The alchemy of art

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Jane Angell of Guildford, Surrey, UK wrote, “Painting seems so mysterious, like alchemy. The whole practical side of managing the substances leaves me confused. With pencils I feel more in control of a tip I can sharpen. Still, paint is calling! For starters, I’d like to know what you’re doing in your videos when you’re wiping a coloured rag over the surface of the painting.” Thanks, Jane. That’s a glaze of “mother colour” over a dry, half-baked painting. It’s a mixture of water, acrylic medium and a chosen pigment that might pull an ailing work together. Yep, it can look mysterious all right, but it isn’t. It’s one of many practical tools that a lot of (mostly) acrylic painters use — the painting underneath must be dry. Painting is not a witch’s brew. With applied curiosity and reason, a dedicated student can grasp the processes. Often straightforward and practical, the best processes are the ones you figure out for yourself. Further, there are laws. They’re not like the law of gravity, which pretty well guarantees an apple will fall on the head of a Newton who sits under it. The laws of art are conventions, and are there for the breaking. Lots of them exist, both for practical and eternal reasons. Here are just a few: Too many colours mixed together make mud. A poorly thought-out painting is almost always weak. A beginner’s scales lead to a professional’s concertos. Painting is easy, but painting well is difficult. Most art is not improved by a committee. Chance and accident are best guided by a knowing hand. Good artists never blame their tools or their situations. Doing it is better than talking about doing it. Asking “What could be?” leads to what is. Paintings are for all time. Quality is always in style. You can’t put in a nickel and expect a dollar tune. The flame of uniqueness still needs regular stoking. There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius. In painting, drawing is still the bottom line. Great artists know well the joys of studenthood. Better work is made by workers who love their work. Best regards, Robert PS: “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing, — For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth IV, I 14-15) Esoterica: The old alchemists had theories, processes and techniques, some of which still persist today in modern chemistry and medicine. But alchemy alone is not anymore trusted because it depends on deceit and hyperbole. A similar bubbling pot fumes forth in the world of modern art. With all the fuss, verbiage and ballyhoo, it transmutes very little base metal into gold.   Pencil portraits by Jane Angell 040513_robert-genn3 040513_robert-genn4 040513_robert-genn5           040513_robert-genn6 040513_robert-genn7 040513_robert-genn8             Seems magical by Steve Whitney, Bothell, WA, USA  

“Rainier from Sunrise”
oil painting
by Steve Whitney

I agree that the craft of painting is not a witch’s brew but rather a set of skills and procedures that can be learned and mastered. The art of painting, however, is more elusive. Mastery of craft alone is necessary but not sufficient to produce great art. For that, an additional ingredient seems necessary — inspiration, transcendent vision, insight, whatever you want to call it  — and, to me at least, that seems magical.     From the heart by Laurell Hamilton, Joggins, NS, Canada  

“Two worlds”
acrylic collage painting
by Laurell Hamilton

I am absolutely in love with glazing! I have been painting in acrylic since last September and discovered glazing by accident while trying to solve a problem. I have used it in every painting since. Using glazes imparts a kind of luminosity and depth of color that is hard to achieve any other way. The process may have appeared to be mysterious but the results truly are something else! I would add one more tenet to your list: You can’t not paint yourself. And you shouldn’t try. You are your own best asset. From the heart is not a cliché when it comes to painting.   Moving on from the basics by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA  

“Bunny Breakfast Tulips”
original painting
by Elle Fagan

I tutor basics in watercolor, acrylic and drawing at JoAnn Fabrics and Craft in Manchester Connecticut. I’ve learned to focus and lighten up with my classes — Charleton Heston is the only one I can think of who could really appreciate my Bible Basics instructional. But one day the light bulb went on in my head and I blushed at my “wayyy too much-ness.” In my earnest motive to give my students the best basics, I loaded that class too richly with beginners’ data. A lady got frantic with me as I was giving watercolor technical information and techniques too hard. At first, I just lightened up to accommodate her, but later I realized I needed to do something like that for ALL my student beginners — so now I print up a small booklet with the basic data.   Pen vs. pencil by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada  

watercolour painting
by Raynald Murphy

When I sketch people or portraits with a felt pen I seem to get the expression and proper proportions better than when doing so with an erasable tool. Can you comment through your experience on this since I am convinced my drawing skills have improved quicker since picking up this tip in Paul Laseau’s book Ink-Line Sketching. I’ve passed on this tip to my students who, likewise, agree that they now draw more accurately. In his introduction Paul Laseau says, “First, the permanence of ink encourages one to “go for it,” to try to put the line right where it should be… continued attempts to place lines accurately build the eye-hand coordination necessary for sketching. With pencil there is a tendency to be timid, either using very faint lines or erasing bad lines… Line sketching tends to emphasize the structure of a drawing rather than the nuances of media… Sketching is a continuing source of learning rather than a string of performances.” Yesterday I ink-line sketched on a page fourteen people at a play reading who were sitting around a table, many moving bobbing heads. Yet all quick portraits were quite recognizable, enough for the sketch page to be used as publicity for their upcoming event. I attribute this in large part to years of ink sketching, the tip picked up in Paul’s book. (RG note) Thanks, Raynald. The pen teaches confidence and commitment. The pencil is a way of finding a line. Unfortunately, the erasable medium can be an excuse for bad habits.   Revised discoveries by Susan Holland, Bellevue, WA, USA  

wood carving
by Susan Holland

Regarding the matter of breaking the rules, here are a few surprises that I loved discovering in my happy journey with oil painting: “Too many colours mixed together make mud.” Sometimes mud is the only “right” color. It’s worthwhile to learn how to make all different kinds of mud colors, warm, cool, dark, light. “A poorly thought-out painting is almost always weak.” A painting can think itself out if you let play interfere with your logic. “A beginner’s scales lead to a professional’s concertos.” And a masterpiece can be made of red, yellow, blue, black and white. “Painting is easy, but painting well is difficult.” Children learn to paint beautifully rather fast because they are not afraid. Adults could learn this. “Good artists never blame their tools or their situations.” I know of good artists who have bad days. Artists blame bad brushes, but they don’t hold a grudge. They get a better brush. Monet blamed the light for changing, and he rearranged his schedule to accommodate its fickle ways. “Better work is made by workers who love their work.” Bad work can be made also by people who love their work, unless they love also to move forward into greater skill and vision.   Painting as dialogue by Susan Collacott, Port Credit, ON, Canada  

Archaeology of the First Born Native American
acrylic painting
by Susan Collacott

I am just reading a newish book by James Elkins called, What Painting Is (Routledge, 2000). Elkins describes painting to alchemy in a way that seems like he is turning the act of painting inside out. He has researched alchemy well and may be one himself by the amount of evidence he has compiled from ancient manuscripts on the subject. I have never read about the act of painting so beautifully described. Within the introduction, his allegory of the two had me hooked. Later he gets a little too technical about alchemy but the hook has already caught the fish by the lip. “To a painter, paint is the life’s blood: a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating, and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning… paint records the most delicate gesture and the most tense… a cast of painter’s movements… the painter’s body and thoughts. The muddy moods of oil paints are the painter’s muddy humors, and its brilliant transformations are the painter’s unexpected discoveries. Painting is an unspoken and largely unrecognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colours and the artist responds in moods… Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought” …alchemical ideas can demonstrate how it can happen. A very curious read for painters. There is 1 comment for Painting as dialogue by Susan Collacott
From: Anonymous — Apr 08, 2013

Excellent painting

  Glazing by Claire Remsberg, McCall, ID, USA  

“Brown Pelican”
oil painting
by Claire Remsberg

I am curious as to your comment, “…glaze of “mother colour” over a dry, half-baked painting… one of many practical tools that a lot of (mostly) acrylic painters use.” I understand that glazing is a tried and true oil painting method, centuries older than the invention of acrylics and a method that I use myself with regularity in my oils. Are you doing something uniquely different when you glaze with acrylics, other than just different chemistry? (RG note) Thanks, Claire. And thanks to everyone who inquired about glazing. The technique and effects in acrylic are the same as the time-honoured practice in oils, except that you don’t have to wait around for a week for things to dry. With the resource of glazing, the initial lay-in can be far more casual and fresh in the full knowledge that you can pull a painting together — even a half-baked painting. In acrylic, with a little interim forced drying, the operation is quite sped up. (Incidentally, in those little videos there is often a half hour or so of drying time edited out between glazes — a fault and a beauty of the video medium). The main advantage of glazing is establishing “mother colour” — a unity that permeates the whole work. You can mix mother colour ahead of time all right, or you can influence the work after the fact with a glaze. Phthalo blue, red oxide, Quinacridone gold and cadmium orange are current favourites. My advice is to creep up on it — don’t make your glaze too strong, particularly at first. Wipe it on and off with a rag. There is 1 comment for Glazing by Claire Remsberg
From: Jack Ebel — Apr 09, 2013

Oils take weeks to dry? Alkyds dry overnight.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The alchemy of art

From: Marvin Humphrey — Apr 04, 2013

Many solid gems in this letter; worth burning into our memory banks. As painting well is difficult, there will still be some failings along the way. The element of experimentation is part of creativity, so results are not completely predictable.

From: Mike Barr — Apr 04, 2013

Alchemy really belong to many art show judges who seemingly produce gold from works that are less than base.

From: Darla — Apr 05, 2013

Art really is magic! Patterns of carbon and other pigments on a surface cause the viewer to think of things that are not there, or maybe even not anywhere else but in the mind. The difference to Jane is that she knows how pencil drawing magic is done, while painting magic is a new field to her. Jump in, Jane! The magic awaits.

From: Jane Angell — Apr 05, 2013

This beginner feels like dancing around my kitchen and I am certainly sitting here with a huge grin on my face! Thank you very very much indeed for responding to my question in your letter, I am really honoured – and especially that you were kind and generous enough to put up some of my work at the top of the clickback! (I like your choices!) Some of your readers have already written with encouragement to try paint, which is really lovely.

From: Steve Whitney — Apr 05, 2013

I agree that the craft of painting is not a witches brew but rather a set of skills and procedures that can be learned and mastered. The art of painting, however, is more elusive. Mastery of craft alone is necessary but not sufficient to produce great art. For that, an additional ingredient seems necessary–inspiration, transcendent vision, insight, whatever you want to call it–and, to me at least, that seems magical.

From: Gus Koslowsky — Apr 05, 2013

I wondered about the wiping thing in your wonderful videos, too. Your remarks are always rich and thought provoking. And it’s good to hear from someone who knows what they are doing. I think your videos would be even better if you talked more.

From: Laura Cerwinske — Apr 05, 2013
From: Louise Ganus — Apr 05, 2013

Enjoying all your letters. I was so pleased to see the explanation of the wiping of the colored rag across your painting. While watching the wonderful video, I almost gasped when you did that. It was truly “magic” what it did. I am anxious to give the technique a try on some tired, less than great paintings. The videos are beautiful. Thank you again.

From: Jackie Knott — Apr 07, 2013

There are any number of videos online, commercial site information, youtube,, etc., that give basics and educate the beginning artist with a foundation to launch. Thereafter, it is purely individual preference. A little experimentation is in order; question fellow artists to capitalize on their analysis. The important thing is there is no “wrong procedure.” Some products work better than others. However, many are introduced as just the thing that will make mediocre painting a masterpiece. No, it won’t … skill will triumph over every product out there. Go ahead, play around with procedure to find what suits you … but continue to work on draftsmanship, composition, values, color theory, observation … it will all work itself out in time. Since you are comfortable working with graphite and charcoal a good place to start might be painting in black and white, but render the same image in oil or acrylic … then, glaze in color. Some artists use that as their prefered formula and never deviate, which is also perfectly fine. The point is, find what works for you and that may take many, many years.

From: Patricia Martens-Dashwood — Apr 07, 2013

Thank you for giving me all this free advice and inspiration. Your ‘Clicks” are always practical ( sometimes funny) and positive.

From: Bunnie Graham — Apr 07, 2013
From: Catherine Stock — Apr 07, 2013

Elbow grease doesn’t always cut it alone. Sometimes one need’s the presence of a muse, who can be infernally slippery and elusive. Aye, there’s the rub.

From: Ann Marie — Apr 07, 2013

I am enjoying the art info, thanks for sending it to me. Enjoy the journey.

From: patterson parkin — Apr 08, 2013

i agree with robert,about the drawing has to be good from a beginning,but if your colours are not working then its not going to happen………………..

From: Chris Sat Sun — Apr 08, 2013

Colors mixed with alchemy lead to mud; colors mixed with foreknowledge lead to truth and beauty.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Apr 09, 2013

My favorite cookie would have come into existence if Newton had sit under a fig tree.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Apr 09, 2013

correction: “…had sat under a fig tree.” Drat!

From: Jane Angell — Apr 09, 2013

Darla, thanks for the encouragement to jump into the magic of paint :) Jane

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 09, 2013

Painting is a mystery especially when you see a great painting. After you’ve learned the “conventions” or “rules” plus the techniques and methods of how your materials function is when the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter. What remains a mystery is what is produced after all the essential learning is done. After thirty years of paintings, the process still remain a mystery. One reason, for me, is that after the learning period, you need to surrender to the process. You have to give in to an inner voice which has little to do with method and techniques.

From: Gretchen Talmage Allen — Apr 10, 2013

Where can I see these great videos of glazing you’re talking about?

From: Russell Stendhal — Apr 10, 2013
     Featured Workshop: Gaye Adams
040913_robert-genn Gaye Adams workshops Held in Croatia   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Forest Walk, Sunset

pastel painting by Wendy Chaney, Lake Forest, IL, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Annie Vanderven of CT, USA, who also asked, “What is a “half-baked” painting? I am French and this really has me baffled.” (RG note) Thanks, Annie. The expression, à moitié cuit, probably won’t do it. To me, every painting is a disappointment in progress and subject to a critical gauntlet until sometime later in its easel-life. Even then it may be a half-baked, inadequate mishmash. I work hard at pulling them together. Why, you might ask, do you not just make them right in the first place? I wish I could. And also Ed Poisson who wrote, “As a professor of art I frequently refer students to dedicate some time moving from author to author in your Resource of Art Quotations. Taking one insight to the next, it is such an education that no serious student of art should be without it. Thank you so much for this rich resource. (RG note) The Resource is our most frequented spot — 6,717 authors are currently quoted in 368 categories. Some authors have hundreds of entries. Subscribers to the Twice-Weekly Letter who have from time to time responded to us are sometimes surprised to find they’re included.    

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