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Painting on alternative backgrounds

Most decorative painting projects look amazing even on a plain background but sometimes its nice to do something to the background BEFORE painting on it.

There are many alternatives to a plain background. You can create a faux finish such as a marbled background or a smoked background. You can even crackle the background and then paint on it.

There is only one rule. You must base-coat the item you want to paint and leave it to cure for at least a week. In fact, the longer the better safer.


If we work on it immediately after basecoating there is a chance that the still drying basecoat paint will lift-off as we do our special effects. Its not so risky if you’re creating a smoked background but its very risky if you’re creating a background that requires you use masking tape, for example, to create stripes.

And, depending on the kind of background you create, you should again leave it to cure for another week.

A crackled background, for example, is very delicate to paint on unless the crackle has been allowed to dry thoroughly. Once I wanted to paint on a background I had crackled and I left it to cure for almost a month.

Recently I wanted to paint a gift for a friend who was leaving Kuwait and I thought I had a lot of time. I wanted to paint her a dainty plaque of roses on a striped background and had also decided to write “Home is where the heart is” on it. Suddenly her departure date was brought forward almost three weeks and I had to hurry to paint her something. I panicked and wondered if I had to cancel my idea because I would not have time to basecoat a plaque and let it cure before striping it.

Thankfully, I discovered I had a few base-coated items among my hoard which included two plaques. They have probably been there a year…obviously I never got round to painting them. Sometimes procrastination does pay! LOL

So I was able to stripe the background without any mishaps! I completed one plaque for my friend and I liked it so much, especially since the quotation was poignant for me too, that I decided to paint another for myself.

Two striped plaques

Striping is easy – the only meticulous part is the preparation. The part where you measure and mask the areas to create the stripes. But that time is an investment.

Masking for stripes

Once that is done, and you’ve made sure there will be no seepage, you paint the stripes, and that part is easy.

Its important not to use a hairdryer when you finish painting the stripes. Firstly, the hairdryer “melts” the masking tape glue which can be messy to remove from your basecoat, and secondly, its better to slowly and carefully remove the masking tape immediately after you paint the stripes because you can use a damp flat brush and clean up any seepage.

Which way to stripe? Paint the coloured basecoat first then paint the white stripes? Or paint a white basecoat then paint the coloured stripes?

I have done it both ways and I have to say, I prefer the first method – paint a coloured basecoat then stripe it white because the stripe looks “softer”. You should try both ways and see which suits you. There is no wrong or right here.

She did it!

As a teacher, I feel really happy when a student gets highly motivated to paint AND she paints!

My Kuwaiti friend and student with whom I sat down and helped choose a colour scheme for her Hindeloopen project said she was going to do it when she went home, and she really did it.

I felt privileged to receive a blow-by-blow account of her progress with her blues three-toned hindeloopen tray project all day long. Via text message! A couple of days ago she brought over the finished tray project to show me and it was beautiful. She allowed me to share her adventure here.

Hindeloopen is easy to paint if you put your heart and mind to it – and provided you understand the simple principles and have developed the necessary strokework skills, of course.

The very first step - basing in the first strokes

The first stage is the easiest and involves involves painting every stroke of the design in the medium value of the chosen colour.

Stroking in the shadows

Next, the shadows are stroked in using the darkest value of the colour chosen for the project. These strokes are usually smaller than the base strokes so that the base colour shows through. These shadow strokes start to define the various objects whether they’re leaves, flowers or birds.

Painting the highlight strokes

The third stage involves lightening the medium value used as the base colour and using this to paint the highlight strokes.

The objects become more defined at this stage.

The completed Hindeloopen tray

And finally, the detail strokes are added in the lightest shade of all, almost but not quite white.

So there it is. Its really easy if you know how!

I knew she could do it and she proved she could do it. All on her own. Next week we will paint another Hindeloopen project in class in the traditional Hindeloopen colours and I’m sure it will be just as breathtaking!

Trompe l’oeil….is it real?

Its very important to me to show students the techniques I am teaching them step-by-step without painting ON their projects. To do this, I usually paint the same project with them – either on my own surface or sometimes on a piece of canvas, or black practise paper.

I usually pick a piece from my stash (yes, stash!) of basecoated pieces or sometimes I deliberately basecoat a suitable piece from my other stash – a delightful collection of things I want to paint which I buy whenever and wherever I see them! I have wooden clogs from the Netherlands, carved candle stands from somewhere in Europe, musical door harps from someone on the internet who makes and sells them, an MDF calico cat, even a nest of Matryoshka dolls I bought in St Petersburg, Russia!

I have a lot of painting I want to do! LOL

Yesterday, while teaching red roses on fabric I demonstrated the techniques on a piece of black paper and, as stunning as the project was on linen, I have to say it didn’t look too bad on the black paper!

The red roses on black paper....sigh..

After the class, I remembered that sometime ago, Nina had given me a tea box. I had even prepared the faux finish background on the lid and left it to cure. Its been there a long time waiting for something to be painted on the lid. Of course I exclaimed, “I could have painted those roses on this tea box instead of the black paper…!” Why didn’t I think of that…

I decided I’d paint it later during the day after class….”Hmmmm do that….it should take you only fifteen minutes to paint that on your tea box!” So I retrieved the tea box and set it on the studio table resolving to do just that..paint the red roses on them later, really quickly.

But when I looked at the tea box, I remembered that I had always wanted to paint something trompe l’oeil on it…like teabags maybe?

Trompe l’oeil is French for “deceive, fool or trick the eye” and is an art technique which involves realistic imagery that creates an optical illusion that the painted objects appear in three dimensions.

It is the artistic ability to depict an object so exactly as to make it appear real. A heightened form of illusionism, the art of trompe l’oeil flourished from the Renaissance onward. The discovery of perspective in fifteenth-century Italy and advancements in the science of optics in the seventeenth-century Netherlands enabled artists to render objects and spaces with eye-fooling exactitude. Both witty and serious, trompe l’oeil is a game artists play with spectators to raise questions about the nature of art and perception.

Famous painting of a boy

And that’s the textbook definition of trompe l’oeil. In decorative painting, trompe l’oeil is similarly applied by painting items on objects to look real e.g. strawberries and chocolates painted on trays, spectacles and pens on a desk box and many more possibilities.

So I went to the kitchen and looked around for some objects to create a still life composition for my tea box. I selected three teabags in individual paper bags, diffused some tea to get a used teabag, and my Delft blue used tea bag holder. Then I set it up on a piece of mounting board.

My still life of selected objects from the kitchen!

Next, I drew it in white pencil on the cover of my tea box, selected my colours and started painting. Of course it took much, much more than fifteen minutes because in painting trompe l’oeil, the goal is to make objects appear as realistic as possible. So you guessed correctly that a lot of detailed work was involved! But the finished product was gratifying, as indeed, it looked real.

The finished painting, viewed from the you would see it.

So “real” that when I was painting the used teabag tab, I borrowed a fresh teabag from the kitchen to look at the details. I put it down for a moment to get something and when I wanted to start painting again, I tried to pick up the teabag tab I had painted! :-)

My new teabox enjoying its place in the kitchen

Everyone can paint very simple trompe l’oeil projects: the important thing to remember is that other than trying to make the painted items as realistic as possible in terms of the drawing, colour, texture, detail etc, they have to be life size i.e. the same size as they are in real life, and they have to be painted as the eye would see it on the object i.e. in terms of perspective and elevation.

And the final thing to remember is – to have fun!

Painting lines

I received an e-mail from a decorative painter recently asking for tips on painting thin lines for stems of flowers, for example, and that inspired me to write this post about painting lines.

I think that painting lines is one of those techniques in decorative painting that gets so taken for granted. That’s because it looks so easy! And mind you, it IS easy. As with everything else, the right tools and the right techniques are all you need to paint lines well.

White zhostovo on bisque

Linework is important not just for painting stems etc. You need to develop your line painting skills so that you can paint intricate borders such as the one on this zhostovo project.

First, you need the right brush both in terms of quality and size. Technically speaking you should be able to paint a thin line using any round brush (with Taklon or sable hairs or a combination) that is in perfect condition. A brush in “perfect condition” is important because it must be able to give you a sharp point once loaded with paint.

Of course, the best way to paint a thin line is to use what we call a LINER brush.

Heather Redick liner brush

This type of brush is specifically made for painting thin lines and so it has very few hairs. It almost looks like a make-up brush! There are many brands of liner brushes available on the market but the best liner brush I have used is Heather Redick’s liner brushes. She is a decorative artist and sells her own line of liner brushes. It is truly the best liner brush I have ever used! She has a website and sell her brushes there. There are three sizes available now and if you get the middle size you should be able to do all your line painting quite successfully. I think she gives a special price if you want to get all three sizes.

Secondly, you need the the right paint consistency. To paint thin lines you need to load your liner brush with watery paint, the consistency of ink. That’s very watery paint. Load the liner brush with just the right amount of paint – no blobs and certainly no paint on the ferrule of your brush – then paint away! If you buy Heather’s liner brush, it also comes with instructions on the right way to load the brush.

Lastly, the right technique. Its not difficult at all..basically you must learn to allow “the brush to do the work”. It takes practise to do this. The only way I can explain this is to not try to “draw” the line because your hands will shake and you will get a wiggly line.

Place your project in front of you at an angle that allows you to comfortably pull the brush TOWARDS you, not AWAY from you. Place the loaded brush at the base of your flower, press it down a bit to release the paint and pull it towards you. Try to use your whole arm to pull the line. Rest your arm or your little finger on your project to control your movement. If you want a thicker line, just put more pressure on the brush.

Its not complicated at all, it just takes a lot of practise and before long you will painting perfect lines without any effort at all. Just take some paper, ink consistency paint and a liner in perfect condition and practise, practise, practise.

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