Dinner and a Painting: Episode 3

In this episode of Dinner and a Painting I talk with artist and life coach Jessica Serran about her work and vision as an artist and educator.

Dinner and a painting is a series of videos and podcasts examining artists working, and talking about their work. The format is quite simple. I first shoot the artist working in their studio and look through their archives. And then I have an informal conversation in a pub/cafe/restaurant about their work afterwards. Paint is the glue which holds the conversation together, however the discussions can wander through a variety of topics.

Dinner and a Painting Podcast: Episode 2




In this episode we sit down for beers with Anej Nuhanovic.  A Bosnian-American painter and sculptor currently living and working in Prague, Czech Republic. Our conversation meanders through topics as diverse as humor in art, to the horrific historical pasts lying beneath the cobblestones of European cities.  Anej provides a unique glimpse into a mashing of cultures which occurred when he became a refugee at age 18 when he transplanted from Sarajevo to Washington DC.  Drawing from inspiration both from social realist paintings which were prevalent throughout all of the communist Eastern Bloc states as well as the kitschy american advertisements of the 1950s. Both promised a world more glorious than the one everyone was living, but these hopes fell flat in the end.

This podcast contains explicit language. 


Dinner and a painting is a series of videos and podcasts examining artists working, and talking about their work. The format is quite simple. I first shoot the artist working in their studio and look through their archives. And then I have an informal conversation in a pub/cafe/restaurant about their work afterwards. Paint is the glue which holds the conversation together, however the discussions can wander through a variety of topics.

Artists discussed in this episode include.

HoudonWilliam Hoare, Picasso, Warhol, Miley Cyrus, Social Realism, Luc Tuymans, Maurizio Catalan,  Nicola Samori, Gerhard Richter, David Hockney, Lucien Freud, Valezquez, El Greco, George Condo, Carvaggio,

Preparing masonite for oil painting

In this quick video tutorial you’ll learn how to prepare a masonite panel (or any other smooth wooden surface) for oil paint by gessoing it (or alternatively using acrylic paint) . Oil paint needs a bit of a texture to hold on to, that’s why canvas is a popular option. The texture of the canvas acts like a million little teeth that hold the paint when it is applied. If you are painting on a very smooth surface you’ll notice that streaks become more common place and paint application becomes more difficult. So follow the steps in the video to achieve a nice textured surface.

Cover the entire surface evenly with acrylic paint or gesso. 

Use a criss cross motion to avoid having all your “streaks” going in one direction. 

Let it dry for 3 to 5 minutes. The surface should still be a bit wet, and some areas tacky. 

Repeat the criss cross motion in the opposite direction you were doing previously. This further diversifies the marks across the surface of the masonite, and creates a subtle texture which is conducive for oil painting. 



Is it better to learn how to draw digitally or with traditional media?

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had this question come up over the years. I think it is indicative of a lot of common beliefs about learning any new skill. Naturally, in this day and age, people often gravitate to the latest technology in hopes that by spending more money it will improve their skills. In some regards this is true, for instance, I think it’s important to have decent paint (see this video about oil painting supplies) . But when it comes to learning the basics fundamentals of drawing, a stack of copy paper and a pencil are your best friends. There’s a couple reasons why I believe this.

Undo Undo Undo

For centuries Art Academies across the world have relied upon a simple trick to build confidence in their drawing students. They make them use pen and ink. And what is it about pen and ink that helps those wishing to learn how to draw? Well, it forces students to commit to their lines. Just 20 years ago when I studied at the  Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Connecticut I was forbidden by my drawing instructor to even use an eraser.  Today we have a much more insidious form of an eraser, and it is Ctrl-Z, or the ability to undo every mark we make. It makes beginners much more careless with their mark making, and they kind of just keep hacking away at a drawing hoping that one of the marks finally works out.  Now, this isn’t to say that digital painting and drawing don’t have their place. They certainly do, and have their own benefits as tools. However, if we are talking about learning how to draw, then I think that starting off digitally has a lot more drawback and strengths. Another aspect of drawing with real ink, as opposed to digitally is that it forces to get you into the mindset of practising. Students hate to hear this, they want to labor away on one piece for months and end up with something good. I’ve seen them, they are actually OK drawings in the end. But the problem is that they took 3 months to make.  The same student would raise their abilities much faster by doing hundreds of studies and “crappy” drawings on copy paper (or whatever cheap paper you can find).  Digital painting and drawing lend themselves as a medium to more laborious tasks.  By their very nature they have a proclivity to make students fiddle around with their drawings more.



When i started my foundation studies at the Academy I was immediately thrown into uncharted waters. I thought I had a good grasp of drawing since I did it quite often, and was better than many of my peers. But then came my first life size figure drawing class, and it totally rocked my world. For years, I had learned to draw with my wrist and fingers. With large format drawings I was forced to use my whole arm. I may as well have been drawing with my foot! Using my whole arm seemed unnatural and was frustrating, but then, as the months went on, I saw the benefits of it. For one, working large forces a student to really think about the movement they are making, and the gesture of the figure becomes more apparent. And this doesn’t only pertain to those who wish to become painters. It also is relevant to those who wish to go into entertainment design or animation. The gesture is at the heart of animation and character design, and it is essential for painters to get the rhythm into their works. With those working on tablets, many times (unless they have a huge Cintiq) they are working on a small surface. They are bound by the size of the tablet, and can’t increase the size of their drawing surface (Of course they can zoom into a drawing. An actual benefit of digital work) .  Ask anyone who reviews portfolios for an animation studio and they’ll tell you that they want to see both finished work, as well as work in progress that displays a student’s gestural approach to the drawing as well.


Sketchbooks can easily be put into a backpack and you don’t have to worry about them getting broken, or running out of battery. As someone wishing to learn how to draw my best advice is to simply draw from observation, and practice it daily. It can be just 20 to 30 minutes. Maybe, like me, you have a commute on public transportation every day. This is the perfect opportunity to draw people around you. Or go to a cafe and whip out your sketchbook and begin drawing. The same can’t be said for those who wish to work only digitally. Unless you want to take out a tablet, your computer, get the glare off the screen, and then balance everything while you try to draw. A simple sketchbook is a better option which is also cheaper, more discrete, and more mobile.

Benefits of traditional media

Scientific studies have shown that students who takes notes with a pen and paper actually retain more information and have a better grasp of the material than those who do so digitally or with laptops. The reason being that doing so is a bit more difficult and forces your brain to “exercise” more while consuming the information. By using a pen and paper, it also forces a student to confront the environment in which they are in and try to render it on a two dimensional surface. Working from photos isn’t the end of the world, as some claim, but in general if you are just starting out, then it is far more beneficial to draw from observation. If you use source photos that’s fine, but use them correctly, to study planar changes on a model or quick value studies. You can download my free drawing e books here, and print these out for next to nothing. They contain a photo, and an are right next to it where you can draw the photo which you are looking at. All of the students in my first semester drawing course are required to finish 100 of these drawings on their own in additional to the coursework covered in class. It’s great to have something compact like this which is a clear record of your work. Of course with digital media you can just put all your jpegs into folders and look at them on your computer, but I think there’s something to be said for the act of reviewing your progress page by page, in a sketchbook you hold in your hand. There’s a clear beginning and end, and you should be able to see yourself improve page by page.

To sum things up, I think it’s important to remember that new technologies in digital painting and drawing are always just tools. Nothing more, nothing less. Somebody who gets a hundred thousand dollar violin won’t magically become a better violinst. And in the same regard, someone who spends a lot of money on state of the art equipment won’t necessarily hone their skills any faster. At a certain point, of course there are advantages to drawing digitally. Particularly for those interested in Entertainment Design. But at it relates to painting and drawing in a Fine Art context, pen and paper are still king.  Not to mention that my colleagues, students, and friends who have all landed the dream jobs at major animation studios and production companies had one thing in common. They could all paint, sculpt, or draw really well. A fellow student I went to school with ended up working for Industrial Light and Magic, and he was hired without having a lick of computer abilities. He was simply an amazing sculptor with a strong foundation in figurative studies. So, don’t discount traditional media as being something only relevant in the past, it is still something which can help your drawing and painting abilities soar in their infancy. If you want to get a tablet later it’s fine. I use one to refine my sketches for TShirt designs and other more commercial projects. But practice, and learn to draw with good old fashioned pen and paper. Transferring the skills you learn will take literally a matter of hours to a digital format.

Supply List to Get Started Painting in Oils or Acrylics

Going to the art store can be a daunting task. I’ve put together this list for my students taking my beginning painting course at Prague College in Prague, Czech Republic. If you are interested in a summer painting workshop in Europe to correspond with a holiday in Prague then please contact me for more information. I run a three week painting intensive every summer there which is open to anyone who signs up. All other courses are done through Prague College and require admission to the school of Fine Art Interactive Media. Additionally, as you can see in the page above I am also offering a painting holiday / workshop in the heart of the Italian countryside as well this summer.

Download this Supply List for Oil Painting by Clicking Here ( PDF ) 

coverheadPainting Supplies

-Scroll to the end for a condensed list-

You have the option of using Oils or Acrylics based upon your preferences.  Oils have the luster generally associated with classical paintings and stay wet longer which allows them to blended more easily. Acrylics have the benefit of being water soluble, so you don’t have to buy paint thinner (Redidlo or Turpentin) and linseed oil. They also dry quickly. They both have their benefits and drawbacks.  There are student grade paints and professional paints. I’d recommend just getting the student grade paints since there is a huge price difference. The brand can be Umton, as in the picture below.


Oil Paints

  • Cadmium Red Medium
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Pthalo Blue or Ultramarine Blue
    • Pthalo Blue is more electric and fluorescent looking. Ultramarine is beginning to get a bit more purple and is a softer color


  • Titanium White

Here you can see the difference between Pthalo Blue, and Ultramarine Blue



  • Cadmium Red Medium
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Pthalo Blue or Ultramarine Blue
  • Titanium White


What to paint on?


Figuring out what to paint on is a personal preference. But can be determined by cost and other factors. Pick one of the below to paint on.



  • Canvases have been used for centuries as a painting surface.  
    • You don’t have to prepare the surface for painting.
    • They’re more expensive.
    • You can use the textured surface for certain effects.


Masonite ( Sololit )

  • Is very cheap. You can get many small pieces (30cm x 40cm) cut at Obi or Bauhaus for free. I often get 30 pieces cut at once and it costs me around 500Kc.
  • Are durable
  • Has a rigid surface so you don’t have to deal with the movement of a canvas.
  • They’re smaller so they’re easier to store if you’ve got hundreds of paintings.
  • Students tend to be less precious with them, which is good, since sometimes a nice white canvas is an intimidating thing to “ruin”  masonite

Watercolor Paper

  • You’ll have to prepare the surface by buying Gesso (Šeps) or acrylic medium.
  • You can buy a “blok” of them and have many pieces to work on quickly.


Super Budget Surfaces

  • You can paint on cardboard as long as you prepare it first with Gesso or Acrylic Medium.
  • You can dumpster dive pieces of wood, drawers, and other materials from the garbage.  (Just make sure it’s actually garbage and you aren’t stealing someone’s stuff who is just moving out of their apartment.)
  • Buy crappy old paintings at Bazars or Flea Markets (Kolbenova) and paint over the surface of them, or add new characters to them.


What’s Gesso?



Gesso prepares a surface for painting. There’s two types. Oil based, and acrylic based. But you don’t have to worry about that yet. Just get the acrylic based gesso no matter if you are painting with oils or acrylics. Gesso performs a variety of purposes. For one it smooths the surface of a canvas or panel (masonite) , and it also protects the wood, paper or canvas from linseed oil. Linseed oil will eat away at these materials over the years. So there are archival qualities that make using gesso essential, especially if you want to make sure your painting lasts for a thousand years.

Acrylic Medium

Another option is to use Acrylic Medium to prepare your surface for oil paint. Acrylic medium is clear and can also be used with acrylic paints to create transparent surfaces.



Get a flat brush. That means it’s rectangular, and not like the pointy brush they use in cartoons. The brush below is a ½ from the company AMI. It costs like 60kc and is available at Alta Mira. You want your bristles (that’s the hairs of the brush) to be kind of springy and firm.  



Get a piece of glass, and a scraper (A razor). Or coat a piece of cardboard with Gesso and you can also use this as a palette.  I’ll bring some extra pieces of glass, but I only have a few.

Varnishes, Mediums and solvents


Cobalt Siccative

Cobalt Siccative is a medium which makes oil paint dry faster, and gives it a bit of a glossy finish. Add it to your linseed oil (in very small amounts)


Paint Thinner/Turpenoid/Redidlo


Paint thinner is used to clean your brushes and to thin your oil paint. We will be using it mainly in a jar to clean our brushes.  You don’t need such a large container of it. Or maybe you do, if you want to paint a lot.

You’ll also need a container to put your thinner into. A jar with a lid that screws on tightly is a good option.


Linseed Oil


Linseed oil is the oil that is contained within oil paint. Often we need to add more oil to the paint in order to extend it, and make it easier to manipulate. You’ll also need a small container to hold it. A shot glass works well. Just don’t accidentally drink it.

Damar Varnish

Damar is also optional but is used on a painting once it is completely dry. It will also darken your dark colors more and give your surface a unified glossy appearance.



You’ll need a paint rag to clean your brushes, and use while you are painting.

-Here’s the google map link to Alta Mira where everything can be purchased in Prague, Czech Republic – https://www.google.cz/maps/place/Altamira+-+V%C3%BDtvarn%C3%A9+pot%C5%99eby/@50.0829825,14.4171906,17z/data=!4m5!1m2!2m1!1salta+mira+prague!3m1!1s0x0000000000000000:0x095fa4e7355bf5a0


Condensed List

Oil Painting  (Estimated cost 1000-1400 Kc) 50 to 75 dollars

  • Cadmium Red Medium (Hue) (Brand Umton)
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium (Hue)  (Brand Umton)
  • Pthalo Blue or Ultramarine Blue  (Brand Umton)
  • Titanium White
  • Gesso or Acrylic Medium
  • Flat Brush (the rectangular ones.) Brand AMI. see photo above.
  • Paint Thinner (Redidlo)
  • Glass jar with lid. (Eat some jam)
  • Linseed Oil (Lineny Olej)
  • Shot glass or bottle cap
  • Canvases, Masonite, Cardboard, or Old Wood
  • Palette (Glass or Cardboard) and paint scraper.
  • Painting Rag (tear up an old t-shirt)

Acrylic Painting (Estimated cost 600-900 Kc) 35 – 50 dollars

  • Cadmium Red Medium (Hue)
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium (Hue)
  • Pthalo Blue or Ultramarine Blue
  • Titanium White
  • Glass jar with lid.
  • Paint rag
  • Palette (Cardboard or glass)
  • Canvas, masonite, cardboard, or wood
  • Painting Rag (tear up an old t-shirt)
  • Gesso or Acrylic Medium

On Amazon

I’ve found all these items on Amazon. Since I am going to the US for the summer to paint I had to pre-order all of my materials which I would need for painting. I was surprised that it actually took quite a bit of time, and amazon and other sites don’t have a very good compiled list. The total of everything I bought came to 250$, but I was buying many items in the larger size. So here you can see each of these items one by one, and easily add them to your cart on Amazon.

How to figure out what to paint

A lot of students are concerned with “getting better” at “art”. But what does that really mean? I’ve found in nearly a decade of experience in teaching art to college aged students that generally it is assumed that getting better means improving one’s technical abilities. Many times they want to learn how to make something look a certain way and often gloss over the conceptual aspects of the work. But this route can be deceiving, because once you become proficient at a certain style, you’ll find yourself wondering what it is that you are going to paint. With people going into entertainment design or illustration this is simplified because they are more or less told what to paint, and the client has chosen them because they are proficient in a style they find acceptable.  But what about those artists who are given complete freedom to pursue any avenue they wish, how do they come up with new and fresh ideas?

A lot of study has gone into how to teach creativity to students. While I believe it is well intentioned it has also created a crisis in art schools all across the world. A split occurred between two camps in the 60s as new media and conceptual art began to come to the forefront. On one side there were teachers who didn’t want to stifle their students creativity by making them fit into some sort of dogmatic and technical prison. They believe that students should endlessly experiment on their own and find solutions to complex problems. Their own solutions, because if the teacher told them how to do something, then the work isn’t truly theirs, it’s mostly the teachers. The problem with this was that the work could easily be aesthetically ugly since the student didn’t have a strong enough foundation in things like paint application and color theory. On the other side there were the old school teachers; the formalists. They believed that certain compositions could be better than others, that certain color combinations are more pleasing, and that drawing and painting could be taught in a step by step manner. It’s important to remember I’m talking about Fine Art departments here. Graphic Design and Illustration departments had little trouble with defining what was good or correct, but with Fine Art it was more problematic. And rightfully so, nearly a century after Duchamp put a urinal into a gallery and called it Art, we’re still wrestling with how best to categorize and position certain art as being better than other art.  And this has everything to do with the paralysis that young and some experienced artists feel when they begin a new work/painting. The question still looms. If I learn to paint exactly how I want to paint, then what should I paint?

One concept that is important to familiarize yourself with is called “Divergent Thinking”.   Divergent thinking is the ability to bring two seemingly disparate concepts together and it’s at the heart of what we call creativity. One thing that’s interesting about divergent thinking is that we’re all born with it. It actually degrades over time. I’m not joking, in a test designed to gauge how good someone is at divergent thinking 5 year olds actually outperform 15 year olds. As we become more self conscious, we become less adventurous, and less creative. The evil “inner critic voice” pipes up, and says that something looks bad, or that something is ridiculous, or “that’s not a good idea!” .  And this is the first thing which you need to engage and it brings us to the first of many steps designed to enhance your creativity and help you figure out what to paint!

1: Be Fearless.

Fake it until you make it is a common idiom of our time, but if there’s one place where it truly fits it’s in helping artists become who they truly wish to be. This could mean fending off all sorts of evil demons and anxieties. You could make art which is confronting some trauma which you have experienced, or you could just be making still lifes in your kitchen and you’re scared as hell to show your work publicly. Either way you need to get over it, be fearless, and take the task head on.

2. The five whys.

Ask yourself why, then ask yourself why again, and again, and again. This should help you identify exactly why it is you want to make art, and help you create a schedule to achieve your goals.  Avoid saying things like “nice” and “I like” when answering these questions. It can be more difficult than you think but I’ve seen it be extremely helpful in the long run.

Why do you want to paint?

Because I want to create something beautiful.


Because the world can be ugly.


Because people don’t respect nature.


Because they want to make money.


Because some need to feed their families, and others are just greedy.

So you see what just happened there? We went very quickly to the heart of what this imaginary artist wanted to talk about in their work.  Suddenly ideas about wealth and privilege and nature should start overflowing from your brain. Which brings us to the next step.

Mind Mapping:

Now that you’ve got your creative juices flowing it’s time to record those ideas before they fade away.  And the way to do this, is with what’s called a mind map. Start with your central idea and put it in the center and then go wild making as many connections as you can to it. Lets continue with the previous theme and see what we can come up with.

mind map

Again, all of these ideas should just flow as fast as possible. Overthinking will kill it, just get as much as you can down as fast as you can and you’ll be surprised at all the possible connections. A glimpse at the mind-map above gives us an enormous amount of possibilities for paintings about the dichotomy of nature and money. You could paint deer doing cocaine with strippers. Or a salmon jumping over a strip mall. How about some stock market graphs made from moss? Or a totem pole full of executives? The list goes on, and on, and on and the possibilities are endless. The thing that’s important to remember is that you have to be playful at this stage. Channel your inner five year old and be goofy, don’t be afraid to be nonsensical  and you should be able to surprise yourself with some ideas you didn’t know you had in you!

Cheap and fast test paintings/drawings:

Once you’ve got an idea that you like. Say, a totem pole of executives. It’s time to make some tests. One mistake a lot of young artists make is to think they are going to make one perfect drawing on their nice and shiny new canvas. Screw that! You need to make a ton of small and cheap tests first. Start with making some small thumbnail sketches, just play with composition and how you want things to fit into your shape/size of canvas at first. Then gather some source material if you need to. Go to the woods near your house and take pictures of moss. Collect images of totem poles around the world. Get pictures of bank executives. Look at how currencies are designed and their format etc. etc. After you’ve got a big collection of source materials start sketching your composition in a more finished manner. These sketches can take the form of value studies, and some color studies.

Transfer your tests to your canvas:

Once you’ve got your sketching and source materials gathered and sorted it’s time to transfer these onto your canvas. This can be done by using the grid method which I outlined in a previous lesson, or even with a projector. At this point your conceptual work and planning is finished, and we’re back to the issue of technique and paint application!