Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Acrylic Paints Dry Too Fast!

 Two Sides to the Coin

 "Acrylic paints dry too fast!" 
"Oils are so much easier!" 
"It doesn't blend!" 
"Everything's so hard edged!"
"The colors are so bright and garish!"

I hear comments like these quite a bit when teaching and on my teaching website

And many turn away from this medium because of ideas like these. Or employ mediums to try to mimic oils, which will never work just like oils, and so they are frustrated and give up.

I think this stems from wanting to use acrylics as you would oils, or another medium.

Acrylics are their own medium, just as oils, watercolor, pastel, colored pencil, graphite. You wouldn't try to use the techniques for one of these mediums in another!

Instead the key is to understand the benefits of this unique medium and use them to your advantage.

The primary benefit? They dry fast!
 Why is this a good thing?


Layering is key to my technique of painting. It allows you to:

  • Build texture and interest immediately "Alla Prima" All in one sitting without having to wait for each layer to dry for hours or days. By the time you finish covering your canvas with a layer, you can start another!
  • Keep colors clear. No Mud! Because the layers underneath are dry, you can cover them completely with another color with no mixing or muddying of the color below. Or you can only cover partially and have those other layers of color peaking through.
  • Alter and refine your shapes. This is why acrylics are actually much "easier" than oils. Change your shapes, refine your details endlessly. Without scraping, without erasing, without re-wetting and pulling color. Just put in another layer! Paint around shapes to refine them. Nothing mixes, nothing muddies, just new fresh color and brushstrokes.
  • Change your mind. Everything doesn't have to be preplanned, carefully drawn out. You can follow your artistic inspiration. Adding elements, deleting them, change your focal point or the whole concept. Just by more layers.
  • Make fresh, clear brushstrokes. Each layer is starting new. Retain the brushstrokes that are working and simply redo those that don't. Until you like what you see!  
  • Make multiple washes and glazes. Thin your paint with water and you can create a wash that will dry right away. Allowing you to do dozens of washes if desired, in a short period of time.

Keys to Success with Acrylics

Things to Avoid

  • Fiddling. Repetitious brushstrokes. I call it "petting the paint". Lay the paint down, adjust the edges if needed, and leave it be. This is the biggest learning curve. Mastering this will instantly make your paintings fresh. Not mastering it will cause you great frustration with paint gumming up and creating unwanted lumps and patches. 
  • Tiny amounts of paint. I often see tiny, watercolor sized dabs of paint out on palettes when I teach. Use more paint! Load up that brush. That's how you create brushstrokes with clear intent and boldness. It also allows you to blend colors together smoothly. 
  • Dry palette. Your paint will stay moist throughout your painting session if you set up your palette to provide moisture. If not, you will have dry piles of paint, and you won't be able to lay out all your colors for easy mixing. You can use a "Stay Wet" palette which is available, or make your own out of any shallow sealable container. I put down a couple of layers of wet paper towel, topped with a piece of disposable palette paper. Click here for a short video on my palette preparation. 
  • Using Straight Tube Color. The answer to the comment of overly bright colors is simply in mixing. In reality acrylics use all the same pigments as oils or other mediums. the only difference is in the medium that the pigment is mixed with. Acrylic. You can buy many premixed tube colors as well. I prefer to mix my own. It is simpler, more economical and gives you an endless range of color nuances.


Inspiration for Creativity

Painting with acrylics teaches you to be BOLD. To keep your brushstrokes quick and loose, to dance across the canvas. Timing is everything. The medium teaches to quickly and fearlessly lay down the paint. Fearless because you know whatever you lay down you can simply redo if you don't like it! You don't have to feel any pressure of "failing" because everything can be corrected!


You can blend large areas beautifully with acrylics by being aware of these techniques
  • Use lots of paint. Don't skimp. Mix up a big pile of the two or more colors you want to blend.
  • Use a large brush. Synthetics work well, not hard like a bristle, but not too soft.
  • Move quickly and lay down your colors, blending them as you do.
  • Stop when the paint gets tacky! When your brush starts to drag and the paint feels gummy. Stop!
  • Repeat your process once the layer is dry - a minute or so. You can repeat as often as you like, either covering the previous layer completely or partially until you achieve your results.


If your painting seems "hard edged" or lacking a softness that you want. This is timing as well.
  • Be aware of the edges created by your brushstrokes.
  • If this is a soft area, shadows, distance, supporting elements, gradients of color. Simply adjust your edges right after you lay down your brushstroke.
  • Work in small areas, adjusting and blending those edges you need soft. Leaving those you want more crisp. 
  • You will develop a rhythm of laying down and adjusting and blending to achieve the edges you are looking for. 
So, use your acrylics as the unique, versatile, forgiving medium that they are and you will be successful and happy with your paintings!

  "First Light" by Karen Ilari

Monday, May 25, 2015

Painting Animals and Flowers in Acrylic Paint

New Acrylic Painting Tutorial

"Squirrel in the Blossoms" by Karen Ilari


I've had a few requests for a video showing how to paint animals, as well as flowers, so here it is!

Whether you are painting dogs, cats, mice, horses, cows, birds or squirrels,
the same basic steps apply.

  • Create a simple drawing
  • Block in basic shape with values
  • Add features
  • Refine your shapes with comparative drawing techiniques
  • Reinforce your values with color and texture

Like all of my other painting techniques, this isn't a one stroke type of painting. Instead you add many layers, giving you many opportunities to refine your shapes and colors and brushstrokes. No mistakes here!

Start with the big shapes, break them into smaller shapes. Big to small.

Go just as far into detail as pleases your own artistic eye.

You can stop at simple form or go all the way to photographic detail.

After all, whether you are painting a sunset or a squirrel, it's all just shapes of color!

Click here to watch the video

Here is the painting "Squirrel in the Blossoms" 9x12 acrylic on canvas by Karen Ilari

P.S. The painting is available in my Etsy Shop!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

So, What's the point?!

Composing Your Painting

What does that mean? 

It means taking the elements in the image you want to paint, mountains, trees, sky, people, dogs, flowers, and placing them on your canvas in away that tells your story and is pleasing to the eye.
This is something you need to do whether you are working from a photo, or from life.

The first step is to define your

Focal Point

Why do you want to paint this image?

What is your story?

  • It could be something specific - a figure, a tree, a patch of flowers, the sky, reflections, a mountain.
  • It could be something more general - the color, the atmosphere (misty, bright, cold), the mood it evokes in you
 Once decided, this Focal Point will help you make all the other decisions you need to make to create a successful painting. Without one it's easy to get lost in the process Take the time to listen to your own reactions to the scene and put them into words. There was something that drew you to it, now just focus on that feeling and describe it. Grab a piece of paper and write down your impressions. It can just be random words or thoughts that come to mind.

Now you need to narrow those thought down. You may have come up with a number of things you love. The sunset, that sweet bird, the mountain, the shadow patterns.

And here is the hard part. Choose one. Just one.

You can always paint another painting from the same reference. You can paint 5 more! But focusing on one in each painting will help you succeed.

That doesn't mean your painting should be boring, with interest in only one area. It means choose sub - focus elements that support and add to your story.

 Here's an example:
You could choose to focus on
  • The leaves
  • Something in the distance - a building or an animal
  • The patterns and rhythms of the tree trunks
  • The textures
  • The color

When I took the photo I was captivated by the leaves. Their color and shapes. The feeling of being enfolded by them.

So the leaves became my focal point.

And this is the painting


Do you see how in the photo, many areas compete for your attention?
·         The strong contrast of dark and light in the tree trunks
·         The patterns formed by the branches
·         The distant sunlight
·         The leaves

In composing your painting, you want to lead the viewer's eye. You want to take them by the hand and show them around.

So, to draw attention, and lead the viewer to your focal point. Here are your tools:


  • Contrast in Value: where the darkest dark meets the lightest light
  • Contrast in Color: -complimentary colors - vivid against dull
  • Contrast in detail: an area of more detail draws the eye
  • Edges: crisp distinct edges vs soft blended edges


My favorite method for placing my focal point on the canvas is called

  The Rule of Thirds

This means dividing your canvas in thirds in both directions. Like a tic-tac-toe.

Ummmm, you might want to ba a tad bit more precise than this :)

Then place your center of interest on one of the intersections where
the lines meet.


In this case, my focal point is the leaves. so I have chosen one group of leaves to place on an intersection point.

Once I have my focal point placed, I will use my tools of Contrast to tell my story of these autumn leaves and how they made me feel that Autumn day.

  • I placed some very dark darks, in the tree trunk, against the light leaves in the focal point area. Notice I diminished the contrast in the tree trunks themselves. In the photo those very dark trunks created strong pattern against the sunlight behind them. This would be a lovely focal point for a painting, but it isn't the one for this one. So I lightened them up a bit.
  • I also darkened the sunlit field in the distance It still reads as sunlight against the shadow, but diminishing the contrast in value here keeps this area in the distance and quiet. 
  • There are strong darks and lights in the focal area leaves themselves. Dark shadow sides and almost white highlights.
  • I have contrast in the spots of sunlight on the ground. In the photo these spots are more random. Here I have used them to capture the eye and lead to the focal point. As well as to reinforce the story of leaves, dry crisp leaves, golden leaves, in shadow and in sunlight.
In the photo you see a lot of warm color everywhere. Even the shadows feel warm.
  • Instead I used the contrast of purple for the shadows against the the complimentary color of yellow in the leaves.
  • This also sets up the contrast of a cooler color (purple) against a warmer color (golden yellow).
  • And a muted color (purple) against a bright (golden yellow).
All drawing attention to the leaves.

Detail and Edges:
Simply developing the detail and making crisp edges in the focal area sets it apart from the rest of the leaves. As you move back in the painting the leaves diminish in size and detail and their edges become softer. The same is true for the leaves on the ground. In the area near the focal point they are more distinct.

So now, pick up that reference photo you want to paint, and put all these tools to use.
  • Pick one focal point
  • Place it in an intersection
  • Use Contrast to highlight it

More in the next blog about other composition tips and pitfalls.....

P.S. This painting is available in My Etsy Shop

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Photos - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Photo References - 

the good, the bad and the ugly

  Using photographs for reference has a lot of great advantages.
  • Convenience - either printed or on your monitor they are readily available. You can save them up for years, add them to a "to do" file, and have a subject ready to paint at all times and all seasons.
  • Capturing the moment - you can capture fleeting light situations, or expressions on people and animals. Anyone else get tired of the bored look you see on many live model portraits? :) How about wiggly kids and pets?!
  • Detail - you can really see and explore the detail. Textures, forms. You can zoom in and paint almost abstract images from tiny macro details. Or zoom in on that one pesky area that you can't quite get right.
  • Cropping and composing - using simple photo programs you can crop and resize to match your canvas size. A little photo shop and you can even move elements around, play with different colors, try out layers for different option.
And then there are the disadvantages.
  • Shadows. The dark areas in a photo tend to be just dark, very little detail. Much more so than the way we see.
  • Color. Even with a good quality photo you will lose nuance of color, and the colors you see are often too blue.
  • Not a full sensory experience. You aren't there. You can't smell, hear, feel what is going on in the scene. 
  • Detail. This is a good and a bad. It is so easy to see detail in a photo we are often tempted to overdue it.

 Knowledge is power! 

Now that you are aware of the disadvantages, you can work to overcome them

 Rule #1 -Okay, I hate rules. Let's call it

Strong Suggestion #1

Take your own photos

Take your own photos! Am I repeating myself?! This is so important! To help overcome the lack of being there, Be there! Smell, feel, experience. Especially pay attention to your emotions and physical reactions to a scene. You will be amazed that if you take the time to do this, To stop and listen, both to yourself and the scene, those memories will come flooding back when you are painting from the photo. If you have no real connection to a scene - it's just something "pretty" you saw online or on a calendar, it's very difficult to create a moving painting. And we won't even get into copyrights :)

Strong Suggestion #2

Take the time to study your photo, and compose it

Painting isn't just recreating a photo, it's adding your own focus. Filtering it through your eyes, your heart, your mind. What comes out is your experience of this image. And that is different from anyone else's! Expressing your uniqueness. It's golden! More on specifics of composing in my next blog.

Strong Suggestion #3

Edit, Edit, Edit

Remember those shadows? You are going to have to add detail. Oh, and the detail? You are going to have to lose some! And the color? You have those memories, maybe even a sketch you did on the scene. The key to editing is to define your focal point. It's like writing a good story. If an element doesn't lead to, support, or enhance your focal point either leave it out or diminish it's importance.

Strong Suggestion #4

Use that license  

You know, the one that came with your first set of paints. Your artistic License! I hear they revoke it if you don't use it enough :) Move that tree, change the season, change the colors, change the planet! Make it morning, add a figure - heck add a fairy! Have fun and mold that image. Follow your imagination where it leads. Be creative!

Here's an example of one of my paintings and the photo reference....

Coming in the next blog -
specifics on working with composition to turn your photo into a work of art!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

New Tiny Painting - And Bicycle Photo Shoots!

I've found a new favorite thing to do in the morning. 

I hop on my bicycle with my camera around my neck and cruise through the neighborhood. There are so many sweet little houses and gardens that have been fixed up and cared for. I can feel the love.

There is magic in finding beauty in my own neighborhood. The scenes I pass each day. But when you stop and look with an artist's eye, and the lighting is just right - magic!

I especially love the morning light. The air is cool and crisp. There is a fresh, newness to everything. But anytime I'm home and look out my window and see some beautiful light - morning, evening, breaks in the clouds - I can hop on my bike and spend 15 or 20 minutes and come up with some great reference photos!

I've tried this in my car many times. But it's hard to pay attention to scenery and drive at the same time. I love the way on a bike I can move slowly, looking at everything and stop whenever something catches my eye. The camera is on a strap around my neck so I can just shoot a couple of quick shots and move on.

Walking is nice, but you just can't cover very much ground. Especially when the day is cloudy, with the sun peeking in and out of clouds, it's great to see a spot of sunlight up ahead and be able to zoom right to it before the sun disappears! 

The other day it was one of those spring mornings. Pouring rain one minute and sunny the next. As I rode through the streets the sun would break out and spotlight the wonderful spring foliage against the grey stormy sky. The color just glowing. Stunning.

I snapped a photo of this boldly colored home with its wonderful blossoming tree. I decided to do a little 6" x 6" painting of it. Love these trees that watch over the neighborhood! I think I feel a series of tiny neighborhood paintings coming on! :)

"Spring Morning" 6"x6" acrylic on canvas

Haha, looking at it on my screen right now, the picture is bigger than the actual painting :)
Available in My Etsy Shop

Coming soon!
I took this photo as well in this same spot  - There  will be a video out soon of the painting of this one

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I'd rather walk over hot coals!!

Why can't I find an honest critique?! 

And do I really want one?!

Finding a place to give and get a genuine critique is a key element in learning to paint. It is also very rare. There are many places to go to get "nice" comments. And those places are greatly encouraging. But if you really want to grow, the honest critique is invaluable. 

The key here is that getting and GIVING the honest critique is invaluable.

When I started my free teaching website, I knew I wanted this to be a big part of it. Why? Because as I was first learning to paint I knew I needed them, but couldn't find them. Not honest ones. Sure I enjoyed the nice ones, but after a while I realized they weren't really helping me be a better painter. So I decided to start a website! But a couple of things surprised me. One, It's not easy to give an honest critique! And two, what I really didn't expect, I have LEARNED so much in giving those critiques!

At first I dreaded commenting on other people's paintings. I was terrified I would discourage them, offend them. Even start a confrontation. And now, years into moderating my website, I realize the vast majority of our members dread it just as much!

Maybe you will recognize your own thoughts in some of these:

 Why don't we critique? 

1. I don't know enough about painting to critique anyone.
2. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings
3. I just don't like the painting, I don't have anything good to say.
4. Their style or medium is different than mine.
5. I don't have time, I want to get back to my painting

  Why don't we post our paintings for critique? 

1. My painting isn't good enough to share.
2. People will say mean things.
3. People will say things I don't agree with.
4. No one will say anything.
5. I know what I'm doing I don't need a critique.

And so we don't post for critique, and we don't comment. Such a loss! For everyone. Given that you have a safe, moderated space, like our website. You have no fear of any of the above! Don't the excuses sound a little silly written out loud? And to address the more ego-centered issues, we all have things to learn, and in an open, honest, supportive environment we can all blossom. The skills and knowledge you have are greatly multiplied by sharing.

So What IS a good critique? 

1. Honest

2. Constructive

3. Gentle

4. Encouraging

5. A key learning tool

How do I do it?!

  • Look at the painting, read the artist's comments 

    This is a first impression. Don't filter your gut reactions, your emotional ones. But don't write anything yet, either! This is the surface. The unexamined reaction. " I love this", "Ugh that is so much better than mine", "I hate this", "Boring", "Bright", "Cheerful", "Colorful" "Weird", "Ugly", "Perfect". Good impressions, bad ones. With the "nice" critique, we just filter out the negative ones and comment with our positive reactions and call it done. Sometimes I have to give it a few hours or a day to let all this surface stuff have its say. Then I can get down to the real thing.
  • Filter out everything that is about you 

    Some of your first reactions will be all about how this painting compares to your paintings. Better, worse, different. If you feel it is better, you might not even comment! Set all that aside. Stop thinking about you and focus on the painting. Set aside the insecurities and the ego. This in itself is a great exercise! For life, not just for painting :)
  • Filter out everything that is about the artist 

    This may be a friend. They may have made a comment you didn't like. You might feel they are so much better than you, or worse.  All those categories, judgements we make about ourselves and other people. Forget about them. Remember, this critique is a learning tool for you, too!
  • Now, really look at the painting 

    Step through the painting, using everything you know at this point. And you know more than you think you do!
  • Subject choice. Does it tell a story? have a focal point? Lend itself well to painting?
  • Composition. Are the main elements placed well? Does it have balance? Does it lead the eye?
  • Focal Point. Does it have one? Are we led to it? Is it developed enough?
  • Values. Do they create distance? Define the focal area? Describe the forms? 
  • Color. Does it suit the mood of the painting? Is it harmonious? Support the story?
  • Drawing. Does the perspective work? Relative sizes and shapes? Overdone? Underdone?
  • Brush Strokes. Are they effective? Consistent? Support the style of the painting?
 THIS is where YOU really learn. By slowing down and applying everything you have learned so far to a painting that is not yours, you WILL grow leaps and bounds!! Once you get past the "I like it" or "I don't like it" you start the learning. Study their reference photo. Can you find solutions to areas that aren't working?
  • Write your critique

Now just share your thoughts! Keeping these ideas in mind
  • Lead with the positive. Describe your honest positive reactions to the painting. What areas work and why?
  • Be specific. Talk about the points above that you feel are successful. For example: "The composition is great, the focal point well placed. My eye enters by the path in the foreground to the focal point tree, and then the flow of the branches directs me back to the distant mountains and beautiful sky. The tree on the left brings my eye back into the foreground".
  • Be honest. Don't say things you don't mean.
  • What isn't working. If you leave this part out, it's not an honest critique. And this is the part we all have the hardest time with. But it is so key. Address specific points that aren't working. For example: The value of the distant hills is too dark, keeping them from receding. Or, The bright orange in the mid ground trees is competing with the color in the focal point.
  • Offer suggestions for fixes. I would add a little blue to the orange to dull it down a bit. Add some white and blue and a little red to your distant green hills to make them lighter and greyer. Just give input on what you would do. We all have different techniques and have discovered ways to solve problems. Share them!
  • Balance. Think about it this way. If the painter is very much a beginner, there will be many more things that need fixing than that are working. And, also, our egos are very much more fragile when we first start out. What is the answer? Balance. Choose your constructive points so there is a balance of positive and constructive. Same goes for the really advanced painter. A critique filled with praise, and nothing constructive isn't helpful. So tone down the praise and search for those constructive points. Remember they posted looking for a critique!

Some final thoughts

I hope you are feeling encouraged now! Both to give and receive critiques. And if all this sounds too complicated, no worries! Just keep these ideas in mind. Read through them a couple of times and write what comes to mind. Above all, please share. Share your paintings, your comments. Painting is something to bring us together. To share, experience, learn, grow. Discovering and using tools, like the critique, will help us do that.

We are all creative, it's just about overcoming our fears, being kind to ourselves. Releasing what is within. So let's help each other do that!



Saturday, May 2, 2015

Help! I'm Lost!

The Phases of Painting...

by Karen Ilari

There are many elements to a successful painting. Trying to tackle them all at once can be confusing and frustrating. Instead, take your painting in easy steps. Phases. This will make your process simple, fun and successful. Much like the phases children go through growing up, some of them are fun and easy, others are downright challenging!

The key is to focus on just the phase you are working on.  
Put all your attention on one phase at a time.

Phase 1 - Choose

Focus: Your response to the subject
Tools: Your heart

Choose your subject. Whether you are looking at photos, walking outdoors, setting up a still life, or arranging a model. Open your heart and your eyes and turn off your mind.
Let the image speak to you.
Pay attention to how you feel. Your emotions, the way your body reacts - your breath, your heartbeat. When you find an image that moves you, you have found a subject!

If you are out with your camera, snap a picture of whatever moves you. Lots of them!  Then take them back to the studio to look at them again and further refine the one that touches you the most.

Phase 2 - Compose

Focus: Pattern
Tools: Paper and pencil/charcoal/marker, camera, photo editing software

Decide where to put the big elements in your image. What is your focal point? Edit, Edit Edit. If it doesn't support your focal point, leave it out or simplify it. This is where you use all you have learned about composition, shapes, value, balance, placement.

There are a few ways to do this:

 - Thumbnail sketches. Make tiny pencil sketches, using just a few values, or shades of grey, black and white (the white of the paper).

- Compose with your Camera. Out in the field you can use your camera, zooming in and out, trying different angles, until you find one that works well.

- Photo Editing software. I most often use this technique. You can crop, change the size, turn the photo to black and white, even move large elements around.

Phase 3 - Draw

Focus: Placement and Shape
Tools: Pencil or paint

Transfer the major elements onto your canvas. If this is a simple landscape it will often just be a few simple lines. For a more detailed scene with buildings, people, close up subjects, street scenes, spend more time. The focus is to get the major shapes right. In the right place, the right size. Not to fill in any detail. 

Phase 4 - Block In

Focus: Value
Tools: Large brushes and paint

Fill in these large shapes in the correct value (relative light to dark, white to black). Start with the easy ones, lightest lights, darkest darks. Choose an approximate color, but at this point you are focusing on value. You can even use just black and white, or one color and white. The key is to compare each area to the next. Is this lighter or darker than the area next to it? Take your time with this phase. It is very key to the success of your painting. When you are done, all of the white of the canvas will be covered. No detail at all. Just large shapes in the right value. There is the tendency to rush this phase. Please don't! It isn't a pretty phase (think "terrible twos"), but it is so key to the success of your painting.

Phase 5 - Development

Focus: Color
Tools: Medium sized brushes and paint

I squint my eyes a lot in this stage. Still not looking at the detail. I'm zooming in on color. Break those larger shapes into smaller ones based on color changes. Don't look for lines, don't think about painting "things". Just look for shapes of color. From large shapes to smaller ones of accurate color, and don't lose those important value relationships you established in the last phase! Work all over your canvas until it is all at the same level of development. You should now have smaller shapes of the right value, the right color, in the right place.

Phase 6 - Finishing

Focus: Edges and detail
Tools: Medium and small brushes

At this point you can do as much or as little as you like to finish your painting. This is the point where you really express your individual style and vision.
You now have a solid foundation to work from. You can stop anywhere on the scale from very loose and impressionistic to photo realistic or anywhere in between.

 - Continue to break those shapes of color into smaller and more accurate shapes.

 - Pay attention to edges, are they soft or crisp?

 - Work an area until it reaches the level of detail you prefer.

 -  Don't lose the value and color you have already set up, just work within to further refine. ie. If you are working in a shadow area, don't pop in a bright highlight.

 - Remember your focal point. You have already set this up with all the previous steps, but now you can really highlight it with the most detail and finish

Phase 7 - Cool Down

Focus: Overall Impression
Tools: Your eyes, mind, heart and soul

Set your painting somewhere that it is visible in your everyday life. Glance at it as you walk by. Gaze at it while you eat your breakfast. Look at it at different times of the day, different lighting situations. Keep a pen and paper near it. Whenever something strikes you about the painting. Write it down.

Phase 8 - Adjust

Focus: Addressing your notes
Tools: brushes

The changes you make at this point may be small or large. Often for me it is further developing my focal point. Fixing something I missed. Sometimes I will get rid of some of the detail I have painted, taking supporting areas - those not in the focal area - back to a more impressionistic stage.  

Phase 9 - Enjoy!

Don't forget this phase! Sign it! Share it! Enjoy it!