ARTIST'S TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES

by Joelle Steele

The following is some background on how I work.

TOOLS AND WORKSPACE

Canvases. I have no preference for any particular brand of canvas. I buy medium-weight, gallery-wrap, and pre-primed, about 3/4" to 1-1/2" deep, in a variety of sizes and dimensions. I particularly like doing diptychs and triptychs, so when I buy canvases, I generally look for sizes that will allow me to do some of those grouped works.

Joelle's taboret drawersPaints & Gels. I have used many different brands of acrylic (polymer) paint and I have found them all to be pretty much the same as far as color is concerned, but I prefer Liquitex because it never cracks. My second choices for acrylic paints are Golden or Grumbacher. I also paint in watercolors, and use mostly Winsor & Newton and Cotman. I use gel medium in a variety of textures and sometimes use flow enhancer.

Brushes. I have a ton of brushes and no preferences for any one type or brand except for the ones I use on canvas when applying my first washes or blocking in, and in that case I prefer 2"- and 4"-wide Purdy house-painting brushes. In most of my paintings I use flats and brights, as well as several different sized riggers. For varnishing I use a 1-1/2" flat wash brush.

Palettes. I have three watercolor palettes, but for acrylics I prefer Pyrex clear glass pie plates and custard cups to hold and mix my paints, as their transparency allows me to hold them over the canvas and check the color against the painting.

Joelle's art suppliesEasels. I don't use an easel anymore. I prefer to paint flat on my kitchen counter top where I have both a skylight and pot lights for illumination. I protect the counter top with a 9' square canvas painter's drop cloth.

Storage. Because I work in my kitchen, I don't want my stuff in the way of food prep. So, I have two rolling carts for all my supplies. One has shelves and holds bigger items loose and in baskets; the other has drawers. I store my brushes, knives, pencils, pens, etc., in antique pottery vases and pitchers on top of the carts. I store completed and unused canvases in a guest room closet, and drying paintings on a hallway wall until thoroughly dry.

Other Tools. I use old toothbrushes and straws for spattering. I keep a spray bottle of water on hand to moisten the canvas if it is drying out too quickly, although I also use retarder for that purpose if I want extended blending time. I use crumpled plastic wrap, foil, and waxed paper to press onto paint for texturing when gel medium would be too thick. I also paint with my fingers and with a variety of painting knives and sea sponges. I always have Q-tips around for touch-ups, and I use old dish towels and rags for cleanup. Almost anything can be a tool depending on what you are trying to accomplish and what you have on hand.

Clothing. I always wear a denim apron when painting. I wear disposable non-latex gloves when sponging or painting with my fingers.

TECHNIQUES AND PROCESS

Sketches. I have a very active dream life and most of my ideas for my art come from those dreams, so I always have a million ideas. I sketch a few thumbnails and make detailed notes about colors, canvas sizes, and any gels or special tools I might want to use. When I do a commissioned piece, I take my inspiration from the designer or the individual who requests the painting, make several sketches and value studies, and ultimately incorporate some of my own style into the work.

Joelle's art supplies storageBackground. I put a great deal of effort into the primary washes and layers of paint that form the background for each piece. If they are not done correctly, nothing else I do from that point on will work. I think this probably stems from all of the landscapes I have painted over the years and the importance I always placed on getting the sky right in each of them.

I start with about three colors to which I add water or gel medium — sometimes both — or flow enhancer to thin them, depending on how much translucency I want to achieve. I use a 2" or 4" brush and work very quickly at this point, working wet-on-wet and blending the colors together, but not allowing them to mix entirely or become murky. As they begin to dry, I work with a wet sea sponge to further shape the swirls and waves that make up my backgrounds.

After allowing the painting to dry very thoroughly, I work with a 1" flat brush and add undiluted colors to enhance the existing washes. I then work those colors further with a damp sea sponge to achieve greater depth in the background. After the painting is again fully dried, I repeat this process, often as many as three or more times until I am satisfied.

Foreground. I wait until the background is completely dry (usually overnight). I then apply paint with palette knives of varying shapes, and with whatever brushes work best for the piece, including everything from stiff-bristled brights to soft, miniature riggers. Any paint splattering is done either right after the background has dried, or as the final touch when the rest of the painting is otherwise completed, depending on the effect I'm going for. I either blow the paint through a straw or I use an old toothbrush along with my thumb or a palette knife, sometimes adding more speckles and dots with a tiny size 00 round brush. Lastly, I sign the piece and paint the canvas edges.

Photo of Joelle Steele painting, 2005Finishing Up. I let the painting dry thoroughly for at least three days (often as long as a week). I then photograph it. Afterwards, I apply gloss varnish, usually two to three coats, waiting about six hours or so between coats.

Works in Progress. Because there is a substantial amount of drying time in my acrylic painting process, I am usually working on at least three canvases at any given time so that while one is drying, I am completing another, doing backgrounds for new ones, varnishing completed canvases, etc.

Painting with Both Hands. I am ambidextrous, which gives me a significant advantage when painting. I can paint equally well with either hand, and often work a brush with one hand and a sponge or palette knife with the other, almost simultaneously. This served me especially well when I did illustration work in watercolor because I could paint with one hand and use a hand-held hair dryer in the other to speed up the drying process when glazing.

General Work Habits. I am very neat and organized when I work, and I take good care of all my tools and supplies. I am especially picky with cleaning my brushes, since some are rather expensive. I have some brushes that are more than 30 years old that I use regularly and they are in near-perfect condition. I keep a clean work area too. I learned long ago that if you are sloppy or careless, you will inevitably spill or smudge or in some way damage your work, or you will destroy the tools of your trade. Disorganization is especially costly, whether you're painting for fun or being paid by the project. Time is money, no matter what you are doing with that time.