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Today’s episode of The Self Taught Artist Podcast answers a number of common questions I get regarding common painting problems. There are quite a few things that can go wrong in the art-making process, and I’m excited to share some of the little tips I have. Save this episode for later – you never know when you’ll need these little hints. While you’re at it, hit the subscribe button so you never miss an episode of the Self Taught Artist podcast. 

Here are some of the questions we’ll answer today:

1. What do you do when you’re working on a painting on paper – could be watercolors, gouache, or acrylic, and by the time you finish the piece, the paper is curled or buckled? How do you get it back to laying flat?

2. When I varnish my acrylic paintings I have smudging that occurs and blurs my colors together. It also blurs my pastel marks. What do I do?

3. I can’t paint consistent lines! When I try, they end up wobbly and uneven! Is there anything I can do?

4. Can I mix different paint brands together? Can I mix oil paint and acrylic paint? 

5. Help! I forgot to clean my brush after my last painting session and left my brush out overnight. It’s hard as a rock. What should I do now?

6. My acrylic paint dries too fast! What can I do?

7. My watercolor is streaky sometimes- especially when I try to paint a large area, like a big sky. Those are the times I want the smoothest color and yet, I tend to end up with hard lines and streaks. What can I do to avoid this?

8. When I mix colors as I paint, I often get muddy looking colors – or they end up looking dull and flat. What’s up with that?

Until next time, happy creating my friends!

Episode Transcript

Welcome back to the Self Taught Artist Podcast. I’m Lauren Kristine, your host. I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season. I know I just received some new art supplies as a gift and I can’t wait to dive into them. Before I do that, though, I wanted to record another episode of the Self Taught Artist podcast for you guys. I thought today, we might answer a number of common questions I get regarding how to fix common painting problems. There are quite a few things that can go wrong in the art making process. And I’m excited to share some of the little tips that I have picked up along the way. You may want to save this episode for later. You never know when you’ll need some of these little hints. While you’re at it, hit the subscribe button so you never miss an episode of the Self Taught Artist Podcast. Alright, let’s go ahead and dive in today’s episode, we’re going to have a question and answer format.

The first question is, “what do you do when you’re working on a painting on paper and by the time you finish the piece, the paper is curled or buckled in some way. How do you get it back to laying flat? It could be watercolors, gouache or acrylic.” This happens to me all the time. And I remember I once had a painting that I did and I was so excited. I listed it for sale, and I sold it. And then I looked at it and it was all curled up after sitting on my shelf for a couple of weeks. And I freaked out at first because I didn’t know how to flatten it. And if I was even going to be able to flatten it again. It really doesn’t take much to curl up those edges and create some wrinkles in a paper piece. So this common problem has a very easy fix.

1. Wait for your painting to be completely dry. This step is probably the most important of them all. I really can’t stress this enough, your painting needs to be bone dry. Once it’s completely dry, you move to step two. 2. Turn your painting face down. 3. Take a spray bottle of water and lightly mist the back of the painting. It really doesn’t take too much water to do it. So don’t over spray it. It’s better to spray too lightly at this point and have to repeat this process than to spray too much. It really should be just a light misting of water. You should have no big droplets or visibly damp areas. 4. Put your painting facedown between two large books. 5. Leave it there for at least an hour, preferably several hours. 6. Then finally, remove it after some time and hopefully marvel at how flat the pieces. If it’s not noticeably flatter, repeat this process again and leave it under the books for a longer period of time. Next question! Moving on.

When I varnished my paintings, I have a smudging that occurs and it blurs my colors together. It also blurs my pastel marks when I apply varnish. What do I do? Well, this is really two questions combined into one with two different answers. First, if you have any smudging that occurs with acrylic paints, it means that you did not let the painting dry long enough before you varnished it. You should wait until your painting is completely dry, and then wait a little longer than that. It is the worst feeling in the world when the varnish process ruins a painting that you’ve worked really hard on. I tend to paint in very thin layers, so I only have to wait two to three days or so before my paintings are ready to varnish. But if you have really thick layers or if you’re painting in an impasto type style, then you may need to wait up to a week or two for the drying process. The reason for this is you want to make sure there is absolutely zero moisture left or trapped in the paint or the canvas before you apply that final top coat. I checked on the Liquitex website and they say officially that you should wait a minimum of 72 hours if your paint is thin and up to two weeks if you have thick paint applications, so use that as your guide and touch it with your finger and you’ll be able to tell when it’s dry. Once you get to that point, wait a little bit longer just to be absolutely certain.

Now moving on to that second piece of the question about pastel marks. If you have smudging that occurs when you try to varnish over pastels, that means that you’re not fixing them in place. First, you need to buy a special product called fixative to keep those pastel chalk markings or chalk, charcoal, or other marks that you’ve made in place on mixed media art before you varnish them. You can find a lot of different types of fixative in a spray format. Some will even claim to be workable, which means that you can erase and keep working on your art even after you spray them on. However, I don’t recommend relying on that feature. When you fix your pastels or your charcoal in place, you should pretty much consider it permanent and do that as a step towards the end of your process right before varnishing so towards the final stages. Fixative usually comes in an aerosol can, which has its downsides. These fixatives use chemicals that are pretty toxic, and do have very strong smells and odors. I recommend you use aerosols outdoors in a well ventilated area. However, my pro tip would be to buy a special type of fixative called Spectrafix. You can buy this at a Jerry’s Artarama or Dick Blick. What’s special about this fixative is that it comes in a spray bottle, like a manual spray bottle, not an aerosol can. It’s non toxic and made from all natural ingredients. Since there’s no smell and it’s safe, you can use it indoors anytime. This makes it very convenient, and in my opinion, a much better solution for your fixative needs. I hate when the weather’s bad or it’s cold, having to go outside to spray fixative or even varnish is just too much to ask. One thing I’ll say is that any fixative will slightly darken your pastels. That is just a fact of life. However, slightly darker pastels is much preferred to smeared and smudged pastels. You have to use fixative before you varnish. It’s just how it is. And you have to varnish your work to ensure that it endures and lasts for many years to come. And finally, if all of those tips above, don’t work, and you’re still having smudging issues, when you’re varnishing, try using a aerosol spray varnish. Do that for your first coat or two. And then if you want you can brush more brush-on varnish on top of that. I personally prefer brush-on gloss varnish. But everyone is going to have a different look that they prefer. We’ll talk about varnishing in a future episode of this podcast because it is a very important step in your art making process.

Next question: I cannot paint consistent lines. When I try they end up wobbly and uneven. Is there anything I can do? Yep, that is very frustrating and I’ve definitely been there. Rulers aren’t always practical. And there’s not always a stencil or guide to get the kind of strong confident line you want in your art. Brushes just are not always conducive to a nice straight line or a nice consistent line. There are special liner brushes that you can use. These have long bristles, sometimes a couple inches long even that make lines that look pretty good. These long brushes are made for these very long continuous strokes. However, when I’m working in acrylic, I have a very easy fix. I love to use Posca acrylic paint pens. These are Japanese high quality acrylic paint pens that are fabulous. You hold them just like a pen in your hand and It’s much easier to get confident and consistent lines this way. You can achieve all kinds of special effects with Posca paint pens, and I highly recommend them. I have so much fun just playing around with them and seeing all the different effects that I can get out of just these simple pens. If I were you, I would start with just a black one, and a white one to begin with. You can get really creative with them and they certainly serve a purpose when you need lines in your paintings.

Next question: Can I mix different paint brands together? Yes, absolutely. But make sure you’re mixing the same type of paint together. I mix acrylic paint brands all the time. I will put Liquitex, Golden. and Lukas acrylics on my palette and mix them in practically every painting that I do. Any acrylic paint can be mixed with any acrylic paint. Also, you can mix different brands of watercolors together or gouache together. And you can even mix different brands of watercolor and gouache together. But never ever mix oil paints and acrylic paints together on your palette or use them on the same piece at the same time. Acrylic paints are water-based and oil paints are oil-based. So they each have different properties and different needs. That means they’re different in terms of drying time, the type of varnish you have to use, and more. If you want to paint with one first and then the other, it is okay to paint oils over acrylics, but never paint acrylics over oils. That is a hard and fast rule. Only once your acrylic paint is completely dry, is it safe to paint over it using oil paints. Some artists like to use both types of paint because it allows them to enjoy the different properties of these two types of paint. What you should never ever do is paint a layer of oils and then paint over it with acrylics. The acrylic paint will be unable to stick to the oil paint and get a strong adhesion. So what you’re going to find is that it’s going to flake off. Do be aware that this flaking sometimes will happen very quickly like the same day that you paint. But sometimes it can actually take weeks or months. But no matter what the acrylic will definitely flake off at some point. So you don’t want to go through all that effort and paint a beautiful painting and then have it fall apart. To summarize the rule here, be sure to use oil paint over acrylic and not the other way around. And do not mix the two on your palette ever.

I think everyone can relate to this next question we’re going to talk about. I forgot to clean my brush after my last painting session and I left it out overnight full of paint. Help! Now it’s hard as a rock. What should I do now? Never fear, you can probably revive your brush and get it back to a great working condition. Go ahead and soak the brush in a cup of lukewarm water mixed with a healthy squirt of dish soap. Dawn dish soap is my preferred brand. Since it’s gentle on the brush hairs but still has a strong cleaning power. I will leave my brush soaking for a few hours or even a full 24 hours. If it’s really bad. I’ll come back scrub it with Dawn dish soap and really work the bristles through my fingers a couple times over that period and I find that most of the paint will fall off of the bristles this way. It’s always easier to clean paint off the brush when it’s still wet, of course. So to avoid any risks of paint drying on the brush, I like to keep my brush moist during painting sessions and clean it as soon as I finish. I get it, sometimes life gets in the way. I keep a jar of water next to my paints and anytime I finish using a brush it goes in the jar of water. Sometimes, I do forget to clean my brushes off immediately after but at least I find that then when I return they are wet in this cup of water. Water greatly reduces the damage done to my brushes. I should mention, leaving your brushes soaking in water for a long time can also do long term damage to the brush. So it’s certainly not recommended to leave them soaking in water for a long time. I tend to use not very fancy brushes in my art practice, so I don’t worry about my brushes too much. A compromise that I make is putting them in water as soon as I’m done with them and letting them soak there during the remainder of my painting session. And that’s just my personal preference. But I do have some really nice brushes that I got as a gift. And so when I use those, I’m very careful to wash those out immediately because I want to keep those brushes really nice for as long as possible.

Next question: My acrylic paint dries way too fast. What can I do to slow down the drying time? First, keep a spray bottle of water on hand at all times in your studio or in your workspace and gently mist the canvas from time to time. Also, mist your painting palette every so often to keep things moist longer. You can also add what’s called a paint retarder to the paint or something that’s called a slow dry medium. These exists to help you get that effect in your paint of keeping it open for longer and slowing down that dry time. Be sure to read the label on the bottle and don’t add too much of retarder or slow dry medium. Otherwise your paint might never dry!

Moving right along to the next question: My watercolor is streaky sometimes, especially when I try to paint a large area like a big sky. Those are the times I want the smoothest color and yet I tend to end up with hard lines and streaks. What can I do to avoid this? Even though it looks like it should be simple, getting an even wash of color is a difficult technique to master with watercolor. It’s the kind of thing you need to practice over and over to get just right. Streaks occur most often because the paint has had time to start drying and there’s an uneven amount of water left on the page. My biggest tip for this is don’t overload the brush with water. Too much water on the brush leads to too much water on your work surface, which can dry unevenly and form hard lines, which is precisely what we’re trying to avoid. Be sure to mix up a large quantity of paint for your wash. Running out of paint during the middle of a wash is bound to create problems and I’ve had this happen to me. A smooth wash requires uninterrupted brushstrokes. You cannot stop in the middle of the process. Make sure your brush is loaded up with paint and you can even try tilting the paper so it forms a bead at the base of your brushstroke. That’s where it pools the water. Use the bead to push paint down the paper with each brushstroke. When you’re done with that area, make sure to soak up the excess speed and excess water. If you leave a pool of watercolor on your page with lots of wetness, it will cause issues and dry unevenly. I might be stating the obvious but make sure you’re using a big enough paintbrush for the area you want to cover. You have to work quickly, and having the right tool will help a lot for this. I get it, when you’re in the middle of the painting process you don’t necessarily want to go search for another brush to find that big flat wash brush, but that is precisely what that brush was designed for! And it’s going to give you the best chance of success. So it’s worth going and hunting down your big enough paintbrush to use at these times. Sometimes I will actually pre-wet the area that I want to do a wash on to help the color spread more quickly. Again, it takes practice and the type of paper you use will matter as well in terms of how quickly the paint disk verses on the paper.

This next question is pretty much my worst nightmare with watercolors: I accidentally made a mark in the wrong place on my watercolor piece. Is there any way I can remove it after the fact? First, if you make a mistake in watercolor, take a clean dry paper towel and try to soak up as much of it as you can. This will probably get you half of the way there. Then you have a few options for what you do next. You can try to gently erase it with an eraser once it’s dry. Rarely, I’ll find that works, but it’s worth a try. Make sure it’s completely dry before you do that though. My absolute favorite method for touching up watercolor mistakes is using a Magic Eraser, the kind that you use for cleaning around your house. I will cut off a little piece, wet it in water to make it lightly damp. And rub it on the mistake on my watercolor page. I’ve used the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser brand and the generic Target brand Up and Up magic erasers and both work equally well. I’m not actually sure why Magic Erasers work so well, but sometimes the results really are incredible. I’ve had some luck with removing some hard edges in my watercolor with Mr. Clean Magic erasers as well. There are no promises with fixing any watercolor mistakes, of course. But the Magic Eraser is the best tool that I’ve found so far. You have to play around with using it and see how it works for you on your specific paint and paper. I recommend trying it on a scrap piece of test paper first and seeing what you can do with it. Do that now, before you actually have a mistake that you need to fix and you’re in a panic! I really think that Magic Erasers are the best kept secret in watercolor painting.

Our next question: When I mix colors as I paint, I often get muddy looking results, or my colors end up looking dull and flat on the canvas. What’s up with that? I think I have to do an entire episode on color mixing pretty soon. Since it’s a pretty big topic among beginner and intermediate artists, especially those that are self taught artists. In art school, students spend tons of time on color theory. But I just tried to make things quick and easy on this podcast, so you can learn it as fast as possible. So I’ll just give a few simple suggestions today. First, stick to what is called the three color rule. Typically, if you find yourself using more than three colors to mix a desired color, you probably should rethink how you’re doing it. Your three color rule excludes white and black of course, as those colors mainly control the value of the paint, and not the hue or the color. When you mix different colors of paint that you own, what you may not realize is that those bottles of paint may already themselves be a mixture of two, three, or even four different pigments and colors already. You can look at the bottle to figure out what pigments are inside. And I really recommend that you do this, you’ll start to pick up over time, which paints are the most simple and the best for mixing purity. The thing is, if you’re mixing one tube of paint that already has three or four pigments inside, and you mix that with another tube of paint that has another three or four pigments inside, then there’s just going to be a greater chance that some of those pigments won’t combine well. That’s what leads to that muddy color that you’re trying to avoid. Another option is using what’s called a limited palette. This is where you limit yourself to just a few colors to use on the entire painting. At the very beginning of your painting process, take a look at the paint colors you have and pick out just a few tubes of paint. Put all of the other ones in the drawer away out of sight. You’re going to challenge yourself to only use those select colors plus white and black on your entire painting. One of the biggest benefits of this limited palette technique is that it will help you to harmonize the colors in your painting. It’s just part of the magic as you mix. By limiting the colors on your palette, you’re going to end up with color harmony. When you have color harmony, you don’t have mud. I typically choose just one set of primaries and mix from there. Or if I’m doing a larger limited palette, I pick my secondaries very carefully. Color swatching is a very good idea. As you pick your limited palette to make sure that you can get the desired colors from your selected paints. A limited palette is a great way to force yourself to learn color theory and to learn more about your paints as you go through trial and error. Paints and pigments are one of those things that you just have to experiment with to truly understand. The more you understand your paints and how their pigments behave, the easier you’ll be able to achieve your desired effects. I think I’m going to work on a special episode of this podcast all about color theory and mixing to help you speed up this learning curve. Stay tuned and let me know if there’s anything in particular that you struggle with regarding color theory, and I’d be happy to help address that.

Well, that is it for today’s episode. I really hope that this Question and Answer episode helped you in some way, or that it will help you in the future when one of these issues pops up. Do you have a question that you wish that I had answered or an idea for a future episode of the podcast? If so, please let me know. You can find me on Instagram at LaurenKristineArt or at my website You can find all the links in the show notes. As always, please rate, review, and subscribe to the Self Taught Artists podcast. ‘Til next time, happy creating my friends.

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