Some ways with gradations


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Kelly Borsheim of Cedar Creek, Texas, wrote, “I’ve been struggling with a large acrylic ramp, or gradation. I was striving for no blotches and no brush marks. I’ve really been having difficulty touching up, because I’ve not yet gotten the feel for how much acrylic darkens as it dries.”

Thanks for that, Kelly. Whether you call them gradations, ramps, or blends, and whether they’re big or small, they’re one of the most valuable visual devices. The simplest system for large acrylic gradations is to pre-mix two colours representing the extremes of the desired gradation. Using yogurt cups, make them slightly more dilute than normal, or add retarder. Work fast. Establish both ends of the gradation with a big brush and then feather wet into wet in the middle. Put lids on the cups and you will always have at least the extremes in case you have to touch up. I’ve had artists tell me that it’s very near impossible to do a big gradation in acrylic — only to prove themselves wrong using this method.

Smaller gradations are a piece of cake. Very often with a properly loaded brush you can make them happen with one stroke. Another system is to flick them on top of one end of previously painted flat areas. Colour choice is important. If you want gradations to “come to light” then you slide up the colour wheel and add white. Thus, for a local red you might mix orange with white. To “come to dark” you slide down the colour wheel and add black. Gradations add excitement, sophistication, and give “zip” to all types of dull paintings.

Masking and frisketing are effective ways to get even gradations. There’s now a popular product called a “Masquepen.” Having curved and straight card-blocks or templates on hand is a quick system. Also, simple gradations can be made with big and small paint rollers. To do this, puddle the extremity colours on a rolling-board and blend them onto the roller. When your roller looks right, test and apply it to your work. Roller-tip and paper stencil add to the joy. You can also go roller-wild preparing ready-made or suggestive gradations as fun-primers on new canvases. The most facile gradations have always been made with an air-brush, so don’t overlook the possibility of blowing them on, or using spray cans.

Best regards,


PS: “To get the effect of distance in a flat field or an area of water, use a gradation. Either from the front to the back, or side to side. It can often solve the problem of what to do with your foreground.” (Ron Ranson)

Esoterica: The introduction of gradations is like a troupe of acrobats and magicians brought in to enliven an otherwise flat performance. “The eye and soul are caressed in the contemplation of subtle changes of colour over a surface — transitions that are like music — intangible in their reaction upon us. There is an immediate sensual appeal.” (John F. Carlson)


Where gradations come from
Gerte Hansen, Halsingborg, Zealand, Denmark

While some may maintain that gradations come from above or from some wonder in nature, it is more likely that gradations are rather an afterthought that the creative person applies as a touchstone style in itself. As you and others have pointed out it is this second generational thinking that finds these candies. The approach applies to many of the arts. As Justice Brandeis said about the art of writing, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”


Method of creating gradations
Bob Sheridan


“Salish Basket”
watercolour, 14 x 20 inches
by Bob Sheridan

One way I have some success with gradation is to mix up two Pyrex bowls: one with color, acrylic emulsion and water to the consistency and depth of color desired; another with plain water and emulsion. I apply the colored mix where I want it — you can even cover the whole area. Then with another clean brush I go into the painted area with the clear liquid and blend it wherever I want the lighter effect.


Tips for acrylic gradations
Jamie Lavin, Gardner, Kansas, USA

Ramping up! It’s like “Cowboy Up!” only it’s more physically taxing! I have wrestled with this gradation thing and found a couple of helps that might benefit acrylic painters. I use Golden’s acrylic glazing liquid like I own the factory! Also, the type of brush is important to doing gradations in Acrylic paint. It must be a nylon or nylon blend in order to evenly distribute pigment and let the colors “share” one another. I have found Winsor & Newton’s Galleria series to be an excellent blender, as well as Loew-Cornell’s “Comfort 3400 Angular” — I don’t know the mix on this one, but it seems to work very well. Putting more paint in the general areas and then using the glazing liquid (liberally) to blend them seems to be the easiest way for me, and then, as I get the grade the way I want it, I “finish” the grades by painting only the glazing liquid over them, wiping paint off the brush as I go, so as not to pollute the areas with more pigment. This helps give it an airbrush-like look, without ruining the brushstrokes in the underpaint; allowing the artist’s abilities to show through. Also, this seems to help with the “start and stop marks” you get with brushes. Sometimes painting with the glazing liquid, your brush will grow “dry” and lift pigment where you don’t want it to happen, so be quite liberal with it. You’ll notice that a lighter touch of pressure on the brush is also needed, but helps rid the area of the brush marks as well. This glazing liquid stuff makes curing time on acrylics substantially longer, especially the way I do it, but then, I’m the guy in your neighborhood under the car trying for hours to change the oil with a screwdriver and a mixing bowl!


Other oils for oil paintings
Nana Banana

I’m mostly oil paint, and I’m wondering if instead of using linseed oil/ bleached/unbleached linseed oil (usually what I use), but being on a budget, would it be sooo unnatural to use vegetable oil like peanut, corn, or sesame oil to mix with oil paint for a smoother mixture? Sometimes I have old oil paint which dries a little and I need to work at it, so sometimes I mix with some other oil. How’s about baby oil?

(RG note) As far as oil painters are concerned there are three types of oils — drying oils, semi-drying oils, and non-drying oils. Baby oil, for example, in a non-drying oil so your painting would tend to remain wet until after the kid graduated from college. Drying oils are vegetable oils that dry to a tough final film — generally on their own without other additives. These oils do not dry by evaporation, as do other liquids, but by reacting with the oxygen in the air and become converted to a new compound with different properties than the original oil, to which it cannot be reconverted. Along with linseed oil, oils that can be used by artists are Walnut oil, Poppyseed oil, Safflower oil, and others. Semidrying oils are oils that can dry with the introduction of a metallic salt known as a drier. Castor oil, also sometimes used on babies, is an example of a non-drying oil. My advice is to stick with the quality, state of the art oils provided by the artists’ colourmen. If you are thinking of smoothing out brushwork and slowing down drying times try adding stand oil to your regular linseed oil.


Trouble with oil glazing
Susan Harris, Pacific Palisades, CA, USA

I’m having an assignment with glazing over a monocromatic oil painting as the intent. I’m totally having a difficult time with this. When I apply the glaze, it gets blotchy in certain areas and I cannot make it even no matter how many coats I apply. I am using Archival Fat as the glaze medium. What to do, what to do?

(RG note) To set everybody straight, Archival Fat Medium is an odourless product for oil glazing. It yields glowing translucent effects and likes to slump flat which virtually eliminates brush strokes. Blotchiness occurs when the work you are glazing is itself uneven in oil saturation. Try using a thinner with the Archival Fat and try putting the glaze on with a rag rather than a brush. Do big areas all at once and “rub off” rather than “spread on.” I know it’s a bit unpleasant to hear this, but I can’t resist telling you that you may have already put on too much Fat.


Retouching dry oil paintings
Carol Hama Chang, Edmonton, AB, Canada


“Bright Peonies”
oil, 24 x 18 inches
by Carol Hama Chang

In oils when I have to retouch a painting that is dry to the touch, I first spray it with Kamar Varnish made by Krylon #41312. The varnish will give the painting a “wet appearance” and make the colours look fresh, as though it were just painted. This enables me to match the colour exactly as though the paint were still wet. When the retouched area dries it will match with the rest of the area perfectly. When it is dry to the touch the patched area will have to be varnished as well. Kamar is a breathable varnish so it is not necessary to have the painting thoroughly dried in order to apply it… a great godsend in oil painting!




Collage work on old schnauzers
Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

Re-priming paintings gives the feeling of removing collected badness. But there is possibilities in old layers. Might be old layers are strong enough to hold new small pieces of canvas glued new over some areas to make a relief? Or must these be sometimes sewed to main canvass to be reliably held? Because it is possible to use this way also not only new clean strips, spots of canvasses, but also scissor-cut ready spots. Old schnauzers in this way might be used as material to cut out ready colour inserts for composite voluminous picture, even many-layer these?


Can’t afford schnauzers
J Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA

One piece I started in 1989, but didn’t finish till 2002. It went through several different painted phases until I was happy with it. Creativity takes a long time for me. I simply can’t afford to spend the time I do, and end up with a “schnauzer.” Then sometimes I’ll finish something knowing that some balance is off, just a little. These pieces I often like the most, as they make people look at them differently, because something’s “off.” But I can’t wait for the day when future generations look back on almost all that I created in this lifetime with a small sense of awe. Maybe even a big one. Sorry, no specific biological heirs to worry about. I suppose my “heirs” end up being whoever I leave the stuff to. Seems like a lot of it may not sell till after I’m dead.


Gradations in pastel
Susan Joseph

I am struggling with pastel. How do you do gradations in pastel, other than just laying down the colors next to each other. Are there tricks like smudging part to make other parts pop out? Since you are not mixing colors, how do you get your highlights to look good? When do you put them in, after most of your color is painted on?

(RG note) Pastel Painting Techniques by Guy Roddan (North Light Books) can help you. There’s a commercial site that lists current offerings in the large and growing field of how to paint in pastel at


Goethe’s colour system
Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany


“paint imprisoned behind bars?”
acrylic, 50 x 70 centimeters
by Faith Puleston

I went to an exhibition opening (called “vernissage” here in Germany) last Sunday. It was paintings by an artist sworn to Goethe’s Farbenlehre (color system). The Anthroposophs are strongest here in Germany, and this was a fine example of what moves them. I’d read quite a bit about Goethe’s theory and its pros and cons. Now I was able to witness the real thing. About 30 canvases covered (admittedly aesthetically) with various blotches of color, all sizes, and at prices ranging from about $500 for tiny ones (18x24cm) to $6000 for the biggest (about 160x160cm), so we’re actually talking about commercially intended paintings, not just hobby stuff (which would be typical of the Anthroposophical movement, which aims at purifying…). They were all variations on the same blotch, devoid of any representational content and really an homage to the paint-pot. Nice colors, some impasto using fillers and I thought I detected a little gold leaf occasionally. We were treated to improvisations by 2 saxophonists on the various paintings. They stood in front of them and played twirls and twiggles to represent the respective work of art (low for the darks and high for the lights).

I think I learnt quite a lot from the collection, e.g. that identical or very similar paintings side by side inspire awe and respect, whatever the subject. Abstracts seem to indicate even more determination and conceptual maturity. There is nothing you have to know or do to understand and be part of the event. That made it very easy on the brain, I assume. I didn’t find it restful. I was yearning for a tree or a face or a mountain. Would it have done any harm to include one?

In Goethe’s color system it’s all about what happens between the color itself and your reception of color. Scientists have never really agreed with all the stuff on this theory.


Importance of being able to draw
Sharon Pitts


watercolor, 18 x 24 inches
by Sharon Pitts

After I graduated with a degree in Plastic and Graphic Arts I set up my studio and began to paint. Much to my dismay I found I wasn’t able to accomplish what I wanted to do. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was for quite a while until I finally realized that I couldn’t draw. I spent many classes in several different schools before I finally got the idea of what it is to draw. A teacher said to me, “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.” It worked and I have been painting for many years doing what I want to do.


Repeating yourself as an artist
Marie Louise Tesch, Black Hills, SD, USA

When you exhibit at the same spot each year, how much should be new work and how much can be from previous exhibits? I have only been painting for two years. My first exhibit I scrabbled just to have enough on the walls (30 works). By the second exhibit (8 months later), I had painted about 10 new items, but still exhibited things from my first year of work and it was the older items that sold best. Now I’m preparing to return to this spot and I have about 15 new canvases, but I am wondering how much repeating I should do. Some advisors tell me that I should have plenty of repeats because of regular customers who expect to see the same type of art. Others advise that at least 50 per cent should be new. This is in the Black Hills of South Dakota with high tourist traffic.

(RG note) In the Green Mountains of British Columbia where many of the tourists seem to be connoisseurs, most long-term successful artists try not to repeat anything.


Down da toity
Bee Hylinski, Berkley, CA, USA

I am truly concerned that our culture is going down the toilet, literally and figuratively, by our glorification of the basest elements of our society. Why do art schools and artists pander to our prurient interests in the name of art? I am not a prude at all, but our society is glorifying the worst in our society and just accelerating the process. Art, which used to be held in high esteem, is now no better than MTV. Pretty soon we will have McDonald’s buying the naming rights to the Museum of Modern Art! This is not art! This is exactly what it looks like: pornography, violence, defamiliarization and deconstructionism put out there for shock value, and nothing more.






digital painting from live model by
Robert Chang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


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, 2004.



Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.