Sta­tion Points

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Tips & In­sights from James Gur­ney Six Tips for Paint­ing More Ef­fi­ciently

James Gur­ney shows how to speed up your paint­ing pro­ce­dure with­out los­ing ac­cu­racy

Let me be­gin by ac­knowl­edg­ing that paint­ing quickly is not the pri­mary goal of art. Some­times we need to slow down and take our time. Ac­cu­racy de­mands care and pa­tience. Within the con­trolled, stable en­vi­ron­ment of the stu­dio, we can throw away the clock and paint as slowly as we like.

But con­di­tions “in the wild” are fluid and dy­namic, and they de­mand a chee­tah’s spirit. Sun­light changes, peo­ple move, plants grow, an­i­mals shift and cars drive off. If you want to con­front life in all its dy­namism and en­ergy, you need to fo­cus your mind and hone your skills. You have to be ac­cu­rate and fast.

Paint­ing ef­fi­ciently means be­ing able to con­vey the most amount of in­for­ma­tion about your sub­ject in what­ever time you’ve got. The side ben­e­fit is a re­laxed and pro­fes­sional look­ing sur­face tech­nique. But a flashy paint sur­face isn’t the pri­mary goal ei­ther. To cap­ture the most truth in a sim­ple way—that’s a wor­thy goal. Here are six tips to get you there.


Be­fore you start paint­ing, spend a few min­utes mak­ing sure the mea­sure­ments in your pre­lim­i­nary draw­ing are ac­cu­rate so you don’t have to waste time fix­ing mis­takes. These mea­sure­ments may be just a few key lines, slopes or an­chor points. They’re a blueprint, a foun­da­tion, but not the fin­ished car­pen­try. You don’t have to do a de­tailed draw­ing, be­cause you’ll do the the real de­lin­eation of forms with the brush and paint.


Spend a few min­utes at the be­gin­ning plan­ning your color. De­cide on the gamut (the range of col­ors in the scene). Which col­ors are in and which ones are out of your color scheme? Which col­ors show up the most? What are the rare ac­cents? If you’re work­ing in oil, you can pre­mix pools of col­ors that you’re go­ing to use a lot. That way you won’t have to use up valu­able time mix­ing the same color again and again. Use a palette knife to mix a string of about four or five val­ues of those fre­quently used col­ors. If you want to get a lit­tle vari­a­tion in your color, you can mix a warmer and a cooler vari­a­tion of each ma­jor color, or just leave the mix­tures in­com­pletely blended.


Wa­ter-based me­dia such as gouache, acrylic and ca­sein dry very quickly. As a re­sult, it’s not usu­ally prac­ti­cal to pre­mix col­ors. In­stead, lim­it­ing the col­ors you squeeze out is an ef­fec­tive way to stream­line the process. A fewer num­ber of choices re­duces con­fu­sion and in­creases the har­mony in the color scheme. When you’re de­cid­ing which col­ors to place on the palette, in­clude only the ones you re­ally need. This saves time, money and cleanup.


Ar­range your easel so your paint­ing is close to your line of sight and your palette is ad­ja­cent to your paint­ing. That will make it eas­ier to achieve ac­cu­racy, and it will re­duce the time you spend reach­ing back and forth from paint­ing to palette.


Use the largest brush you can. Start with big brushes and fin­ish with small ones. When you mix a color and have it on the brush, don’t just use it for one small spot. Look through­out your scene for other places where you can use that color mix­ture. The habit of an­a­lyz­ing the scene for sim­i­lar col­ors or planes will help the paint­ing feel uni­fied.


Do a care­ful draw­ing and then trust it. Once you es­tab­lish the ini­tial layer of paint, move ahead to the fi­nal ren­der­ing. Cover the sur­face area by area, keep­ing your over­all plan in mind.

I have only 45 min­utes for this paint­ing be­hind the su­per­mar­ket while my wife shops. I make a few mea­sure­ments with a col­ored pen­cil held at arm’s length to es­tab­lish the ba­sic pro­por­tions and per­spec­tive. This is the foun­da­tion for all the de­tails, which I de­lin­eate with the brush.

On a poly­eth­yl­ene-coated palette pa­per, I pre­mix pools of five of the ma­jor col­ors for the rooftops, build­ings and sky. Each color is car­ried through three or four val­ues. The rest of the col­ors I free mix.

De­liv­ery Van, gouache 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm)

Stage 4: Win­dows and bal­conies

Stage 3: Sky and moun­tains

Stage 1: First mea­sure­ments

Stage 2: De­tailed draw­ing

Parked Car, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm) This is an­other su­per­mar­ket ses­sion, so I’ve only got 45 min­utes. I re­strict my palette to raw si­enna, cad­mium yel­low light, ti­ta­nium white, light red, cad­mium red, black and ul­tra­ma­rine blue, squeezed out on the side flanges of a metal wa­ter­color box.

Stage 5: Fin­ished paint­ing. Mo­honk Moun­tain House, oil, 11 x 14" (28 x 36 cm)

Rainy Day, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm)Gouache dries slowly in the hu­mid con­di­tions of a rainy day, al­low­ing more time for blend­ing the col­ors. Once the lay­ers start to set up, I can add fine de­tails to make the scene more re­al­is­tic. All this hap­pens within less than an hour while my car is in the re­pair shop.

School Bus Park­ing, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm) The light is chang­ing fast, so I have to hurry to paint the il­lu­mi­nated sur­faces and the cast shad­ows. I use large flat brushes (¾-inch and ½-inch) for the large ar­eas, and I paint the big shapes of the build­ing be­fore I worry about win­dow de­tails and TV an­ten­nas.

Mi­ata, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm)I choose a page in my sketch­book with a yel­low ca­sein un­der­paint­ing. It chal­lenges me to cover ev­ery area of the pic­ture with opaque gouache. I al­low my­self three hours for this one, longer than it takes the me­chan­ics to ser­vice my car.

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