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The Way To Happiness The philosophy of these lessons: Look, Learn, Practice

Chapter 17 of "The Way To Happiness" deals with Competence. I've found that too many limit their own progress as an artist with the concept that they "haven't got the talent." 90% of being a good professional artist is about looking for yourself, learning (including good study habits), and practicing what you have learned to become Competent. If you are interested in a free copy of "The Way to Happiness", please email me for one.

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Lesson 16

1. Thought

"There is reason to believe...that acrylics are not suitable for the underpainting of oil colors."
letter from Robert and Martha Gamblin of Gamblin Oil Colors published in The Artists Magazine, January 92 (p. 8)

For many years, artists have been using acrylic-based gesso primer on canvases intended for oil painting. Now it appears that this may not be desirable. For exercises, use what works. However, as you begin to be concerned about longevity, you need to inform yourself about materials which you use. "Oil-primed" canvases are now beginning to be more available if you know to ask for them. You can also stretch and prime your own canvas.

2. Words:

You'll encounter the words sizing and priming used in conjunction with each other, and you may be confused by this. Traditionally, the oil painter who was going to work on canvas had to "size" the canvas first to protect it from the oil and resins which would otherwise rot it rapidly. A "size" is defined as a thin, pasty substance used as a glaze or filler on porous materials such as plaster, paper or cloth. To "size" is to fill or stiffen with size. "Priming" is a slightly more general term meaning "to undercoat, size, or otherwise prepare (a surface) for painting. A traditional material used for sizing canvas was rabbit skin glue. For flexibility, its still often considered the best, although, because it is a hide glue, it can be attacked by rodents and bugs. After the glue base has thoroughly protected the canvas, the oil painter could then "prime" the canvas with an undercoat of lead white, the preferred undercoat traditionally because of its flexibility and covering power. Acrylic Gesso for many years took the place of both size and prime coats, since it provided a barrier between the cloth and the paint and a base coat on which to paint. For many applications, it's still preferred. It's being questioned by traditionalists simply because insufficient time has passed to judge whether it will stand the test of time and whether oil paints will continue, over time, to fully bind to it. There is more discussion on this matter, but this is a brief sketch.

3. Practice: "Learning bears fruit when it is applied."

You may be starting to paint with color, and color is seductive. I suggest that for homework you do at least one exercise in black and white. Go back to using only three tones plus white. You do not have to limit yourself to black to do this. As a matter of fact, you can use any pair of complementary colors, for example, orange and blue. (To make this easier, use Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna). Mix a very "black" mixture, a dark grey or charcoal mixture, and a light grey mixture. Focus on the dark to light composition in your exercise.


The example shown here was done in oil in only three greys. Doing this kind of exercise requires that you make some conscious decisions about composition.

The reason that I advocate that you return again and again to this sort of "value" exercise is that it focuses your attention on composition. That does not mean that all compositions must be reduced to a "pattern" of lights and darks. Please don't interpret it that way. But form is frequently conveyed to us by our sense of the shapes or edges.

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Last updated: August 22, 2004