5 Ways to Maximise Your Time for Art.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

We’ve all said it: “I’d love to do more art, but I just don’t have the time.”

If that resonates with you, here are a few ways to rectify the situation.

(1) Commit to making time

We do actually have enough time, but generally don’t want to make the necessary sacrifices. That’s a bit unpalatable, but I have to admit it was the truth for me. Maybe it is for you too.

It comes down to how much you want time for art. Once you give it importance, you’ll find the time.

Decades ago my dream was to be a professional artist. I realised that my drawing skills could do with improvement, but the snag was that I had a full time job, and some weeks it included weekend and evening work too. So I moaned about my lack of time but did little to change anything.

Finally I came to my senses, decided my dream had more importance than I was allowing, and committed to drawing for an hour before work. Getting up early is definitely not my forte, but each day I set my alarm and forced myself from the warmth of my bed.

drawing of a key

I drew anything – my coffee mug, my hand, pigeons outside the window, sheep in the field opposite, my face, my keys…. Sure enough, my drawing skills improved and I was able to go to work with a sense of pride and achievement, which carried me through the day.

Truth was, I’d always had the time, but had lacked the motivation.

(2) Prioritise your art

“I’ll finish the chores and then I’ll be free to paint.” So how’s that working for you?

I used to think like that, but it just doesn’t work. Chores and paperwork are endless. If you wait to finish everything else, you’ll either never get started, or be exhausted if you do. Paint something while you’re feeling fresh and you’ll have a better result. It will also give you a sense of accomplishment so you’ll feel more motivated to tackle those chores. Win-win.

So decide how much time you’ll give your art, and how much is left for your chores. Set your timer, start your art first, and give it the attention it deserves. Afterwards you can do the chores. Knowing you have a limited time probably means you’ll get more done. see what I mean about a win-win?

(3) Be realistic

I remember a student on one of my workshops who was a carer. She wanted to do art, as it was very therapeutic in her stressful life, but obviously had little time. She felt that any art session should produce an entire painting, but this wasn’t realistic, so consequently she felt frustrated with lots of unfinished work and ended up doing nothing at all.

We worked together to set achievable exercises she could do, all of which could be quick if she only had a short time. Here are a few of them:

  • Skyscapes. The sky is hugely variable, and quick to change. Painting a skyscape each day is fun, quick and pays dividends as reference for future paintings. You’ll learn a lot about how clouds are formed and how the light acts on them.
  • Line and wash. Limited time to paint a landscape? If it’s local, try a pen sketch one day, and add colour on another occasion. If you’ll only have a single opportunity, make a pen sketch and make colour notes (see below) so you can complete or work up the image when you’re back home.
  • Timed drawings. Make the lack of time your friend. Set a timer for 10, 15, 30 minutes and stop drawing when the timer goes. When you have to work quickly, the resulting image is usually more bold and energetic than if you’d had a longer session.
  • Play. We learn more from a session of playing with art materials than we do from a completed painting. And it’s fun! See Step Away From The Comfort Zone for more about this topic.
colour notes for a woodpigeon sketch

Colour notes are particularly useful when you don’t have time for a full colour sketch.

Place a small patch of colour on your support, and indicate where it belongs on your subject.

Back in the studio, you’ll have reference for a painting of that subject.

(4) Work on small paintings

Take a tip from the painters of 17th – 19th century Europe, who made small sketches outdoors as a means of sharpening their skills and perception. Mostly painted in oil on panel or paper, these paintings were only about A5 or A4 in size and designed to take just an hour or two to complete.

I saw an exhibition of such paintings at the National Gallery in 1999. They were glorious and filled with light and poetic beauty. (The catalogue’s available on eBay: A Brush With Nature by Christopher Riopelle and Xavier Bray).

You don’t have to use oils; acrylic or watercolour would work just as well. Whatever medium you use, the small sketch has a spontaneity and a liveliness often lost in a larger and time consuming studio paintings.

(5) A drawing before breakfast

Eeek! Yes, at first glance that sentence filled me with horror too. (I think I may have been a dormouse in a former life!) Don’t worry, this exercise suits both the early birds and those of us who prefer a little longer to snuggle beneath the covers.

Let me explain. A drawing before breakfast comes courtesy of Mary-Anne Bartlett, tour leader and head of Art Safari. When leading a group, there are those who are raring to go at 6 am and those who would prefer the day to start at 9. So the idea of a drawing before breakfast is that it can be a full-blown masterpiece or just a few lines.

Sometimes a drawing can say as much in two minutes as one done in two hours.

You can adapt the concept to suit your schedule: a drawing before elevenses/ a drawing before lunch/ a drawing before I walk the dog…. Whatever works for you. The important thing is that you make time to draw.

So those are a few ideas to help you make the most of your painting time, however limited it may be.

NB. September is an incredibly busy month for me, so I’m taking a short blog holiday while I catch up with teaching, articles and exhibitions. I’ll be back with you early in October. In the meantime, remember you can catch up with previous blog posts here.

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Have You Discovered the VIP of Acrylics?

When is an ink not an ink?

When it’s acrylic ink. You’ll likely find acrylic inks alongside other inks in a shop or online, yet they are not ink at all, but acrylic paint in liquid form. Being liquid, they behave like ink, hence the confusion. As they’re acrylic, they’re compatible with all other acrylic paints.

Many people’s first experience of acrylic ink was when given a bottle as a free sample at an event. They didn’t choose the colour and weren’t told what it can do or how to use it, so the bottle sits in their art kit, unused and unloved.

Maybe that was your experience? Let’s take a closer look at acrylic inks to discover their qualities and potential, so you’ll gain a valuable addition to your painting arsenal.


If you own a bottle of acrylic ink you have a VIP in your paint box. Versatile in application, Intense in colour and Permanent when dry. Three characteristics hugely beneficial to our painting practice.

Versatile: acrylic inks can be dripped, drizzled or flicked. Spattered or sprayed through an airbrush. (Do cover surrounding areas when spattering.) Use them like watercolour, or modify the colour of a thicker type of acrylic paint. Tilt a textured support and they’ll follow any ridges or grooves on the surface, settling in the troughs in the paintwork.

Calligraphic brush marks.

You can use acrylic ink with a dip pen or sword liner brush to make calligraphic marks.

Try double-loading (dipping the tip of the brush in a contrasting colour) for interesting effects.

(Important: always clean tools immediately after use, as dried ink will spoil nibs or brushes.)

Have you struggled to produce a fine line with paint and brush? Acrylic ink, used with ruling pen or sword liner brush, can solve this difficulty. The ink flows smoothly and the width of line can be varied by adjusting the pen or by increasing/ deceasing the pressure on the brush.

Painting using spray, Heavy Body and acrylic ink.
Acrylic inks are compatible with all other types of acrylic. In this panel, the background was sprayed acrylic; the images mostly painted with Heavy Body. Acrylic ink was used for the lettering. Thin lines, such as the Fennel foliage, were achieved with acrylic ink and ruling pen.

I find that acrylic ink is ideal for any fine line work in Heavy or Soft Body paintings. It’s much easier to get a fine line with ink than heavier paint for ships’ rigging, animal whiskers, foliage, and so much more.

Two blobs of white paint, one coloured with a single drop of acrylic ink.

Intense: vibrancy of colour is one of the most useful characteristics of acrylic inks. Try mixing a blob of white paint with a single drop of acrylic ink to see the strength of colour.

Suppose you need to dilute Heavy Body paint to a fluid consistency. Add the diluent and the paint becomes runnier, but the colour is diluted too. You’ve made the liquid paint you wanted, but now the colour is a weak version of the original.

Acrylic ink solves that problem, being liquid and intensely coloured. For paler colour, simply dilute the inks with water or medium.

Permanent: like all other acrylics, inks are waterproof and permanent when dry, so they won’t move when you add another layer of colour over the initial one. That means they are ideal for glazing or modifying underlying colours.

Colour range

Acrylic inks are available in a wide range of colours, though not quite as many as other types of acrylic. They are sold in bottles with an integral dropper that can dispense a single drop or many.

When a colour is available in acrylic ink, it should match other paint types, sprays and markers in that brand. In practice I find that there may occasionally be a slight discrepancy. The same named colour in five different brands will likely yield five different colour versions.

Unbleached Titanium (one of my favourite colours), regrettably doesn’t exist at all in acrylic ink. Another colour hard to find is Ultramarine, as Schmincke seems to be the only brand manufacturing it.

My other bugbear is that some of the names have no relation to conventional paint names. Yes, the Siennas, Umbers and Oxides are there, but along side them are Omega Orange, Delta Violet and Antelope Brown.

Omega Orange? Omega tells us nothing about the lustre or tone. And given that an antelope may be almost white, through any shade of brown, to black, the word Antelope gives very little clue to the actual colour.

Inks are available as standard colours, and also as pearlescent, shimmering, iridescent or neon for special effects. Muted colours are a recent innovation in some brands. You can buy acrylic inks individually or as sets, usually grouped as primary colours, neon, shimmering or pearlescent.

Like other acrylics, the inks may be opaque or transparent. Useful to know when you want to modify or hide a colour. You’ll find that information on the label, though you may need a magnifying glass to reveal the tiny lettering.

Prices are around £5 for an individual bottle of 28 – 30ml or £30 for a set of six. This may sound expensive compared to other acrylics, but the colours are so intense that a little goes a long way, making them quite economical.

Before using the ink, it is important to shake the bottle well. Acrylic inks, especially the opaque and iridescent colours, tend to separate out if they haven’t been used for some time. Do make sure the top is on securely first!

Being liquid, inks require a mixing palette with deep wells. The ceramic daisy type work well, keeping the colours separate and being easy to clean. In some sets, the original container doubles as a palette.

Acrylic ink techniques and effects

Guillemot painting with ink background

Most of the background cliff on my Guillemots image was created by dripping ink and spraying it with water to make it spread. I spattered the ink too.

Then I used Heavy Body acrylics over the top to define the fissures and paint the birds.

Alternatively you can use ink in specific areas of the painting, perhaps to modify a plain surface. Or sponge the ink lightly over a stencil to create repeating shapes or change the lustre.

ink dripped onto wet paper and tilted.

If you prefer abstracts, ink dripped onto wet paper, then tilted so the ink runs, produces interesting effects.

These can be abstracts in their own right, enhanced with further brushstrokes or may spark an idea for a new painting.

Acrylic inks lend themselves to watercolour techniques, such as graduated washes or the line and wash technique.

Paint a line over a wet surface, and it will spread like watercolour. Or paint a line on a dry surface and spray lightly with water to make the paint spread. The extent of spread depends on ink type and brand, type of surface and quantity of spray. Once the colour has dried, further layers can be overlaid.

a line of acrylic ink sprayed with water

If you’ve used watercolours, you may be familiar with the cling film technique. Acrylic inks are a great alternative to watercolours for this technique, especially when colours overlap.

cling film technique using acrylic ink

If you’ve used watercolours, you may be familiar with the cling film technique. Being permanent and waterproof, acrylic inks are a great alternative to watercolours for this technique, especially when colours overlap.

Simply paint some ink onto a support. Lay a piece of cling film over the wet ink, pushing the film into wrinkles. Let the ink dry and then pull off the cling film to leave a pattern. Once dry you can repeat the process, overlaying with a second colour.

So as you can see, the varied application techniques of acrylic inks are worth investigating, and ideal to add to your painting arsenal. I find that inks are a great addition to my other acrylics, allowing me to work in ways that wouldn’t be possible with Heavy Body acrylics. Give them a try and see what you think.

This post has been adapted from an article written for Leisure Painter magazine.

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How to Remove a Stuck Paint Tube Cap

Note: Some affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Full disclosure policy here.

Coming unstuck with paint tubes

The subject for this post seems trivial, but quite often during workshops – whether watercolour, oils or acrylics – I’m asked to remove a stuck paint tube cap for one of my students.

Twisted paint tubes

Believe it or not, there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to open paint tubes. Get it wrong and you risk the tube splitting and paint ending up on hands, clothes and every surface you touch.

The worst culprits for this are metal tubes, when the paint has been mostly used up. These are prone to twisting and forming a weak point which finally gives way altogether. This is one of the reasons I like Liquitex paints: they come in plastic tubes, which are less likely to split.

Incidentally, if your tube does split, strategically placed masking tape, with a covering of Sellotape to provide an airtight seal may solve the problem for a while.

So how do we solve the issue before it starts?

paint key and paint tubes
  1. Make a habit of squeezing the paint from the crimped end, not the middle. Do this by hand or use a paint key. (They’re available in several sizes to suit different tubes.) This gives a firm base to grip, reducing the risk of the paint tube twisting when the cap is unscrewed.
  2. Loosen the stuck cap by running the offending tube top under a hot tap for a minute or two. That should do the trick, but if it’s a particularly stubborn cap, immerse in hot water for a few minutes until it can be easily removed.
  3. Loosen the cap just a little first, let the paint cool so it’s less likely to spurt out, then loosen the whole way.
  4. Clean the inside of the cap and the screw thread of the paint tube so the problem doesn’t arise next time.

If you’re working with oil paints, upending the tube in solvent (white spirit or nail varnish remover) until you can loosen the cap works, though given the smell I’d try the water trick first. If you do use solvent, do so in a well-ventilated room.

Perhaps you’re working plein air and you don’t have access to hot water? A pair of pliers with your art kit has saved many such situation. Beware that repeated use can churn up the plastic top.

I’ve heard other artists suggest holding a cigarette lighter flame near the cap, so the heat loosens it. Flames next to oil paint has never seemed a very safe combination to me, so I’ve never tried it and don’t recommend it. Besides, as I don’t smoke I’ve never owned a cigarette lighter. I’ll stick with hot water.

Sennelier Abstract acrylic pouch.

Much as I like the Sennelier Abstract range of acrylics, I have noticed sometimes the caps become difficult to screw back on to the pouch.

This has always been due to paint build up in the cap, so if you own these do clean the top regularly. Once the paint has dried in the cap it’s easy to remove by poking with a cocktail stick.

Another top tip

While we’re on the subject of paint caps, here’s another of my top tips. When you come to the end of a tube of paint, dispose of the tube but retain the cap. Plastic caps have been known to split or shear off, so it’s really useful to retain a few spares for just such an occasion. A simple tip, but one I’ve benefitted from many times.

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The Most Useful Art Exercise I’ve Ever Done

Last week I promised you an insight into the most beneficial drawing experience I’ve ever had. So here it is.

Decades ago I signed up to a week’s life drawing summer school at the famous Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design (now part of the University of the Arts London). It was a brilliant week, and my art skills took a huge leap forward.

I urge you to consider summer schools if you haven’t already attended any. They are a great way to go deep into a subject, and having a whole week gives you plenty of opportunity to build on skills as the week progresses.

Shocking the students

During this life drawing week, we’d reached the third day when the tutor introduced an exercise that gave us all a shock.

Charcoal life drawing.

The tutor sat the model on a chair, which was placed on a turntable. He assigned us an hour for an A1 charcoal drawing, and at the end of the time we were all fairly happy with our work.

Then the tutor turned the turntable 90 degrees and said, “Now draw her again, over the top of the drawing you’ve just done.”

The looks of horror on our faces must have been hilarious.

“But, but, but… we’ve just spent an hour on that.” “I like my drawing. I don’t want to ruin it.” “Noooo. Do I have to?”

We spluttered, whined and pleaded, to no avail. He was adamant. Drawing over our initial drawing was a requirement, not a request, and that left not a millimetre of choice.

This time we only had half an hour. At the end of the time – you’ve guessed it – he turned the turntable again, and we drew again over the top of the first two drawings. Less muttering this time.

(Note: we were using compressed charcoal, so that enabled us to keep drawing. Other media, such as pencil or watercolour wouldn’t have worked.)

He turned the turntable again, and we draw a fourth time. Quicker again.

Finally the model was back in the original position, and we recreated our original drawing.

The tutor let us into his secret, of why he’d chosen that exercise.

“The first two days, you were all so worried about getting it wrong, no one wanted to make any mistakes. Now you all know you can you can make repeated corrections or changes, and still get back to the original if you need to.

“What’s more, these latest drawings are more interesting than the first. The marks show the process of the drawing’s creation.”

“You’ve also seen that you can make changes quickly. Many of the tones are already in place, so you don’t need to make many alterations to effect a big change.”

Charcoal life drawing.

He was right. From then on we all drew with far more freedom, and I’ve never since been afraid to change a drawing.

Huge learning experience. Huge.

Here’s the drawing again. Perhaps you’ll look at it differently now you know there are four drawings underneath.

Your turn

So my suggestion is that you try a similar exercise. It doesn’t have to be a life class; any subject will do. You could use charcoal, or it would work with acrylics, oils, alkyds or pastels. Make a drawing or painting. Then turn the subject and make a second over the top. Finally recreate your original. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot from the experience, and you’ll benefit long term.

Do you dare?

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How To Know When Your Artwork Is Finished

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

How do you know when to stop?

“How do you know when your painting is finished?”. Along with “How long did it take you to paint that?”, it’s top of the list of questions buyers, browsers and students ask. So how do I decide on the finish point?

My usual, and seemingly glib, answer is “When it stops annoying me”. Yet that’s the truth. When a painting is complete, I can look at the individual parts, as well as the whole, and feel pleased that I’ve achieved what I set out to do. Or if not pleased, at least fairly content. The painting doesn’t always look the way I’d originally planned but, as long as it’s of professional quality, that’s OK.

But if I’m irked at some little niggling part, I know it’s not quite done and I need to fix it. When it stops annoying me, that’s when it’s finished.

Of course, before I can fix an issue, I need to ascertain what it is. Sometimes that’s obvious (how did I draw that circle so badly?), and sometimes it needs a little detective work to root it out (Darn it, what is bugging me about that?).

If you’re at that same place of not quite knowing what’s wrong, here are a few ideas to help you figure it out.

  • You know full well you’ve never been please with that [hand/ tree/ mountain – insert irritation of choice]. So change it. Ask yourself, “What one thing could I do to improve it?” and go from there.
  • Intuition. You know what’s wrong, or at least your subconscious does. Sit quietly and look at your painting. Ask yourself a question: What don’t I like about this?” or “What needs to change?”. Keep sitting quietly and you’ll probably find the answer comes to you out of nowhere. Even if it isn’t immediate, it probably won’t take long.
  • Prop the painting on your mantelpiece, or wherever you’ll see it regularly. After a while you’ll suddenly notice what’s not working.
  • Conversely, hide the painting for a couple of weeks or more. When you look at it afresh, you’ll probably see what’s wrong straight away.
  • Imagine someone asking you, “How do you feel about your painting”. In your head, answer “I like it, except for….[that tree on the left/ the clouds/ the hands]”. Whatever comes to mind is the part you need to change.
  • Ask an arty friend. That must be someone whose artistic judgement you trust, and who will be honest but gentle. You don’t want them to steam into your work with a long list of criticisms. If they start to list more than two or three things, cut the conversation short with “OK, that’s enough for me to work on for now. Thank you.” And change the subject.
  • Ask your family. Dangerous ground. You know them well enough that when they say, “Ooh that’s lovely”, you know perfectly well when they don’t mean it. I remember a student telling me about a painting she’d done in one of my workshops, saying “Even my husband was impressed, and he’s always critical of my work.”. Choose the family member who is least likely to be harsh, until you’re thoroughly satisfied with your work.

Whoever you ask to evaluate your work, remember that they’re judging your art, not you personally. It’s easy to feel defensive, but remember they are providing you with helpful information. And if they really are rude, at least you’ve discovered who not to ask next time.

Pay attention to your body language

Sometimes the clues to what’s wrong are more subtle. Over the years I’ve come to rely on my body language, far more than I’d ever have thought necessary.

Going up, Coming Down acrylic painting

While I was painting Going Up, Coming Down, I was aware something wasn’t quite right. Couldn’t quite put my finger on what.

Then I realised I was physically leaning to one side as I stood to evaluate the work. It turned out that the cliff had a slight slant, and I was subconsciously trying to straighten it as I looked at the painting.

I made the correction, and felt soooo much better once I’d done so. And I could stand upright again.

Whose agenda?

You may find that someone offers advice, perhaps unsolicited, that doesn’t fit with your vision. That’s OK. They are entitled to their opinion, and you are entitled to yours. Don’t change things to suit someone else’s agenda. There are a zillion ways to depict a subject, so stick to the one that inspires you.

I remember a friend looking thoughtfully at a painting of mine, commenting “I’m just wondering what you could add to make a more dynamic composition.” Ouch! But I wasn’t after dynamism in that particular painting. It was a calm scene, and I was perfectly happy to keep it that way.

Had the criticism related to the bird’s behaviour or anatomy, I’d have been more inclined to take it on board, assuming it had merit.

You can choose whether or not to follow advice. If you like the idea, you could always do another painting to explore the two different approaches.


If you’re still not sure why you don’t like your painting, here’s a list of possibilities to check.

  • Check your drawing. It doesn’t matter how much paint you apply, if the drawing underneath is wrong, the painting will suffer. Unless you’re making corrections as you apply each brushstroke, of course.
  • Did you squash the drawing so it would fit on the support? A really common problem. NEVER SQUASH A DRAWING. (Caps, bold and underlined for maximum emphasis. If I could thump the table and type at the same time, I would.) Either redraw, so part of the subject lies beyond the picture plane, or add another piece of paper, so there’s room for the whole subject. Degas did that; we can too.
  • Are the tones working? Would any part, or the whole, be improved by being lighter or darker?
  • Is each part in scale? If you’ve used several different references, it’s easy to get one part out of scale with the rest.
  • Check the axes. Are verticals actually vertical and horizontals, horizontal? It’s easy to paint a wonky line (“on the wonk”, as my friend would describe it). Check the alignment and make corrections early on.
  • Have you favoured pattern or texture over form, so the structure has been lost?
  • Is the lighting consistent?
  • Have you observed one part, but imagined another? Carefully observed wildlife surrounded by imaginary foliage rarely looks convincing.
  • Does any part need to be more textured? The same texture everywhere looks bland.
  • Have you placed the subject appropriately in the image? Your subject being too central is rarely pleasing. Probably not something you want to change at the end of a painting, but something to keep in mind for next time. Or can you crop the image to improve the composition?

The sweet spot

Reaching the finish point is about making that judgement of what to improve and then making that change. So make that judgement and then act. Don’t keep working, just for the sake of it. We can always keep adding another brushstroke, without any great purpose behind it. That is fiddling, and results in an overworked painting.

Accept that your painting will never be absolutely perfect. As long as you are happy that it’s the best you could have done at the time, that’s good enough.

And finally…

Whatever you decide to change, I’ll leave you with one key fact.

It’s easier to change a painting early on in the process, so if something’s niggling at you, don’t be afraid to change it. It won’t improve by being left, and once you’ve put time and effort into your work you’ll be reluctant to make the necessary changes. Especially if it’s a fundamental, like composition or draughtsmanship.

Following on from making changes, visit my blog next week and I’ll show you a particular drawing from a life class, and explain exactly why it was the most useful drawing exercise I’ve ever undertaken.

Like this blog? Please encourage your arty friends to read it too.

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Don’t Miss Out

Time’s tight this week, so instead of a new post, here’s a round up of some of my previous posts. I realise that some of you have been following this blog for years, but some of you are relatively new and may have missed some of my earlier posts.

I’ve grouped the posts into topics, so you can skip straight to the subjects that interest you most. I hope there’s plenty there to keep you going until next week’s new post.

I’ll add new posts to this list, so it’s always easy to find posts on a particular subject.

How to draw

The Aigas Art Challenge was a weekly challenge for nature enthusiasts during the first UK lockdown. This covered the basics of drawing, for those who were new to drawing or hadn’t picked up a pencil for years. Use the subject as weekly inspiration, or help inspire someone else to take up drawing.

Drawing birds

As soon as I say I sketch wildlife from life, people ask me how that’s possible when the subject never stays still. These posts show you how to tackle any moving subject.

How to draw faces

If you’ve ever wished for insider information about how to draw faces, these posts will help.

Art materials

More art materials, but this time focusing on acrylics

“How to…” guides

Perspective for beginners


Gift recommendations for artists

Originally written as a series in the run-up to Christmas, but these gifts are suitable for any occasion – birthday, Mother’s/Father’s Day, retirement/ leaving present, or just to tell someone they are special.

Arts funding

Two rants about the way art is undervalued in society. Both written years ago, but in the light of a recent 50% cutback in arts education, just as relevant as ever. Grrrr.

Any Suggestions?

Remember, I’m happy to receive suggestions for future post subjects, so do get in touch if you have a question or topic you’d like me to cover.

I want this blog to be useful and inspiring, so do let me know if there’s too much or not enough of something. Use the comments or drop me an email if you don’t want to post publicly.

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Best Brushes for Watercolours

Note: Some affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Full disclosure policy here.

Watercolour feathers

Why the smallest watercolour brushes may not be best.

I’ve posted a lot about acrylics lately, so today we’re switching to watercolour, and brushes in particular. These days most of my watercolours are feather paintings.

Feathers are gorgeous. Who hasn’t picked up a feather as a child, and been fascinated by its exquisite beauty? For some of us, that fascination continues into adulthood. For me, feathers have everything I need for inspiration – variations of pattern, texture, colour, shape and lustre.

My aim is to paint the feather as accurately as I can. I usually group them according to colour or pattern; sometimes by species or in celebration of their differences.

Many viewers ask about the brushes I use. Mostly people assume I use the smallest brushes possible, but that’s a mistaken premise. I actually spurn small brushes. What is that?

A brush holds paint in two ways, through the length and quantity of the bristles. The smallest brushes just don’t have enough hairs, and those that they do have aren’t long enough. They don’t hold much paint and I find they tend to run out mid stroke. Very frustrating.

That’s why a brush for painting miniatures has a conical shape – lots of hairs that taper to a sharp point – so it holds plenty of paint but allows the finest line.

The general purpose watercolourist’s equivalent is a brush with fewer but longer hairs, and a fine point. It will have plenty of paint-holding capacity, but the fine point will ensure you can paint the thinnest line.

Watercolour feathers

You can imagine that when painting long lines for feather shafts or filaments, I need my brush to have the ability to hold plenty of paint.

Tiny brushes, by which I mean anything smaller that Size 1, just can’t do the job. 5/0? Ugh, no thanks.

These days I rarely use anything smaller than a Size 2, and for most of the painting I’ll use Size 6.

I’ve even painted a whole feather with a Size 10, just to show it’s possible.

So my brushes of choice are bigger than most people imagine. They are top quality and therefore quite expensive, but I don’t buy many. “Fewer but better” tends to be my motto for most art materials.

Once the fine points becomes worn I relegate the brushes to my outdoor kit and keep my best brushes in the safety of my studio. I dread dropping my best brushes over a cliff or into the sea. Loss of an older brush wouldn’t be so devastating.

What’s wrong with use cheap brushes?

Years ago I taught watercolours to a wealthy lady. She’d spend lavishly on any and every bit of painting kit…. except brushes. She insisted that cheap ones were perfectly good. Given that she was painting in a highly detailed style, she was really making life difficult for herself.

In vain I tried to persuade her of the merits of a good brush, to no available. Finally, in desperation, I put one of my brushes in her hand and begged, “Please… just try it.”

She filled the brush, made one stroke, and exclaimed loudly, “Ooh, it goes where you want it to.” That spoke volumes, not just about how pleasurable a good brush is to use, but also about how she’d fought her awful brushes for years. From then on she was a convert.

Very cheap brushes won’t have the best quality hairs, they’ll be mass produced, and aren’t likely to come to the finest point. It’s false economy, as they’ll need to be replaced more often. Better to spend the money from two cheap brushes on one better one.

Why are watercolour brushes so expensive?

As with most things, you get what you pay for. The materials are costly, being the best quality Kolinsky sable and the longest hairs. Weight for weight, sable is much more expensive than gold! The brushes are handmade, by experts. The hairs have just the right amount of spring. They come to a fine point when wet. The paint-holding capacity is second to none. That all adds up a a joyous painting experience for the artist.

That said, good watercolour brushes can have eyewatering price tags. Winsor and Newton have a RRP of £209 for their Series 7, size 8. Even the discounted price is £147. Rosemary and Co go a step further with their Designers Series 22, at a startling £425 for the size 20.

For those without the money or the desire to pay those kinds of prices, the good news is that you can still have wonderful brushes without spending a fortune. Few of us really need the biggest sizes, and the smaller sizes in the top ranges are generally affordable.

Watercolour feathers

Most of my feather paintings use a small range of brushes, usually sizes 2, 6 and an 8 or 10.

My smaller brushes are W&N Series 7, and I switch to a different brand once the prices rise beyond my budget.

Which brushes do I recommend?

  • Winsor and Newton, Series 7 are my favourites. I’ve used them for decades, and they are a delight. (Example prices: Size 2, £13.50 , Size 6, £49.00)
  • Isabey, Series 6228 are excellent when price starts to become an issue. They’re not cheap, but very good, and not as expensive as W&N in larger sizes. (Size 2, £12.00 , Size 6, £31.00)
  • Rosemary and Co, Series 8. I haven’t used these myself, but I’ve used plenty of other Rosemary and Co brushes and their quality is superb. As they are mail-order, their overheads are smaller, so the savings can be passed to the customer. (Size 2, £8.85 , Size 6, £24.85)
  • I’ve heard a lot of artists say good things about the Da Vinci Maestro range. I tried one but didn’t particularly get on with it, though I couldn’t quite explain why. Maybe it was just not what I was used to. So it’s probably worth considering if you’re looking for a good brush, but it’s not my choice. (Size 2, £16.20 , Size 6, £28.50)

If those are still beyond your budget, try Red Sable, which have many great qualities without the price tag to match.

Synthetic are an ideal choice for anyone not wanting to use animal products. They are more robust than sables, but have less paint-holding capacity.

Or try a sable/ synthetic blend, which combines the best qualities of both types.

An alternative to buying expensive brushes is to get someone else to buy them. Watercolour brushes make great birthday or Christmas gifts, because you can just tell the buyer the range you prefer, and they can choose the size according to their budget and generosity.

(On the subject of gifts for artists, do check out my artists’ gift guide series. I wrote it years ago, so the prices may have changed, but there’s plenty of ideas there. See the first part here. Look out for the revised and updated version later this year.)

Finally, don’t forget that some of the brush types I’ve previously recommended for acrylics are also suitable for watercolours. Rosemary and Co sell both Swordliners and Fan brushes in Kolinsky and Red Sable. Neither are as expensive as you might fear. Hogs hair and synthetic versions also work with watercolour.

Brush care

Of course, whichever brushes you choose, the most important thing is to look after them, for optimal performance as long as possible.

  • Make the stroke by pulling the brush away from the tip.
  • Don’t scrub! Stroke the brush smoothly over the paper. If you want to use the brush vigorously, for a particular effect, use an old one. Keep those with the best points for fine detail.
  • Use an older brush for mixing colour, thus preserving the point on your newest ones for longer.

If you haven’t already seen it, check out my previous post on brush care.

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Advice Worth Spreading – Capturing the Essence of Your Subject

Images of Heather Jansch's horse sculptures.

Living sculptures

In this, the second of my posts on great advice from other creatives, I’m looking to the sculptor Heather Jansch*. If you’re not familiar with her work, she was a sculptor who specialised in sculpting horses from driftwood. You can see some of her glorious work in the images above and on her website.

Heather’s horses are amongst the most “alive” sculptures I’ve ever seen. Some years ago I was fortunate to attend one of her Open Days. Standing next to her horse sculptures, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them come alive, and the only other time I’ve ever felt that way about a sculpture was when standing beside Michelangelo’s David.

In both cases the sculptures had a vitality to them, as well as a lightness that belied their weight. They held the essence of their subject.

So what was Heather’s secret?

“What makes a thorn, a thorn?”

Like many artists of her generation, Heather struggled with art college when her desire for realism clashed with the fashion for abstract and concept. Figurative work was out of style.

For a while Heather’s art was at an end, until a move to Wales and a proximity to horses rekindled her obsessions with both drawing and equine. She sought advice from Arthur Giardelli, a contemporary artist of international standing.

“He told me to go and look at a hedge and draw what made a thorn a thorn, not just what I saw, and, perhaps more to the point, to never stop working with horses but find a way to make them mine.”

And there, in a nutshell, are the secrets: (1) draw the character, not just the appearance of your subject and (2) follow your own passion and vision.

Think about the artists you most admire. Whether historic or contemporary, didn’t they capture the essence of their subject, and portray it in a way that was uniquely their own? Don’t you know their work in an instant?

It’s about having an intimate knowledge of your subject. That culmination of love, observation knowledge and awareness of everything that your subject is.

Popularity vs passion

Now here is where I get a little red-faced, because I’ve often been as guilty as anyone for painting what is popular, in both subject and style, rather than sticking doggedly to my vision and passion.

In the wildlife art world, it’s easy to be seduced by wonderful plumage, fur colour and texture, and detail. There’s a profusion of kingfishers, tigers, falcons, and owls on easels and walls all over the world.

Yet when I look at the sweet spot of my favourites of my paintings, with those that gained the most positive reaction, they were all pieces where I had a very distinct vision for the way I wanted to paint my subject.

One of my best examples is Heading Home, that moment when penguins come ashore to return to their rookery:

"Heading home", penguin painting

A symphony in greys, this painting is all about tone. Painted with a limited palette, and predominantly a flat brush, the penguins’ bodies are a mosaic of square brushstrokes in warm and cool greys. The intrigue of how white feathers can look dark and dark feathers look light.

I wanted to capture a penguin’s comical waddle; to have them looking slightly off-balance but not as though they’re about to fall over. To capture that sense of the sound of foot hitting wet sand. To paint character without making them cartoonish. The essence of penguin.

I’m sure that having spent a month watching and sketching penguins made this painting possible. I could have painted penguins without that experience, but immersing myself in their world took the painting to a different level.

Return to the sea

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my art. (There were some advantages of lockdown, after all.) What I want to do, and what I don’t. Where my strengths and my interests lie. What really, truly inspires me. It’s been a fascinating time, and a very beneficial one.

I’m currently exploring ideas in preparation for a new painting, focusing on the sea. (Watch this space.) Once again I’m asking the question, “What makes the sea, the sea?”. It’s encouraging me to think more deeply (forgive the pun) about how to create an image that will encapsulate the character as well as the appearance. And I’m thinking about how to make it mine.

I haven’t completely decided on the finished look yet, though I’m getting close. But I’m sure the finished painting will be stronger and more individual for the time spent in thought before brush ever touches the support.

I encourage you to ask the question “What makes [your subject], [your subject]?” in your own work. Your paintings, and your buyers, will benefit.

Thanks for the advice, Arthur Giardelli and Heather Jansch.

*Sadly, Heather Jansch passed away on 5 July 2021.

Related Post

Advice Worth Spreading – Dive into Your Subject

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Increase Your Profits from Greetings Cards

Should you produce greetings cards from your artwork?

Do you make greetings cards of your images? If you do then this post is for you. If you don’t currently offer cards, read on to see if this is something that might add value to your art business.

First, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of reproducing your art as greetings cards.

What are the advantages of an artist reproducing their art on cards?

  • It’s the first step on the selling ladder. Today’s card buyer may be tomorrow’s original or print buyer.
  • It allows your fans to support you at open studios, events and exhibitions.
  • Profit from cards can totally, or partially, cover event costs. Obviously it depends on the cost of the event and the footfall.
  • You may find a painting hasn’t yet sold, but cards of that design are popular. You’ll have earned from the time and effort you put into the painting while still owning the original.
  • Cards are a marketing tool, because the reverse gives your website and/ or email address. The buyer either buys the card because they like the image and want to keep it, or because “It would be perfect for So-and-so.” So they’re introducing your art to someone you don’t know, who would love your work. What’s more, they are paying you to do so. In marketing, someone paying you to take away your publicity material must be the ultimate win.
Greetings card design showing front and reverse
A code on the reverse allows you to easily re-order.

What are the disadvantages?

  • Someone may buy the card instead of the print of an image. Counteract this by not offering both card and print of the same piece of work. If your print is a limited edition it shouldn’t be offered in any other format anyway.
  • It takes time to manage stock, and if you make the cards yourself that can be very time-consuming.
  • If you sell cards yourself, you’ll need storage space. Not a big deal if you only have a few designs, but the more designs you sell, the more space you’ll need. 1000 cards + 1000 envelopes + 1000 cellophane wraps have to go somewhere.

How to gain stock

In the beginning, you’ll probably sell cards you’ve made yourself. It’s easy to buy card blanks, envelopes, cellophane wraps and labels. Then just print off your design, trim to size, stick to the front of the card blank and assemble with envelope and cellophane. Print off a label showing that the card is blank or has a message, fix to reverse, and you’re done.

If that sounds expensive and time-consuming, it’s because it is. Speaking from experience of having done it, I would never recommend that you make cards in that way. They just don’t look professional and they take too long to assemble. You can’t even make the cards while multi-tasking, as getting the image square takes concentration.

So what are the other options?

  1. Have your cards professionally printed. Most local printers will offer this service, and will offer a low print run. Advantage: quicker with a professional result Disadvantage: more expensive per card than other options.
  2. Have your cards professionally printed by a specialist greetings card printing company. They’ll even offer to assemble your cards for you, though you’ll pay an added fee for that. Advantage: Cost effective. Disadvantage: Stock control. Online orders must be shipped
  3. Use a Print on Demand service such as Thortful, Redbubble or Fine Art America, to sell online. Advantage: Worldwide distribution, no shipping or stock control Disadvantage: no cards to sell at your events
  4. License your work to a greetings cards publisher for sale commercially. Advantage: Commercial distribution, no shipping or stock control. If someone rips off your design it’s up to the publisher to solve the problem Disadvantage: no cards to sell at your events. Cards usually won’t bear your name or contact details.

All those options have advantages and disadvantages, so you really need to decide which best suits your practice.

For the purpose of this blog post, we’ll assume you want cards to sell at your events. That rules out Options 3 and 4, though you could still offer those separately. That leaves Options 1 and 2, so let’s look at how to make those pay.

Profiting from your own greetings cards

Option 1 is probably best for you if you sell very few cards, perhaps just at your annual art group exhibition, and don’t have much storage space. Your cards will look good, and you’ll have a physical product to sell. You’ll feel good supporting a local business, and it’s easy to get reprints.

That said, it’s an expensive way of buying stock. Let’s examine this by looking at the way two of my arty friends obtain supplies. We’ll call them Friend A and Friend B.

Case study: Friend A

Friend A was selling her popular cards through a local tourist attraction. They took at 35% slice of the selling price. (Note: when pricing cards, always factor in commission and VAT, as you would for a painting, even if you’re only selling from your own studio initially.)

Friend A was resentful, even though this wasn’t a large commission and there was no added VAT. She was vocal against the commission, which was non-negotiable, but never realised she could have massively upped her profit by switching her supplier.

I only knew this because I was looking for a new supplier at the time and she recommended her supplier to me. I asked for a quote, which came back as £18 for 25 A6 cards, or £48 for 100 cards. They also had a setup fee of £15 and added VAT on top of that. So that’s £39.60 for 25 cards of a single design. Or £75.60 for 100 of a single design. They could supply envelopes, but only of the gummed flap, business type. They didn’t offer cellophane at all. So that’s a cost of either £1.58 or £0.76 per card without envelopes or cellophane.

Let’s assume the shop’s selling price was £2.50. She’d lose 35% of the selling price to the shop, leaving £1.63, out of which she ‘d have to buy cards, envelopes, cellophane and labels.

For ease of maths sake, let’s also assume she wanted 100 each of 10 different designs. That would be an outlay of £810, by the time she’d factored in the extra card components. (I don’t know what she paid for those, but we’ll assume around £0.05 per card.) If she sold all her cards she’d make a profit of about £815.

Case study: Friend B

Now let’s look at Friend B. She bought her cards from a specialist card printing company. The minimum order was for 1000 cards, but those could be split between up to 20 different designs and several different formats. The buyer could order as many or as few of each design as they wished, as long as the order added up to 1000. So that could be 200 of a popular design, but just a handful of a new design to test if it was viable.

The company could provide suitable envelopes and cellophane, if the buyer chose. The main difference was that Friend A had to do the set up herself, arranging the image and text so it was ready to be printed. Easy enough to do with a little computer know-how, and the company offered guidance of how to do it. Friend A just had to submit an image of her design.

Friend B was quoted £220 including VAT for 1000 A6 cards, with suitable envelopes and cellophane. That’s an overall cost of 27% of Friend A’s order. At a cost of £0.22 per card she’d have £2.28 left of a £2.50 selling price, with plenty or wriggle room for paying someone to assemble the cards for her and to pay commission. Assuming she found the same 35% commission at another venue, she’d have made £1405 profit.

I’ve maybe over-simplified things a little. Friend A could probably get a better deal if she was ordering ten designs at once, but even so, you can see the advantage of ordering in bulk and shopping around. Another advantage of a specialist card company is that the cards are likely to be of better quality.

Note 1: These are real-life examples, to illustrate the potential savings. Not every company will be similar. Shop around to find the right service at the right price.

Note 2: both of these examples occurred a number of years ago. Prices for both are likely to have risen since then.)


DL format cards design, front and reverse.

Long, thin designs can be DL format, or a square with the design wrapping around the front and reverse. This one’s better as DL because the fold would run through the central penguin.

You choose what to put on the reverse, usually an image and your website. The image could be a repeat of the front, though here I’ve used a photo of me sketching penguins.

Take note of feedback. My original cards didn’t list the penguin species, but buyers wanted that information, so I added it on a subsequent order.

An ideal weight of card for greetings cards is 280 – 300gsm. If you’re in the UK, keep the total size with envelope and cellophane within 240 x x165mm, as that’s the size of a Letter. Anything larger will be classed as a Large Letter – subject to extra postage and likely to be off-putting to your buyers.

Anything non-standard is likely to incur extra costs. That includes coloured ink instead of black inside (if your cards have a message), embossing, foil or a gloss finish.

Do request a proof, so you can check the cards look as you wish. You may be charged extra for this, but it’s money well spent. Repeat orders shouldn’t need to be proofed.

Top tips for maximizing profits from greetings cards:

  • Maybe you’re thinking that 1000 cards is way more than you need? In that case,you could partner with arty friends and share the costs. You each have the number of cards you need and all benefit from the lowest costs.
  • Stick to one size of card, at least when starting off. You’ll only need to buy one set each of envelopes and cellophane, and you can buy those in bulk. If you start with several formats you’ll be buying each size of envelope and cellophane in small quantities, which will be more expensive.
  • The same applies to envelopes. Stick to plain white, as that will fit with everything, and you can buy in bulk. If you want coloured envelopes bear in mind they may be more expensive. Try to choose a few colours that will work with several different designs, rather than a separate colour for each image.
  • Shop around for the best deals. I buy my cards, envelopes and cellophane from three different suppliers in order to get the best prices. It might be only a tiny saving per card, but it mounts up over a thousands cards, time after time.
  • If a design isn’t selling, put it in a “reduced” box at a lower price and sell the remainder quickly. You’ll still make a profit and you can replace that design with something more popular.
  • When ordering a new batch of cards, look back through your art images. You may find an ideal image you hadn’t previously considered as a card.
  • Consider selling cards as Print on Demand as well as physical cards. You can sell globally without having to do the shipping yourself.
  • Some subjects will always be popular. In my wildlife niche it’s penguins and owls in particular, so I have three designs for each. What are your most commercial subjects?
  • Group cards into collections to appeal to different niches.
  • Considering offering a discount if people buy multiple cards. You’ll make slightly less per card, but you’ll sell considerably more.
  • Allow plenty of time to have your cards printed and delivered in time for your event. You don’t want to be stuck with extra costs for the company to rush your order. If there is a problem with your order you’ll need time to sort it out.
Champagne Celebration greetings card

Think about the occasions that your cards might suit.

This design is ideal for any celebration – birthdays, weddings, engagements, anniversaries, new baby, New Year.

It’s even been a “Congratulations on passing your driving test” card. Probably not ideal to link drinking alcohol and driving together, but it’s up to the customer.

Blank cards tend to be more popular than those with a message. If you want to add a message, keep it general, e.g. “Congratulations” so it can apply to any event.

2 penguins design.

Think outside the box. This image is popular because many people like penguins, but as it looks like the penguins are a couple, it’s also ideal for an anniversary card. Not everyone wants hearts and flowers.

Incidentally, I’ve made double the profit from this design as a card as I did from selling the original. Don’t dismiss cards just because they are individually a low price item.

I hope this post has been useful. I’ll end by recommending my supplier: The Imaging Centre. I’ve found them to be excellent – good quality and well priced cards and friendly staff – so I’m happy to recommend them.

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It’s Time to Let Your Acrylics Shine

Note: Some affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.

Adding shine and sparkle to your acrylic paintings

Last week we looked at adding texture to our acrylic paintings. This week I’m talking shine and sparkle.

I am LOVING all the recent innovations in acrylics. Ever since discovering the different forms of paint, new tools and mediums, I feel like a whole new world of creativity has opened up. So let’s see the options if you want to add shine to your work:

  • Varnish
  • Gloss mediums and gels
  • Iridescent paint
  • Iridescent medium
  • Interference paint
  • Pearlescent paint
  • Glass Bead gel
  • Mica flakes

We’ll look at each of those in turn in a minute. Firstly, a few musings. Obviously it depends on your style of painting. If you’re into hyper realism, botanic art or traditional landscapes, then adding shine may not be your priority. If you’re currently enjoying experimenting, exploring contrasting lustres or working in a bold contemporary style, then shine may be your holy grail.

Keep in mind that different brands use different names for similar products. Heavy Gel, Impasto Gel, Soft Gel are all gels that bulk out acrylic paint and add texture, while making it more transparent and glossy.

Basically, anything with the words gel, gloss, metallic, iridescent, interference, and pearlescent tend to add shininess to paint.

Painting shine traditionally

This may sound counter-intuitive, but you don’t actually need shiny paint to paint a shiny painting. Here’s one I prepared earlier, which explored shiny surfaces, using only traditional oils.

Champagne Celebration oil painting - shiny textures.

I’m amazed at the number of artists who have asked me if I used special gold paint for the foil. Nope – just a lot of observation and varying tones of Yellow Ochre. This whole image relies on how lights and darks relate to each other.

Gold paint wouldn’t work for this image. It’s a flat surface, so the paint would simply look an even colour everywhere you put it. If you tilted the picture to change the light conditions, all of the gold would look brighter or darker. It wouldn’t look like the light was catching part of a shiny surface.

Champagne Celebration - black and white version.

See, it’s just numerous different tones, adding up to something that looks shiny. As long as the tones are right, you could make it any colour you wish.

Why use shiny paint?

So if we don’t need shiny paint for something like this, what do we need it for?

  • You want an even sheen or shine to your final image
  • You like the way your painting’s appearance changes as you move around your space
  • You like the contrast of different lustres and saturations in your work
  • You’d like to add shine and texture to your work
  • You’re working with a 3-D piece of work, so different areas can shine as they catch the light

Right, let’s look at the options:


If you like a shine to your final image, simply varnish the final piece.

Depending on the diluent and mediums you’ve used, as well as the type of paint, your finished image may have some areas of paint that are shinier than others, Varnishing will unify all the lustres to a single sheen or shine.

You can vary the amount of glossiness by mixing matt and gloss varnishes to create exactly the level of satin or shiny finish you desire.

See my previous post on varnishing here.

Gloss Medium

Gloss medium on black card.

Gloss medium does exactly what it says on the tube; it makes the paint look shinier. Just mix a little with your paint and the result will be a shinier and more transparent version.

Apply it over a dark matt surface and it will not only make the colour shine, it will make it more saturated.

(Right: gloss medium over black card.

In addition to the standard Gloss Medium, which has a syrupy consistency, you can also choose thicker versions such as Medium, Heavy or Super/Extra Heavy Gel. These retain brush or knife marks, so you can add gloss and texture.

Gold  acrylic ink of different lustres.
Gold acrylic ink, Texture Paste (which kills the shine) Regular Gel (semi-opaque) and Gloss Gel.

You can also use Gloss Medium as a varnish.

I’ll be writing a full post about Gloss Medium soon, so watch this space.

Iridescent paint

Most manufacturers include shiny colours in their standard ranges. Not just Gold and Silver, but often Bronze, Brass, Pewter, Steel and Copper, and exotics like Green-gold or Black-gold.

They vary in colour, not just from brand to brand, but also within the same make. Gold, for instance, can be Bright, Antique, Renaissance, Green, Deep, Red, Light, Brilliant… Check the colour charts before you buy, and choose the most likely to suit your needs. I have several different versions to suit different colour palettes.

Many of these paints have iridescent or metallic in their name. Strictly speaking, they are simply shiny paints, to my mind not iridescent, which implies rainbow colours like an oil slick or soap bubble.

Selection of metallic acrylic paints.

Iridescent/ metallic paints are usually available in all types of acrylics – heavy and soft body, markers, inks and sprays – so you can spread, drip, spray and spatter them to your heart’s content.

When you need a thinner paint, I recommend using ink rather than thinning heavy or soft body paint with water. When we add water to acrylic, it becomes more matt, which we obviously don’t want with a shiny paint. Even Flow Enhancer reduces gloss.

Note: Standard acrylics from the Sennelier Abstract range are available with a white or a silver label. The silver label denotes that the paint is glossy. In my experience there’s very little difference between the two, so you many still need to add shine, even with the glossy version.

Iridescent Medium

If you don’t want to buy more paints, but do want some shine, you can use Iridescent Medium, which is a thick liquid. Add a little to your paint, apply it as usual, and hey presto, you’ll have shiny paint.

Interference paint

You may have seen interference or shimmering in the names of some acrylics. This means the paint looks quite different according to whether it is turned towards, or away from, the light.

From one angle the paint looks clear and has minimal shine. From a different angle it is bright and intense.

Surprisingly, these colours shine brightest over a dark colour, so it’s worth spending time making some test pieces using a variety of colours. Check them out here.

Pearlescent paint

Pearlescent acrylic inks are similar to the iridescent colours, but a more opaque, pearly appearance. Like Iridescent Medium, Pearlescent Medium is also available.

Glass Bead Gel

Patch of Glass Beads Gel

Exactly what it says: Glass Beads Gel is made of tiny glass beads (about 1mm diameter) mixed with a clear gloss gel. Each bead catches the light, providing sparkle. Can be applied over an existing colour or mixed with paint or ink. If mixing, use a transparent colour to increase shine.

Mix with Gloss Medium to thin the medium a little and have a less dense concentration of beads.

Mica Flakes

If you really want sparkle, mica flakes are the product for you. Available as loose flakes or a thick gel, they have the appearance of coarse glitter. Probably not something you’ll use in every painting, but a useful addition when you need extra sparkle.

When using mica flakes, I suggest less is more. A small burst of sparkle here and there is more impactful than too much that dominates the image.

Bottle of loose mica flakes.

These dry flakes (right) are a silvery colour. If you want bright gold, try Golden‘s Mica Flakes Gel.

Don’t mix the loose flakes with a gel, as this dulls the shine considerably. Instead, lay a patch of gloss medium wherever you need it and sprinkle the mica over the top. Once dry, tap the painting over a paper to remove the loose flakes, and you’ll be left with a patch that glitters.

Sparkle in practice

Acrylic painting showing different glossy texture.

This piece was an exploration of textures, inspired by a piece of fluorite and quartz. Smooth layers of Iridescent Silver with hints of turquoise showing through, contrast with heavy texture and areas of sparkle.


Below left: Mica Flakes contrast with the adjacent rough and smooth textures.

Below right: Glass Beads Gel provides tiny pinpricks of light, adding sparkle to an otherwise smooth surface.

Details of different lustres from previous painting.

So that shows you some of the options when working with different lustres in your paintings. As you see, there are various possibilities, which open out plenty of opportunity for exciting effects in our art. Have fun experimenting!

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