A question from a reader…

Let’s start the year off with this note from an artist in Michigan, Gail Hayton…

Hi Heather,
I am one of your in cognito blog readers.  LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your work.  I am a retired woman who went from engineering to art for a second career.  I am mostly self-taught but have a degree in architecture for many years ago that basically gave me an undergrad in art.  I was interested in your use of the Artboard gesso and bought a jar.  WOW, it is so thick and heavy.  I was wondering if you could tell me how you apply it.  I have been using ampersand board, but don’t like it.  I want a smooth surface, but one that has enough tooth that I don’t have to apply several coats of paint to get a solid look to my paints.  I have recently branched out into doing some trompe lóeil work and had to use several coats of paint.  That process takes so long and I tend to start forgetting what colors I mixed together.  I am hoping the Artboard gesso may relieve this problem.  Do you thin your stuff or what?

Before I answer, here is a link to her website so we can all see the work she is doing and perhaps other readers will have thoughts as well…Click Here to view

And here is the gesso she is referring to…

Art Boards Gesso…gesso1

gesso 2

gesso 3

I’ve hopefully made these pics large enough for you to read the label. It gives a most thorough explanation of why this gesso is different from most out on the market. I’ll also include a link here to Dick Blick, since that is my go to source for almost all of my art supplies. Click here

And no, I’m not a sponsor for either DB or ABs gesso, though I wouldn’t turn down an offer.

Late last summer I did a marathon of panel making. Here is a lousy photo of just a part of the stack of 40 plus boards which I am thrilled now to have ready to pull and paint on…


You can’t see very well, but these are the canvas covered Dibond panels which have been gessoed to Kansas and back and then wet sanded, with excruciating care, and finally “oiled out” with a thin coat of Old Holland raw umber. What I was trying to show was how thin the final stack is, taking up just a few inches to house dozens.

So, back to Gail’s question…

I too tried the Ampersand boards and was most unsatisfied with their finished surfaces to paint on. I eventually used them as test panels to try various gessos on the market and even then, they just didn’t measure up.
As you can read on the label in photos above, this gesso is designed for panels. While it’s true that I technically am painting on a canvas, by the time it is adhered to the aluminum Dibond and then gessoed with many layers, the desired surface is as smooth and texture free as I can make it. The resulting panel is rigid and the sub structure of the Dibond is the most stable of any substrate available.

Unlike a canvas stretched over wooden support frames, there is zero movement on these panels. I’m no chemist, but I suspect that the Art Boards gesso, as it makes several references to being formulated for panels, and loaded with those “refined solids” , while providing a superior “tooth” … that delicious “eggshell vellum” surface might possibly crack under the bouncy movement of a canvas stretched over traditional wooden bars.

I can attest to the truth of every claim on their label. Good tone, great surface, creamy application, easily sandable, and love that tooth.
Ah, but yes Gail, it is thick. And boy is it expensive.
After years of experimentation, I have stumbled on this formula for gesso application.

For the first coat, I use a student grade product. Bought by the gallon, I’m satisfied with the Dick Blick version of acrylic white gesso. It is much thicker than others out there but still thin enough to cover well and quickly. I use a 3 or 4 inch wide beveled cheap plastic putty knife which spreads it on nicely without raised edges, (at least for the first several coats).

I let that dry overnight and lightly sand with an 80 grit foam sanding block, and then the second coat goes on. Repeat drying, sanding and recoating with a third coat, and I’m ready for the expensive stuff.

The thick creamy Art Boards gesso does indeed dry fast. And there is no easy way to do this, especially on a large panel, without some ridging from the putty knife. With each successive coat, the surface becomes slightly smoother and the weave of the canvas no longer hides imperfections.  Believe me, this is the hardest part of the entire painting process for me.
I work very quickly, keep the lid covering the tub in between panels, even sand the edges of the plastic tool to avoid divots which would leave marks. I carefully light the garage, and turn the panel often, looking for unwanted tool markings. Those 8 foot panels are the stuff of nightmares.
The first coat of that good stuff is usually ok.
Because of the chalkiness, I sand less aggressively in between coats, using a 120 grit block. But I’ve learned that two final coats are all it takes. Yes, I could probably get away with one coat of the Art Boards, but the second coat seems to level out some of those errant application marks.
Then, it sits for at least three days to dry completely.

Anticipating a question, “why not use a brush”, been there done that and can’t handle the intensive sanding required to reduce the brushstroke markings down to the smoothness I prefer. Yes, I’ve tried to wet the surface so the paint can “flow” better, but that dilutes the gesso in unpredictable ways and defeats the purpose of buying a thick rich product.

The wet sanding process is where you can control just how much tooth you want. I use those same sanding sponges, probably a 120 or 220, and have a bucket of water and some junky terry cloth rags. With very little water, and working in one foot square spaces at a time, I gently sand until there is a slurry. Gently. It doesn’t take much but you can easily over do this…I have learned the hard way and had to redo many panels for lack of patience.
Once you get that slurry going, you want to take the rag and kind of wipe it, smoothing it out, without lifting it.This too takes some practice. You want to keep the slurry moving until it starts to dry and pull and then ease the rag off the surface in one last swipe.

Yeah, I probably lost most of you a while back, and I’ve had other artist friends throw brushes at me in dismay at this stage of the explanation, but, with some practice, it is not so difficult. Hard on the old joints, but not rocket science, just tedious.
After you spend a few hours wet sanding a panel, you start paying much more attention to  smoothing out all the marks you can while applying those coats of gesso so you have less work to do at this final stage.

I will re-emphasize the “gently” part because it is easily possible to sand the tooth right out of this stuff leaving you with a glassy surface which will repel your paint. Been there done that. Easy does it. And a final very light sanding will help if you go too far. I can tell immediately, when I apply the raw umber as a ground, if I have sealed up all that tooth. Still have the option to rescue it with a good sanding but it is one step too far so… again with the patience.

I see that Gail is famous for her miniatures. There should be zero problem getting the gesso to lay smoothly and without ridges with one pass of a putty knife, but I’d still lightly sand between coats. I’m jealous.

Well that became a tome. But I needed a break. I’m currently mid-way through one of those larger paneled paintings and the old fingers were getting stiff. Typing has loosened them up but I’m thinking a night of knitting by the fireside might just reset all the gears.

Gail, if you’re still reading, thank you for your question, your kind words and your interest.
I’m happy to answer any follow up questions and wish you the best of luck.

Yours smooth panels and flying brushes,


A quick follow-up…

This from Gail…
I have 12 boards ready to go this week so I will study your blog and try this.  The only question I have is that since you are applying so much gesso, to the point that the texture is gone, what purpose does the canvas serve?  I am guessing it is only to give you a fighting chance of an even application of the gesso.  Or does it somehow still aid the application of the paint?

Yes, I asked myself the same question about the canvas. The original use of canvas wrapped Dibond came from an article written by Ross Merrill of the NGA. He was looking for the most stable substrate for a canvas and came up with the Dibond. The archivist approach is that the canvas could, theoretically centuries from now, be removed from any support and maintain its integrity.
I know of a few artists who are painting directly on the Dibond.
It is powercoated with some enamaled paint process so the board arrives with a white painted surface. I sand that down to allow the gel medium to bond better when attaching the canvas. My hesitation is whether the gesso alone would bond sufficiently to that enameld paint to be “archival”.The bond of gesso on canvas has been proven over many centuries so I sleep better at night.


Creative Maturity

An imaginative and beautifully designed magazine, Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Ideas, is the creative brainchild of Patrick Phillips. A few months ago we spoke about including my work as one of the featured artist profiles and it has been published in this month’s issue.


When I spoke to Patrick earlier this summer I was preparing to work on a painting which had the title, Aren’t we aging well…which I wrote about in the last blog entry.

The musings in MV Arts and Ideas, about “aging into creative maturity”, were in part a reflection on how I was going to interpret the title for this intimate portrait of myself and Pat…but were also part of a current dialogue that I have been having with the muses about how, even as a mid-career artist…read, she’s gone through enough sketchbooks and pencils to fill a spaceship…there are still daily moments of uncertainty as I sit in front of the easel.

I expect that most of you artists out there who are of a certain age are also still balancing the confidences of craft with the moments of dreadful doubt…especially since so much of what happens between the brush and the panel is a mystery. I’d love to hear how well all of you are “aging”.


Granary and Garden

We’ve been home for over a week now and the re-entry hubub has settled down and I am back at the easel in earnest. And back in the garden as well but not so earnestly as the summer heat wave continues. But this is all good because I am getting my garden fix early in the cooler morning hours and then the rest of the day spent at the air-conditioned studio easel feels like a spa.

Time then to post some photos from the Granary show. The opening was wonderful…a sea of art lovers with many new faces and lots of kind words of support. I took some photos after the crowds had cleared to show you blog readers the installation.

And not to be left out… a few snaps from this morning’s raid of one of the potato bags.

I’m in the mood for some vichysoisse and decided to dig around for some spuds. A task which I approach like an archeological expedition… gently brushing aside layers of dirt to reveal the brightly colored treasures. It’s just magical. Though I’m not too impressed with the yield so far. I welcome any advice from all my master gardener pals on how to improve next year’s crop.

In the coming weeks I’m going to look back and show a couple “paintings in progress” photos I took while working this spring. And I’ve got a slew of panels ready for a series of smaller paintings which will be headed out to Denver for the Gallery 1261 small works show in November/December.

Meanwhile I finished this piece the other day…(here’s an unvarnished studio shot)

It’s title is “Aren’t We Aging Well”…from the title of that wonderful Dar Williams song. I’ve carried just the title forward through several sketch books and when I decided on a visual interpretation it was originally supposed to be an anonymous couple, though always two women. But after Pat and I posed together in the studio yard…I used the remote shutter release on the camera to sneak some shots from behind the chairs…and I looked at the pictures, I realized that we were in no way anonymous. And then it became so deeply personal that I took it out of the Granary roster and put it aside to work on after the show.

I’m so glad now to have it finished …and have cleared some wall space in the studio to hang it after it dries, is varnished and photographed…just for us.

It has been years since I allowed myself to do a painting that wasn’t destined for a gallery or show. It’s good, as the song says, to “steal out with my paints and my brushes”…and paint as if nobody is watching.

But now…I’ve got to be getting on with the current still life. A few of the familiar props are making another appearance like the red stiletto, the silk camisole, and is that one of Polly’s cigarettes ? Really ?

Patience dear reader…all will be revealed…in good time.




Chained to the easel…

that’s where I’ve been for weeks now. It’s super crunch time as I see the deadline for the July show coming closer….and closer. Every waking minute needs to be spent with brush in hand in order to meet the ambitious goals I have for producing more and better work this year.

You will have noticed that writing blog entries, which can sometimes take hours, have been shelved along with dinner invitations and all other social interactions, except for PT which is keeping my knees and back from seizing up all together.

I do monitor the incoming channels via email, internet and facebook so the outside world does get in… in short controlled bursts.

This morning one of those playful but interesting FB threads came through from a friend…World Book Day. Grab the book closet to you right now. Open to page 56, and choose the 5th sentence. Publish it as your status and write these rules as a comment. Don’t choose. PICK UP the CLOSET book.

I am a book lover so… I reached behind my easel chair and grabbed the closest book…it turned out to be Mechanical Drawing for High Schools by French and Svensen, used by students at the George Washington High School in Manhattan, N.Y.City between 1936-39…interestingly enough one of the students who signed it out in ’37 was George O’Neill…almost a relative ?

I use this book as a prop and it has appeared in several paintings…here’s one called Book Mark…

and a recent one, By Design…currently available at the Granary Gallery

So I opened to page 56…

and the 5th sentence reads…”When a pictorial sketch is dimensioned, the only additional consideration is to use care to see that all extension lines are either in or perpendicular to the plane on which the distance is being given.”

Which was a much needed reminder that the muses are here…just over my shoulder as it were…helping me struggle through the long hours of trying to get those extension lines just right…

Here is a shot of what I was painting when that facebook comment came through on the iphone beside me…complete with T-square in place to make sure those carefully considered doors are perpendicular !

So what book is beside YOU ?

winter workshop relocation

We have had one day in the last two weeks with temperatures above freezing and I was able to get out to the garage and finish wrapping the rest of the panels working late into the last of that afternoon sunshine.

But, along with the rest of the country, we have been shivering ever since. In this part of the state the meteorologists use Harrisburg International Airport as the official temp. gauge. This morning I happened to be at HIA and could verify that it was indeed 1 degree outside. And since the little dribbles of water that we had left running from both of log cabin faucets decided …..to….stop…….dripping……..yesterday…………morning……………I can attest to the fact that it is too cold for those panels to be out in the unheated garage.

So I have brought them all, all 20 of them, inside and up the steep and narrow stairs to the library loft.

Last night I got  the first coat of gesso on the back sides. This is more easily done with a wide putty knife…unless the plastic one you bought for this purpose was used as a chew toy by your apprentice…

Today I will turn these all over, give the canvas a light sanding to remove stray bits of dried gel medium (which is the adhesive I use to attach it to the Dibond) and then …using the new putty knife…will start the first of several coats of the acrylic gesso. I find that I can use the scraper up to about the third coat before the streaks it leaves are too prominent. I’m going for the smoothest, weave-free look possible.

The final coat will be with the Art Board Gesso and probably brushed on. But I’m eager to see if working up in the loft, with it’s great source of light, will make any difference to how well I can apply the final layer.

This all will have to wait just a bit longer however…since the phone reception is poor up there…and I am monitoring a delayed flight due to mechanical troubles…and the computer has now become command central until my traveler is wheels up…and safely back down.

Stay tuned.

The Mechanic

OK, so Dick, the original owner of the overhauls as evidenced by his embroidered name over the pocket, was not a traditionally built woman. Let’s just say that I used a lot of artistic license in the rendering of that garment. But the rest of it went very quickly and in one sitting ….voila…

It has to dry for a few days and then I think a coat of varnish would bring it up to the same sheen as the metal.

And yes, I did use a coat of gesso first. I had done a rough sketch and taken some photos of me in the uniform in the mirror and then used the new puppet warp mode in Photoshop 5. That was fun. So I cut out the silhouette and traced it onto the hubcap and gessoed within that outline. It took perfectly and was dry in the time it took me to eat lunch.

Something different for the resume huh.

Now it’s time to baby proof and puppy proof the log cabin…Zoe and her new pal Hamish are arriving later tonight for a Thanksgiving that couldn’t be beat !

Many happy gobbles to you all,


Having a heat wave ?

Take full advantage of nature’s drying oven and….make panels !

The studio yard doubles as workshop in order to get a jumpstart on a batch of smaller panels.   Day one – Dibond cut to size.    Day two –  Portrait grade cotton canvas wrapped and adhered with acrylic matte gel.    Day three (morning) – Call Pat on her way home from market and ask her to detour to pick up some Liquitex acrylic gesso… use plastic putty knife to paint backside of panels.    Day Three (afternoon) – use same putty knife to paint front side of panels.    Day Four (today) – second coat on front with Liquitex.

Let the sun do its thing today and they will be ready tomorrow for the first coat of ArtBoard Gesso. I’ve written about it before when first trying it out and after months of working with it…it’s become my gesso of choice. The beautiful chalky surface is easily and quickly worked into a smooth paste using a fine sanding sponge and a little bit of water. I can control the texture and even when it’s glassy smooth there is still plenty of tooth to hold the first coat of oils. It is pricey enough that it would be wasted on the primer coats, but well worth the expense for the finished product.

I’ve got two more shows this year and want to have new works in both so there is no down time in the studio for this artist.  I’ll be posting the expanded exhibition schedule soon…but in the meantime mark your calendar for these two dates…

1261 Gallery     Denver, CO.

Group Show     Opening October 15th


4 Women Paint   York, PA

Opening  November 13th, 14th

Artist Talks the following weekend.

Back to the easel for me… stay frosty out there !

Sad day in Menemsha

There was a major fire in the fishing village of Menemsha yesterday. The coast guard boathouse and several docks burned down to the waterline. It happened quickly and as of this morning there are no reports of major injuries. The other miracle of this story is that the wind was blowing out to sea. Within a few feet of the burning structure on the inland side are the historic fishing shacks that line the basin. They are bare wooden shacks, many of which are simply  standing wooden tinderboxes…and most of which are working boathouses for the few remaining commercial fishermen on the island. Had the wind turned, they all would have been gone and with them the history and charm of that tiny island village.

There are reports of bravery this morning of fisherman who towed flaming but untethered boats out of danger and away from the gas station on the other side of the harbor, and firefighters who managed to control and contain the blaze, and townspeople who set up watering and cooling stations and helped to clear the roads for emergency vehicles.

This is the Vineyard. They know how to take care of each other.

Shortly after the fire began there were reports filtering onto Facebook and via local TV stations. Pat got the news and came over to the studio to let me know. Earlier that  morning we had picked up the big paintings for this summer’s show from the photographer and I was in the process of framing this…

For most of the winter the shacks and boats and birds and scenery of Menemsha were my companions as I took care to faithfully render the rigging and shingles and horizon full of houses.

Like many generations of artists, I have been drawn to the historic charm and beauty of the fishing village. My own tastes tend to  run toward the somewhat grittier side of the working aspects of the place. The way the detritis of the commercial fishermen, their boats and gear and comings and goings, make for a constantly evolving composition. Lobster pots and long lines, bouys and traps, pulpits and netting all get tossed around by the wind, the tides and the human hands that haul them to bring in the catch of the day.

And if you hang around long enough, and show up when the tourists have left for the day…or the season… the light that is so strong and ever changing on that island will reveal hidden treasures of beauty. For the last couple years I have concentrated on trying to capture some of what I see there  and have used the challenge of the large canvas to find my way into the corners,  behind the boathouses, and between the shadows of Menemsha.

As I look back now, the focus has been pulling outward…

from the closeup of the swordfishing troller Strider’s Surrender…

to the larger view of the boats and shacks Out Back O’ The Galley…

and opening wide up to the basin as seen from the top of Crick Hill just after dawn on a late October morning…

And in all of those paintings the Coastguard Boathouse can be seen. At first just a hint of the end of the dock to the left of the Strider. Then a sliver of white with the famous red shingled roof at the end of the road to the left of the big shack Out back of the Galley.

And this year, sadly the final portrait… it is the first building to catch the full morning sun at the far right of the painting and, weighed down by the gaggle of seabirds, it serves as an anchor.

Sadly today there is a new horizon…


What does an artist do when a still life set up requires a subject that is…out of season ?

When the very name of the island that serves as the backdrop has the name Vineyard in it and… it is June ?

Well, she takes herself to the grocery store…or to her iphone.

Yep, who knew. Way back in April when this painting idea came to me  and I went to the new supermarket in search of props only to find that concord grapes are not among the items shipped in to our late winter township from some warmer climate on the other side of the globe. While wandering over to my favorite section…the cheese gazebo…I looked up and poof ! Concord grapes, complete with leaves ! Not exactly what I wanted but in a pinch… !

Now, in the middle of June, as I scramble to complete the paintings for the Granary Show, it is time to pull those photos from the camera roll on the trusty iphone and print them out as reference for the still life that sits before me.

You’ll have to wait a bit longer to see the finished result…but here’s a teaser…