Rules for Composition

  1. Every picture is a collection of units or items.
  2. Every unit has a given value.
  3. The value of a unit depends on its attraction, and its attraction varies according to placement.
  4. A unit near the edge has more attraction than the same unit at the middle.
  5. Every part of the picture space has some attraction.
  6. Space without detail may possess attraction by gradation and by suggestion.
  7. A unit of attraction in an otherwise empty space has more weight through isolation than when placed with other units.
  8. A black unit on white or a white unit on black has more attraction than the same unit on grey.
  9. The value of a black or white unit is proportionate also to the size of the space that contrasts with it.
  10. A unit in the foreground has less weight than the same one in the distance.
  11. Two or more associated units may be reckoned as one.  Their united central point is the point on which they balance with others.

from “Composition in Art” by Henry Rankin Poore, page 10.

Back to Basics: Color, Part One

Have you ever found yourself making paintings in which the color is just not right?

I’m not too used to that — my teachers were calling me a colorist as soon as I started using color over 25 years ago, and I’ve had many, many compliments on my use of color, such as one visitor who called me “the Monet of Austin” on her blog after a visit or two to my studio during the East Austin Studio Tours – a compliment I don’t think I quite deserve, but it was nice to be thought of that way.  I usually feel pretty comfortable with color.  Exploring color is part of what I do.  Or what I think I do.

The Problem

For several years, I’ve been doing small works on paper using either watercolor pencils or watercolor crayons, and never really noticed any issue with the harmony of the colors in the final piece.  I guess that’s because they are discrete colors. And I would usually pick out a palette of colors to use for each little work on paper, such as in the example below, thereby figuring out color harmonies in advance.

Palette for "Hippie Nouveau"
Palette for “Hippie Nouveau”
"Hippie Nouveau," watercolor pencils on heavy Raffine sketch paper, 6" x 5.75", © 2013 Marilyn Fenn
“Hippie Nouveau,” watercolor pencils on heavy Raffine sketch paper








But then, I realized I should switch to straight watercolor for these little works, as it takes about half as long to do: one step to add color and paint with watercolor vs. two steps to draw in the color and then paint the color with water when using watercolor pencils or crayons.  Plus with watercolor paints, I could better mix the precise colors I’d want.

However, I haven’t had much experience with watercolors, being primarily an oil painter.  So I was dismayed and frustrated to discover that several of my watercolors came out with colors that didn’t play well together, or that certain colors might look good together in certain proportions to each other, but not in other proportions.

Being watercolor, there wasn’t much I could do to fix them.  You can’t just paint over the wrong colors like you can with oils or acrylics.  You can lift the paint somewhat with water, or paint over the offending regions with opaque gouache, but that changes the nature of the painting in a not completely desirable manner.  With watercolor, you’ve pretty much got to get the color right the first time.

Research Time
Van Gogh's Sunflowers
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

So I decided to begin a new study of watercolor paints and colors.  I started with a book on selecting paints, “The Artist’s Guide to Selecting Colours,” by Michael Wilcox.  I discovered that quite a few of my little ancient tubes of watercolors contained pigments that are not lightfast (a.k.a. “fugitive”), meaning that the colors could either fade or shift over time, either through mixing with particular chemicals in other paints or varnishes or through exposure to certain types of light, such as sunlight and LED lighting. This happened with the chrome yellow used by Vincent van Gogh in his sunflowers paintings, which started out as bright yellow, but darkened and turned brown over the decades.1

Wilcox’s book was published in 1998, though, and several reviewers on Amazon suggested some of his information was out of date, so I continued my research at, a wonderful site that provides much excellent information about pigments, brushes, and watercolors in general — “the world’s finest guide to watercolor painting,” according to the website, and after spending several days of research there — and yet having only scratched the surface of the depth of information there — I think I agree!

Paints with questionable lightfastness
Paints with questionable lightfastness

It should be noted, however, that even the information on may be slightly out of date; i.e., certain pigments by certain manufacturers may no longer be made with the same formulations as they were when reviewed.

So I picked up another source for pigment information, “Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints”, not because the book is more up-to-date, but because she keeps updating the information on her website, and offers to send you complete Update Lists of the 600 or more colors she has reviewed since the publication of her book.  I have not yet reviewed this material, though, so I can’t say much about it at the moment.

What I Learned

Much to my relief, I discovered that all but one of the colors that has been a frequent standard on my palette since I began painting are extremely lightfast.  The standard palette suggested by many of my art teachers in the schools I went to included:

Standard palette of colors
Standard palette of colors
  • titanium white (PW6)
  • cadmium yellow (lemon, light, pale, medium, and/or deep) (PY35 or PY37)
  • cadmium red (light, medium and/or deep) (PR108)
  • alizarin crimson (PR83; Fugitive – Avoid!)
  • ultramarine blue (PB29)
  • cerulean blue (PB35 or PB36)
  • viridian green (PG18)
  • yellow ochre (PY42)
  • raw sienna (PBr7)
  • burnt sienna (PBr7)
  • raw umber (PBr7
  • burnt umber (PBr7)

With the exception of Alizarin Crimson, all of these colors (and many other colors I have experimented with) have an excellent Lightfastness rating – a rating of I, according to ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials).  So, perhaps our teachers didn’t know that Alizarin Crimson was fugitive.  I’m not sure when the ASTM began testing artists pigments, but now we know better, and a lot of artists have switched from Alizarin Crimson to Quinacridone Magenta for their cool red.

Here are a few other tips and curiosities:

  • You really don’t need very many colors.  Six to twelve should be sufficient, as you can mix almost any color from a small range of carefully selected pigments.  More isn’t necessarily better.
  • Many manufacturers mix a few pigments together to make a “new” color; generally speaking, you won’t need it.  Stick to single-pigment paints.
  • A single pigment paint is more trustworthy than a mix of several pigments; but if you choose to buy a few “convenience colors,”2 like Naples Yellow or Gamboge, be sure of the lightfastness rating of all the pigments used.  Look on the tube or the manufacturers website for the list of pigments used.3
  • Manufacturers’ rating of Lightfastness may not be accurate, or may be assumed based on the Lightfastness tests for that pigment according to ASTM.  Tests done by Bruce MacEvoy of show some differing results.
  • The same pigment color may be called different things by different manufacturers.   Very confusing!  Do some homework before spending money!  Here’s a great place to start: Guide to Watercolor Pigments.
  • The same pigment from different manufacturers may have (and likely will have) different physical properties, due to their manufacturing process, binders, and such.  Buy good quality paints: avoid student grade paints, paints that you can’t find out much about, and paints that haven’t been tested.
  • A paint called “Permanent” anything is likely not really permanent (lightfast).
Read the label
Read the label
The Solution

As this post is already quite long, I will post my solution, along with two weeks of color studies, in my next post.  You can sign up to receive my blog posts, if you like, at that little link called  OR leave a comment at the bottom of this post, and check the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” box, and I will comment here when the new post is out (so far, have not written part two.  Sigh!).

1 The mystery of the discolored Van Goghs

2 A “convenience color” is a mix of two colors that you may use frequently, therefore it is sometimes more convenient to just go ahead and buy tubes of that color.

Links to paint suppliers and manufacturers (under the Art Resources tab)

Packaging a Painting for Shipping

The package packed and almost ready to go.
The package packed and almost ready to go.

Shipping a stretched canvas painting cross-country can be a little bit daunting.  How do you pack it to insure that your painting arrives completely intact without any damage?  That was a question I was faced with last week when packing the largest painting I have yet shipped.  I thought about the story of a friend of mine, who sent one of his very large impeccable paintings to a gallery across the country for consideration to be accepted into that gallery.  Somewhere along the way, a forklift rammed its forks right through the box containing the painting and right through the painting.  Needless to say, his beautiful painting was irreparably damaged!

I have read about quite a variety of packing methods: remove the painting from the stretchers and mail it rolled in a tube (a hassle for the buyer, and what if it isn’t stretched perfectly again?); wrap the stretched painting in thick sheets of styrofoam, then in sheets of plywood, and duct tape liberally (kind of heavy, no?); ship it in an Airfloat Strongbox (a very expensive, though also, apparently, a very safe option); wrap it in cardboard, then add bubble wrap and/or packing peanuts to fill the box (OK, this seems as good an option as my own ultimate solution); build a package that floats within a larger box (couldn’t that still get crushed?); build a box completely from wood on all sides (again, the heavy issue)…and more.  You can read many options for yourself at this excellent Squidoo post.

Wrap painting in glassine
Wrap painting in glassine

I started by wrapping the painting in 4 sheets of a very thick glassine, thoughtfully provided to me by the online shop through which this painting sold.  Then I altered the provided cardboard corners to accommodate the exact depth of my stretched gallery-wrapped canvas.

Add cardboard corners, unfolded
Add cardboard corners, unfolded

In this case, I did not turn the top surface of the corners under as you are supposed to, as I felt the extra thickness of cardboard in that area might add too much pressure on the canvas, causing it to become dented.  The important point was to protect the corners of the painting from damage, and without folding that last flap into a triangle, these did a good job of that.

I then tried to cover the painting in bits of odd-shaped cardboard and then foam sheets, all carefully held together with tape, and then insert it in a box I already had on hand, but in the end, the box was just a tiny bit too small, and I feared the painting might not make a safe journey packaged like that.  Plus, it looked very unprofessional.

First failed attempt with too small box and packing materials
First failed attempt with too small box and packing materials

So began the search for appropriate materials.  U-line carries a huge selection of boxes and other packing material, but you must purchase in quantity for any given size, and I wasn’t prepared to purchase that much packing material at this time.  And while shipping is very quick to my locale, depending on what materials you buy, it can also be very expensive.

In Central Texas, there are quite a few EcoBox stores, including two in Austin; they have a pretty good selection, though not as comprehensive as U-Line.  So I searched through their online offerings to sort out what I might need and headed over to the closest local store, where I picked up a variety of new packing materials.   (They also carry some used boxes.)

Add a sheet of cardboard on either side of the painting; tape each one all the way around.
Add a sheet of cardboard on either side of the painting; tape each one all the way around.

Newly armed with appropriately sized materials, I cut out two sections of cardboard the exact width and height as my painting, and taped one to each side of the painting, running the tape all around the perimeter.

Score the styrofoam sheets as the exact outside dimensions, and snap them across a table or counter-type edge to separate
Score the styrofoam sheets as the exact outside dimensions, and snap them across a table or counter-type edge to separate

I then cut two same size sections of 2″ styrofoam, using the scoring and snapping method, and taped them to each side of the painting, again running the tape all around the perimeter.

Looking back, I think it would have worked just as well to run a couple strips of tape around the styrofoam-painting-styrofoam package horizontally and vertically rather than around the perimeters (because I later enclose the whole thing in a plastic bag to prevent moisture)…and would have been easier for the customer to open as well.   Next time.

Be sure to tape the styrofoam to the painting all the way around.
Be sure to tape the styrofoam to the painting all the way around.

Here is the painting sandwich so far,  consisting of, from inside to outside:





  1. the painting
  2. 4 sheets of glassine wrapping
  3. cardboard corner protectors on each corner
  4. a sheet of cardboard on each side
  5. 2″-thick sheet of styrofoam on each side
I added some extra protection to the top and bottom of the painting package.
I added some extra protection to the top and bottom of the painting package to further protect the edges and corners.

I then added some cushioning to the bottom of the painting package in the form of more 2″ thick bits of styrofoam attached to cardboard edge protectors I had saved from previous deliveries.

Measure how much to cut down your box; don't forget to include the flaps.
Measure how much to cut down your box; don’t forget to include the flaps in your measurement.

Then it was time to see how all this would fit into a large mirror box, and measure down to remove excess height.  I measured and cut the slits and the flaps, and scored the flaps so they would fold neatly. I then put the box together with a lot of tape!

Put the whole painting pakage in a plastic bag and seal the openings, to prevent any potential damage from moisture.
Put the whole painting package in a plastic bag and seal the openings, to prevent any potential damage from moisture.

I wrapped the whole painting package in a large garbage bag and sealed the openings, to prevent any possible moisture from coming in contact with the painting.

You can buy a set of 4 styrofoam corners for a little over a dollar; then score them and snap them apart.
You can buy a set of 4 styrofoam corners for a little over a dollar; they snap apart along the score lines.

I put the whole thing in the box and laid in another piece of 2″-thick styrofoam on top.

I used a couple of these styrofoam corners, turned upside down, to secure the top piece of styrofoam, and provide a further cushion between the top of the painting and the box top.

The package packed and almost ready to go.
The package packed and almost ready to go.

Everything fit very snugly into the box; all the corners and sides of the painting are completely protected from crushing and moisture, and unless a forklift rammed through the whole box, the painting should have arrived in perfect condition.  (I’m sure I would have heard by now if not).

I wrapped the box a few more times with tape; all the way around both the horizontal and vertical dimensions, all the way around the side, as well as covering all the seams.  Then all that was left to do was to add some fragile stickers and mailing labels and take it to the Post Office.

Of course, I insured it and paid for delivery confirmation and tracking.

Do you have a favorite method of packing your paintings for shipping, or have you had any problems shipping them safely?  I’d love to hear any interesting experiences you have had packing and shipping artwork.

Display Your Art for Sale on Facebook


Do you have a Facebook Page, an Etsy account, and/or artwork for sale at Fine Art America?  If so, you can very easily display your work from your Etsy Shop and your Fine Art America portfolio directly on your Facebook Page.

This can be great for your collectors and fans, because in one place, they can quickly see what’s available in both of your online shops and for what price, then link directly from your Facebook Page to the item of their choice in either shop.

Continue reading “Display Your Art for Sale on Facebook”

How to Paint with Encaustics

How to Paint with EncausticsThe process of painting in encaustic entails heating up the paint – which is a combination of refined beeswax, resin and pigment – until the paint mixture melts, then quickly brushing the strokes of paint onto a surface before the wax hardens — which takes no time at all.* Usually, I can get only 1-3 strokes onto my surface before the wax solidifies.  So, it’s dip and stroke, dip and stroke, over and over and over until you’ve covered a portion of the surface, at least.

*[Another method for painting in encaustic is to keep your painting surface heated by placing it on a warming plate, so that the wax in the paint stays somewhat melted while you’re painting. This feels much more like painting in oil, and I do it this way often, too.]

The layers also have to be fused together with heat to make the painting strong. There are several tools and methods for doing this; at present, I am fusing the wax with a heat gun — in many cases, melting the wax layers together. The heat gun also blows out air, and thus moves the paint around a little or a lot, depending on my application of heat and air and my intentions.

This is what causes the tricky part of encaustic painting. You have to heat it at least enough to fuse the paint, and I find that I can manipulate the paint being blown around a bit and achieve some gorgeous effects. However, the danger is that the paint will blow around in unexpected and perhaps unwanted ways, so it’s as likely that you’ll ruin something you really liked as that you’ll create some other area that’s just what you wanted. Maybe it’s actually more likely that you’ll ruin some beautiful passage of paint. At any rate, the results are impossible to completely control.

Which is, in a way, why I love this medium so much. I have to be very Zen about my encaustic paintings, and the biggest skill to learn is when to stop messing with the painting.

Thoughts Three Years After Art School

"Abstract #12" oil on canvas 46" x 56" © 1994 Marilyn Fenn
“Abstract #12″ oil on canvas 46″ x 56” © 1994 Marilyn Fenn

(written in 1996)

It’s been 3 years since I left art school. I’ve been painting and drawing nightly for a while — it’s amazing how I’m starting to really ‘get’ some of the things I heard in art school, but somehow didn’t make it all the way through from my ears and eyes to my brain to my hands and brushes.

It was such an immersive and exciting experience to be in art school in Chicago, always doing, thinking, breathing, reading, seeing, smelling, tasting art, and always surrounded by others like me. At times it seemed like I was experiencing a sensory overload – I was like a kid in a candy store – there was so much I wanted to do and see – so much I DID do and see – our museum (hundreds of times), other museums, galleries, artist talks (like Ross Blechner and John Cage), school art openings and art openings in galleries, participating in some art shows, art camp at Oxbow, watching the beautiful iron-pour from the roof of the painting studio there, the sunset over Lake Michigan just like the painting we had seen in a slide just days before, parties, cheap dinners at great ethnic restaurants, a few nights out on the town, listening to great Chicago Blues, the occasional movie, the zoo, free music at Grant Park, riding my bike along Lake Michigan, riding the El, sliding on ice, trying to drive through snow. Getting in touch with the language and culture of my ancestors (which is so easy to do in Chicago, and so hard to do in Texas); having gobs of friends of so many ages from all over the world.

Lessons Learned (Belatedly)

With all that going on, plus full-time classes and part-time working, it’s great to discover years later that somehow the lessons I kind of missed then were planted somewhere inside that didn’t manage to get lost.

Such as:

  1. Simplify!  Simplify shapes, strokes, colors.
  2. Use any color you want for anything – experiment, see how far you can go — it’s your little painted world, after all.  Why be constrained by the colors of reality?   OR, why not aim for the colors of reality, if that puts lead in your pencil, so to speak.
  3. Enjoy what you do…don’t let it get tedious, don’t have shoulds or should-nots (hmmm, is that a ‘should-not?’); explore, discover, expand, have a blast!  Allow yourself to be filled with the excitement of enjoying and immersing yourself in the process and the moment…get lost in your creations…

How to Build a Stretcher (Strainer)

How to Build a Stretcher (Strainer)

  1. Select wood with good, straight endgrain, straight (not bowed), few knots, no critical knots.
  2. Cut all pieces to length (2×4’s & 1×6’s) on miter saw.
  3. Set table saw to 15 degrees – rip 2×4’s in half (??”), rip both halves of each piece of wood.
  4. Set table saw back to vertical – rip 1×6’s in half or thirds.
  5. At dado saw, attach fence w/clamps, set height of blade to depth of miter-corners (1/4″ or so), dado out groove on inside side (bottom side) of each end piece.
  6. Dado out grooves for cross-braces. For large strainers, dado out grooves for cross-braces to fit into each other, 1/2 depth of each cross-brace.
  7. Miter corner on miter saw.
  8. Cut corners on table saw. Cut 2 square pieces.
  9. On band saw, cut corners in half, long way.
  10. Using pneumatic staple gun, glue, & corner braces, assemble pieces. Long staples in ends of pieces. Short staples for corners (first) and cross-braces (last).
  • 2 8ft. 2×4’s will make 1 strainer @ 5’x6′ (32′) or 3 strainers @ 2’x3′ (30′) w/2′ left over (minus the blade kerf).
  • 8 ft. of 2×4’s = 16′ of stretcher bars
  • 3′ + 3′ + 5′ + 5′
  • 3.5′ + 3.5′ + 4.5′ + 4.5′

Disclaimer: these are transcriptions of hand-written notes from 1991 which I never put to use, so don’t hold me to it!  Other standard disclaimers apply (i.e., use caution around saws; be especially careful when ripping wood; wearing safety glasses; etc.)

Want to know the difference between a stretcher and a strainer?  Read “Stretchers and Strainers: Secrets of the Trade” from Golden Paints.