Paintings Aren’t Real

So a painting is two dimensional. It can’t be three dimensional. So how do some paintings seem to jump off the canvas? Even a really high resolution photograph doesn’t seem so lifelike. This is likely part of the reason why people fall in love with a painting and pay exorbitant amounts of money for it. As an artist; I love people with money.

I believe the reality illusion is caused by one part of our brain knowing the image is not real and another part being confused because it is seeing something that appears real. There has been a great deal of research done on how we see and it’s complex, a camera is simple in comparison. I’m not referring to our eyes (simple cameras really), it’s our perception and interpretation that creates the illusion. So how do I go about getting the illusion in a painting?

  1. I paint the detail that I can see. There is more detail than I need in any picture that I am painting. Zoom in on a photograph and there is more detail. I’m not disheartened because I don’t have to paint all the detail.
  2. Decide where the attention centre is in the image. There are many names for this but I think of it as the point where my eye is first drawn to. This is where I add most of the detail. I keep on adding detail until the painting starts to look lifelike. This lifelike appearance is a complete illusion. My eyes are looking at something that my mind is telling me looks real but the surrounding area is obviously not real. This dichotomy is where I believe the illusion starts.
  3. I can continue this process in other parts of the image because our vision and attention bounces around an image. I reach a point that I have added enough detail to enough areas of the canvas that the image jumps (I don’t have a better description of it).
  4. STOP! This is the most difficult part. I can continue adding detail until people label me as a realist or I can stop sometime before this. I stop when I’m really bored with the painting or when I can’t think of anything more to do to it.


A caveat.

If you are one of those rare artists who create this illusion of reality with a few deft strokes then disregard all of the above. You don’t need it. And I am jealous.

The Battle Continues

It would be wonderful if I could just do it right the first time. Unfortunately I just don’t see all the relationships until I’m significantly along in the process. I’ve read stories of how Michelangelo could convey movement and form with a few deft strokes. I’m no Michelangelo!

An eraser is a wonderful thing. In this case it’s just more paint. At some future time anyone so inclined might have a good time x-raying the painting to see all the stops, starts and changes. This is just the way I work. I complain about it but that’s just part of the fun.

Sleigh Detail

I have another canvas on my easel and I am yet again fighting with detail. This painting is going to require loads of detail and just using a bigger brush is not going to help. It needs the detail. Ultimately I don’t really mind but I have another picture that I’m dreaming about and it’s going to be quite a while before I can get to it. I’m tempted to start it before this one is finished but I know it’s just my dislike of detail that’s fueling it so I will resist. It’s not a bad thing to have multiple canvases on the go at one time but it used to be because I was waiting for them to dry. Now with acrylics that is not necessary.

This one is actually quite interesting because it’s so light in tone. Usually I start with the darker tones and end up constantly lightening but this one is the opposite. This one is barely half-way but a little work on the sleigh started it jumping (looking realistic) so I’m feeling good about the prospects.

Try House Paint?

Just watched a video again about John Myatt, a notorious British art forger. I am certainly fascinated by art forgery but this time I was interested in paint. John Myatt often used house paint. He appears to have used various paints indiscriminately. I recognise a Liquitex and a Dulux logo on the video. The astonishing thing is that these actually mix. I wouldn’t expect oils to mix although some artists use oils on top of acrylics with success. I’m a little surprised that there isn’t some adverse chemical reaction with various acrylics.

I’m inclined to think that the major art brands of paint are better quality but Myatt didn’t seem to care. The major art brands differentiate between professional and student quality but I really wonder if there is any difference other than price. I use Golden Open because of the longer drying time. I also use Golden standard brand and Liquitex but they definitely dry faster. Sometimes this is a concern and sometimes it isn’t. With oils I used to have paintings sitting around in process for months at a time waiting for them to dry enough to put another layer on top. Next time I’m looking for paint I’m not going to turn my noise up if there is a student version at a good price.



Good artists work for themselves not for an audience


Selling art is a necessity for an artist (although some are not very good at it) but many artists seem to get caught up in it and equate sales to success. Their art often falters at this point. I have talked to many artists who have achieved success only to crash and burn, then resurrect themselves brilliantly with new, better and different works. This is not a fait acompli but it seems to happen often.

If I work for myself then my work improves and evolves. If I work to sell more art I’m afraid I will start perceiving my work as a commodity (that’s assuming that it’s selling) and as a result produce more of the same thing. I look at a lot of portfolios on the Web and they are filled with similar works. Presumably these are works that sell. I need to limit the number of works I do on any theme then move on. If all of them sell then I allow myself to do two more and then move on. I often do only one on any theme. At that point I don’t even perceive it as a theme. If I sell three I might start thinking of it as a theme; this hasn’t happened often (perhaps I should say never). I might revisit the theme later.

Owl Family


Acrylic Opacity

I was trying to post a reply to a question on a forum. Too much work. Register, got an e-mail, replied, tried to post, got another e-mail and an error message, register again , e-mail … post … e-mail … Now I can’t find the original thread. So here it is.

I had trouble with opacity when I first started using acrylics. Oils are much more opaque. Acrylic colours seem more saturated which I like. I solved the problem by over-painting with an opaque white. Titanium White seems good.  I’m using Golden Open slow drying paint. Now when I over paint the white using the beautiful saturated colour, it is fabulous. Actually it seems better than just using the colour directly on the canvas even though there is a white Gesso on the canvas. I might use this as a technique for some colours to make them more vibrant.

Quinacridone Flowers

What I like about acrylics

They don’t smell. I started with oil many years ago. I love the smell of Turpentine, at least the way it used to smell. Turpentine comes from various tree saps. It used to smell like Tea Tree Oil (nothing to do with tea). A number of years ago the refining process was changed to a newer, better, cheaper process. This change removed the smell that I loved and changed it to a harsh chemical odour that I dislike. I stopped painting. At the time I didn’t think it was because of the change in odour but in retrospect I see that it was a major reason. The new acrylics changed that because they hardly smell at all (at least not that I notice) and they are water based.

They dry fast but so long as I can vary the drying time I don’t mind. Drying fast means that I can paint for 15 or 20 minutes, sit down and think about it, then paint over-top. With oils the waiting time is days.

There are lots of pigments. I have always used many different coloured paints so having a good choice is nice and there are new ones (new to me).

Dying Swan

Pictures of Paintings



I’ve always approached taking pictures of my paintings in the same way I used to take pictures of small products. Big advantage these days is colour balance. Digital cameras do this automatically but there are some colour cards that can be picked up from camera stores that can help. I just put a piece of white paper in the corner of the photo. The big problem is that the image will look different on every monitor. You just can’t guarantee colour.

As far as lighting goes, light the painting from each side at an angle. Not so much that it starts showing brush strokes but enough that it doesn’t reflect back into the camera. If you must, varnish the painting with a flat varnish. Sometimes I just can’t get rid of all the glare. The type of light that you use isn’t critical since the camera will compensate but it’s a good idea to use natural or full spectrum lights. Sunlight through a shear white curtained window works. Cameras are so good these days that even full spectrum fluorescents can give good results.

Now bring the image into an image editing application on your computer (Photoshop is the best but there are more out there). Adjust the levels and increase saturation slightly and don’t forget to sharpen slightly. If you are using the latest Photoshop the Vibrance adjustment is a mix of some of these but you still need to sharpen a little. Does the image look like the painting? That is the best you can do.

There are lots of good tutorials about this on YouTube.

How Much?


Valuing my art work is very difficult for me. As a photographer it was relatively easy. I decided how long it would take and meticulously catalogued the hours I spent (my wife would argue the meticulous part), then multiplied it by my hourly rate and added expenses. Now that I knew exactly how long it took, I could decide what I needed to make (or thought I deserved) and increase or decrease my hourly rate accordingly. The hourly rate itself wasn’t quite so simple; I sampled my peers and placed my hourly rate somewhere in the middle. Not at the bottom since I wanted to make a little more than that, and I didn’t want to look like the cheapest alternative and not at the top because I simply wasn’t that good.

As an artist I can command whatever my customers will bear. There is good reason for doing this. If I sell too cheap and sell everything I produce, then I’ll have nothing to show. If I sell everything I might think I am making good money but if I charged a little more I would make more and have something more to sell. I want to charge enough so that my work takes a little time to sell. I have an attic! When a work is finished I put it in the attic, now it’s somewhat difficult to get, so I’m not tempted to put it back on the easel for a little touch-up (there is no such thing).

The compromise I have come to is to simply ignore the price. If it sells great. If not much is selling I’ll consider reducing the price. I don’t take commissions so I’m not in the position of having to work with clients. I consider myself lucky in this respect. As far as coming to the price in the first place I add the height and width then multiply it with a number that gets it to an amount that seems OK. That way size is taken into account and the prices seem consistent. If I need to sell more or less then I can decrease or increase the multiplication value. I can’t lay claim to this idea, I read it on the Web but it works great for me. The huge advantage here is that I don’t have to agonise over what a work is worth, I just go through the pricing process and voila I have a price.

Are you battling with detail?


Detail prolongs the time it takes me to finish a painting. Detail isn’t a requirement for a lifelike quality. Detail uses too many small brushes. It is often the reason I decide that a painting is finished (I just don’t want to do it anymore).

These are some of the problems with detail. You can always add more detail to a painting and sometimes getting a lifelike quality to the painting requires it. I really admire artists who can paint and get a lifelike quality without resorting to tiny brushes and excessive time. I remember classes years ago where I would walk into class and see three or four sets of items on a table. We were given 15 or 20 minutes to paint each one; say an hour total. So we slapped the paint on. I thought this was completely useless. I now look back on the exercise fondly. Some of the results looked pretty good others were terrible but the exercise itself was very useful. I learned to use a bigger brush.

It’s interesting that some of these things have ended up on my sister’s wall. Apparently my mother kept everything.