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Before you start to paint a complete painting, it might be a good idea to see if you can be comfortable painting a wash. You’ll use washes throughout your life as an artist so we might as well get started,.When I use the word “wash” I’m describing the pigment that becomes paint when mixed with a vehicle or carrier such as water or turpentine. By applying a wash to a painting, you’re better able to create a picture that has a full range of values from solid black, to the entire spectrum, ending with white.

This particular medium is difficult for beginners since corrections are almost impossible. Therefore you’ll have to know in advance how the wash will react before the brush touches the paper or canvas. To become familiar with washes, you must experiment and practice. As you become familiar with handling washes, you’ll discover that numerous blending effects are possible, and in many instances, there effects are impossible to achieve using other ways of applying pigment with a brush.

The amount of white (your paper or canvas) showing through the transparent wash tone will determine the value of the area covered. When mixing the pigment add a relatively large amount of water or turpentine for light tones, less liquid for medium tones and very little liquid for darker tones. And even though this is so obvious a statement it had to be said. Obviously, for your solid areas, pigment straight from the tube or bottle, without water or turpentine is what you use.

When washing, use good round brushes, sizes vary on the surface you need to cover, but a good rule of thumb is to include round brushes 3/8 and 1/2 inch in diameter for occasional use, as well as flat brushes of the same diameter. You’ll use these to cover large flat areas of your composition. These wider brushes are also useful for moistening areas with clean liquid before actually painting. Instead of using the wide flat brush to moisten very large areas, you might find that you prefer using a wad of cotton or a sponge, which I’ll discuss later. You’ll also need a rag to wipe off excess pigment from your brush. An old piece of towel or an old t-shirt works best for me.

Know this beforehand: washes are difficult to control; by this I mean that it is hard to start or stop at a specific line or point. For that reason, you will sometimes have to protect areas from the wash with certain masking techniques. There are a wide assortment of friskets, maskoids, and other materials to keep the wash from the paper or canvas, which I’ll explain more deeply at another time. But for the acrylics you are going to use, simple masking tape (yellow or blue) or scotch transparent tape will suffice. When we start to discuss oils, I have found that rubber cement or Vaseline work very well, provided you have sufficient expertise in removing these without damaging the oil wash. This too will come after experimentation. But know also that if you use a mask of any sort, the resulting edges will be sharp and clear-cut. This may or may not be desirable, depending upon the subject of your painting.

Water or turpentine must within your reach at all times, for missing the pigment, preparing the painting surface, and cleaning the brushes. Try to keep several sizes of jars handy – a large one for the supply of liquid, and a few for the other requirements. Change the water or turpentine frequently which will allow you to keep your washes pure.

First Step.

It goes without saying, but I will anyway, that the first step is to develop the painting, which means the drawing. Use H to 2B pencils to outline the picture. Then use a kneaded eraser to remove any excess lead form the surface of the paper or canvas. Do not tape your paper down or attach your canvas to your easel. If you are able to move the drawing about freely, you can turn it to the most advantageous direction from which to work.

For ease of control over the wash, tilt the drawing board or your easel to about 25 to 35 degrees. With your surface at that angle, the wash should flow gradually to the bottom of the surface as you maneuver it along with your brush.

Second Step.

Mix your washes. That’s where all those baby food jars you’ve been collecting come in. Attempt to mix the correct wash tones, remembering that light tones need much more liquid than do medium ones. You’ll find that if you need to darken the tone of a specific area you may lay the same tone over twice, but of if you are able to get the correct value of light or dark in an area with only one wash, the tone will be fresher than one which has been built up. ALWAYS mix more wash tone than you need. If you run short while you are working, you probably will not have enough time to stop and mix more wash to match the one you started with. When this happens, the tone will not blend smoothly and evenly on your paper.

Third Step.

Moisten your paper or canvas with clear water or turpentine, using a wad of cotton, a sponge or a wide flat brush (preferably sable). Moistening the surface allows the wash to be applied without instantly drying, which would be undesirable because it makes eash stroke appear sharp and distinct. When there is no light reflected from the liquid on the paper or canvas’s surface, it should be dry enough to work on.

Forth Step.

Load your brush, round, flat whatever. Dip it into the wash, then gently press the brush on the side of the wash container so that about two drops of wash are forced out- or so the brush can be brought to the material (canvas or paper) without dripping. It’s a good idea and for me, required, to have scraps of paper or canvas available to test the wash before applying it. This allows you to see how your brush and the wash will react to the surface.

If the wash area dries before you can cover it thoroughly, repeated applications will cause streaks and sharp edges, so to prevent this please remember to use a brush that is large enough to enable you to complete at least one stroke before it needs reloading.

Fifth Step.

Load your brush. Apply from the upper left hand corner of the surface, draw it across horizontally until it reaches the upper right hand corner. If you’re left handed, the reverse holds as well. The speed in which you make this first pass depends entirely upon the amount of wash on the brush and the effect of the tome you wish to make, but for this purpose, simply take enough time for all the liquid to leave the brush by the time you reach the end of your stroke. A small puddle of wash will usually remain at the bottom of your first stroke. Load your brush again, and reverse the direction of your first pass, overlapping the first stroke and keeping the puddle wet. Continue to work the puddle of wash down the drawing area until the entire wash is applied. When you are finished, the small puddle of wash will have to be removed from the drawing. Dry your brush on the rag and soak up the puddle with this dry brush.

The next lesson will describe a flat wash, a graded wash an indefinite blend and finally working with a dry brush. Work with cheap paper at first, or pre-gessoed canvas boards which are cheap, small and easily regessoed.

A habit is a difficult thing to change. Imagine a person who is accustomed to turning a doorknob clockwise with the right hand because she’s been doing it that way all her life. Then someone says, “If you learn to turn it counterclockwise it will take less effort and you’ll do it faster!” So this person tries. Each time her first instinct is to put the “old clockwise move” on the knob, but she stops and thinks, “counterclockwise”. After a while “Counterclockwise begins to replace “clockwise” as her habitual way of opening every door. That is, until someone yells “FIRE!”. Then she runs to the door and “clockwises the knob”, a complete reversion under pressure.

Drawing is a lot like this. We can adopt a technique change- a different pressure or length of pencil stroke, while doodling, or by accident, but will “it hold up”, or “be repeatable” when we are actually putting finishing touches on a sketch or mockup. Sometimes while painting or sketching on location, we are tested, so to speak, to reproduce a learned technique, and usually this is in front of spectators to add to the “pressure” to draw or to paint. But it’s also the most fun part of being an artist on location.

How can you as a beginning artist overcome this? The most powerful answer I can come up with is practice - overlearn, if there is such a thing. Practice after all makes permanent. To get a better understanding of this essential part of drawing and painting improvement, I’m going to use the Who, What, When, Why, and How approach to problem solving.


Who should practice? Anybody and everybody who wishes to improve. In fact, anyone who wishes to simply retain his or her current skill level needs to practice. Golfer, musician, artist, public speaker, surgeon, and trial lawyer – all must practice to perform well. The improvement one gets will be in direct proportion to the time spent practicing if:

What one practices is mechanically correct.

That practice time is used properly- is it quality time or just time?

The time is divided into frequent periods rather than devoted to one long lesson.


It’s common knowledge that there aren’t enough hours in the day to practice what we all need in order to stay on top of all parts of art, the drawing, the painting, the drafts, the driving to a location, the sketching done on the move. So you must make a decision and the choice of what you practice becomes that much more important. If representing a tree as a solid object is the objective, then your practice should consist of at least 50% drawing cylinders, poles, cans, well you get the idea.

Practice sessions should have a purpose. Goal-less practice is worse than no practice at all because it builds a cavalier approach to art. The artist, serious about improving, might even have a written schedule of what he or she is going to practice. In planning practice time, the artist should concentrate on what he or she believes is in need of the most work. Then you have a definite “what” to practice. The schedule may include both drawing and painting, specific forms, remedial work with washes, physiological and psychological training, actual sketching, actual painting, and information gathering. But this is just a guide.

The majority of artists, beginners, intermediate learners, practice only occasionally. And even serious hobbyists will find that time constraints limit their opportunities. The” what to practice” for them has to be more limited in scope than for the aspiring professional artist. Here are some suggestions:

Make sketching a habit. Place loose pages near a pencil around the house in various locations, so it will be convenient to pick them up and sketch anything, anytime.

Without a pencil, make imaginary illustrations in front of an empty easel, or drawing board. Picture and feel the “correct for you” techniques of drawing or painting. Trace with your mind the objects you see during TV commercials.

Create a practice area in the house or office, which make practice more convenient, maybe a clipboard with several pencils nearby.


The obvious place to practice is if you’re an illustrator or artist, is in the studio or in the “outside world”. Besides painting and drawing, you have the additional experience of preplanning excursions with paint box, pencil box, easel, canvas, drawing board, chair, water, snacks, coffee, insect repellant, and whatever else you need to feel comfortable on location.

I must say more about mental practice which occurs before you even enter your studio. Consider the stories that came from prisoners of war in Vietnam. Men who were incarcerated for several years learned to play a guitar by practicing chording on a “homemade stick and box with strings”. There were no sounds, but they learned to play. Musical pieces were also performed on a “wooden board piano” with keys drawn on a board. There was no key movement and no sound, but pupils mentally “heard” the songs and they learned to play. Closer to my heart, is the story of a US military officer who was in a prisoner of war camp for six years and who carried a four handicap in golf before his capture. Although he did not hit a single golf ball while he was imprisoned, he did practice mentally every day. Three weeks after his release, he shot a 75 in a pro-am tournament. He hadn’t hit a ball in six years, but he had practiced- in his mind. So, where can people practice? - anywhere!


You should practice sketching whenever you can. Frequent short practice sessions are proven by research to be the most productive in an equal amount of time spent in only one session. A productive time for practice is right after you’ve finished painting for the day, while ideas are fresh and you are trying to acquire a new feel.


The most important advice about practice that I’ve been given other than to do it is: make it as similar as possible to the “real thing” actual portraiture, landscape painting, line art, et al, as you can. How can this be accomplished?

Make it competitive. Set goals; for example, draw ten duplicates of a tree and have six of them be progressively better, apply a wash stroke 10 times and have eight of them be identical. Grab a drawing partner, and have contests – best blade of grass represented, best insect. On occasion, use only one pencil (and only one) to draw a complete image.

Create realistic situations. Don’t practice sketching the entire Empire State Building, but rather focus on a window or two. Represent a wave, rather than try to practice an entire seascape.

Practice as you would actually execute a drawing or a painting. Sloppy practice habits will produce sloppy art. This takes a lot of inner discipline but treat each brush stroke, each pencil stroke as though you were in front of your commissioned canvas.


Practicing to establish a correct and lasting “groove” is like running a trickle of water down a dirt bank. With enough volume and repetition, the water makes a channel. The longer the water runs down that bank, the deeper the channel gets. If it stops running, the channel begins to fill in. Sometimes the channel is not the most direct one and the water takes a circuitous route. Eventually the water gets to the bottom, even though it takes longer and the route is inefficient. That circuitous channel, like a flawed interpretation of someone’s nose, or chin, or smile, or a representation of a tree that would fall over if it ever was affected by the real forces of gravity, can be altered to become more efficient, more correct, but a lot of “water” must run down the new route before its course becomes “set”. For a while it may go in both directions.

But this analogy demonstrates that if you want a “groove,” a technique, a facility with a brush or pencil, many, many attempts must be put into that “groove.

Some good artists may be “naturals”, born with exceptional physical prowess in their ability to sketch or paint, but proficient artists can also be developed from people with very modest talent. If you are patient and don’t expect overnight success, and can make gradual improvement with persistence and practice, one day you could call yourself an ARTIST.

And the real purpose of practice is to develop confidence.

The times NOT to practice are:

When one is tired. Fatigue makes people sloppy. It also promotes more chance for error, and the loss of confidence.

When one loses interest. This is when bad habits creep in.

If things are going poorly and it doesn’t seem that progress is being made.

Now, I’ve spoken in the past of the importance to gain “muscle memory”. To be correct, muscles do not have the ability to remember. But the neuromuscular system’s pathways which carry messages from the brain, can be developed to be more efficient through practice. And lastly, keep a practice log, a sketchbook highlighting the best of that particular session. It’s a great reference for recalling what you were working on, your feelings during a particular practice effort. This bit of practice “history” may help to recapture one of those inspirational moments we occasionally experience, then later find hard to recall.

Remember, performance deteriorates when practice stops.

Concerning Canvas - Canvas comes in two materials: cotton and linen. Unprimed cotton is a natural off-white color, and is the least expensive and easily found in the fabric section at walmart. It comes in several grades of thickness and quality, and can be sold at 36" wide, or 50" or 60" wide, by the yard and foot. Normally you can use the medium quality and thickness, which sells for about $4 -$5 a foot (at 50 inches wide). Linen also comes in varied quality and weight, has a finer and smoother texture than cotton, and unprimed linen is light brown in color. If you plan to do more than a few paintings, it is usually better to buy a larger piece of canvas, since less will be wasted with a larger piece when cutting for various canvas sizes. You can find fabric canvas, and panels and pre-stretched canvases in art stores.

If you go to an art store to buy a roll of canvas, you'll find that both cotton and linen come primed and unprimed. Unprimed means that the fabric has not had the undercoat of priming material necessary before you can paint on it. Primed canvas, then, means that the canvas can be bought from a roll of fabric with the necessary gesso priming already on it. Or, you can do the priming yourself, with white exterior latex house paint. I never use pre-primed anything, including walls. Too much time is spent repairing and sanding another's lack of attention to detail.

Pre-stretched and pre-primed canvases are good enough for beginning artists, since they are more permanent than canvas boards, yet are stretched and primed and ready to paint on. They are more expensive. If you decide to go this route, you can skip the rest of the materials recommended here, and start painting!

If not, you'll need to purchase Stretcher Bars, the four wooden bars are used to stretch the canvas over. They come ready to use in sizes from 8" to 40" in regular size; and up to 60" or so for the heavy-duty ones which are best to use for canvases over 40". (For canvases over 40", it is best to brace the back or corners, if not using heavy duty stretchers.) A major brand for stretcher bars is Fredrix, and these are sold in art stores.

If you are handy with saws, you can make your own stretchers with wood from the lumber yard, or purchase a length of curved molding, and a miter saw or compound chop saw. If like me, you make your own occasionally, depending on the size of the painting, remember that this decision will add a lot more weight to your painting and even at the best of times with Bob Villa's (or Norm whateverhisnameis's) expertise, these might not come out a perfect 1/2 inch wide and you'll have to adjust for that on the side not facing the viewer. Also, you won't be using "keys" and will need to be extremely accurate when you cut your 45 degree angles and secure these with wood glue, nails and corner braces, again on the side not facing the viewer. But I prefer this method... So, if you buy preformed stretcher bars, you also will need "keys" for the stretchers, small wooden triangular shaped chips, which are used to make the stretched canvas more snug in the corners. These are free, and are usually found near the stretcher bars, in a box, (or are plastic and come with your pre-stretched canvas). You need 8 of them when you buy your stretcher bars. One absolutely important thinng to do is that when you buy the stretchers, hold them against an even surface, like a metal cabinet, to make sure they are not warped.

You'll need a small hammer and carpet tacks, or a staple gun and 1/2 inch staples. In the "olden days", square nails were used (see my restoration description) and not so long ago, carpet tacks were in vogue and some of us still use them because we can determine the depth of the tack without harming the canvas, and it's easier to pull them out while tacking the 1/2 inch flat edge or to stretch out any ripples.

You might need to buy a pair of canvas pliers if you don't have a lot of strength in your hands. These are special pliers (which look like a hammerhead shark) used to grip the canvas while you attach it to the stretcher bars. You will find these at an art supply store, not at a hardware store.

Any right angle triangle or framing square is next for you to have on hand. These are used to make sure that your stretcher bars are square, that is, that all four corners are true right angles. You'll also need a pair of fabric scissors or Matte Knife for cutting a piece of canvas. Fabric scissors are recommended, just keep them away from your loved ones, small and large, or you can use a utility knife from the hardware store, with single-edged blades.

Stretching the Canvas

Find a flat surface, preferably a hard floor or flat carpet, and free of dirt or dust. Using a large piece of plastic will protect your floor or carpet from spilled gesso during priming. First, take your four stretcher bars and join them together at the corners, with all 4 stretchers having the brand name and inch measurement on the same side. (The grooves on each corner fit together.) You can join them by hand; once you get them started, you can use your hammer to get them more fully joined. Try to get them as square as possible, by hammer and by "twisting" them a little to even them out. Lay the joined bars on the floor. Lay the metal right angle so that it lies outside of the wood, its inside corner against one of the stretched canvas' outside corners. If your stretcher bars are at right angles, they will line up with the right angle for its entire length. Put the eight "keys" firmly into the slits provided. I always, without exception, use a little elmer's wood glue into this area and hammer in a 1/2" finishing nail into both sides of the joint and set it below the wood's surface with a nail set making absolutely sure that it doesn't come out on the other side. I wipe off any excess glue, and then I let it completely dry.

Next, lay enough of your canvas fabric out to cut your canvas size from it. Lay your stretchers on top of the canvas, in the place which makes the most practical use of the fabric. A rule of thumb is that you leave at least 2-1/2" of canvas outside of the outside edge of the stretchers. Cut the canvas at 2-1/2 inches away from the bars in a straight line all the way around.

Lift the stretchers and the canvas up (with the stretcher bars between you and the canvas), so that the stretchers are centered in the middle of the canvas, holding the canvas toward you over the stretchers. In the middle of the top of the top stretcher bar, pull the canvas toward you so that it comes over the top stretcher bar and down - fairly tightly. Put one staple in the middle of the top stretcher bar (not on the 1/2 inch edge but 1/2 inch above the bottom of the stretcher bar), trying to keep the rest of the canvas from loosening around the other sides too much, and keeping all the excess canvas even. Now, keeping the canvas in position, turn the stretchers and canvas so that you can put a staple in the middle of the opposite side of the stretched canvas. When doing this side, you can use the canvas pliers in one hand, to pull the canvas down tautly, while you put your staple in the middle of this stretcher bar. The canvas should be pulled very tightly - but not to the most extreme degree - this can be tricky, and your technique will come with experience. If the canvas is not pulled tightly enough, the canvas will not be taut enough; if too tight, your canvas stretchers will not stay flat - one or more corners of the stretched canvas will pull forward in a warped position.

When you have put your second staple in, turn the canvas to the third side, making sure the canvas is still even and pulled toward you. Put a staple in the middle of this third side while holding the edge of the canvas down tightly with the pliers; then turn it to the last side of the canvas, and staple again in the middle of the top of that side. Using the pliers to pull down the canvas tautly, put a staple an inch away on both sides of the first staple, on each side of the stretched canvas (going from one side to its opposite side, that is, side one, side three, side two, side four). Try to keep the canvas smoothly attached, that is, do not allow any bunching of the canvas between staples, or on the front of the canvas. If you get ripples, you need to remove the staples involved before moving on. Go from the middle to the corners in this way, increasing one staple on each side (spaced about 1" apart, do this by eye and in time you'll probably surprise yourself that each staple is within a 64th of being 1 inch) each time you start with side one again. If your stretchers' dimensions are longer on one side, you can skip the shorter sides a couple of times, to keep them equal with respect to the space away from the corners.

When you are within 2 inches of the corners, you can fold the canvas at the corners. If you can wrap a Christmas package reasonably well, use the same method, and staple. Some experienced artists will differ with me at this point, and I'm just explaining how I do it, but know also that I usually have to chisel out a small part of the corners of my frames to allow this thicker area of my stretched canvas to fit tightly.

Because I have already made sure that my stretchers will remain square, I can apply a lot of pressure while making my canvas taut. I'm sure others will say , no! you need to leave it loose until after you've stapled it and then put in the keys which will stretch it a little more. Well, since I usually stretch 5 at a time, and thus far have had no problems, you might ask others and choose your own technique. Some people staple directly to the 1/2 inch edge while stretching. I don't.

At this point, your canvas should now be taut and smooth. You can now put the canvas front side facing away with the 1/2 inch edge on the floor. This is when I nail or staple the canvas on the 1/2 edge. Staple the middle of the canvas there and repeat the process as mentioned before. When finished, I will remove the staples on the wide part of the stretcher, fold them under and re staple then evenly 1/2 inches from the flat edge. Remove the excess canvas of your corners, and you are now ready to prime your canvas.


Updated Sept. 2017

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