Cedar shake moonscapes & notes on materials

oil painting on cedar shakes
Above is a photo of 2 of 7 of the cedar shake pieces (Apologies for the lo-res and the noise, they are drying on my ‘kinckknacktionary’ resin table. Brooklyn = small apartments)

Painting again, oils: three sessions in a week. Feels natural and good (I missed the smell of linseed oil). I’ve been sharing my secrets with Zac. He’s a quick study; has an intuitive grasp of materials.

Above is yet another sneaky peak— this time at some modest but cute little nightscapes we’ve been creating to sell with an eye to raise funds for a trip to the Continent in the fall. I acquired a boxful of reclaimed cedar shakes a year or two ago; did the first triptych, then was at a loss as to how to hang or mount it reliably (odd shapes, balance). But we solved it with the world’s smallest screw-eyes (thank you internet) and some wire— voila! We’ve been painting more since.

There will be proper photographs and Etsy listings within a week or two.

I tend to paint in monochrome, duochrome; very moody and more like charcoal drawings made of paint. That’s my aesthetic. Although, when I do want some color, I like it to POP. Since I’ve returned to this practice, I’ve been thinking about the methods and techniques that I’ve acquired, learned, and tested over the years. Here’s my list of oil / acrylic / casein colors in order of usefulness and relevance.

Essentials (for earthy)

Titanium White (large tube!)
Burnt Umber*
Raw Umber*
Payne’s Grey*
Pthalo Blue
Pthalo Green
Raw Sienna
Burnt Sienna
Yellow Ochre
Naples Yellow

If you can and wish, Fantastic Additions:

Unbleached Titanium (for when white’s just too bright)
Cobalt Blue**
Cobalt Turquoise**
Cadmium Red**
Cadmium Orange**
Cadmium Yellow**

There are lovely bright acid greens and rich purples out there, too, and lovely pale pinks, peaches, Tiffany blues, etc. With high-key colors, always go for the highest series number you can afford, as they will simply pop better, and blend more naturally (not muddy!) where you need to modulate, shade.

* Seriously, don’t even buy black unless you’re doing something Pop Culture, (eg: Lichtenstein, Haring). These three will be your friends where you need to go dark; they blend without muddying or greying your colors, and can basically achieve infinity if you need it. A mixture of Payne’s grey or Pthalo blue + Burnt umber gives you a deeper black than Black, and far more lovely, nuanced and natural.

** These guys are all on the more toxic end, and much pricier than Series 1 colors (earth tones are Series 1)  The higher the number, the more expensive the color, on account of being dangerous to produce), but if you buy the cadmium Hue or cobalt Hue, for example, know that they get muddy when mixing with other colors. They’re imitations— margarine v. butter. They’re for learning, for student work. Just not as brilliant, so decide what makes sense for you.

Other observations:

If you’re painting with oils, please make friends with Linseed Oil; it’s a thinner, and a drying agent. It’s very, very good for glazing and doing thin layers. I tend to go through a lot as I paint oil on wood not canvas, and I want the texture of the material to show through; don’t want to lose all the grain and beauty of the wood. You can make a nice rich, sharp edge then “pull” the hue to a nice gradient gradually with oil. Do Not thin your paints with turps or brush cleaner unless you’ve a specific aesthetic that requires it; it has zero body and is hell on your brushes, like bleaching hair. (Note: linseed oil will bleed on dry, thirsty wood so you may want to do tests on a scrap piece before embarking, find the right ratio.)

For longevity of working time, paint with oils. Plan your composition and colors ahead if you like to work quickly or efficiently as opposed to letting the paint be in charge. Paint your darks first, then middles, and brights last if you want them to pop (especially white, as it is on the offensive when it comes to ‘infecting’ other colors.) If you want the velvet finish of oils, but prefer rapid drying time, I suggest mixing acrylics and casein, 1:1 or 2:1—feel it out. Casein is egg-based (but water-soluble) and very similar to gouache in that it will forever be water-soluble, so when you try to layer, it will ‘pick up’ the colors you’re painting over. So, if you use it in a blend with acrylic (the poly-cotton blend team of painting, or perhaps more accurately, the ‘eggshell finish’ team), you can avoid the ‘picking up blending’ and the plastic shine of acrylic. You’ll be able to layer endlessly, and your finished painting will look like an oil painting. (Matte medium is a lie: it may result in a matte finish, but it dulls the ever-loving shit out of your hues. Avoid.)

I discovered this very agreeable admixture / loophole in around 2005 when I tried working with casein on its own with less-than-stellar results, then decided to add some acrylic for stability; to prevent that water-solubility, as I like working in glazes and layers to build up, then solidify what needs it towards the end. My paintings from this time were features in American Artist magazine (now Daily Artist).


Amsterdam III‘Amsterdam III,’ a painting from 2007 using translucent layers— glazes of casein and acrylic, thinned with acrylic medium and / or watercolor extender.

 A side note about brushes:

After you ‘clean’ brushes with thinner and rags (never throw away old t shirts!) clean thoroughly with brush soap, blot dry, then coat and re-shape with brush soap to condition and make your brushes last. It only works well with decent brushes, but I’ve managed to keep the good ones serviceable for 20 years by being persnickety about this. Good brushes are expensive, and I never loan them out unless I’m in attendance and get to clean them in my obsessive way. (True story; not sorry.) Also: painting on old-ass wood can tear up bristles more than canvas, so it’s extra important.

* Pro-tip: If you’re painting oils, and plan to return to your work daily , or nearly daily, you can hold off on the brush soap rigamarole, and simply clean thoroughly with turps, then massage with some 3-in-1 oil to keep them from drying tip next session. (I learned this trick from my friend Bart. Thanks, Bart!)

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