It would be marvelous to have a wide-open day to create from beginning to end with no interruptions. But if you’re like me, you’ve got the cell phone ringing, kids that need to go a million places, emails coming in, a business to run and oh wait, did I even eat lunch? The reality is we are often working with bits and pieces of time, getting our art on when we can and how we can as much as we can! If you’ve ever stopped in the middle of a piece at the wrong time you know all too well that some mediums need to be worked from beginning to end or have a very well-defined breaking point without affecting the quality of the final work. Learning what materials are more forgiving to work interrupted and learning when we can pause a piece are crucial to our success as artists and most importantly, our sanity!
Oil paints are expensive, but they tend to last longer. Mixing a larger amount of paints on your palette makes the rest of painting easier, but what about when you need a break? Two common methods are plastic wrap in a covered palette box and freezing. Your goal is to keep them from drying out. For the plastic-wrap method you can place a piece of plastic wrap (larger than your palette) gently over your palette and mold it to your piles of paint. You can additionally put your palette in a palette box with a lid for extra air-reduction, as seen below. This is the method that Lauren Rudolph uses, and demonstrates in her class BRINGING THE PORTRAIT TO LIFE. The freezing method is hands-down the easiest, as long as you have a household that doesn’t mind and knows not to bump it too much! Linseed oil only freezes at -20°C (-4°F) and most freezers are set to -18C (0°F) , so oil paint will not freeze in most home freezers. Simply pull your paints out a little before you’re ready to paint and you will be ready to go. The nice thing, if you tend to work on a piece throughout the day is that oils are slower drying, you can come back and continue to work on areas you worked on earlier without any difference. Deciding where to pause in your work is a crucial element. You want to make sure any unfinished edges are softened so there’s no chance of creating a hard paint “ledge” in your work unless it’s intended.
On the flip side, acrylic paints tend to be more affordable and dry quicker – a plus to many acrylic artists who love to start on the next layer in the same day. However, when the phone rings or dinner is ready, a palette of beautifully mixed paints can dry up too soon. One of the best ways to keep paint wet is to use a wet-palette like a Sta Wet Palette. In a pinch an air tight zip lock bag works as well and if you’re only gone for minutes and not hours, keeping a spray bottle full of water for light misting will keep you back in action. Because acrylics dry so rapidly, finishing with a layer is ideal before breaking. Wet paint on dry paint in the same section can apply darker and not look right causing us to tweak the color instead of sticking with it. Personally, I love working in acrylics and love the challenge of trying to remix a color from the day before. I have learned that it is more about value than anything, so if I get that right, I am happy! Below is a painting that I completed over several weeks. I am only able to work for a couple of hours at most, so using acrylics, in layers, works really well for me!
Mixed Media works are made for anything – and in some ways, depending on your mediums mixed, you might need some time to let a layer cure fully before moving on to the next step! If you’re starting with a base layer of paint but have crayon or charcoal to apply on top your breaking points are well-defined. It may even be fun to work on a series moving from piece to piece as one layer cures or dries and awaits the next step. Caren Ginsberg is the QUEEN of mixed media portraits! Here is an example of a portrait that she completed over time, in her course INTERPRETIVE PORTRAITS.
Watercolor once dried is fixed and you can only apply so much color before you wind up with mud. That doesn’t mean you have to work fully from start to finish, you just need to know what you’re going for and where you can stop. Anything left white unpainted paper may be jutted up against a ‘hard’ painted edge. If that’s what you’re going for, go for it! If you need to layer areas (think a darkened pier heading out across a seascape at sunset), you will need that first layer to dry fully or you risk bleeding colors. Watercolor paints are one of the most forgiving in the palette as you let them dry and spray them with water to revive them when ready to get back in! Misty Segura-Bowers demonstrates how watercolor can be built up in her course, Emotive Portraits in Watercolor.
CHARCOAL AND GRAPHITE
These mediums are our most forgiving. Almost every work can be stopped at a moments notice and resumed at any time in the future, as long as you are on quality paper (newsprint will fade) and have them stored somewhere safe from damage. These are a couple of pieces I am working on at the moment. I may be done, but unsure. The cool thing is that I can go back and add to them at anytime. When I am done, I can seal it with a fixative spray! If you want to learn more about my charcoal process, I give a lesson on it in Let's Face It 2022! It was a live tutorial, but you can catch the replay!
PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME
Preparing ahead of time is a great way to make the most of your time when you have it. Although this is not always possible, and it may not be for you, it is an idea that you may want to try! I typically break up a painting into a series of blocks. I prime the canvas and if I want to use any kind of modeling paste, I do this before priming. If I have smaller canvases (or more time), I can prime a handful and have them ready to go for days to come. This works for both acrylic and oil paintings. For charcoal pieces, you can do a charcoal wash in advance on a whole set of papers and let them dry – often those inkblot style papers tease me with ideas as I go throughout the week. For watercolor, you can wet and stretch your papers so they’re waiting eagerly for paint. Sometimes even tidying the studio and getting my paints sorted can be a huge step towards a productive future day. I almost always keep underpaintings on their own day and prefer to do them all in one go, so I have the time to take advantage of any mediums used to increase paint flow (gamsol for oil paints and water for acrylics). In order for me to capture the major tones and shape of the piece, I want to be able to remove paint and add paint before it dries entirely. While this pre-work isn’t the most exciting, but it creates the space and setting for us to do our work.
I hope that this post was helpful for you! I would love to hear about your favorite mediums to use when you need to work on a piece over several days, weeks, etc. Comment below and let us know what works for you!