Making Stuff Up: Using your Imagination in your Art

draw sketch imagination paint composition
Draw and paint from your imagination as much as you can.

I often tell my painting students that sooner or later they should all try to work from their imagination. For me, that’s what most of my studies lead up to.

So, sketching is very helpful; sketching and doodling. Great for getting what’s in your mind out into the world in a quick and convenient way. Life-drawing will equip you with the ability to render what’s on your mind; I just don’t think it’s enough to have all that craft ability and to not use it for expressing yourself in an imaginative way.

This little work was a demo I did to show my students how you can paint an underpainting (a brunaille* in this case) if you’re not sure how you want your painting to turn out. I had no particular plan with this other than demonstrating how to achieve a result. I made it up on the spot because I’ve done things like this thousands of times.

Anyway, you can design the painting and add other details or subtract them as you go along -and it’s not going to affect your final work. The underpainting is like painting with a safety net; all the details and tonal values are worked out before any colour gets added. Then the colour can be glazed over it, eventually building up to opaque paint. Just make sure you keep you brushstrokes nice and flat -you don’t want to form little ridges in you paint as your transparent glazes could pool.

Tubes of paint used for this are:

Burnt Sienna
Pale Terracotta (also known as ‘Flesh Tint’) or Warm Bright Yellow from Sennelier.
Titanium White (you can get away without using this. I just used it for the shirt and the bright highlights in the eyes).

*Grisaille = A monochrome grey painting
*Brunaille = Warm monochrome painting

Of course, the other thing you should be doing to exercise your imagination is to draw: Doodle and sketch as much as possible. Buy a sketchbook that you can carry around with you and fill it up. I’ve written a book that will help inspire you to do just this. It’s called, ‘The Care & Feeding of your Sketchbook’ and you can find it here.

All Mixed Up About Colour: Help with Understanding Colour for Beginner Painters

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The Brentford Job. Acrylics on paper.

Having difficulty with colour? People often do -and we’re all confuddled by the infinite variety of mixes that are possible. There are almost as many palettes as there are artists. And many teachers take a very categorical view on the matter.

In fact, what you’re mostly dealing with is just tradition. Artists working hundreds of years ago had only a limited variety of pigments available to them, and some of those are extremely expensive, to boot.

Ultramarine is a lovely blue, but it leans toward the red end of the spectrum. Thus, when you try to make a bright green by mixing yellow with it; you get a brown tinge. Cadmium Red leans towards the yellow side; hence, when you try to make a violet or purple by mixing ultramarine blue into it; once again it looks off. And so on all around the palette.

 So to get around this most basic of problems for beginners all you have to do is get scientific for a while. Just look at your inkjet printer. What colours is it using? Process colours, that’s what. Science has revealed which pigmented colours give the widest and truest mixes. Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black. It’s possible to make an entire and believable palette from just these.

That’s how the above painting was created (the colour part, rather than an armed robbery on a Vespa getaway!).

Traditionalists will recoil in horror, of course. But they always do. The traditional colours are beautiful and have innate qualities that are impossible to emulate. But they’re also yet another complicated layer of difficulty in an already complex endeavour. Since you can’t buy Process colours in oils, as far as I can see, I’ve researched what will get us closest.

Take a look at my short video on the subject on my teaching web site above.

If you need to learn about the basics of colour; simplify. Then you can branch out to really enjoy what glorious pigments are on offer. This is what I teach in my class; Methods to help you create paintings; not hidebound lore that confuses. My aim in class is always to unravel the entanglement of sacred technique.

You can see more informative videos on this page.

Golden Open Acrylics Review

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The Strange Obsessions of Uncle Eugene. 10″ x 8″. Golden Open Acrylics on canvas.

Golden Open acrylics review

I always say: If you want to paint an artwork quickly; use oils. If you want to have a painting ready quickly; use acrylics.

Golden Open acrylic paints review from artist and teacher Kevin McSherry of

But there’s always something to make a lie of every aphorism. Some time ago I bought a set of acrylic colours by the US paint maker Golden. They market these as ‘Open Acrylics’. Essentially, they are slow-drying and make them a little more akin to oils in feel and drying-time.

Washing up and dilution is still done with water.

Apparently, even when it seems that they’ve become unworkable (perhaps the next day), they can be made useable -or ‘opened’ with an additive that they sell (and which I didn’t buy) so I haven’t tested this.

Whatever; this is my first go with these paints.

Testing Golden Open paints

For this Golden Open acrylics review, on both of the artworks pictured above and below, I started out with a ‘brunaille’ or monochrome underpainting with regular acrylics. I then used Open Acrylics paints to glaze the colour. However, because of the detailed natured of these works, I quickly turned to using Open paints just as I would with regular acrylics -working closely and resting my wrist on the surface – and because of that, I found that the prolonged workability of the paint got in my way as I kept dragging my wrist over the painting and causing smudges.  I would have been better to try these out on an alla prima still life or portrait first to get used to them -this says more about me and my impatience than the paints.

All Golden paints are loaded with pigment (Golden don’t do student quality paints as far as I know). They’re bright and intense and each tube goes a long way.

They don’t really feel like oils or regular acrylics either; the texture is slightly goopy -sticky- rather than buttery


Although, these are great paints; really, these were the wrong paintings on which to test these colours out. I would have been happier using regular acrylics for both these artworks.

For me at least, Golden Open Acrylics would come into their own in a more expressive painting -an alla prima painting would have brought out the best in them. They’d be a great alternative to oils paints for those who have a problem with the solvents used in oil painting.  You’ll still need to dispose of waste materials properly (acrylic paint is still a derivative of the plastics industry).

Cost of Golden Open Acrylic Paint

All Golden paints are very good quality materials, so they’re generally dearer than brands of lesser quality. A good comparison is with Winsor & Newton Professional acrylic paint (which I really like and use all the time) on K&M Evans online shop:  Taking Alizarin Crimson in both brands as a marker along with Golden’s own regular Heavy Body paint:
W&N 60ml €12.95
Golden Heavy Body regular acrylics €17.95
Golden OPEN acrylics €17.95

So a fiver more. There’s no difference in price between OPEN and regular heavy body acrylics. I find that it’s hard to say if the price difference between W&N Professional, Sennelier’s Artist Quality acrylics and Golden is worth paying -but as far as I know, none of the others make an acrylics alternative to oils.

However, Golden’s range of additional products such as gels and other additives is second to none -a really comprehensive array of material that none of the other suppliers match.

A note about presentation. Golden does a very good job with their pacakging where the swatch you see on the tube is a smear of the actual paint rather than a printed version. You know what you’re going to get.

Edward-VII’s arrival at Lismore Castle. Painted in Golden Open Acrylics

I also might bring them on holiday with me, as acrylics can dry on the brush in the heat of a southern European summer and oils take just as long to set regardless of the weather.  

You can read about Golden Open acrylic paint on their web site here.

Where to buy Golden Open Acrylics

In Dublin, Ireland, you can buy these in Evans’ Art Shop (online and in the shop itself) in Mary’s Abbey, in Dublin’s town centre.

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