Surface Design Techniques


Surface Design Techniques – for Women in Turning AAW


I am a lonely painter

I live in a box of paints.

Joni Mitchell


I have defined myself as a painter since I was 7, when my mother signed me up for an adult painting class. While the other students were unreceptive to my inclusion, the tables turned when the teacher told us to free up our lines and think less about the rules. What rules?  I hadn’t learned any yet.


Later, years of fine arts training taught me that creating was a solitary sport which took place in an isolated studio after deep thoughts, and then (if all the right elements were in place) you made magic. Art magic. No one was more surprised than me to learn that I could play well with others.


In 2016, I was invited to two Artist Collaboratives – Echo Lake in Bucks County, PA and Emma in Saskatchewan, Canada. At both, making art didn’t wait for the right setting or supplies. I was told that after you’ve created something that you would then pass it to another artist, who may cut it in half and or even paint it purple. Trust me, that is exactly what WILL happen, and you can’t and shouldn’t control it.  The end result is that your work will go through it’s hardest testing and be pushed to it’s limits.


While I don’t have any rules when I make art, but I do have a collection of indispensable knowledge.  Here are my (13) Essential Tips for Embellishing Wood:


Surface Prep – Always raise the grain if you plan to embellish your work with paint. By wetting the entire piece and then completing your final sanding, you will avoid getting a fuzzy surface. Next, shellac the piece with a 1 lb cut of flake shellac, which doesn’t have wax in it like many premixes. After it dries, thoroughly de-gloss the piece with acetone on a paper towel, so that the grain is sealed but the top surface is receptive to the paint.


Paint – You will see a huge difference in your work using the correct paint. I like to work wet on wood, because I can’t stand a plasticy looking surface. Golden Fluid or Liquitex Soft Body Acrylic Paints are wonderful because they immediately emulsify when thinned down, but retain strong pigment density. Another great option is to use Com-Art Colours by Medea (intensely pigmented airbrush paints) with an airbrush, paint brush or Molotow Refillable Markers. They have a lot more binder than watered down acrylics.  You can always bump up your binder for greater adhesion by mixing in a drop of Minwax Polycrylic into your blend.


Brushes – Most of the time I use a 1/2″ square or angled brushes. Turn it on it’s side and it’s a 1/4″ brush – it’s a twofer! When I paint large, I use a nylon Purdy 2″ Angled Sash Brush. Same deal, only bigger. You can bust out those tiny three hair brushes to tickle in a tiny bit of color sometimes, but mostly it’s finesse and practice with those few brushes.  Get white nylon….always white nylon. My friends and I laugh over people buying expensive brushes – we all use the cheap ones sold in the hobby aisle (not the art section). I remember saving to buy a $50 red sable brush once. I was so scared I was going to ruin it that it made me paint worse. When brushes get ratty, they are great for creating scumbled & stippled surfaces, so enjoy them for the whole curve of their lifespan. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere…


Wet Water – Because I work very wet, there are always spray bottles on hand and a heat lamp to set the color quickly. Some spray bottles have tap water, others have alcohol (because the paint will run from it, not to it). But the most useful one is filled with “Wet Water”. This is 100 parts tap water mixed with 1 part Dawn Dish Soap. The soap breaks the surface tension of the water, allowing your paint to have exponentially more flow. You can also add 1 part PVA (white glue) for a bit of snap. Wet water is a game changer if you want soft edges and filmy color changes. You can also purchase pre-made Wet Water (Liquitex Flow Aid or Edwards Condition Air), but we are makers, and this is about a penny worth of material.


Clean H2O = Pure Color – It’s never too soon to change out the water you use to clean your brushes. Keep in mind that if it is brown, it’s going to impart brown to your next color.


Commit to the Mistake – I have painted with people who just couldn’t bring themselves to boldly lay down a color. Better to commit and be wrong than never to have tried. If you are really stymied, paint your piece upside down. This will point out composition problems very swiftly and help you create a balanced finish product. Spinning your angle of attack (left, right or upside down) or looking at your work in the mirror will also help you discover issues. You may notice that because you use a dominant hand that all your work has a slant to it. I fixed this by learning to use both hands when I work. I had a wise teacher point out that my right hand did all it’s moves on autopilot, with a full bag of tricks already in place – so he made me paint left handed. Then I really had to consider my choices. That’s the best advice I ever got. Now I can swap hands when I get tired or to better reach a tricky area.


Un-Painting – When your paint goes astray, un-paint it before it dries.  Lift the paint with a barely damp, clean brush and wipe the paint off on a paper towel.  Rinse, wipe excess water off on a paper towel, repeat.  Un-painting allows you to control your edges.


Paint & Release – Almost every Saturday, I paint with my friend Mike Kuterbach. Initially, he came over for several weeks in a row with the same bowl. He isn’t a slow painter, nor does he lack commitment. What he does do is practice what he calls “Paint & Release”. When he isn’t happy with his work, he goes home and sands it off so he can try again. No stress or castigating – just another go at it. I think that’s much better than nagging a piece into submission.


Paint “Not Your Image” – Many artists spend so much time massaging & rendering the main object in their design and they never even consider the area around it. Painting your surroundings can liberate and add huge depth to your work. I am often reminded that some of my most successful paint moments are not those used for my main topic.  Sometimes, painting the area around your subject can define it’s edges better than focusing on delineating it directly.


Pyrography is Addictive! – Think about it…it’s a fire pen! In the two years that I have been doing pyrography, I have burned out several units in my enthusiasm. Buying the best and strongest unit possible makes all the difference. I use a Burnmaster Hawk set up, because you can literally turn it up to 11 by using the secret allen wrench hole that gives you even more power. Recovery time on this pen is super fast, which accounts for the smooth, consistent burning it produces. It also allows you to make your own tips out of nichrome wire. That’s when your window of possibilities really opens up and burning with pens with built in tips becomes a huge yawn. You will not outgrow (or burn out) this unit.


Flaws are Design Opportunities – When I first started collaborating, I got mostly cast-off pieces that had flaws.  Cracks, blemishes and other problems can become your chance to really push the envelope.  Stitch them, fill them with an unexpected material, or practice Kintsugi and bring attention to them.  A flaw can be the defining quality that makes your piece dazzling.


Make Art Like It’s Your Job – It can be a part time job, but the biggest stumbling block for many is just making the time to be in your studio (or workspace of any sort).  Be present. Schedule your time to create, then show up.


Create, Destroy, Create – Not everything you make is a wonder. There is joy in releasing it into a bonfire. Thank it for teaching you new skills (the most important being: It is not worth keeping this one) and set it ablaze. Or let another artist cut it in half and paint it purple. Sometimes pushing things to their limits will give you new vision. Permission to fail will set you free!


Carol Hall is an award winning painter, who has been a full-time artist for 30 years.  She has designed a life that includes creating, everyday. You can email her at .


Dragon Vessel ~ When Fire Dries a Tear – by Michael Kehs, Dan Greer and Carol Hall

27 Animals – by Michael Kehs, Dan Greer and Carol Hall

Fish Bowl – by Michael Kehs and Carol Hall