Brush holder (made by Rende)

In the previous post I wrote about avoiding the use of solvents that could be harmful to breathe.

One area where I haven’t been able to avoid using these is in cleaning brushes. But I do have  a few tips for how to reduce the frequency of use.

First of all, I’ve learned through my own experience, that to keep colors pure and clean, I use a different brush for every color group. That means a different brush for yellow and a nother for red. But I still might use the red one for orange. And the brush for blue could be used for a medium but also a dark blue.

I might have 8-10 brushes in use for any one session. If I had to clean them all between sessions, I would have stopped long ago.

Storing paint filled brushes between sessions

What I do is leave just the bristles and metal part (ferrule) standing in water. My husband the woodworker made me two contraptions which hold the brushes in place at the right level in the water. (The design for them originally comes from my first art teacher and beloved passed mentor, Abe Weiner.) Rende and I worked on adapting it to my needs, see photo. Basically it consists of a wooden collar around a glass jar and some clothespins.

You can leave brushes this way for a week or two, but I still check them from time to time if I’m not getting to my painting, just to see that they are still soft and the water hasn’t evaporated too much.

Note: When ready to resume painting, wipe the wet brush off with a rag first.

Cleaning brushes

Note: March 2014 It is 2 years down the road since I wrote this post. I now hardly use any solvent to clean my brushes. I do keep a bottle of used Balsam Turpentine Oil or another minimally harmful brush cleaner and dip the dirty brushes in that to start with, I wipe the worst residue of paint out on newspaper, then all the rest is done with soap and warm water. Takes time, but works well.
I also periodically take a stack of newspapers and cut A-4 ( or 8 1/2 x 11 “) sheets in one go with a steel ruler and sharp matte knife. They are handy for little clean-up jobs during and after painting, like cleaning my razor scraper when I clean my glass palette.

I love my materials, this is a large part of the joy my art gives me, so I care for them pretty well. When the painting is done, or if I’m getting too many brushes in those jars, here is what I do.

I wipe the water off, then wipe the oil paint off as much as possible. I keep rags and a roll of toilet paper for this. Then I take them downstairs ( I don’t do this in my studio because I don’t want the fumes in there) and take out the Balsam Turpentine Oil.  See previous post. Or you could use any brush cleaner. There are increasingly more safe and environment friendly ones, so try to get those.

Now, I have 2 jars, one is for the first dirty wash (previously used). The second is for the clean rinse and is new and clear. Depending on the size of your brushes, each one could fill to a quarter to a third of a normal jam jar.  Long, slender jars work well too, you don’t have to use as much to get a layer that can cover the brush bristles.

I swish the brushes in the dirty wash and rub them out on layers of newspaper until there is as little paint left as possible, I repeat if needed. Then I wash them in the clear balsam turpentine oil and stroke them out again on new newspaper.  I may dry them further with toilet paper.

Then I have some special honey hand soap I wash each one separately with in hot water. I rub the brush on the soap as if it were paint, and rub it around on my palm until I”m sure all the paint is out.  Then I run under hot water and dry, then shape with my fingers, and they are all clean and happy again ready for a new painting.

The honey soap I got at a garden fair and I love treating myself and my brushes to its extremely soft texture and mild fragrance. This soap is handmade and very pure. Commercial soap is fine, but I wouldn’t suggest using one with built-in hand cream, it might leave a residue.



detail of 'Yellow jars'

I thought I’d share some of my discoveries as I journey further with oil painting. Maybe they will spare others having to invent everything from scratch as I’ve had to do. These posts will be filed under the new category ‘Tips & Techniques’.

I’ve been drawing and painting on and off in various media for most of my artistic life (since around the age of 6, please don’t ask how many years that is 🙂 ).  But in the last year I’ve have been working most intensively with oils.

I’ve worked with oils before, and one of the things that always stopped me from progresssing with this delicious medium was that I didn’t want to be constantly breathing in dangerous vapors from turpentine and other solvents. (Water soluble oil paints were also not an option because I really do prefer how oils handle.)

Brush cleaning breakthrough

A real breakthrough was the discovery that oil dissolves oil paints. For awhile I simply used cooking oil and then hot water and soap to clean my brushes. But that was really messy and not that effective.
This problem was solved with Balsam Turpentine Oil. It is a natural product, I can’t tell you more because the label is in German. But it smells a bit milder than normal turpentine. The company that sells it is AMI- Art Material international. I have no idea if they are on the web or even still in business.

I used to use this as a thinner to improve the flow of paint,but it still has fumes so now I use it exclusively for cleaning my brushes. And I do this in a well ventillated place far from my studio. More on the procedure later.

Medium for thinning your paints breakthrough

Then I discovered Zest-it Clear Painting medium, praised be! (no they aren’t paying me, though they should!!)! Their motto is ‘Safe solutions for artists’.

OK, Zest-it is made in the UK, and has solved all my problems of fumes while painting. It is based on lemon oil and also contains linseed oil.
(I don’t use straight linseed oil because I find it gets sticky and the paint dries too slowly.) Zest-it is gorgeous to use and also speeds up drying. I understand they have a brush cleaner too, but I think that could get fairly expensive in use.

I pour out a tablespoon in a tiny glass bowl and dip into it while painting. It doesn’t smell at all, well only faintly of lemon. Yum. A little goes a long way- I’ve been doing well with a 250 ml, around 10 euros, for at least a half year- still have half a bottle left.

So I paint in oils without having any harmful solvents in the studio at all.

More about cleaning brushes in another post

Glass collection painted

March 24, 2012

Sarah's bottle collection,oil on canvas board

Inspired by friend sandi’s collection of glass bottles which I have been painting from photographs the last few months, I began browsing second-hand shops for my own bottles to paint.

They look lovely lined up in the sunny window sill in my studio. I tried photographing them because at this stage it is easier for me to work from photos, but my shots didn’t capture the incredibly beautiful transparent colors.

Enter Rende, the Real photographer, and voila.

photo by Rende Zoutewelle

Some of the bottles are from our kitchen, some from second hand shops. And the lovely amber bottle on the left (just a humble beer bottle) and the small flask with the black cap I found filled with dirt, buried in a field. They cleaned up nicely and are now two of my favorites.

Don’t you just love that jewel-like clear blue!

This was an interesting exercise for me because up until now I’ve not been inspired to paint any of my husband’s beautiful photos. My reasons being that he had already made all the aesthetic decisions and there wasn’t much for me, as a painter to add.

But in this case, it was my vision he photographed, and his expertise made it possible for me to then take it a step further as a painting.

I like the result, I’m still aiming for a less finished, more painterly look.  For me, the amber bottle at the far left comes the closest to that ideal.

I’ve come to the end of a year’s worth of rewarding free-lance projects and have landed in the familiar murky place of ‘what now?’.  No matter how many times I experience this, it feels horrible. It is the flip side of the creative high (which is the feeling of being connected, engaged and doing something that matters). Instead, facing another unstructured day,  I feel afloat, low energy, and unable to find meaning in anything I am doing. (What makes it worse, is I know how lucky I am to have a series of days to fill in as I like. Those of you dreaming of having this should know that it can sometimes feel like an impossible responsibility to fill in unstructured time meaningfully).

I know from experience that one has to hold tight and navigate these periods- ie while I’m down here, might as well look around. And, that they do pass.

Luckily another genuine aid in these times is Eric Maisel’s beyond-excellent book, The van Gogh Blues, where he correctly identifies these kinds of artistic depressions as meaning crises. For example, if you know your life’s path is to paint, but none of your paintings sell, this can bring about a meaning crisis. Maisel gives clear advice on how to combat these sorts of dilemmas.  I also really love how he knows and acknowledges that creativity is a hard calling a lot of the time.

Here is a slightly paraphrased quote from the book:

The entire explanation for the birth of a novel, symphony, painting, scientific theory is that someone has nominated himself as a real worker in that field- has said, I can do this, ignores all cultural, social, religious and even psychological injunctions against becoming a fervent creator..

Poverty is simply a terrible inconvenience.

Failures are simply nasty facts of existence. Marketplace and institutional realities are simple factors to be braved and challenges to be met.

This is the heroism required of you: to reckon with the facts of your existence, to make hard choices, and to keep meaning afloat even as you struggle.

-Otto Rank, Art & Artists, quoted in E. Maisel’s The van Gogh Blues’

Continued in next post 

One of the more helpful sections in Maisel’s book is the one dealing with meaning. Since artists’ depressions are often meaning crises, it is important to understand how this works.

Slightly paraphrased in Maisel’s words,

Making meaning is simply doing good on earth while you can according to your own lights and despite everything. Being proud of your work, and proud of the person you are trying to be.

So even when we are successfully working on realizing our creative goals, how do we maintain intention when meaninglessness threatens? For instance, when the ego gets bruised by rejection, when someone else gets an opportunity we coveted, or we face a string of professional failures?

That’s where a practiced response of self compassion (and not negative self talk) comes in. Maisel calls it ‘breathing through the moment’ and going on anyway.

It is a lot of work, and it works best if one is committed to doing a little bit every day, rather than large heroic gestures.  Then you create the resiliency needed to bounce back.

‘You must restore meaning immediately after each blow to meaning’. I would add here, that the blows are not only external, they can originate internally as the result of the end-of-project blues, or writer’s/painter’s block, or other sudden losing of motivation for a long-term project.

When I am asking ‘Why do this, what it is worth, who cares’?, the above suggestions help me get back on track and realize no one else cares,  that’s not why I do it.  It is my life that I want to create in a meaningful way. And it gets progressively easier to get back to that original commitment and start taking small steps from there.

Maisel puts it this way:

A self friendlier way would look for the opportunity to please yourself, help yourself, live your life plan, act righteously, make meaning and find joy. The beauty resides in you alone.

 I am the beauty in life. You combat belittling, being ignored, being called a failure, feeling
powerless with this sentence, ‘I am the beauty in life.’

continued in next post

Maisel doesn’t beat around the bush, he understands that when artists land in a meaning crisis, they are up against the big questions.

Given my  limited understanding of the nature of the universe, how shall I organise what I believe to be true into a personal creed that provides me with a sturdy rationale for living?


On what core operating principles can I base a meaningful life?

Once these are determined, the task is to structure your life in such a way you can keep creating meaning:

Creators have trouble maintaining meaning, one way they do it is to create.

Which is why it sometimes feels like such a drama when the creative energy runs dry for a period.

 A creator’s time spent not creating can feel like a living death if he hasn’t figured out how to force his ‘other time’to mean.

It turns out that it is fiendishly hard to carry out the intention of living your life plan, creating worthy work and making   every day feel meaningful.’

The remedy is to practice extreme self support and care, confronting addictions (which are often creative’s way of dealing with massive amounts of unchanneled creative energy), and taking actions. The last one, taking even a small action I think is the most effective.

Yesterday, my funk turned right around by doing something very simple: In recent weeks, I’d moved all my oil painting stuff down to the former harpsichord painting space. This gave me more room and order when painting downstairs, was more social, and remedied the overclutter of my upstairs studio.

Well, I was miserable painting down there! When I faced that and simply moved my oil painting supplies back up to my studio where I felt more comfortable(albeit crowded), protected (the downstairs space has a huge glass window facing out onto the road), warmer, and had my music again,  I started painting right away and was happy.

charcoal drawing early stage

I was preparing an exercise for my drawing group by doing the assignment myself.  I find that this helps to expose any unclarity or unexpected things that may crop up for my students.

Teaching always inspires me to get drawing myself, and my students’ fresh approaches often open doors of perception for me. Plus it is just a pleasure to see people unfold, take leaps, make discoveries.

I set up a simple still life of a pear on some cloth and covered some paper with a layer of charcoal, rubbed carefully out with some tissue. Then , working between line (using charcoal) and light areas (using a kneaded eraser) , I picked out some contours. The idea in this is to try to see in light and shadowed areas rather than line.  Here is a next stage.

Dark areas worked into and highlights picked out

This was only a demo for my class, so for a change I didn’t overwork it, here is where I left it:

Charcoal pear

Then, I liked it so much I did an oil painting of the same subject:

Pear on cloth, oils

Well, the painting of the song board is completed. Johan came to pick it up this past week.

The etalage is incredibly empty. It was like having a friend there, a real presence,  waiting every morning. I’d look at the work of the past day and plan what the steps for today would be- and by some miracle, flower by flower by flower, it all got done.

It took close to 80 hours spread over 8 weeks, not counting the planning and design. Those hours aren’t all painting time, they also include drawing, transferring, some research,  and reworking some flower drawings.

I always have a bit of resistance to adding the final blue arabesques, those clumps of curls and swirls around the edges. I’d prefer a more streamlined look. But the blue decorations are trademarks of these Ruckers Flemish instruments from around this time (1638), so they are not optional. They are fun to do, and the artist can hide all kinds of inside jokes in the complicated strokes. You may be able to spot a few that are not just designs but contain figurative elements. Once I hid a bike, a mermaid, and even a boxer (dog).

The lines, scallops and arabesques are done with an applicator so that they will be raised in relief. Originally this was done with a mixture of cobalt glass and casein binder. I use gouache and casein with a smidge of acylic gel for elasticity.

Here are Johan and I, Johan has just finished playing air harpsichord, Bach’s flower concerto I think.

And now the instrument is back with its creator, Matthias, who will add strings, keyboard and base, several layers of paint (on the outside!!!) and  other finishing touches. All of us involved with the birth of this instrument are enjoying seeing it come alive as each person does his/her part. It is one of the most rewarding (and intense) projects  I’ve worked on. I’m so grateful it is safely back in Germany in Matthias’ workshop.