How to paint like me!

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I’m frequently asked if I teach classes. People come into my cheery studio full of shiny, colourful paintings and feel a creative spark. Although I have taught children’s classes, I’ve never taught adults and I don’t think I’d been good. I’m from the “Do 100 more paintings and see if that helps” school of art.

So this tutorial is the closest I’ll ever come to teaching. I was contacted by the lovely—and very patient—Rebecca Zak about getting some Art Resin in exchange for posting a project. Since I already use Art Resin, I quickly agreed—then took months to post this tutorial. Sorry, Rebecca!

I’m a huge proponent of mistakes in art. While I will show you the steps I took, the best art occur when you mess up or things don’t turn out as planned. Feel free to do things differently or make substitutions. Art is improvisational—at least that’s what I tell myself when I screw up yet again.

Here are the materials I used:

  • 8” x 8” wood panels

  • white gesso

  • black acrylic ink

  • alcohol inks: pink & yellow

  • Art Resin

  • resin dyes: pink, yellow, red

  • Additional supplies: rubbing alcohol, drinking straw, protective gloves, stir sticks, blow torch, mask, plastic containers.

Step One: Prep your surface

My weapons of choice: a plaster spreader and white gesso

My weapons of choice: a plaster spreader and white gesso

Take a wood panel and tape the sides to protect them. Then trowel on gesso as smoothly as possible. I let it dry, sand the surface, and then reapply gesso. And I repeat about six times to achieve a beautiful soft surface. I’m sure that some of you are ready to bail already. Six times, Mary Anne? That’s going to take a week! Do whatever works for you, two coats may be enough. I like drawing on a glossy surface so this is what I do.

Step Two: Create your drawing

My rough outline looks more like an electrocuted worm.

My rough outline looks more like an electrocuted worm.

I was originally thinking about a Valentines project (which shows how long I’ve been working on this!) so I chose lace as my motif. I took a piece of lace and painstakingly drew all the twisty thready details in black ink. And then, guess what happened? I accidentally smeared the ink over my delicate drawing! Ack. But you know what? That mistake animated the drawing. It brought contrast and form to my rendering. So I deliberately smeared the next one too. That’s exactly what I mean about the best art coming from errors!

The finished drawing complete with accidental inkblots.

The finished drawing complete with accidental inkblots.

Step Three: Add alcohol ink.

Okay, once your black ink drawing has dried, it’s time to add some alcohol ink. In this case, I’m using a limited palette of pink and yellow, so I chose pink ink. I sprayed rubbing alcohol on the surface of the painting and then added drops of ink. I used a straw to blow the ink around the surface. What you’re trying to achieve is a very loose, fluid form. Keep in mind that you want to leave some white space on your painting. To achieve colour depth, let the ink dry and then apply another layer. This is a good place to fool around and have some fun.

Loose, organic ink shapes AKA mistakes.

Loose, organic ink shapes AKA mistakes.

Step Four: Apply coloured resin.

Once the ink has dried completely, it’s resin fun time! Rest the panel on a container so excess resin can drip off the sides. Use a level to make sure your panel is even, otherwise gravity will pull the resin to one side. Since I use different types of resin, I wear a respirator and gloves each time I use resin. A well-ventilated room is important too. For further resin tips, check out the Art Resin website.

Mix up your resin (the quantity depends on the size of your panel, but estimate about half of what you would need to cover the whole panel.) Mix the resin well, and then add yellow colourant.

Better product placement than a K-drama!

Better product placement than a K-drama!

To colour my resin. I use a transparent tint which I get from my industrial resin supplier Fibertek. Unfortunately, it’s not yet available for online purchase. An alternative is a very small quantity of Art Resin Neon Yellow resin dye. Don’t use too much or it becomes opaque. Add a few drops at a time and mix well. Another suggestion is a very small amount of acrylic paint. I tried alcohol ink, but the colour is too pale.

Mix the colour in well, and then pour resin on your panel in a loose composition. Go slowly because it’s harder to remove than add. (Although, you can scrape off excess resin with a spatula. I know, because I’ve made ever possible mistake with resin.) What you’re aiming to see at the end is some original pink, some yellow, and best of all a gorgeous orange where they overlap. One caution, Art Resin is very liquid, so it continues to spread while it sets. Many times, I’ve left resin shaped like a donut only to find the donut hole gone when it’s set. Donut becomes cookie!

Once you’re happy with your composition, use a blow torch or heat gun to get rid of the bubbles in the resin. This is also the time to closely examine your resin surface for errant specks or fibres which you can easily remove. I use an old X-ACTO knife.

Sorry this photo is crooked. I must have been high on resin fumes.

Sorry this photo is crooked. I must have been high on resin fumes.

After allowing your resin to set, you have to decide if you’re happy with the composition. Since my personal art philosophy is More is Better, I thought this painting needed more layers. This time, I mixed up pink transparent resin and applied it on top of the dried yellow layer.

Juicy, candy layers! Working with resin always makes me hungry.

Juicy, candy layers! Working with resin always makes me hungry.

Step Five: Final resin coat.

Once I’m happy with coloured resin layers and they have set, I add a top coat of clear resin. This step is optional, because some prefer the look of multilayered paintings. However I have found that white gesso marks easily, so for smaller works like this that can get handled, I put a clear coat on top.

The finished painting!

The finished painting!

More Ideas

Of course, coming from the More is More school of art, I would never make only one painting at a time. In this case, I made six paintings in the lace theme. If you’re going to all the work of mixing resin, it only makes sense to resin more than one work at a time. I used yellow alcohol ink on half, and pink on the other half. You can see that they’re elevated to allow for resin drips.


As well as drawings, I used relief prints of lacy objects and a silver doily for background images. I used pink ink and yellow ink for the second layer, and then the opposite colour for the resin layer. I also added glitter to one. For a closer look, you can see them on my website, in my shop. There’s a magnifying feature so you can see all the details.

The lace gang hanging out.

The lace gang hanging out.

This project isn’t too complicated, but it requires you to loosen up and develop a critical eye. Does the painting look good now or does it need more? (My answer: more.) Think about negative spaces, those places you’re leaving white. Enjoy the new colours created when you layer one transparent colour over another. Most of all, relax and make mistakes because that’s when the best art happens!

Life Long Artistry

I just watched a short documentary film entitled The 100 Years Show, which is about the artist Carmen Herrera. The hook is that although she painted every day for her whole adult life, she wasn’t “discovered” until she was in her nineties. She was invited into a New York show when another artist dropped out. Since then her fame has grown exponentially, both in the art world and through this touching film. I have to admit I teared up as she expressed regret that her husband never got to see her become popular. He had always supported her art.

Although this film touches on injustices of the art world like ageism and sexism, it’s very inspiring as well. Is there an artist who hasn’t wondered why he or she hasn’t achieved more? I’ll to admit to a lot of artist envy. And in turn, fledgling artists ask me for advice and say they’d love to be in my shoes. It’s like an endless cycle of striving.

Herrera made hard-edged abstractions early and never veered from that artistic path. She stayed true to her vision of geometric abstractions and continues to make art even past the century mark. She stayed true to her vision despite being ignored by the gallery system. Was she driven by an innate confidence? The need to create? The emotional support of her husband. Whatever the cause, her life is very inspiring. As I mentioned in my previous review of the Cy Twombly exhibition, finding your own style and sticking with it becomes more epic the longer you are able to stay with it.

Alternatively, you can also experiment stylistically, as long as you keep making art. Neil Young is a good example. He has run through various genres of music: folk, rock, rockabilly, operatic, blues, country, and even grunge. And he goes in and out of style, but keeps making music. In the art world, Gerhardt Richter makes paintings that are highly realistic and completely abstract. When I was at the Tate Modern, I saw one of his digital strip paintings for the first time, so he is continuing to experiment in his eighties.

A portion of the Gerhardt Richter digitalized painting at the Tate Modern

A portion of the Gerhardt Richter digitalized painting at the Tate Modern

After returning from a three-month studio break, I’ve found myself floundering a little. At first, I had a ton of energy and got a few new projects going immediately. Then I had a setback: rejection from the Vancouver Art Rental and Sales program—in the first round! I don’t deal well with rejection, a subject I should probably write about in greater depth since all artists experience it. But whenever my confidence is down, I’m more indecisive in the studio. That’s definitely a problem.

What this documentary illustrated was the idea that an art career can be viewed in perspective of a whole lifetime. While it’s beautiful that Carmen Herrera finally had her work recognized by the art community, what’s really inspiring is the fact that she made her art each day for so many years: after rejections, without financial rewards, and even after the death of her biggest supporter. Her real strength is her belief in herself.

Whether you create the same thing each day or something brand new, the real key is persistence. You have to believe in yourself and be above trends or popularity.

Anatomy of a Painting

Recently I created a painting that was my largest single artwork ever. It was a commission work, so only a few people got to see it in person, but I thought I’d like to write about the process and share the painting with you.

Valerie and I met in 2009 when I exhibited at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. Since then, I have not returned to the TOAE, but Valerie and I have been in touch by email and I have done some commission work for her before. She has also visited my studio while in B.C., but mainly we work together virtually.

It’s always a joy to work with Valerie as she brings a lot of enthusiasm and very few restrictions. She determines the size and then we discuss which existing paintings she likes, and a very general colour scheme. Not surprisingly, we both love the same colours: brights especially pinks and purply blues.

When I work on a commission, it’s a bit stressful, because I’m constantly worried about whether the client will like the final artwork. It’s impossible to put yourself in someone else’s head, and my process is very unpredictable. Since this panel was 40” x 80”, it was even more daunting. So for the first time, I did an actual maquette on a tiny scale.

Directionally, Valerie told me she really liked my new jellyfish paintings, but she was looking for a more abstracted drawing. I had a vision in my head of a painting that used all the resin colours I have. I did this trial piece on two 6” x 6” panels, at a time when we were still deciding whether to do one large piece or diptych. It was a good starting point, as Valerie decided she preferred a single panel and she didn’t like all the red.

Next step was prepping the panel. I apply gesso, let it dry, and then sand. Repeat ten times (at least) until I get a beautifully smooth surface. It feels so nice to apply ink to a satiny surface.

Here’s the ink drawing. I loved the idea of a more abstracted jellyfish, and I think I will move into this direction. It’s an idea of movement rather than replicating the actual jellyfish. This is one way that doing something new, like a commission or a painting for a themed show, can change your painting direction. I also loved the scale here, it inspires me to do even bigger panels.

I showed Valerie the ink drawing, and once I saw it on the computer screen, we agreed it needed more black. I added that and then the fear set in. Once I added resin, it would be final. I would have to start all over with a new panel if I screwed up. For three days, I had the panel up on the wall, eying it as I did other work until I got up the courage to complete it!

And things did go wrong. Mixing large quantities of coloured resin is actually impossible, since they start to cure right in the containers as I’m working! I ended up moving a smoking container of green resin off the table at the beginning of the process. My overactive imagination had me setting the studio on fire, and becoming the building pariah. In the end, I managed to mix up proper quantities of non-flaming resin and achieve the effects I had in my head.

Since resin has toxic fumes, I have to leave the studio before I can see the final result. I returned the next morning to check on the painting and prep it for final curing. When I hung it on the wall, I felt breathless. The painting was so beautiful! I wanted to share it with someone, so I went out in the hall, but at 7:30 am, there aren't a lot of artists even awake. Luckily, Morley, our wonderful building manager, was in and he agreed to come to my studio for a peek. ("Usually people only want me to come in if a pipe is leaking or something," he said happily.) And he was sweetly appreciative. I also took photos so I could show my family. We were leaving that day for Ontario, so I couldn't bring anyone else in. 

One unique thing about Valerie is that she likes a surprise. So I while I keep her informed during the process—especially the parts I can change—once I do the resin that’s it. I have the painting packed and shipped and she doesn’t see it until she uncrates it in Toronto. I don’t know how she feels during the waiting time, but I’m always nervous until I hear back from her!

The happy ending: she loved it. Here it is in her home—with the giant bear friend of her two sons. I think they were in camp when the painting arrived, but I hope they like it too. I miss the painting! But the good thing about creating amazing new work is that it inspires us to new heights.

New Works

Finally! I've done a ton of experimenting this year, mainly because I didn't have many deadlines. After several months work, I've completed some new paintings that I'm really excited about. As my sometimes curmudgeony photographer commented to me today, "I think you're getting the hang of this."

green city, 36" x 72".
 This painting had very grid-like, urban feel as I was completing it. So of course, I added a map of Vancouver. So far everyone who sees it has tried to find their street. I love the motion of the big colour blocks in this painting.

bikini, 48" x 36"
After I finished this painting, I went home feeling completely satisfied and said, "I did a good day's work today." However my cats were more interested in when I was going to do some cat feeding. I love the detail that shows through the many circles, and the beautiful purple created when the blue and pink resin meet. The yellow flower balances out the composition, in fact there's a lovely balance of many elements here. Sigh.

sunset trip, 36" x 48"
This painting was the most challenging for me. For a long time, it sat on the wall, looking beautiful but incomplete. I hardly ever use black resin, but in this case it added that touch of darkness that so many of my paintings need. In addition, the black is not a deep black, but more like a squid ink black. When wiring it today, I noticed that it worked better on the horizontal, creating a hazy sunset scene. 

tipsy, 36" x 24"
Inspired recycling brought this painting to life. I intend to take a few paintings I'm not happy with and rework them with more layers of resin. This painting was a rather plain one with a little colour and a lot of line, and I added the big black stencil form and then went crazy with the coloured resin. Fun, fun, fun!

upon the shore, 36" x 108"
This painting was the first one to be completed, which means it came together really beautifully (with no agonizing on my part.) It was a direct result of the experimentation I did early in the year, playing with a lot of graffiti elements. I was looking back on my portfolio, and I realized that although I love bright colour, I hadn't ever done anything  neon bright. Now I have, and this painting is so amazing. I can hardly wait to see it hanging in a home, it's the biggest piece I've ever done and a real statement.

vibrant, 24" x 72"
This painting is actually part of a series of three that I worked on a year ago. One sold at the Crawl last year to the loveliest couple. And the third one isn't done yet. This painting has a vibrant, modern look and is also an attempt by me to get as machine-like as possible with three coats of supersmooth resin. It's not perfectly smooth though, I don't think my resin work will ever be. And that's good, since the human touch is what distinguishes original art.

A great week in the studio

I'm currently working on seven panels at once, which is a lot even for someone like me, who hails from Short Attention Span, Ontario. At the early stages, I often work similar motifs on all the paintings, they evolve gradually into something more unique.
Anyway, the painting is going really well, and here's a sampling of my past week at the studio. 

I can't get enough ombre, my resin work and
now my paintings have that dip-dye look.
The cats better watch out...

Did some collaged stripes with a 60's feel.

I started striping it, but I stopped since it looked great already.

The stripes led to patchwork patterns.

More crazy quilts, I think it's the combination of order and wild pattern I like.

 These lovely layers are already gone, and now I'm working on some florals inspired by spring.  Stay tuned...

I brake for art

If there was a bumper sticker about braking for art exhibitions, I might be tempted to put it on my little red Mazda. I love travel and I love visiting new art museums and galleries. Anticipation is half the fun, so I pour over the art show listings in the local, national and international press.

In the next year, I have a couple of art trips planned already. On the home front I would like to see the private museum of Bob Rennie, which is opening in Vancouver this year. Apparently, it is by invitation only, but I'm sure if I keep my ears open some well-connected friend will be going and I can tag along. His collection tends towards the conceptual, but I am interested in seeing art that has been selected and curated by the tastes of one person.

I usually see at least one show in the States, and this year it will be Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, 1967 to 1988. This show will be on at the Orange County Museum of Art beginning in April 2010 and running until early September. Apparently it's so far in the future it hasn't even made it to the museum's website yet. I love the structure of the Ocean Park paintings, and his delicate use of colour within that repeated composition. I am also intrigued by the way that Diebenkorn has rotated between representational and abstract works during his career, like another artist I admire: Gerhard Richter.

A study of art and art history can result in derivative paintings without conscious intention. One painting I did drew several comparisons to Richard Diebenkorn, and although it was unconscious on my part, there was a definite similarity. Sometimes, as I work to resolve a painting, whatever seems right may actually be something familiar. To avoid this, I use a tearing process I cannot control that creates a random quality in the work. Still for the visual mind to be completely new is difficult in our image-filled age.

Well here is Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park 54"...

... and here's my painting entitled "Lines Revealed". What do you think?

But what is also interesting is that Diebenkorn was initially inspired by the composition of Matisse's "Open Window, Coulliore" to create the Ocean Park series in the first place. Clearly Diebenkorn has evolved the composition to something quite different, both by hard work (there are over 140 paintings in the Ocean Park series) and by experimentation with colour and abstraction. In the hands of a great painter, inspiration plus hard work equals masterpieces. I am greatly looking forward to seeing the paintings in person.

One door closes...

Bye, bye studio!

Leaving my studio after four years is a bit sad. I had a lot of enjoyment and accomplishment here. In this little studio I developed the resin paintings I now love, which took lots of experimentation and many failures along the way. Here I also moved from representation to increasing pattern and abstraction. And I also met many great people during the past four Culture Crawls.

When I first took on the studio, it was supposed to be only for the summer. I had a show to prepare for, and I knew the only way I could get ready was if I worked with the distractions. At home was the siren song of the computer, the fridge and even an attention-seeking cat. So I finished classes at Emily Carr in April, got the studio in May and started painting like a madwoman for the show in June. Here's what my show in 2005 looked like:

After the show, I exhaled mightily and started coming to the studio only sporadically. I was subletting from Cheryl Fortier, and I noticed that she was always there on weekdays, painting or teaching classes. She treated her art practice as a profession, and I started to do the same with mine. I came to greatly admire Cheryl's professional attitude and work ethic. Despite our different painting styles, Cheryl and I got along tremendously well, and so I ended up staying four years instead of four months. We love art, but we also love bargains, and we spent more than a few lunch hours visiting the sample sales in our semi-industrial neighbourhood. We also ended up doing a show together at the Britannia Art Gallery, a celebration of the places around our studio.

Now Cheryl has gone to France to work as an artist and administrator, and I had a chance to move to a bigger space, a room of my own. My new studio is just upstairs from the old one, since I could not leave the wonderful Mergatroid Building. So far the new studio seems big and a bit alien, but I plan to christen it with hard work....and cute accessories.