighborhood, near downtown Kansas City’s River Market area.

This event was triply perfect from my perspective. First off, the weather was fantastic – cool, with a light breeze. Secondly, given those conditions I could hardly refuse to do a nice long bicycle ride to get there. And thirdly, I’ve generally taken a break from sketching for the past two weeks and this was a prime opportunity to jump back into the sketchbook. Combine those three things into one, and as I said: perfection.

This particular view was sketched from the corner of Missouri Avenue and Troost, a location that yielded two decent compositions for me.

Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Stillman and Birn spiral bound sketchbook.

Bike Club

7 September, 2019.

They zoom around the parking lot like hummingbirds dive bombing a feeder, my 7th and 8th graders on bicycles, learning how to navigate and negotiate roads correctly, safely; but at the moment the focus is on communication with two tons of steel on four wheels: signal your turn, signal your stop, check your lane – traffic cones line the tarmac and together we buzz and then stop on a dime. Yes, we are sweating. School has been over for more than two hours and we’re anxious to get out onto real roads, to enjoy the freedom of independent transportation, to use newly acquired knowledge in the event some unforeseen mechanical issue arises. We are the middle school bike club and we are hot.

Sketched on an iPad with an Apple Pencil. There is so much potential for this tool, but I’m hesitant to embrace it further. I feel like there’s so much value in understanding that each mark made by my pen is deliberate and final, that I cannot “undo” a line, and that I cannot zoom in or out on my sketchbook page. I thought I’d like finishing a sketch with clean, unblemished fingers but I found I missed the touch of the paper and the blots of ink that perpetually stain my hands.


5 September, 2019.

Lazy. That’s what I tell myself. I’ve been lazy since returning from Amsterdam. My sketchbook has been largely untouched as I plan classes and kick off a new school year.

Even though I’ve been busy, I’ve been terribly lazy about sketching – and when I have sketched it’s been sloppy, loopy, fast, and scribbly. Even with loads of time on my hands over the holiday weekend, the sketchbook lay in my lap, a pen in my hand, waves gently swayed the boat dock and I simply took it all in, enjoying my slothfulness.

Next weekend I’ll draw.

Uni-Ball Vision pen and sloppy watercolor washes.