SAVE THAT BOX! Drawing and Painting on Corrugated Cardboard

If you're looking for ways to save money on art supplies (and what artist isn't?) hang onto your corrugated cardboard boxes for drawing and painting.  Once it's primed with gesso, corrugated cardboard will take acrylic or oil paint. If you want to save even more money, use flat white latex house paint instead of gesso. Corrugated cardboard is lightweight so it's ideal for carrying to class or plein air studies. Unprimed cardboard is a good color for sketching and will take most dry media.

You can prime right over the printing as long as it's not a slick laminate.
To tint the primer, add a little acrylic paint to the gesso or latex house paint
Artwork done on corrugated cardboard will not be archival quality.  Instead, though, you may gain a greater sense of freedom and willingness to experiment with a cardboard canvas.

Conté on unprimed corrugated cardboard.
Conté on cardboard primed with tinted gesso.

Acrylic color study on cardboard primed with gesso.
Because corrugated cardboard is lightweight and is easily cut into any shape, it's also great for temporary signs and decorations.  A few years ago my art class was asked to make signs for the drama club's production of Footloose.  We made two 6' x 10' signs to fill the auditorium windows.  
Since the windows are divided in half by the the frame, we decided to divide
each sign in half - making them easier to work on, store and transport.

We were able to get large corrugated cardboard boxes from a local appliance retailer.  However, none of the pieces were as large as the 6' x 5' we needed for each panel.  The solution was to piece the panels together with kraft paper tape (this is the old-fashioned brown tape that you have to wet to activate the adhesive).  Once the panels were painted and hanging up, any ridges or uneven areas did not show.  The panels were primed and painted on both sides entirely with house paint.

Now that you've got a few ideas, go to your recycle bin and SAVE THAT BOX!

Dear Art Accomplice: Painting a Coat-of-Arms?

I am a self-taught artist, commissioned to paint a family Coat of Arms...I prefer the look of the medieval black background, but cannot find many examples. Where could I find examples of old, dark paintings of Coat of Arms?  And do you have any tips on painting armour?  I have Winsor and Newton metallics, but they not very opaque.
-Barbara in Toronto

If you're looking for an older, more authentic style - why not go right to the source and look at original medieval art, especially manuscripts.

Many libraries and museums have digitized their collections.  While the access is wonderful, big collections can be hard to browse if you aren't searching for a specific manuscript.  An easier way is to do an image search on Google (or whatever search engine you prefer).  I noticed that the search results were better when I added the century, for example "13th century illuminated manuscripts" or "12th century coat of arms."
showing the arms of Richard de Clare II,
Earl of Hertford and Gloucester; early 16th century

Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince of Wales;
from William Bruge's Garter Book, c. 1430-40

The Codex Manesse; 14th century 
The Codex Manesse; 14th century
The Codex Manesse; 14th century

Another type of medieval art that might be helpful to look at is stained glass.  It was an important medium in the Middle Ages and may give the bold lines and dark background you're looking for.  Here again, an image search on a specific century should turn up a few examples.

You're right about metallic paint - it is not very opaque. Try putting down a layer of color, similar in value to the metallic. Let that dry, then go over it with the metallic paint. To paint the silver of armor, for example, first put down a layer of gray (middle value). Then, when it's dry, go over it with the silver metallic. If it's still not "metallicky" enough, give it an additional coat.  For gold, you might put down a layer of yellow ochre first.  You can also try mixing the metallic directly into the color though, personally, I think layering works better.

Thanks for your question!
All the best,
Art Accomplice

Additional Information:
The art and science of "coat-of-arms" is called heraldry.  Heraldry became a necessity in the 12th century when knights began wearing helmets that fully covered the face. Devices on shields, surcoats (coat-of-arms) and horse trappings were needed to identify knights in battle and tournaments.  Heraldry is a visual language in which each color, pattern and symbol has a meaning.  This is a popular subject so you should have no trouble finding books cataloging heraldic devices (as always, check your local library first).  A good introductory web site is

Dear Art Accomplice: Fluidity with Tube Oil Paints?

I recently saw a demo video of a Franz Kline painting.  The demo used house paint (which is not recommended for a fine art project).  What would I have to add to get that same kind of fluidity with tube oil paints?
-Mary in HI

Your question raises two good issues.  Let's take the first one: how to thin tube oil paint. Typically oil paint is thinned with a combination of turpentine, damar varnish and linseed oil. Ralph Mayer in his renowned The Artist's Handbook recommends the following formula for general, all-around purposes:
Stand Oil - 1 fluid ounce
Damar Varnish - 1 fluid ounce
Pure Gum Turpentine - 5 fluid ounces
Cobalt Drier - about 15 drops

Some artists just use turpentine and linseed oil in a mixture of 3 parts oil to 1 part turpentine. Either one alone will also thin paint, but this is not recommended.  Turpentine on its own makes the paint too watery.  Linseed oil alone can, in time, cause the paint to wrinkle. An alternative might be a Winsor & Newton product called Liquin.  Liquin is a non-yellowing medium for thinning oils and alkyds.  It also speeds drying time.  There are several Liquin products currently available.  Liquin Fine Detail is the most fluid and may give you the low viscosity you are looking for.
I'm not convinced, however, that any of the mediums mentioned above will give you the desired fluidity without sacrificing opacity.  You would have to experiment to find the right paint to medium ratio.  You might find the right combination but if you plan on working big it could get very expensive.  Which brings us to the second issue: why not use house paint?

The reason Kline used commercial enamel house paint is that he needed the fluidity for Action Painting.  That same fluidity is difficult to achieve with tube oil paint especially in large quantities.  Many fine artists like Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, David Alfaro Siqueiros and, of course, Franz Kline used commercial paint.  In 2007 Christie's auctioned Frank Stella's Carl Andre for $3,961,000.  And in 2006 a new record was reportedly set with the sale of Pollock's No. 5, 1948 for $140 million (you don't get much finer than that).
No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock
Oil based commercial enamel paint is still oil paint and it is sturdier than the fine art manufacturers would like you to believe.  The truth is no paint lasts indefinitely.  Visit any art museum and you will see deteriorating paintings.  If any material helps you create better artwork - use it.  Lastly, if you are concerned about archival quality and permanency, be happy in the knowledge that you are creating job security for future art conservators.

Thanks for a good, thought provoking question.
All the best,
Art Accomplice

P.S. Be aware that there are health and safety concerns in the handling of all oil paints, mediums and solvents.  Scout around the internet for information on specific products.  The manufacturers or suppliers should be able to provide that information.

Additional Information:

Dear Art Accomplice: Transferring to Dark Paper?

I'm trying to transfer my drawing to dark paper but the graphite doesn't show up very well...
-Allison in NY
In the Art Accomplice post Transferring: How a Sketch Becomes Finished Art we covered different methods of transferring sketches to the final paper or board. The graphite paper method described is the most direct and least expensive method but, as you pointed out, the graphite lines don't show up on dark papers. Instead of using graphite pencil to create transfer paper, use white Conté Crayon. Conté is a drawing medium similar to hard pastel. Use the Conté the same way you would use the graphite.

1) Cover the back of the sketch with Conté. If you want to preserve the original sketch, make a photocopy.

Here I'm transferring a photo instead of a drawing. Photo
paper is too slick to take Conté so you definitely need to make a
photocopy if you're using this method with a photograph.

2) Tape the sketch to your paper/board with the Conté side down on the paper/board.

This photo* is being transferred to a piece of
dark gray Canson Mi-Tientes paper for a
finished piece to be done in colored pencil.

3) Trace your sketch or photocopy and the lines will be transferred in white.

Thanks for your question!
All the best,
Art Accomplice

Additional Information:
Any decent art supply store should stock 2-pack White Conté Crayon for somwhere between $2.00 - $4.00. Online, ASW Express and Dick Blick both sell 2-packs. There are probably others too so scout around for prices.

*the original full-color photo is by photographer and Art Accomplice friend John Fast. Check out his wild life photography.

Hand Lettering: Ames Lettering Guide

Less and less I find the need to hand letter anything. Sometimes, though, it is preferable because hand lettering can be so much more expressive; can have more character. To successfully hand letter anything you need guidelines. These can be drawn out with just a ruler, but it's tedious to measure out the lines and the spaces between and keep them consistent. Fortunately there is an inexpensive tool for making guidelines called the Ames Lettering Guide. The Ames Lettering Guide is used with a t-square. It is a time-saving way to rule out guidelines. The rotating disc on the guide allows you to adjust the height of the letters in increments of thirty-seconds of an inch.

Here is a great how-to video from comic artist Salgood Sam. Visit his teaching website

Additional Information:
If you'd like to know more about lettering, I highly recommend a book called The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics. It includes detailed instruction for hand and digital lettering.

Scaling: Keep Artwork Proportional for Reproduction

If you are creating artwork for reproduction or print, it's important that your original art is proportional to the final print size. As an example let's use an illustration that will accompany a magazine article:
Here the final printed page will be 8" x 10" with the art area measuring 4.5" x 2.5". If you are working traditionally, 4.5" x 2.5" is probably too small to draw or paint with ease. Generally you want to work larger than the print size. One, it's easier. And two, digital and traditional artwork look better somewhat reduced. Work larger but be sure to maintain the proportions of the final print size. If you don't the art director will wonder why she hired you, and the designer will be forced to:
1) crop your art which will change the composition or
2) stretch and compress the art to fit.
your art...

your art cropped...

your art stretched and compressed...

Although this is an exaggerated example, your work may be altered even if the proportions are slightly off. Fortunately there is an easy (math-free) way to determine a larger proportional size: scale up on the diagonal.

Start by taping a piece of paper to your drawing table and use your t-square and triangle to rule out a right angle...

Next, rule out and draw the final print size. Staying with the example from above, I used 4.5" x 2.5"

Draw a diagonal from the bottom left corner and continue it through the upper right corner and beyond as pictured here...

Any square you draw on the diagonal will be in proportion to the final print size. Choose any size that falls on the diagonal to create the original art.

Easy. Right?

Attention Students: Know Your Charcoal and Graphite

Drawing students,
there are different types, sizes and degrees of charcoal and graphite. Know the difference before you buy your supplies. Otherwise you will be at the mercy of the art store sales clerk who, inevitably, will talk you into buying the wrong thing because the thing you need is out of stock.

Burnt wood. An ancient medium. Discovered, no doubt, by one of our hominoid ancestors soon after fire. Today drawing charcoal is still made of burnt wood, and there are two main types you should be aware of:
1) Vine and Willow Charcoal
2) Compressed Charcoal
Vine and Willow Charcoal. Some manufacturers call it "vine" others use "willow." They are essentially the same thing. It is made by burning, or carbonizing, sticks of wood, usually willow. Pictured here is Coate's Willow Charcoal. You can see that it comes in different sizes: thin, medium, thick and extra thick.

Other manufacturers like Grumbacher offer different degrees of vine charcoal: hard, medium, soft and extra soft. Hard will give you the lightest line and extra soft the darkest.
I should mention here that vine and willow charcoal break easily, especially the thinner sizes. That's okay. You'll want to break the sticks into smaller pieces when you start drawing. Just keep it off the class room floor. If you (or your instructor) step on it, it's pulverized (if I had a nickel for every time I felt that sickening crunch beneath my Clarks, I'd have $1.15).

Compressed Charcoal. This is where students are often led astray in the art supply store. "It's still charcoal, right?" Not really. Compressed charcoal is not carbonized wood straight out of the oven. Actually, it is made by mixing charcoal powder with a gum binder and compressing it into stick form. Compressed charcoal gives a heavier, darker line that is harder to erase than vine and willow charcoal.
Compressed charcoal comes in different degrees, which will vary somewhat between manufacturers. Derwent (pictured above and below) makes light, medium and dark:
Other manufacturers make extra soft, soft, medium, hard and sometimes firm. Compressed charcoal is also used in the core of charcoal pencils.

If you have ever used a regular No. 2 pencil, you are already familiar with graphite. It is in the core of standard pencils and sometimes, inaccurately, referred to as "lead." Graphite pencils are, in fact, a mixture of graphite and clay in a wood casing. The amount of clay determines the degree of hardness or softness. The main thing to be aware of is the range of degrees.

There are "H" pencils and "B" pencils. "H" pencils are hard and the higher the number, the lighter the line. A 6H pencil, for example, will produce a much lighter line than a 2H pencil. "B" pencils are soft and the higher the number, the darker the line or mark it will make. Generally it is the "B" pencils that are used for drawing.

This chart of Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils shows the full range of degrees. "HB" is the middle of the scale and "F" stands for either fine or firm.

Other Forms. Two other forms of graphite you may find on your supply list are: woodless pencils and graphite sticks. Woodless pencils (as you can guess) are graphite without the wood casing. They are made for sketching and drawing and usually on the "B" side of the scale. General's makes woodless graphite in HB, 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. Again, different manufacturers offer different degrees.Graphite sticks are handy for large drawings and covering big areas quickly. They also come in different degrees and some manufacturers like Caran d'Ache (pictured below) make different sizes.

So get your supply list as soon as you can and check it carefully. Before you go to the store know if your instructor is asking for vine charcoal or compressed charcoal or both. Pay attention to the numbers on drawing pencils. And, if something is out of stock consider ordering from an online supplier. Blick Art Materials carries everything mentioned above. You can also try Jerry's Artarama, Cheap Joe's Art Stuff and ASW to find the best prices.

Additional Information:
Graphite is a mineral, a crystalline allotropic form of carbon. In the 16th century a large deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England. Initially it was thought to be a form of lead and was called plumbago (lead ore). Today the graphite core of pencils is still referred to as "lead."

Frisket Is Our Friend (It's Not Just for Airbrush)

Let's start by talking about masks. Creating masks has always been standard practice for airbrush artists. A mask allows the artist to create an object or shape with a crisp edge while protecting the rest of the work from over-spray.

Though I gave up airbrushing* years ago, I still use masks when I paint with acrylics. If I have a foreground object that is complicated or needs to be precise, I mask it out. The mask allows me to paint in the background without covering my foreground drawing. The background stays consistent and smooth, which is much harder to achieve if I have to paint around foreground objects.

The best product for making masks is frisket film (sometimes called frisk film). If you are not familiar with it, frisket is a thin clear film with low-tack adhesive on one side. It is similar to clear contact paper but thinner and less sticky. Badger, Grafix, and Iwata all make frisket film. It comes in sheets or rolls and is available through all the regular suppliers.

Here is a step-by-step of a recent acrylic painting using a frisket film mask...

1) Using graphite paper, I transferred my sketch to a piece of illustration board (the final size of the artwork is 10" x 8.25").

2) I wanted to paint the largest area of background (sky and mountains) first. The easiest way was to cover the entire art area with a piece of frisket film and cut away the background. Below, you see the whole art area is covered with frisket film.

3) Next, using an X-acto knife, I cut and removed the film from the background area.
I used a ruler for the straight edges and cut the rest free-hand. It takes a little practice, mostly just patience, and always use a sharp, new blade. Usually frisket film is thin so you don't have to press hard to cut it. Here you can see that only the foreground objects and the outer border are covered with a frisket film mask.

4) I added masking tape around the outer edge just to extend the border (it doesn't matter much if you are matting and framing a piece but if you are sending it to an art director, it looks more professional to have a clean edge). Then I painted the background - sky and mountains. If this was a larger piece, I would have masked out the mountains and painted them after the sky was finished.

5) After the paint was thoroughly dry I removed the masking tape and carefully removed the frisket film. I got it started by picking up one edge with the X-acto knife.

You can see that some of the paint seeped under the film. This will happen if your paint is thin (or, like me, you use a hair dryer to speed things along and the frisket buckles). Since I'm working opaque, this is not problem - it will be covered. What I wanted to achieve was to paint a smooth sky and keep my drawing more or less in tact. If I was sending this to an art director, I would clean up the outer edge with some opaque white.
If you are concerned about paint seeping under the film, Iwata makes a product called Art Mask Frisk Film. It is a medium tack film that promises not to lift up paint when removed and is good for porous surfaces. This may help - I have not tried this particular product yet so I can't say if it is any better. (If anyone has tried it, let me know how it worked)

6) The next area I wanted to paint was the background of the square. There's a lot of little negative spaces in there and, again, I wanted to keep my drawing in tact. I covered the square with frisket film and cut away the background. Here you can see that the objects within the square are covered with a mask.

7) Next, I painted the background of the square...

...and carefully removed the mask.

This is a small piece so I was able to paint the rest freehand. Of course you can make as many masks as necessary.
In a larger piece you could certainly use more.

For this particular example I was able to paint the two main background areas without covering the foreground objects. Blending is always a challenge with acrylics since they dry so fast - using a frisket film mask was an easy way to paint a gradated sky.

So the next time you pull out your acrylics consider trying frisket film - it's not just for airbrush.

*Personally I like good airbrush art, it's just something I never mastered.**
**Okay, when I say "never mastered" what I really mean is "totally sucked at."