6 (Surprising!) Ways Denise Got her Groove Back…with Knives

My snazzy, talented and oh-so-GROOVY workshop classmates:

Again, if you haven’t read my post on how I lost my groove, it might help to read it first, because it explains why these things I’m about to tell you helped me. (You might also want to see my post about how I got the BRUSH part of my groove back.)

Here are the 6 Surprises I came away with from the KNIFE side of my workshop experience:

1. I have always LOVED the fact that no solvents or mediums are needed when painting with knives; the paint is used full strength, straight from the tube. But Leslie blocks in her paintings with full-strength paint from the very start of her paintings! I had never done that. I had always brushed on mineral-spirits-thinned paint first; then started in with my knives. Doing it Leslie’s way saves me one stinky step!!!

Leslie starting her painting.

2 .  Leslie uses water-soluble oil paints (yes, there actually is such a thing!). Read about them here. I had heard of them over the years and, in fact, I’d had a few tubes of them for years but had never known how to use them nor how they differ from regular oil paints. Answer: you use them interchangeably, and along with, regular oil paints. One of the benefits is that the paints don’t have that oil-paint smell that permeates a room. And they clean up with soap and water, rather than with solvents. One more stinky step eliminated!!!

3. Leslie premixes her paints on her palette. At first I thought I’d never bother with this, but I have already seen myself evolving into doing a bit of premixing. Never say never, right?

Leslie's palette of pre-mixed colors.

4. I already had several painting knives, but I ordered the knives that Leslie wanted for the class (3 of the first 4 on the left). I wanted to make sure I had the right sizes for painting small, which was going to be a new experience for me. When the knives came, I was happy that they were thin and flexible. I knew that my flexible ones were the most maneuverable and, hence, the ones I used the most. I also discovered that my favorites are the teardrop shape with a pointy tip.

3 of these were bought for the class.

5. Before this workshop, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would need to start painting with acrylics. So, I was poised to spend loads of money on a new batch of paints: namely, Golden Open acrylics, because they “feel” and act like oils. I would probably still ruin lots of brushes, probably even more of them, but at least I wouldn’t need to use solvents anymore. Or fill the house with the smell of linseed-oil based paints. I’m so happy that I can stay with oils now!!!

6. Leslie and Dreama both sign their paintings by “drawing” their signatures into their paintings. They each grab a pointy utensil (Dreama uses a rubber tool; Leslie uses a wooden skewer) and sign into the wet paint. This is so fabulous! It’s pretty much impossible to sign a dried knife painting, over all the hills and valleys and ridges of paint. I’ve always said that it takes me as long to sign my paintings as it took to paint them! Now, if I can just remember to do this while the painting is still wet.

One of Leslie’s thought gems that hit home with me was when she reminded us to enjoy the process. “If you pre-plan your painting, you’ll never get there. You’ll worry and fret and try to paint it now the way you envision it as the final painting.” She is right on.

So, overall, I feel like I’ve been launched into the stratosphere with my art. The planets have aligned. I feel free! The shackles have been removed. I’m Michael Jordan with a brush!

Onward and upward – Buzz Lightyear, eat your heart out! Or hold on tight.

What am I forgetting? What other things make the whole painting experience easy and fun and streamlined? And un-smelly?

The 6-Step Guide to How Denise Lost Her Groove

"Pegasus" Copyright 2012, Denise Bellon West

My most recent knife painting, “Pegasus.”

Let me just say that I LOVED doing this painting! After all, it’s an oil; I LOVED the colors; I LOVED the subject (an animal); I loved that much of it was done with a knife…but here is The Rest of the Story.

First, before I get into the hows and whys of how the Painting Workshop I took (run by 2 lovely and talented ladies, Dreama Tolle Perry and Leslie Saeta) affected me so profoundly, you need to understand my circuitous path from frustrated watercolorist to impassioned oil painter to disgruntled oil painter to…add your own adjective. Here’s how it evolved:

1. In the beginning, I was a full-time watercolorist for 10 years. I didn’t enjoy the process very much (people will tell you that watercolors are THE most difficult medium to master – I didn’t get the memo), but I loved the end results, which made it all worthwhile! Then one day I finally felt worthy enough to tackle the medium of the Masters and took the monumental plunge into oils. Wait a minute – are you kidding me???! I waited 10 years before learning oils???! I thought there was supposed to be some magical, scary, extremely special thing about them. But they were the easiest thing I had ever done!!

My Almost-Still-Usable, but Ruined Brushes

2. I learned pretty quickly, though, that although I loved smearing the oil paints around, I had no patience for the rudiments of the medium. Case in point: I ruined pretty much every paint brush I ever touched, because I couldn’t be bothered to constantly swish my brushes in the solvent every time I wanted to change colors. At the end of each painting session, I would look at my sorry brushes, all jammed full of paint and with the bristles splayed in every direction, and try several methods, all toxic, to clean the paint out. Of course they were beyond the stage of being cleanable (kind of like when you discover that you can’t get white socks clean anymore after you’ve been wearing them around the house all week – I keep trying to teach my husband this). So I was left with having to paint with my now-worthless brushes. Or to keep having to buy new ones all the time (ahem).

Goin' Fishin', Copyright Denise Bellon West

(I taught myself how to paint with a knife with this painting. It was pure desperation. I was visiting the in-laws, standing in their laundry room, and I had brought only the 1 painting knife I owned and some paint. The rest is history.)

3.  So, eventually I decided to paint only with knives whenever I painted outdoors or when I traveled. This way there would be no need to have to clean brushes all the time, which would mean way fewer things I had to pack and much less time spent cleaning brushes – a chore I abhorred!

4. Next phase: Without cross ventilation in my studio, it did no good to leave the window open while I painted. I was asphyxiating myself with all the solvents! I decided to use my “odorless” mineral spirits only at the beginning stage of each painting, and to do that part outside or in the garage. I tried to use knives for the rest of the painting, but found myself longing for a brush at times. Okay, most of the time. Oh, who am I kidding? All the time!

5. This is when I morphed into my signature brush/knife/finger-painting method of painting – kind of like my nutty method of playing ping pong (emphasis on the word “playing”), where you use a combination of hands and paddles, walls, ceiling – anything immediately available that might keep the ball from touching the floor! It’s absolutely exhilarating, and I highly recommend it!

6. But, alas, I found myself putting off painting as much as possible when I was at home. This meant that I would pretty much paint just once a week, when I went downtown to paint with my Studio 208 group.

Next, I will post about the surprises I got from my painting workshop…or How I Got My Groove Back. Meanwhile, have any of these things happened to you? Have you done any morphing over the years? From what? Into what? Leave a comment, and we can commiserate with each other.


Artists Helping Artists, Pasadena Workshop 2

Dreama Tolle Perry and Leslie Saeta

My 2 talented, fun, caring, sharing, and amazing teachers! Full of great information.

Enjoying 2 enchanting evenings at Leslie’s warm and friendly, “Father of the Bride” house.

Night 2 of Leslie’s impressive, gourmet cooking.

Followed by social time with the group - 33 new friends, and I’m not talking about Facebook!

After using my first week back to get caught up on unpacking, laundry, e-mails, etc., I decided I’d better hurry and finish the paintings I had started in the workshop!

First up, my vase and flowers painting still needed a little sprucing. Here’s the latest “Final Answer” on it. The lady next to me in the workshop, Ginny, said that this looked like a tapestry. She was right! So I tentatively named it “Garden Tapestry.”

Garden Tapestry, Copyright 2012 Denise Bellon West

Dreama had shown us how she signs her paintings by “drawing” into the wet paint. Works pretty slick…when you remember to do it! Note to self: Do this even if I’m not finished. I already know where I want to sign, so why not do it now? I can always paint it out if I change my mind. This little trick will save me so much time and anguish!

Leslie showed us how she photographed her paintings, by taking them outside in the sun, holding them upright (not tipped toward the sky at all), and pivoting around until the light is just right.

I did that yesterday, and I think it worked pretty well! I used an easel to hold my painting, but I didn’t use a tripod for my camera (I haven’t seen mine since our move!). The only thing I wished for was a polarizer, because I still had a little bit of shine. But that might effect the colors, so this is good.

How do you photograph your artwork? Hire a professional? Or do it yourself? What’s your technique?

FRESH New Paint Palette

Pretty picture time – the last push of monsoon moisture to pass through here. I’ll throw it in before I have only snow moisture to show.

Sedona Monsoon Moisture

In getting ready for a painting workshop in Pasadena, California, last week (more on that later), I decided it was high time that I spruce up my palette, especially since I didn’t have many of the paints the teachers wanted us to use.

But, the real reason I needed to do that sprucing? Oh, alright. When the dust settled after our move, and I finally found where my palette had been hiding out, I discovered that most of my paints were almost completely dried up.

(This would not have happened if, like normal artists, I squirted out fresh paint every time I painted. But I would never paint if I had to do that!!! Instead, I invented a method that I have used for years. It involves using a bead-storage case, squirting out pounds of paint, literally, and covering them with water at the end of every day. In the morning, I pour the water off on a plant outside. Read about it here.)

This is the frightful mess I discovered after our move. Yuck!

My Earthy Color Palette

My Reds, Blues, and Greens

So, what would any sensible artist have done in the ensuing months?

Let’s just say that I’m not one of those.

Instead of cleaning everything up and loading fresh paint, I decided that I would fight my way through what was left by digging holes in, around, and through the dried-up globs of old paint!

So, how did this work for you, Denise?

Well, maybe not extremely well. But, hey, I’m a busy girl! I have no time to spend an hour making things easier for myself (what’s the phrase? Short-term pain for long-term gain?). What a silly question.

If I couldn’t find even the teensiest bit of soft paint left in one of my blobs, rather than squirt out a bit of fresh paint, like any normal person would have done, and let’s not forget would have been admitting defeat, I would do whatever I had to do to try to mix the color I needed!

They don’t call me The Tenacious Painter for nothing! (I know, you’re thinking of some other terms that you don’t need to share with me.)

“Let’s see…how can I make brown out of blue and yellow and white? (The answer, of course, is YOU CAN’T! You will always end up with some version of green!)


I decided that, while I could easily get away with painting a brown horse green, I got into trouble when I tried to paint, say, a slice of bread green. It probably wouldn’t be a very big seller. Discretion, after all, is the better part of valor.

Some like to call this artistic license.

Any time we artists screw up, we get to use that license. And women can even throw in the “woman’s prerogative” thing.

Alright, alright. I spent that stupid hour and cleaned out and loaded my palette with fresh paint.

Here is what my old color palette used to look like, freshly loaded:

Nice…but not very inspiring…unless you’re a landscape painter – which I am NOT! (It’s taken me 5 years to figure this out???!!)

But here it is now, with my GORGEOUS new colors (and I have more, waiting in the wings).

Voila! These ones are bright and happy and make me want to dive into a painting! Who knew that I was shooting myself in the foot all these years, using boring colors?! (I know this will surprise you, but I found myself always trying to mix the fun colors I craved, using those ugly colors. FYI, it doesn’t work!)

Next, I will post a picture of my first FRESH painting.

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Random thought:  If “sept” means 7, then why is September the 9th month? Saw this question explained in this article.  Hint: it’s all Julius Caesar’s fault.

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Here’s one more: Did you know that the plural of “cul de sac” is “culs de sac”? Throw that one around at your next social gathering! Here’s how you would use it in a sentence: “Well, what a coincidence – we both live on culs de sac!”

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And so goes the Art of Life.


Light from Above…or from Home Depot

A sunset winetasting at Page Springs Cellars – Page Springs, Arizona.

A nice way to end a beautiful weekend…

It was an especially good weekend, because wonderful hubby installed my new studio lights for me! (See my last post about this here.)

This is the BEFORE picture of my studio. Hardly any light. Certainly not enough to see what I’m painting – which could actually be a good thing!

Then, voila! LET THERE BE LIGHT!!!

I now have “daylight” fluorescent lights over both sides of my studio.

It would be nice to have more storage space and painting space, but I’m not complaining! I think I can make this work for the next year, until my new studio is ready for me.

Until then, onward and artward! Oh, one more thing: my random thought for the day.

Have you ever noticed that you’re taller when you wake up than when you went to bed??? IT’S TRUE! (If you want to know how I discovered this, just ask…)


A Moving We Will Go


I recently sold this painting from my show in Evergreen. I’ve always loved it – it makes me happy. It feels fresh and spontaneous. It is colorful and lively.

Silly as it may sound, it’s everything I feel about our move to Arizona. I’ll be starting the New Year there and will finally have time for all the things I’ve put on hold for 3 years!!! Maybe.

So, even though I think that New Year’s “resolutions” are dumb (I’d rather call them “intentions”), I’ll hope that I’ll have time for these:

New Year’s Intention # 1:  PAINT, PAINT, PAINT!!!

New Year’s Intention #2:  Blog about what I paint. Oh, heck – blog regularly, period.

New Year’s Intention #3:  Update my website frequently (ahem) and add PRICES. See, I listen to your suggestions?

New Year’s Intention #4:  Get on Facebook every so often to keep tabs on what friends are up to. Stay in touch.

BUT FIRST………Finish up with our move! To Arizona. From our 7300′ of elevation in Colorado.

Good-bye House

I will miss our house terribly – and our lack of heating or air conditioning bills for 28 years.

I will miss the wildlife!

Elk on Patio

Summer Hummer

I will miss the wildflowers.


I will miss the AMAZING weather-watching!

Fog Creeping in from Denver

Does this look like a sales brochure? Hey, we’re taking offers.

But, there are a few things I will not miss.

Winter, are you listening? I like the change of seasons, but I want less of you.

Snow, are you listening? You’re pretty, but I want less of you.

Cold, are you listening? I have warm coats and hats, but I want less of you.

Tell me about your best moving story(ies) – the good, the bad, and the ugly!

Now, back to the packing. Onward and artward!

No More Frogs for Me

No more frogs for me. I have moved on to bigger and better things. Ribbit.

And the Super Bowl is over. I thought I was going to root for the Steelers (I couldn’t remember who else was in it, and besides, my dad is from Pittsburgh and used to work in the steel mills, so what the hey?). I couldn’t root for the team with the best uniforms, because they both had yellow pants. What’s up with that? Very poor planning.

But when I remembered that Ben Roethlisberger was part of the Pittsburgh team (AM I A GREAT FOOTBALL FAN OR WHAT?!), I wanted the Packers to win. And they did. If Brett Favre had been in there I wouldn’t have known what to do. He shamed himself terribly in There’s Something about Mary and I’ve had a poor opinion of him ever since (just kidding!).

So, between designing a new house, remodeling another house, and selling a house it’s been tough to get into a routine lately with my art work. However, I discovered that if I leave the house and paint downtown with my Studio 208 group I can get a lot done.

I finally have my seagull looking the way I want it to. Who knew it would be so difficult to make a seagull look like a seagull?! First I tried cheating. I cut out the image from my photo and was going to trace the stupid thing.

But that didn’t work because no matter what I did, my printer would not enlarge my image to the size I had it in my painting! (I now have a pile of 8½x11” seagull prints and a near-empty black-ink cartridge.)

So I tried to enlarge it mentally – see my blue outline?

That must have gotten me closer to having a proper-looking seagull, because then I was able to adjust and tweak until he/she/it finally looked right. (I’m nothing if not persistent!) My seagull now has the proper outline.

Seagull shape that finally feels right to me.

I have played with the other areas of the painting, and now all I have to do is paint the silly bird and tweak my colors a bit.

What’s your favorite fix-it story? Or do you have an in-progress montage to share?


HAPPY NEW YEAR…’s eve, everybody! Let me offer a toast to the New Year, 2011 (with my Water Martini – yes, it IS water…which always tastes better out of a fun glass).


I normally don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but there are some new habits I want to create, so this seems like a perfect time to commit to them.

To make sure that I remember to make my new habits into routines I will have to plaster reminders all over the place for awhile!

Works for me!

Here are my new habits/soon-to-be routines:

1. I will do one painting a day. I already “work” on my paintings in my head and visually every day, and I am constantly photographing things, which all feel like paintings to me, but those won’t count anymore.

The trick will be to make myself be satisfied with mediocre paintings. Up until now, every painting I’ve done becomes “a painting.” Here’s an example of one that I would consider unfit to show in public (I did it as a demo for a classroom full of kids – without looking, I might add!):

Goofball Cat - Unfit for Public Display

But, hey, this accurately depicts how I feel just THINKING about keeping myself on task! (My daughter loves this painting, by the way, and wants me to put it in one of my calendars. NO!)

So, even if I’m working on a “masterpiece,” I must still do a small painting.

2. I will have a weekly blogging schedule and stick to it. I will post every 1 to 7 days, not sure – boy, that narrowed it down! Actually, I’d be happiest if I blogged every day, or at least every weekday.

So don’t be upset if sometimes all I talk about is the glorious sunrise. Or the sunset. After all, they all fill my artistic well. But I will keep it mostly about my art life – hence, the title of my blog, “The Art of Life.”

3. I will Tweet on Twitter, or Twitter while I Tweet, or something like that, every day. Items 1 and 2 will help me with this. And I’m sure I’ll eventually find out why I’m Twittering…or Tweeting.

That’s it. Plain and simple, just the way I like it.

It’s Art WORK, not Art PLAY – Get it Straight!

What a frustrating dichotomy we artists live with.

We’ve all heard the words: “I love your work.” “What kind of work do you do?” And then there’s the actual word, “Artwork.”

Yet, the common (mis)conception is that artists just play their days away, making pretty pictures (or whatever their chosen art form is), and living a fun and carefree life. They are the envy, or disdain, of all the people who actually “work” for a living.

Fact: we love what we do. What’s the saying? “If you do what you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.” But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the opposite of work is play.

Is our work just play? Is our play work? I know, for me, this is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It might look like just a pretty picture, but I have to have a vision, and I have to make my vision a reality. I have to draw on everything I’ve ever learned, everything I’ve experienced, seen or felt. Every brushstroke is, in some way, a decision – expressing a feeling or a thought. It’s all-consuming, it’s a challenge, it’s a risk, it’s an experiment. My best paintings come when I risk the most, and they are often when I have the most fun.

But is art play? Simple answer: No.

People see only the end result: the piece of art in a gallery or show, or the glitzy opening parties, with wine and hors d’oeuvres and people in fancy clothes. Lots of fun!

What they don’t see is the unglamorous stuff, the “dark side” of our art: the hours it took to complete the paintings, the application forms we had to submit for the chance to be juried into shows, the countless miles we spent driving around to the photographer or to the framer, the care it took to get our work to and from the show or gallery without damaging it! Yeah, it’s pretty glamorous alright (more like a pain in the butt!).

Yet, in the day-to-day realm, we all have friends and family, who still think that we just play. For example, a relative of mine envies me, because I just hang out in my house and “paint beautiful paintings all day.” And I have friends who want to chat on the phone, but, sorry, I can’t paint when I’m talking on the phone. They don’t understand why; after all, I’m just painting. But when I paint, I am totally absorbed. I can’t even listen to music that has words, for crying out loud!

I was painting the other day, when a neighbor stopped by to get something. I came to the door, wearing my Starbucks “painting apron” and my purple nitrile gloves. We chatted for a little while, and then I told him that I had to get back to my painting. He said, “Oh, that’s what you were doing.” (Do people think these paintings just appear out of thin air?) I guess he figured that I spend my days doing dishes – you know, the apron and the rubber gloves… Actually, since I work at home, that is part of my job, too. And the laundry and the grocery shopping and the cooking. And plowing the driveway when it snows…

Even my husband, supportive though he is, says things like, “You get to play tomorrow,” referring to any activity in which I paint, rather than do my office work. Yes, it’s enjoyable. Yes, it’s fun. But, no, it’s not play. I have to concentrate and expend huge chunks of my self during the process. It takes a lot out of me. It’s intense. It’s draining. But there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

So it is with us working artists. We cannot not do our art. It is our passion; it is what completes us, makes us whole. We are empty without our art to fill us up. We strive to make each piece better than the ones before it, to constantly grow. The real art is to make it all look effortless, easy – like play…

Let us not forget that an art masterpiece is proclaimed to be:


And now you know why.

Whoa – Me Like Landscape Painting?

It’s official, hell has frozen over… After 15 years of trying landscape painting, and hating every moment of it, I discovered yesterday that I love landscape painting!!! How could this be, you ask?

The short answer is that, at the invitation of a friend, I signed up for a landscape-painting class with him at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado. The long answer is that when I first got his e-mail I totally ignored it. After all, I hate plein air painting – the heat, the cold, the wind, the bugs, the sun, etc. And landscapes bore me (the only thing that interests me is what I call “intimate landscapes,” which are little scenes). On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the only way I might be interested is if I could paint with a knife. I hate lugging all that paraphernalia for cleaning and using brushes: medium, turp. container with turp, lots of brushes, and gobs of paper towels. And besides, there is one landscape artist whose paintings I LOVE – Louisa McElwain -and she happens to paint with knives, big knives.

The teacher, Marsha Wooley, said that I could paint with a knife, so, two days after the registration deadline, I finally quit dragging my feet and signed up for the class. It was official then, no backing out.

Our first homework assignment, due Friday, was to take some colors and change them to the color of the sky at the horizon. My week was so hectic that I finally squeezed in my homework at 11:00 Thursday night for my Friday morning class.  Good start. I soon discovered why I should have squeezed it in on any other night but the last night. You see, there was one teensy problem that I forgot about: I still had no lights in my studio – they had been removed for recent drywall repair and painting and still hadn’t been reinstalled! I had to do my painting homework in the nearby bathroom, squished between two sinks. I couldn’t even find a proper paintbrush in my dark studio. That will teach me.

squeezed in

But, I digress. The homework exercise taught me some valuable things that I had never learned before, namely, the color of objects as they get farther away from me, toward the horizon. I knew they got lighter, but I never thought about how the color actually changed. So yesterday, the class set up on a hill, with a great view of the mountains. We looked like we were having a parade.

Painters on Parade

For the first time, I had a purpose while painting a landscape, and it was interesting. And it was the first time I’d tried painting a landscape with a knife. Instant happiness.

Copyright Denise Bellon West, landscape ptg. 1

I used a small canvas – 8 x 10 inches. After all, I was probably going to hate it, but I ended up liking it! When I showed the painting to my husband he said, “You use a lot more paint when you use a knife.” He didn’t say it, but I knew he was seeing dollar signs. I said, “Actually, you probably use less. The only difference is that with a knife, all the paint goes on the canvas and you see it. With a brush, most of the paint is stuck in the bristles and gets wiped off on a paper towel or washed off in the turp.” It’s amazing, the brilliant things we come up with when challenged. I can honestly say that I am looking forward to my next class.