Musings Process

Bits & Bobs on Traditional Art

A few months ago, I made a thread on Twitter with traditional art random tips & tricks. It was not meant to be a tutorial or step by step, just weird little snippets I’ve learnt in no particular order. A mix of things, mostly about gouache, ink and acrylics because it’s what I know best, plus some tidbits about cleaning up stuff digitally.

The bits & bobs drawer of my art knowledge.

I’ve transcribed them all below (in some I have altered the order for consistency/readability) and I might eventually make a second post expanding or adding more stuff, but I will likely write it directly as a blog post: Twitter can be a pain to explain some stuff, and the fact that you can’t edit tweets is a bummer for this kind of thing.

• Tip: build a wet palette! Very useful for gouache, indispensable for acrylics. Mine’s loosely based on this one: …

A shallow container with lid, a moist kitchen rag cut to size inside, and baking paper on top will keep your paints usable for quite a while.

• As a sidebar, James Gurney’s blog: is absolutely packed with useful stuff and his videos are highly recommended if you want to learn about painting.

• Tip: If you usually tape your paper’s border when painting, but when pulling off the tape, it rips off the paper, use a hairdryer on it as you pull. The hot air will warm up the glue and make it easier to remove.

• Tip: If you use permanent ink, window cleaner (not the eco-kind, sorry Earth) is your friend! Great for cleaning up clogged nibs and work surfaces (too brutal for brushes, although I’ve used it as a very last resort).

• Tip: Make-up cases are great for organizing art supplies.

• Tip: Scanning glossy or textured surfaces. You need to scan twice, the second time rotating your painting/drawing 180º. Put the two scans as layers in PS, then Edit>Auto-Align Layers. Set top layer to Lighten for texture, Darken for glare.

• Tip: If your art is too big for your scanner, scan it in parts (with some overlap) and then in PS: File>Automate>Photomerge>Collage will put it together automatically.

My tip about scanning glossy/textured surfaces seems to have generated a lot of interest so I thought I’d post a quick GIF of it in action (this is for glare, so the top layer is set to Darken).

• Tip: Separating your scanned inks from the white of the paper.
Tweak Levels to taste (an Adjustment layer is ok). Go to Channels tab, Ctrl+click on RGB channel. Layers tab, make a new layer, Select>Inverse. Alt+Backspace to fill with your FG color (press D first for black).

• Tip: If your inks have a color pencil underdrawing to remove, before applying my previous tip: Tweak Levels/Sat (if you use Adjustment layers, flatten before next step). Channels tab, click on channel that matches your color pencil. Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C. Layers tab, new layer, Ctrl+Shift+V.

• Previous tips are for Photoshop. If coloring inks digitally is a regular part of your process, consider trying Clip Studio Paint which has both of these things automated.

These tips and thoughts are based on my experience and my way of painting, I don’t think there are hard and fast rules here (or in traditional media in general), just preferences.

• Gouache: Half the difficulty of this medium is getting the handle of consistency. It can be used watered down/transparent like watercolor, or thick, nearly straight from the tube. This is what makes it so versatile. But the interesting stuff happens somewhere in between.

• Gouache: Unless you’re familiar enough to know what you’re doing, I recommend starting thin and building up to thicker paint gradually. There’s a “holy grail” consistency for me, when the paint is runny but still pretty opaque/covering. Something crepe batter-like.

• Gouache tip: If your paint is lifting a lot, your paint is probably getting too thick too soon and/or you’re not letting the layers under dry properly. Again, the hairdryer is your friend!

• Gouache tip: If the paint is separating as you squeeze it on your palette, remove any excess medium (the transparent stuff) before painting, otherwise it may not dry properly and stay sticky forever.
Shaking & massaging/kneading your paint tube can help for next time.

• Gouache tip: Don’t be a miser with your paint! Squeeze that tube! You need enough on your palette, doubly so if you’re going for a clean/graphic approach. Gouache *will* dry a different shade, so matching colors later is a pain.

• Gouache tip: You can make a light, general wash of a cool or warm color before starting painting properly, this will “tint” and harmonize your colors. A bit like a reverse glazing.

Here’s an example, timelapse from one of my paintings.

• If you like the matte look of gouache but dislike the fact that it reactivates with water, you can use acrylic gouache, casein, or vinyl paint instead. You can also combine them, and paint with gouache over a more permanent ground.

Marshy Madness @Marshyfluff asked: Any tips for water colors and types of inks ??
I don’t use watercolors too often, so I’m not sure if I can give any tips on them. But I will say that in my (limited) experience, this is a medium where decent paper will make a lot of difference.

• Tip: Another technique that can be used for watercolor or gouache is lifting, where you use a wet clean brush to rub lightly and slowly remove paint. In gouache I’ve used it mostly to repaint mistakes, but I know some watercolor artists use it for highlights too.

• Brushes: Having one or two really good brushes for inking or painting is a good idea, but also have cheap ones, weird ones, hard ones, sponges, rags, palette knifes, sticks… I get brushes at the dollar store often and have found some strange gems!

• Brushes: My favorite brush for inking is the classic Series 7, but I have a few destroyed, strange ones for dry brushing and effects.
I do lots of my gouache painting with a mysterious unbranded brush of what I think is pony hair, a hog brush, and a synthetic sable for details.

• Art materials: Care for your stuff, but don’t be precious about it. Don’t save that nice paper or that expensive color or that fancy brush for a special occasion, or for when you’re good enough.
The only wasted art materials are the ones you don’t use.

• Art materials: The tools don’t make the artist, & you can make art with anything.
But when you’re starting out, you’re already struggling with the learning process, so it helps not having to fight your tools too. Go for decent quality over quantity. Not luxury, but reliability.

Kizrae @floofykiz asked: Any tips for very simple background composition?

This is a great topic, but I’m not sure I’m the best to cover it; I don’t think backgrounds are my strongest suit. So I’ll just share some thoughts about the things I’m trying to learn in this area. Reminders for myself.

• Backgrounds/composition: My first piece of advice is to get the book “Creative Illustration” by Andrew Loomis. It covers so much ground (composition, visual storytelling, colors/values & how to arrange them, etc.), it’s so comprehensive and easy to understand. An absolute must.

• Backgrounds/composition: I try to remind myself not to let backgrounds be an afterthought & think of a even a simple picture as a whole. For simple backgrounds, look at good comic-strip cartoonists for ways to add a sense of place with minimal elements.
Art by Charles Schulz.

• Backgrounds/composition: Don’t get lost in the details: think of your big shapes first in abstract terms, see how they’re leading the eye around your image. Thumbnails help a lot with arranging your shapes and values and they take very little time!

• Backgrounds/composition: I find useful to think of a picture in terms of contrast. I don’t mean just contrast between light/dark, but also between warm/cool, curves/angles, busy/empty, vertical/horizontal, etc. You want the most drastic contrasts where you want the eye to focus.

A clear example of my previous tweet: Focus is a vertical shape among (roughly) horizontal lines/shapes, dark figure against light BG. Warm red hues of the head pop against cold BG. Heavy/hard textures against soft shapes. Lines point to the focus.
Art by Caspar David Friedrich.

• Backgrounds/composition: Storytelling. Your background complements what your characters are conveying, adding another layer of narrative.
And think of backgrounds as characters too! Think of the ways you visually convey personality traits and quirks and apply them there as well.

• Backgrounds/composition: This is really a reminder for myself: take the time to properly build your perspective! Use rulers. Spend the time to plan and think before you draw/paint. Make bold choices. It’s easier to dial back from strong shapes than to push weak ones.

… and when everything else fails just put some trees and leafy stuff ????

• Experience: Tips, tricks, books, tutorials are great, being analytical & keeping a critical eye is useful & necessary, but there’s an understanding that only comes with mileage. So keep at it, try to be patient & persistent, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not great from day 1.

• Experience: When I started trad painting/inking, I was coming from vector illustration. I wanted everything to look as clean & flawless, the lack of control terrified me so much. But I slowly learned to enjoy the process.
Messing up is ok. Paint over. Lift the paint. Try again.

8 replies on “Bits & Bobs on Traditional Art”

Very interesting… but I’m afraid my english is too poor to understand clearly all the tips — the scanning at 180° is a mystery to me.

I’m afraid my French is very limited, but I’ll give you a longer explanation and maybe it will make sense! You make TWO different scans of the same painting. Before the second scan, you rotate the painting 180º on the scanner bed (you put it upside down). This means the light from the scanner will be coming from the opposite direction as the first time.

You take these two scans and set them as two layers in the same Photoshop file, then go to the Edit menu and choose Auto-Align Layers, then on the Layers panel you set the mode of the layer on top to Darken if your issue is glare (the shiny surface on oils or acrylics) or Lighten if it’s texture (like on Cold Pressed watercolor paper).

I’m not sure if I’ve made it any clearer – I hope so! 🙂

Thanks for your explanations. It makes sense now – I don’t use PSP so the auto align tool was new to me.
The wet palette is an excellent tip. I work pretty fast when I do gouache but I think it will be a good help. Thanks for all the tips.

No, I don’t varnish my paintings. I tried gouache fixative some years ago but it just ended up making the painting splotchy and uneven so I stopped using it – to be honest I like the matte look of gouache. But if I were to use varnish, I’d scan before varnishing as shiny surfaces are more complicated to scan.

And I’m glad the longer explanation made sense! I’m sure other programs have aligning tools (you can also do it by hand but it will be a lot harder).

I took a look and it seems neither Clip Studio Paint nor Affinity Photo got auto align. I decided to varnish my work as I lived in La Réunion island and some bugs ate some pigments 🙂

By the way, I don’t receive any notification of your answers here. Your site is under

Affinity photo: File menu – New Stack – select your two scans with Automatic Align ticked, then the top layer to darken for varnished stuff. Outlier and Minimum were the modes that seemed to work for me on the stack…

I don’t know about the notifications, but the blog is hosted on my site.

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