The “User-Upper” system


Dear Artist,

Renoir couldn’t stand to see leftover paint on his palette. Apart from being frugal, he loved the irregularity of what was left. He kept a pile of small canvases on hand. Last thing at night he used up his last paint and turned some of them into “little gems.”

Apart from the need to “waste not, want not,” there are creative reasons for working the “User-Upper” system. Toward the end of a palette-life there’s often an orphan or two. A squeeze of magenta, for example, may have barely been touched. Starting a new work, however minimal, with an irregular palette is good for you — it shakes the plaque from the creative arteries. Who said a tree couldn’t be red, a sky yellow? Even if you’re the conservative type, you’ll probably be glazing, scumbling, and transmogrifying later anyway. A red tree may help you to think on the canvas, rather than following the thought-out rigidity of your green conception. Arbitrary to many artists, local colour can end up quite differently at the end. The lay-in and the final may even give charm or strength as opposites on the colour wheel.

“User-Upper” is another variation of “the extra chance syndrome” mentioned in my last letter. Because the little painting is an “extra” it’s likely to be fast and loose. The “end-of-day-quickie” is one of the best ways to brighten up the day following. In the morning there’s nothing nicer than walking into the studio and finding a fresh rough-in with inviting possibilities. Also, the automatic pilot that happens during that “extra” feeling, however weary, works to give new courage to your style. Those late-night strokes can be the real you.

The next time you look at your leftover palette — see it as an opportunity. It may be an inconvenience to scrape it off anyway, and paint is darned hard to put back in the tube. The “U-U” system is a gift for the taking — a low-commitment bonus. I lay a little guilt trip on myself: “My day is like the gift of a symphony, but it’s bad form to leave the podium before the final bar.”

I’ve asked Andrew to illustrate last night’s “User-Upper” and what I was able to do with it in the light of the northern dawn. It may not be a “little gem,” but you’ll have to agree, it’s a little Genn.

Best regards,


PS: “Irregularity is the basis of all art.” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1910)

Esoterica: A useful idea is to be on the alert for opportunities to digress from your trodden paths. The rough slubs of a used canvas, or an old drying tube of some bizarre colour can be the catalyst to a new adventure. Even working for a short time in uncomfortable or limited conditions can bring out something that you didn’t know you had. Renoir, arthritic in later life, worked with brushes tied onto his hands. “I’m not used up yet,” he said. His late-life paintings had a unique stroke. “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity.” (Confucius, 551-479 B.C.)


Counterpoint, an Acrylic “User-Upper” 11 x 14 inches


Rough lay-in done last thing last night with leftover colours on the palette. These days I’m working on a pinkish ground.


This morning, a glaze of blue to neutralize and darken, a scumble of red. I put in more vertical darks that the composition seems to need.


The general effect has now materialized. With stronger dark and light tones punched in — a design and pattern begins to be evident.


Finished, I think. I’ve gone over the design and corrected the odd homeostasis, tried to describe a few more forms, and added a curve or two.














Details: As you can see by these detail shots, I’m after a two-dimensional abstract design that contrives to look like something recognizable when you see the big picture. Getting the interaction of point and counterpoint to hang together in a meaningful way is the tricky part.


Terminal grays
by Ruth Phillips, Bedoin, France


“Terminal Grey Boy”
oil on board, 45 x 36 cm
by Tom Phillips

My father, Tom Phillips, collected all his left-over paint at the end of each day and found, though it always looked simply grey, that next to the day before’s ‘grey’ it was reddish or blueish or greenish. Thus came about a series of paintings called ‘Terminal Greys,’ stripes of colour which were the last bar of his daily symphony.





Last painting a gift
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Crescent Beach”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

I like to work on a toned ground, and hate to waste paint too. I mix my palette leftovers with a little white and cover blank canvases with random neutral colors. The ‘User-Upper” system works best when I’m painting en plein air, and there’s no way to carry leftover oil paint home without making a mess. Some of my lifetime favorite paintings have been those dashed off as the sun was setting, or the rain clouds gathered. The last painting of the day is always a gift, a reward from the universe for being willing to keep painting when reasonable people have already packed up and gone home.


Magic appearance
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA


“Paradox of Dreams”
acrylic on watercolor paper
by Gene Black

The extra paint gives me a “start” and forces me to think from a different perspective. While I am able to keep acrylic paint “fresh” for a time with the use of sponges and sealable containers, it is far more productive to use it now and have a beginning for next time. Amazingly when I don’t try to consciously form a picture with the paint (and maybe subconsciously), a picture or part of a picture will appear as if by magic the next day when I look at it.



Wonderful mixes of magic
by Shirley Erskine, Mississauga, ON, Canada


“Gateway to Gaia’s World”
collage on canvas
by Shirley Erskine

My “User-upper” trick is to dampen good watercolour paper or rice paper and make a mono print right from my palette. I smoosh the paper around a little to create more textures and to blend the colours. I am mainly a collage artist and these papers are my jewels. The unexpected results, as they dry, leave me with wonderful mixes of magic. This method works well with watercolour, acrylic or inks. Some times there is a crust that has formed over the acrylic and with a little extra “smoosh” it can be broken and the surprises really happen!


Peelable palette
by Nancy Reyner, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“A Brief Glimpse”
acrylic on panel
by Nancy Reyner

When using acrylics, get a piece of High Density Plexiglas (HDPE) for your palette. Before using it apply a coat of clear acrylic gel or medium over the entire surface. Let it dry a day. Since acrylic sticks really well to other acrylic (but not to HDPE plexi) you get two advantages. The first is that whenever you want you can peel the whole palette off. Ever fall in love with your palette? Well, now you can use it as a painting, or even pieces of it in your work. Save it between pieces of wax paper or saran wrap. You can cut pieces of it up with scissors and glue it onto your canvas, using the front or reverse of your “removable” palette. The other advantage is that the initial coat of gel or medium will keep all your new dabs of paint and mixing combinations from picking up old pieces from the day before adding unwanted lumps to your mixture. You never have to clean your palette again. Just keep building it up every time you work. By the way, I’m the Golden girl for my area (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah) and my new acrylic trick book is in the works.


Feel better about squeezing
by Trish Gename, Lexington, NE, USA

I love the idea of using up the last of the paint on the palette. I feel it will help me feel better about squeezing more paint out, and just generally help me relax a bit more since I tend to be afraid to use all of my paint up. Do you have a sketch or an idea of what you are going to do before you start using the paint? In the pictures in the clickback it looks like you had a sketch on the canvas, it sure wasn’t random globs of paint.

(RG note) It was. The first random glob suggests the next until the image emerges. I do no prior drawing in this particular system.


Mud, mud, glorious mud
by Janet Vanderhoof


“The Guitar Player”
oil on canvas
by S.C. Yuan (1911-1974)

I tend to use a lot of paint initially when I paint, so I always end up with left over paint. With the left over palette I take all the warms and mix together and the cools together. Not being extra careful with it, I tend to pick up a little of this and a little of that. It is very meditative and it is almost like cooking. Depending on my mood and what I think may look beautiful together, I may produce a color that would be difficult to produce otherwise. These colors have a pearl essence quality and become the “liquid gold” that S.C. Yuan would use in his paintings. He saved the neutrals that would make his paintings sing. He used baby food jars. He would also use the pigment left over in the bottom of his jar for cleaning brushes to mix with other colors. He thought this “mud” was his most important paint. The “mud” would tie all the colors together. Looking at his paintings you notice the color sophistication.


Feels good
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA


“On a break at the California Bakery”
acrylic on canvas
by Janet Toney

In reference to “User Uppers,” I use acrylic paints and keep the palette as long as possible. My palettes are usually glass plates or bowls because the acrylics can be pealed off when dry! To keep the paints from drying out between painting sessions, I slip my “paint palette” into re-sealable plastic bags. This week I used up a three-year-old canvas, started for a show but never finished. The subject was inspired by an Arizona lady and a place. I now live on a mountain with a creek in Tennessee, so I included my current view from my front door in the window! It felt good, painting a “User-Upper”! I’m planning to do it again!



Environmental concerns
by Lee Kirk, Eugene, OR, USA

I’m always concerned about dumping paints into the water system/environment. To that end, I’ve started covering my palette with freezer paper when working with acrylics. For small tabletop projects I just cut a stack of freezer paper sheets and clip them together with chip clips (which also works on a traditional palette). These can be easily removed for a fresh layer. End of day, even if there are mostly smears and smudges, you can scumble them around and use the paper later for collage, etc., even tearing it into pieces. Or you can print from it, laying on another piece of paper, or texture a background from it using wadded paper or sponges. Don’t forget the paint rag! Mine usually winds up a stiff icky wad, but some artists I know manage to salvage theirs for creative efforts as well.


Wants to scream
by Jo B. Williams, Cumming, GA, USA

My Scottish grandmother would be proud of me — I use up every scrap of acrylic paint from my palette by either dabbing free-form colors onto a fresh canvas or else thinning the colors and using them to tone a new canvas. I also work in watercolor and I sometimes use a mixture of the colors left in the center of the palette to create unusual grays. When I see someone wipe out beautiful watercolors in the center of their palette, I want to scream.


Painting with syringes
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

The “User-Upper” direction managing is important knowledge for contemporary artist. Former method of palette using arose in oil painting from necessity to rub paint pigment. Now, when paint is ready-made the palette is only a mixing surface. Then mixing surface might be canvass itself — just to refill fresh paint from tubes into plastic syringes with tips (needles are not necessary, so syringes might be second-hand). Having in mind the sealing nature of syringes in comparison with tubes and to not always close these syringes tips from drying is possible to insert those tips in linseed oil. Small tips can allow to add necessary amount of paint at canvass directly — so it might be called “direct paletting.”


Hand tremor gave style
by Vicki Easingwood, Duncan, BC, Canada

A few years ago I developed a considerable hand tremor. It was progressive and affected all aspects of my life. I couldn’t hold a brush steady, light a match, carry a spoonful of soup to my mouth, wouldn’t even try to write by hand in public, and needed both hands to hold a mug of coffee. Yet I continued day after day, painting, and with increasing frustration saw wobbly splotches of paint that should have been lines, circles that were actually squares… you get the idea. Of course, sometimes these ‘flaws’ really worked and I appreciated that at least there was some benefit from what I was being told was an ‘unfixable problem.’ I saw doctors and more doctors and resigned myself to a life of embarrassment for those ever moving hands. One day a neurologist prescribed some small white pills. They worked. Amazingly, I was able to work, eat, drink normally. So the result was good, right? Not entirely. They did ‘fix’ my problem, but I’ve never since been able to make those squiggly, wonderfully natural brush strokes… I gained but I lost. I guess the nice thing is that if I want to make those wiggly-wogglies again, I just stop taking the pill … and every once in a while I do that and in less than two days, I can paint again in that glorious style.


Problematic acrylic
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Many people consider acrylic an “easy” medium. I agree that it’s easy to do simple things with it, but it’s extremely difficult to achieve subtleties and really master acrylic. I have used oil, watercolor, egg tempera and several drawing mediums, and with lots of practice I was able to decently progress in each of them, but I find acrylic the most difficult medium to master. I would like to use its potentials to have the end result look like oil, or watercolor, or pastel, or egg tempera — I think that theoretically this should be possible, it’s just darn difficult to avoid the “plastic effect.” I have heard comments that “acrylic has no soul.” I think that it’s just extremely difficult to give it soul, but that exactly is the artist’s job. I love oil for its sluttiness — even poorly executed oil paintings often look great. But acrylic is a tough bargain; you really have to master it in order to make it look special. As for using the palette until it’s empty, it’s a great way to squeeze out one more painting from myself at the end of the day. Sometimes I store the excess paint in plastic film containers to use another day. It’s not really to save the money, but the awareness of the value of the rare pigments we get to play with. How can I throw away a blob of precious cobalt blue — it’s been dug in mines in Africa and its value is controlled like diamonds!


Art from scraps
by Margaret Blank, Calgary, AB, Canada

I’m a fiber artist, learning more each day about ‘painting’ with fabric, floss and fiber (wool/yarn). Your letter about using up leftover bits is particularly motivating, because all too often one is tempted to move on to new projects and leave scraps behind. Instead, you inspire one to dig out those scraps and play with them in a new way. This is great! In a sense, especially with fabric and yarn, this is a return to the old-fashioned method of working with what one has at hand before buying new. In another, however, it is also a challenge to artists of all stripes to move out of their comfort zone, and see what one can create with what one has at hand.




artist’s rendition of La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada


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.

That includes Ben Novak who wrote, “Using up paint on a particular work in progress is akin to pushing on a rope. The idea of starting a new work is better.”

And also Annette Waterbeek who asked, “What is counterpoint?” (RG note) “Counterpoint is a melody within a melody, a sub plot of other notes with a different theme than the main melody.”

And also Angela A’Court, New York, USA who wrote, “Sometimes when I’m having a colour moment I think to myself, okay what would be the most disgusting colour to add here? It doesn’t work every time, but sometimes that ‘disgusting’ can turn out to be ‘surprising’ and ‘completely gorgeous.’ ”

And also Darlene, of Havana, Florida, USA who wrote, “In oil, a drop or two of pure clove oil prolongs my drying time.”

And also Dyan Law who wrote, “How wonderful that Renoir, Matisse and many other artists (renowned and otherwise) never wanted to put their brushes down despite illness, blindness or arthritis.”

And also John Ferrie who wrote, “I have written to you about a thousand times. You quote everyone from Mother Teresa to Andy Warhol. When are you going write something profound about me?”




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