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."

Transferring: How Your Sketch Becomes Finished Art

You finally finished your sketch. Worked out the anatomy and composition problems. Now you're ready to move onto the final painting. If you are working digitally, it's simply a matter of scanning your sketch into Photoshop (Corel, Gimp, etc), multiply and start painting. If you're working traditionally, though, getting your sketch onto the final board or paper will take a few more steps. Here are the most common methods for transferring a sketch to the final surface...

Graphite paper is an easy way to transfer a sketch. It requires no equipment and is ideal for transferring to boards and panels. It works like the old-fashioned carbon paper. Start with a piece of tracing paper (or other thin paper) and use a graphite stick or soft (4B) pencil to cover one side:

Next tape it to the back of your sketch with the graphite side out, facing away from the sketch:
Tape this to the final board or paper, sketch side up, graphite side down. Now go over the lines of your sketch with a steady, firm (not too firm - don't engrave it) pressure:
The lines are transferred to your final board:
Here's two more tips:
1) If you don't want to alter your sketch by re-tracing the lines, make a photocopy and trace that.
2) If you are transferring a large sketch, you don't need to cover every inch of the back with graphite. Just cover where the lines are.

The basic idea is to shine light through your paper and trace the art onto a top sheet. This method is usually the quickest and most direct. The drawback is that it only works with certain papers - those thin enough to let some light pass through. I use a lightbox for transferring sketches to pen and ink paper and thin watercolor paper. I also use it for transferring messy sketches (those with smudges, erasure ghosts, cat prints and Fritos stains) to clean drawing paper.

If I know I'll be using the lightbox I do my sketches on tracing paper. If the final piece needs to be bigger or smaller use a photocopier. Make any reductions or enlargements as needed and use the copy on the lightbox. The benefits of making a photocopy are: 1) copy paper is thin making it easier to trace and 2) when making a copy you can adjust the image quality and darken up your pencil lines - again, easier to trace.

Lightboxes are available in a variety of sizes and prices from most art suppliers. You can get an inexpensive 10"x12" table top model for around $35 all the way up to a free standing light table for $2,500. If you are handy you can certainly make one (instructions). In a pinch you can even tape your artwork to a sunny window or put a lamp under a glass top table.

Artists have been using grids for ages. It's intended to do two things at once - transfer and enlarge. The premise is that by laying a grid over your drawing you are breaking it down into smaller segments that are easier to re-draw. Start by drawing a grid on your sketch. Next draw another grid of the same proportions, but made up of larger squares. The last step is to re-draw your sketch square by square in the larger grid:
A grid works well enough but it is not as quick as the other methods mentioned here - you have to measure, rule out and draw two grids and re-draw the larger version. With the advent of photocopying, artists didn't need to use a grid as often. I include it here in case the electrical grid goes down and because it is still useful for large paintings and wall murals. When drawing on a large scale, it's easy for unwanted distortions to creep in. The grid helps avoid this. By the way, if you decide to take on a mural, get yourself a chalk line to make a wall sized grid.
Using a projector is another way to both transfer and enlarge an image. An artists' projector is an electric projector with a light bulb, mirror and lens. It projects opaque images (sketches, print photographs, etc.) onto any surface.
Start by placing your sketch underneath the projector (or on top depending on the model) and point it at your board or paper. You can adjust the size by moving the projector away from or closer to your board. Focus by turning the lens. The last step is to trace the projected image onto the board.

Artists' projectors are available from the usual art suppliers (Blick, Cheap Joe's, Jerry's Artarama, etc.) and range from $40 up to $600.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when using a projector:
1) The size of a sketch or photo that can fit into an artists' projector is usually limited to 6"x6" or less. Most likely a sketch will be bigger and requires the extra step of making a reduced photocopy.
2) If you don't want any distortions in the image, it's important to keep the board or paper at a right angle to the projector - or as close to a right angle as possible.

Graphite Paper easy, ideal for boards, panels and papers that are too thick for a lightbox
Lightbox quick, clean; ideal for drawing and watercolor papers thin enough to let some light through.
Grid useful for large scale paintings and wall murals
Projector quick way to transfer and enlarge photos; good for unusual surfaces

Additional Information: You'll find the instructions for building a lightbox on a website called The Steampunk Workshop by Jake von Slatt. Besides the lightbox, there are two dozen very cool projects.

Artists have been using projectors for a long time. Longer than you might think. We know that Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1623-75) used a similar device called camera obscura. The camera obscura projected an image of the surrounding environment by use of mirrors and lenses. In 2001 artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco published a book called "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters." They put forth the idea that advances in realism in Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the results of optical devices like the camera obscura. The book sparked intense debate among artists and art historians. Using an optical aid is disagreeable to non-artists. You'll hear things like "that's cheating" or "anyone can do that" - if that were true anyone could paint like Vermeer. To put it more directly, if a person can't draw a projector will not help them. If a projector can cut some time off of your work - use it. Use it and like the old masters - don't tell anyone.

Free Art History Course

If you're not familiar with Khan Academy, it is an organization whose goal is to "change education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere."

The web site gives anyone free access to their vast and growing collection of video lessons.  The library of videos covers K-12 math; science topics including biology, chemistry and physics; also videos on finance and history.

Recently Khan Academy partnered with to provide a free online art history textbook.  As a partner of Khan Academy, Smarthistory uses, "multimedia to deliver unscripted conversation between art historians about the history of art."

Visit the site at:
It is an excellent, free resource for anyone looking for an art history course.

Additional Information:
Founder of Khan Academy Salman Khan talk at TED 2011

Dear Art Accomplice: Where do I start?

I'm new to art...where do I start?
-Derry in CT
The best place to start is drawing. Drawing, drawing and more drawing. That may not be the place you want to start - that's okay, jump in wherever you like. At some point though, you will have to go back to drawing. It is the foundation on which you will build your skills. Why not make it a strong one?

Here's the good news Derry:
1) Most everyone can learn to draw. If you have average eyesight and average eye-hand coordination, you can learn to draw. It's a skill you learn like any other - no different than learning to play tennis or guitar. You just need the right information and practice.
2) It will cost very little to start. For the price of a pencil, an eraser and some paper, you can begin.

At this point, the best recommendation I can give you is to get a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. This book has been in print for years (any edition will work). You can find it in any book store for under $20. It's worth buying a copy if you are able. If not, check it out of your local library. This book is so well known I'd be very surprised to find a public library that didn't own a copy.

The premise of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is that learning to draw has very little to do with training the hand and everything to do with training the eye. The drawing exercises in this book will help you see what Edwards refers to as "the raw data of vision that hits the retina." To see purely without preconceptions, expectations or editing.

The necessary quality to begin is discipline. Discipline to practice of course, but more important the discipline to stay with it even when you don't like your results. The more you do the better you will be - that's a guarantee. I also guarantee that if you work your way through this book, doing every exercise as laid out, you will know how to draw. You will have the key to drawing which is seeing. Once you have that you can learn different materials and approaches with confidence.

Thank you for your important question.
All the best,
Art Accomplice

Fonts and Clip Art: Choose Wisely

Whether you are creating a flyer, newsletter or web content, here are seven tips for using fonts and clip art that will improve your design:
1) Think about the mood of the document you are creating. Is it edgy or sedate? Formal or light-hearted? Solemn or humorous? Once you decide, be consistent and choose the appropriate fonts and clip art.

2) Look beyond your library. If you cannot find just the right clip art in your own library, take the time to search online resources for clip art. Free clip art is available at: School Clip Art (where the above image came from), Free Clip Art and To purchase clip art you might want to start with Dover Publications.

3) Use styles of art that match. A cartoon smiley face daisy will not look good next to an Art Nouveau lily, even though they are both flowers. Choose one or the other. Again, think about the mood or tone you want to convey.

4) No more than two fonts please. Just because you have a lot of fonts does not mean you have to use them all. If you must use a novelty font (for example, dripping letters for Halloween) use it sparingly. These fonts work best as titles or headlines. For the rest of the document, use a standard font with good readability. Times Roman and Arial are good choices that work in most formats. If your document looks too plain use bold and italics to emphasize words or lines of type.

5) Pictures communicate too. Pictures can convey ideas quicker than words. Make sure the clip art you choose is conveying the right message. Consider this example, you are creating an announcement for a local charity. The event is an annual summer silent auction. You select some summer images from your clip art library – beach ball, flip-flops, a barbecue and a starfish. By using a piece of clip art that shows a man standing by a grill, there's a good chance people will show up expecting to eat barbecue.* If the clip art suggest an activity that is not part of the event, don't use it.

6) Function still counts. With all the layout and design tools so readily available on most computers, it's tempting to go wild with creativity. That's okay, just keep in mind the function of the document you are creating: to convey information. A visually creative announcement fails if no one understands what it is announcing.

7) Less is more – usually. If you are a professional designer who spent years studying typography and communication you know how to successfully break all the rules. For those of us who are still learning, less is usually more. If there's doubt leave it out.

When you begin your next project carefully consider the mood or tone. Find the right clip art and be consistent with the style. Limit your use of fonts. Be aware of what the pictures are communicating. Always remember the purpose of your project. And finally, when in doubt leave it out because clean and simple is always better than cluttered and confusing.

*I won't go into the details of how I know this. Let's just say I showed up with a pocket full of moist towelettes only to be disappointed.

Product Recommendation: For Shipping Art

If you are shipping framed artwork to an exhibit or gallery requesting re-usable packaging, I highly recommend the Strongbox by Airfloat Systems, Inc. These sturdy cardboard boxes come with three layers of foam. The top and bottom layers are egg crate design, with the middle layer made up of perforated 1 1/4" squares. Punch out the size of your framed work and drop it in. The work is not only sandwiched but protected on all four sides by shock absorbing foam. The sizes start at 17"x22 1/2"x3" and go up to 62"x62"x5". You can choose lined or unlined - lined includes lightweight plastic puncture guards with the strength of 3/8" plywood.

The Strongbox is not inexpensive, they start at $38.00, but they can be used over and over again. Every year I travel, by plane, to a seminar where I bring at least one piece of art for display. I've been using the same Strongbox for five years. I put a handle on it and check it as baggage (still free on Southwest). Price aside these boxes work - they protect your art, they are lightweight, look professional and exhibit coordinators will love you.

Colored Pencil: The Only 4 Tips You Really Need

Personally I'm a Prismacolor man, but there are several brands of good quality colored pencils on the market. No matter which one you choose there are only 4 tips you really need to get started:
1) Work Slow The first time I tried Prismacolors (many years ago) I ended up with an awful waxy mess. I wondered how anyone could possibly use these things. The truth is I was building up the layers way too fast and using too much pressure. Build up your colors in slow, even layers and not a whole lot of pressure on the pencil.

2) Keep Your Pencils Sharp, Sharp, Sharp This will help you work in finer and more even layers. Buy an electric pencil sharpener and use it - often. When the sharpener no longer gives you a nice sharp point, buy a new one and give the old one away (it will still be adequate for normal use). As for the pencils, there are colors you will use up quicker than others so I recommend buying a brand that is available open stock.

3) Layer Color Colored pencils are semi-transparent. You can create rich, painterly colors by layering multiple colors. For example, layering Canary Yellow and Olive Green (left) gives a more vibrant color than using Limepeel Green alone (right).

Layering Copenhagen Blue with Crimson Lake gives a rich deep maroon.
4) Work On Colored Paper This suggestion was kindly made by one of my professors after he saw my pitiful first attempt at colored pencil. Working on colored paper cuts your time down. It's quicker to build up darks and you can draw in highlights rather than working around them as you would on white paper. I like Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper (use the smooth side) or mat board that doesn't have a heavy texture.

a second attempt (after my professor straightened me out)
Prismacolors on Burgundy Canson Mi-Tientes, 13" x 18"

So keep these 4 tips in mind - work slow, keep your pencils sharp, layer color and try working on colored paper - who knows, colored pencil might become your medium of choice.

Additional Information:
If colored pencil does become your medium of choice, you might consider joining the Colored Pencil Society of America. You can find out more about the organization at

I was really inspired when the same professor mentioned above loaned me Finishing the Hat by Bill Nelson. I instantly fell for Nelson's illustrations and his masterful use of colored pencil. Although Finishing the Hat is no longer in print, as of this writitng, it is still available used through Amazon at a reasonable price. You can see Bill Nelson's work at Worth a visit!

Attention Students: What To Know Before You Buy Paint

If you are new to painting, maybe taking your first class, when you go to your local art supply store you will find many kinds of paint - oils, watercolors and acrylics are the main types. Each type of paint has several manufacturers. For example, Grumbacher and Winsor & Newton both make oil paints. Most manufacturers have several lines of a particular type of paint - Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolor or Winsor & Newton Cotman Colors (also watercolors).

So what do I buy?
The main thing to understand when buying paint is the difference between student grade paint and artists' grade also referred to as professional. Artists' grade paint is usually marked as Artists' Watercolors or Professional Acrylic Artist Color or Artists' Oil Colors. Student grade paints or any paints of a lesser quality are rarely marked as such. It will be obvious however when you compare the price of $7.14 for a 5ml tube of Cadmium Red Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolor (artists' grade) to $2.98 for an 8ml tube of Cadmium Red Winsor & Newton Cotman Colors (student grade).

So student grade is more economical?
Maybe. Maybe not. Whether you are working in oils, acrylics or watercolors, the artists' grade paints have a higher concentration of pigment and therefore produce a richer more intense color. So it is possible - and I find this especially true with watercolors - that you will use less paint when working with artists' grade.

But what if I'm a beginner?
If you are truly a beginner perhaps student grade is the way to go. If you have an on-going interest in painting or you regularly take art classes, try to buy the best your budget will allow. Otherwise you may find yourself frustrated by not getting the results you see other artists getting. I have watched some students become so accustomed to using student paints that when they tried artists' grade they had trouble. The color is so much more concentrated and intense it's like learning the medium all over again. Some even switched back to student paints and while their work is good it lacks color punch - like a weak cup of tea. On the other hand, some people like weak tea. Personal preference is certainly part of it (just remember that you need to master the medium not the other way around).

If you are hesitant to put down a small fortune for art supplies or don't have a small fortune to put down, buy student grade and replace it tube by tube with artists' grade as you can. If you are taking a class ask your instructor for his or her recommendation and buy a few artists' grade so you will be aware of the difference right from the beginning. And finally, remember that whatever kind of art supplies you buy, if you take care of other words don't leave tubes of paint on your dorm room floor for your drunken roommate to step on...they will last for a long time (but the roommate is 50/50).