Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Behind the Scenes - Painting a Quick Two Dollar Bill Trompe L'Oeil

"Long Term Investment Account," acrylic on panel, 6" x 6".

I used the wrinkliest two dollar bill I could find for this piece. The original subject is pretty much my long term investment plan!
Here are a few behind-the-scenes pictures of this painting as I worked on it. The painting took between 8 and 10 hours, with most of that work falling between photos three and four. Enjoy!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Up on Etsy - Framed Photorealist Painting of Vintage Toy Cars

photorealist painting of vintage toy cars in a custom handmade frame
"Vintage Toy Cars," 8" x 8", acrylic on cradled panel in a 2" deep handcrafted floater frame.

I used my husband's old toy cars as the models for this piece. At more than 35 years old, they were all pretty beat up and rusty, which I loved.

I painted this quite a while ago, on a cradled panel, but I could never get the sides of the panel to my liking, and after putting it away for several months, I decided to custom frame it - a great decision because I love the finished look! Thanks to O&M for the lovely handmade frame, which blends a bit of a rustic quality with a contemporary look. At 2 inches deep, the frame is quite substantial and gives the piece a clean gallery-quality look.

The piece has a soft matte finish.

* You can see step-by-step photos of this piece as I painted it here: .

Thanks for looking!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Up on Etsy - Photorealistic Painting of a Parade of Monopoly Board Game Pieces

6x12 inch acrylic realism painting of monopoly board game pieces in a parade
"A Little Parade," acrylic on panel, 6 inches x 12 inches in a 1-1/2-inch deep custom handmade frame by Etsy Seller Organics&Mechanics (O&MWood), ebony stain.

I used the pieces from our vintage Monopoly game to assemble my still life setup for this piece. They've modernized Monopoly and a lot of other board games, but give me the classics from my childhood any day!

The painting has a finish somewhere between satin and matte, so it has a nice, soft look. There is virtually no visible paint texture in the piece due to many layers of paint and finish, and a bit of wet sanding in between.

I painted this piece on a cradled panel, so I felt like it really needed a frame to give it a clean and finished look. I really appreciated the hand-crafted custom look of this frame from O&M, and I think it complements the piece. It is a floater frame, so the painted has been permanently affixed to the frame, with a small gap between the painting and the frame on all sides. At 1-1/2" deep, the frame gives the painting a wonderful substantial feel on the wall.

Thanks for looking!
Saturday, March 11, 2017

Up on Etsy - Vintage Music Toy Acrylic Painting

"Music Man," acrylic on aquabord panel, 8" x 8".
$119+$10 shipping/Available on Etsy

I found this little wooden and plastic toy at a comic book show in February, at a vintage toy stand. It was just a few dollars, but I just fell in love with it, and knew it would be a great subject for this and future paintings. He's just so darn cute!

This piece was done in the acrylic watercolor style on aquabord, which has a bit more texture than my normal painting surface but is lovely for painting. The painting also has a bit of a shine to it, with a satin finish.

Thanks for looking!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Mixing Acrylic Colors Part 1 - Overcoming Color Shift

Example of Color Shift - The wet paint appears lighter than the dry paint of the same color.
If you've ever tried to paint an area of a painting using a flat single acrylic color, like the color of this notebook I'm painting in this image, you have very likely witnessed "color shift." Sometimes it's more obvious in certain colors than in others, but it's always there. In the example above, the wet paint is significantly lighter than the dry paint. This is just one of the reasons why mixing colors in acrylic is tricky compared to other mediums.

While I mix many of my colors in small quantities on my palette, just as I used to do in oil, it doesn't stay wet long enough for me to use these small piles on larger areas that need to be a single flat color. Using a single flat color is also a great way to establish a local color that is later refined and glazed with details to provide dimension. And because it's next to impossible to mix the exact color twice due to the color shift phenomenon, acrylic painters need a better solution than struggling back and forth to wait for colors to dry to see if they match.

In art stores, they sell fairly large containers intended to store acrylic paint mixes. But I wanted a simpler solution for mixing my colors. I wanted something small, disposable, suitable for my small paintings and inexpensive.

On a whim, I decided to explore the disposable container section of my local Target, and after picking up several items, I was drawn to this one: Diamond Daily Mini Cups.

These wonderful little cups come in a bag of 50, with lids, and are only a few dollars, making them cheap enough for me to mix colors in quantities just large enough for the particular painting I'm working on. I use anywhere from a couple of flat color mixes to up to 20 for each painting.

A few of my color mixes for a painting I'm currently working on.

 These containers will keep the paint fresh for at least a day. However, I have learned that if I store them securely in a ziploc storage bag, I can keep them fresh for up to a week or more, depending on the brand of paint (M. Graham stays wet longer than Golden) and the particular colors (some seem to dry out faster than others).

Paint containers stored in a ziplock bag.

I've found this to be such a simple solution that makes it much easier to avoid the color shift problem. Give this method a try, and I'll discuss additional details about how I mix these colors correctly and use them more economically in future posts.

In the mean time, happy painting!

Finished painting - "On the Scene," 8" x 8", acrylic on panel (commission).

Up on Etsy - Small Painting of a Pile of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

"Dreaming of Peanut Butter Cups," acrylic on panel, 6" x 6".
I thought I'd tackle another small "pile" painting, this time of Reese's cups. They are always a challenging puzzle to paint. Thanks for looking!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

New Custom Handmade Frames on these Vintage Toy Cars and Monopoly Pieces Paintings

custom handmade frame on acrylic painting of vintage toy matchbox and hot wheels cars
"Vintage Toy Cars," 8" x 8", acrylic on panel in a custom handmade frame.
I did a few paintings on cradled panels a while back, and just couldn't get the sides of the panels to my liking, so I've opted to order to some custom floater frames and give them a really finished look. Here are the two I'll be posting to my Etsy store later this week.

These lovely custom frames are from a fellow Etsy seller, Organics&Mechanics, so be sure to visit their shop if you are in the market!

Also, remember to sign up for my email list to get the first opportunity to purchase these and my other new paintings before they are posted for sale elsewhere. Thanks for looking!

custom handmade frame on acrylic painting of monopoly board game pieces
"A Little Parade," 6" x 12", acrylic on panel in a custom handmade frame. 

Up on Etsy - Trompe L'Oeil Painting of Reese's Pieces

trompe l'oeil painting of reese's pieces candy
"Saving It for the Later 2," acrylic on panel, 8" x 8".

This Reese's Pieces painting was quite a challenging trompe l'oeil piece for me because the candy package is surprisingly reflective, allowing for a lot of variations as the light changed. But in the end, I think it came together, and it's a pretty fun illusion. Thanks for looking!
Monday, March 6, 2017

How Much Water Can You Add to Acrylic Paint

"Strawberries," acrylic on aquabord panel, 6" x 6" by Kim Testone.
(I originally wrote this piece for my other technique blog, but as I'll be merging the two here I thought I'd share it again. Thanks!)

When I first began painting in acrylics a few years ago, I was very paranoid about how much water I could add to my paint. Of course I knew acrylic was a water-based paint, but there seemed to be a lot of diverse opinions around the Internet and in the books I read about how much water I could add to thin it down. Some people said no more than 30% water to paint, some said up to 50% water, and some even said they added up to 80% or more. What was the right answer? I didn't want my paintings to fall apart, but I was struggling to make the transition from the smooth blending capabilities of oil paints to the tackiness of an acrylic paint.

After lots of research and experimentation, I've learned that there isn't a single right answer, but rather a right answer for each circumstance. So I want to share with you what works for me. Note that in many paintings I will use more than one of these to work on various areas to get the right look and gain control over my paint. 

Option 1: The Watercolor Method

If you want to add gobs of water and work in super thin, washy layers, you can paint in the watercolor style. I first learned of this approach to acrylics in the informative book, "Acrylics The Watercolor Alternative," by Charles Harrington. When I use this method, I prefer to work on Ampersand Aquabord (an absorbent watercolor panel) but you can work on any watercolor surface you prefer. That is the key - if you want to be able to add as much water as you want, you need to work on an absorbent watercolor surface. Otherwise, if you try to work on a non-watercolor surface and water your paint down too much, you'll cause the bond between the acrylic polymer binder and the pigment to break, and the initial result will be that your paint may bead up and not adhere. It may also affect the structure of later layers of your painting and their bond to your surface.

 The "Strawberries" painting above is actually done on Aquabord. But in general, for my style of painting (many thin layers), if I'm working on a watercolor surface, I start out with multiple thin watercolor layers until the surface stops absorbing the water and then begin with my regular layering style - using a combination of water and acrylic medium. The paintings look pretty much the same at the end, but the watercolor method helps me get through the first several layers more quickly than in using other methods.

Option 2: Roughly 30% Water to 70% Paint

I try to avoid excessive texture in my paintings, and in some cases, working with straight water is a great way for certain areas to do that. When water evaporates from acrylic paint, it causes the paint to shrink slightly, so often, a little bit of texture during a painting session becomes barely noticeable by the next day (great for realist painters working like me, but undesirable if you are aim is to get lots of texture). To ensure that the bond between my acrylic paint binder and pigment isn't broken, I do try to stay within the manufacturers recommended limits of no more than 30% water to 70% paint. However, sometimes I go outside of this, if I'm trying to quickly soften an edge or because I work an area too quickly or just to get the paint to go where I want it to.

Do I panic? Never, because I have a secret weapon - I seal each of my paintings with one or more coats of undiluted gloss or matte medium, or a mix of the two,  at certain stages and at the end to ensure a proper adherence of every bit of my paint. It's sort of like applying a thin layer of glue over the whole painting, as you would in a mixed media piece. I also use it to help get achieve a more even finish to my painting surface, even if I still plan to apply a separate varnish afterward (I'll talk about this in a future piece). (EDIT: I've recently started using a permanent varnish sealer by Liquitex as well, which still seals the work but also adds a layer of added protection, even if I don't add a removable varnish.)

Option 3: Straight Matte or Gloss Medium

For some of my early acrylic paintings, I used almost no water because of my paranoia. I actually think this was a great exercise because once I gained some level of control over my paint using just paint and acrylic medium, adding water into the mix was a luxury! It is tough to do, but it does ensure the strongest possible bond. Think of it like a stretching exercise leading up to option 4 here.

There are, however, some circumstances in which I do still only use straight medium mixed with paint and no water, like when painting small lettering or sometimes when adding final details or glazing shadows.I do still occasionally use this method on a full painting as well, but because the medium extends the drying time significantly, it's a more time-consuming process for a full painting.

Option 4: The Perfect Medium

This is by far my favorite go-to painting medium, a formula which I came up with myself, but I'm sure many artists far smarter than me came up with long ago. So here it is: make a mix of 70% matte or gloss medium with 30% water. Mix as much or as little with each brushstroke as you want. Voila!

We're visual people, right? I made you a visual!

This simple formula makes everything so much easier during the painting process and provides me with a perfect level of control over my paint. Why does this work? Acrylic medium is essentially acrylic paint with no pigment. I can add as much acrylic medium to my paint as I want. So, if this helps to thin my paint and adjust its viscosity, and if water does as well but I shouldn't add too much, why not just add the water to the medium (in a proportion that will retain the medium's binder)? Then I get a thinner medium that moves my paint more easily, and I don't have to worry about how much water I'm adding to my paint.

For my approach to realistic acrylic painting, this is a great solution. I mix up enough for my painting session and store it in a Diamond Daily Mini Cup with a lid and keep it on my palette or on my easel. (I use these cups for a variety of purposes in my paintings, which I'll discuss in future posts.) 

Why I Don't Use Acrylic Retarder or Open Acrylics

Some of the main reasons I stopped using oil paints were because of the technical rules adding mediums and because I was tired of constantly having to take tweezers to my wet paintings to get rid of pet hair and dust. That's why I don't use acrylic retarder or Open acrylics. Both of these methods aim to extend the working time of your paint, making it behave more like oils. But acrylic retarder can cause adhesion problems, and Open acrylics attract even more dust and pet hair than oils did for me. While I'm sure some artists have found success with them, I've found them unnecessary and overly complicated.

Final Thoughts

When in doubt, seal it! As I mentioned, I seal each and every painting with an undiluted coat or multiple coats of gloss or matte medium and/or a coat of Liquitex permanent varnish. I never worry that my bond won't adhere years down the road.

I personally also use a really high quality paint - usually M. Graham Acrylics or Golden Acrylics - because I know that these paints aren't chock full of fillers or junk that is unnecessary, and I have confidence in their archival properties.

But the best advice I can give to any aspiring painter is to simply paint. Experience will be your best guide.

I hope this article has been of some help to you! Happy painting!

Up on Etsy - Trompe L'Oeil Painting of a Small Hershey's Chocolate Bar

small trompe l'oeil acrylic painting of hershey's chocolate bar hanging from a piece of twine
"Saving it for later 1," acrylic on gessobord, 6" x 6".


Here's a fun little trompe l'oeil painting I put together using some extra twine I had laying around. I think it's actually the best twine I've ever painted! Thanks for looking!
Sunday, March 5, 2017

Making the Switch from Oils to Acrylics - How to Keep the Paint from Drying Out on Your Palette

"Bread with Strawberry Jam," acrylic on panel, 12" x 16" by Kim Testone.
(Note: I actually shared this piece on my other blog,, a few months ago, but since I'll be merging the two together again - mostly because I don't have time to maintain the other! - I thought I'd share it here today. Happy painting!)

When you are making the transition from the lush workability of oil paints to the seemingly stiff tackiness of acrylic paints, it can be frustrating. One thing that I was particularly frustrated with was the fact that the paint on my palette kept drying out or getting that skin over the top after just a couple of hours, or less, so I'd end up throwing lots of acrylic paint away during and after each painting session.

There were several acrylic palette solutions that I was introduced to in college, and years later, all of which I now consider to be really bad in terms of keeping my acrylic paints wet and workable. In college, my professors recommended a gessoed piece of birch panel - but think about that. If you are using a gessoed surface, or any kind of moderately absorbent surface, the moisture from your acrylics will get sucked out as much as it would on your painting surface. I wasted board after board of dried paint in college.

Years later, I tried paper plates - which I'm sure you've guessed is bad for exactly the same reason. All of the moisture gets absorbed into the plate in no time. And although styrofoam plates are slightly better, the paint still dries out more quickly than I'd like. Plus, I don't enjoy going through hoards of plates, and I have no working space to mix my colors and mediums.

I wanted to be able to work as I did when I was an oil painter, so when I started to make my transition from oils to acrylics a few years ago, I used the same palette I did with my oils (cleaned up well, of course) - a Masterson Sta-Wet Palette.

Masterson Sta-Wet Palette - but keep reading for why I don't use the palette paper and what really keeps the acrylic paint wet.

The Real Trick to Keeping the Paint Wet

Now, the Masterson Sta-Wet Palette on its own was great for my oil paints because I could attach lid at the end of my painting session and start again the next day with still-fresh paint.

But I found that acrylics were - as expected - less forgiving. I did have plenty of working space, but I also wanted my dabs of paint to stay wet all day, and although Masterson recommends using palette paper, which fits conveniently in the palette and can be torn off and thrown away, it doesn't extend the working time of my paint enough. And I didn't like how it felt to move and mix my acrylic paints around on a somewhat loose piece of paper. Again, I wanted to work more like I did when I was an oil painter.

In the super-informative book "Acrylics The Watercolor Alternative" by Charles Harrington, the author provides many useful tips for using acrylics like a watercolor. But there was one tip that particularly caught my eye and is not limited to just an acrylic watercolor artist.

Simply - it's a folded damp paper towel. 

I thought it was too good to be true, but this is honestly the best tip I ever learned in my acrylic realist painting. I can place a folded damp paper towel to the left side of my Masterson palette and - this is the important part - put my dabs of acrylic paint directly on the paper towel. And they will stay wet all day, and usually overnight, even without putting the lid on the palette!  

My palette set up for the day with a few of my colors on the damp paper towel. You'll notice there's also a color I mixed in a cup (see Mixing Acrylic Colors Part 1 on why I mix certain colors in cups with lids). A really helpful tip to keep these colors mixed in cups even longer is to scoop a bit of them out on to your palette for your painting session, then seal the cup back up and place it back in your ziplock bag. That way, you aren't keeping the container open and drying all day.

Preparing the Paper Towel

I like to use three sheets of Bounty Select-a-Size paper towels. That seems to give me just the right amount of cushion to hold water and stay damp but not soaking.

Three sheets of Bounty Select-a-Size paper towels

Fold the towels in half, in half again and in half again until you get a strip about two to two and half inches wide. Then run this under cold water. Hold it up with one hand, and place your index and middle finger from the other hand around the towel, and run them down to wring the towel out.

You want the paper towel to be damp but not sopping. If you wring out too much water, it won't stay damp quite as long as you may want; if you don't wring out enough, your acrylic paints may actually melt into the paper towel and dissipate.

Place the damp towel to one side of your palette. I find these paper towels fit pretty perfectly on the short side of my Masterson palette.

Then add your paint!

The Importance of Your Paint Choice

The type of acrylic paint you use is going to in part determine how successful this method is for you. Like I mentioned in previous posts, I prefer to use heavy body acrylic paints from M. Graham or Golden. These have no fillers, a higher pigment load, and they are, to me, more manipulable.

If you use liquid acrylics or a brand that is "puffier" with a lot of fillers, water and additives, this probably will not work for you because the paint will quickly dissipate into the damp paper towel.

Why I  Love This Method - Working on the Palette and Cleaning It Up

What I love about this approach is it makes me feel like I did when I was an oil painter. My paints are wet all day. I get to mix many of my colors directly (except those I mix in the cups) and load my brush directly from my palette (it does stain just the plastic just a tiny bit, but I'm okay with that). I can easily control how much paint and water or medium I add, working in small, progressive swirls across my palette throughout the day.

My palette at the end of the day.
If you use this method, be sure you aren't working in the same area of your palette twice. If you do, you could pull up flakes from not-quite-dry acrylic paint into your new paint mixes.

Sometimes, especially if there is extra space on my palette and my paints are still wet, I do carry this setup over into a second day. But most days, I clean up and start from scratch.

While palette paper is probably simpler for some people, I really do like being able to work directly on my palette, I simply let this dry overnight, then clean it up the next morning.

I toss the paint and damp paper towel, and then use a dry paper towel and my finger nail to scrape up the dry acrylic paint. This might sound tedious, but really, because the paint basically becomes a thin plastic film, it pulls up pretty easily once you get going, and I have a relatively clean palette when I'm done scraping. It takes me just a few minutes to scrape the whole thing.

Scraping the dry paint off the palette with a dry paper towel.

To get any excess flakes, I use a damp paper towel to wipe it off, and I'm ready to start the day again.

What Your Favorite Tip?

I really hope this piece helps make your acrylic painting sessions a little more enjoyable. But remember, everyone's method is a little bit different, so this isn't the only way to do things! What's your favorite tip for working with acrylics? I want this blog to be a place where we can all learn from each other and share what we know, so we can all become better acrylic realist painters. So if you have a tip you'd like to share, or if you'd like to share a post about your process, email me at

Happy Painting!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

My Favorite Quote from Norman Rockwell - and Why I Paint Small Paintings

Yesterday, I posted a photo of an old oil painting of mine to my Instagram page ( - a 12" x 24" piece I have hanging in my house that took me nearly three months to paint.

yankees steinbrenner stadium painting
"Watching the Team Practice," oil on panel, 12" x 24". This piece, which took me three months to paint, hangs in my studio space. Today, it's so different from how and what I paint, but it's a good reminder to me of how I got started and how I began to develop my voice as an artist.

The subject was totally different from what I paint now, as was the style, the size and the medium, since I paint exclusively in acrylic today. There are reasons for these changes, which mostly come down to me discovering gradually who I am as an artist, what my strengths are, and where I want to take my work. I also needed to paint faster, in order to both make a living and grow my skills as a painter.

I thought of my favorite quote from Norman Rockwell. I started using it on my business card recently, and it articulates perfectly one reason why I prefer to paint lots of small, fun paintings instead of just a few big ones:

"I'll never have enough time to paint all the pictures I'd like to." 

Life is short; make sure you make the time to do what you really want to do. If you are an artist, it can be tempting to try to go in many different directions with your work, experiment with new media or styles, or tackle epic projects that you will never finish. I've been there.

When I started painting in 2012, I decided to actually give away a lot of my older art supplies that I'd accumulated in the decade or so since college that were not oil or acrylic-related. That included giving all of my colored pencils and watercolors to my young nephew and nieces, and my manual non-digital Nikon camera to a friend. Clearing these excess supplies out of my studio was a bit cathartic and really helped me focus on just painting.

I gradually became a still life painter instead of a more documentary painter. In part, it was because it was easier for me to just gather up things around my house, and they fit much better onto the smaller-sized boards I was using. But then I realized something else. When I was younger, I participated in theater, and I wanted to be animator. Now, as a still life painter of quirky subjects, I can do both in a way! I can completely stage each piece, control the circumstances of the scene, make someone smile or giggle, and have fun with what I do.

Here's to fitting in as much as you can of the things you love in your life and figuring out just a bit about what makes you happiest.

And remember to follow me on Instagram to see what I paint each day before I post it anywhere else, like this super cute one I finished yesterday! Enjoy your weekend!


Acrylic painting of vintage music man toy
"Music Man," acrylic on aquabord, 8" x 8". This piece will be available for sale next week. Thanks!