Frame making with a compound mitre saw.

Readers may recall this post I wrote about buying a new hand mitre saw, some years ago. Unfortunately, that proved to be a poor replacement for the previous saw*, and still languishes in its box, waiting on me finding an eBay punter to take it off my hands.

So just after Christmas, I bit the bullet and ordered a powered compound sliding mitre saw online. I read some reviews for models in my price range beforehand, and looked at some review videos on YouTube, before settling on a Metabo I could afford.

It came in record time, with the wrong plug attached, a glitch the seller was quick to resolve by sending me an adapter free of charge. I read the manual through several times, given that learn as you go while using a razor sharp whirling wheel of death and dismemberment seemed like a really bad idea. I fixed the saw to a sturdy slab of plywood, only to discover that its cast metal base was tilted up at one corner. Not in any hurry to send it back for a replacement that was not guaranteed to be any better, I soldiered on and made a test frame using the saw.

The mitres turned out well, which was, after all, the point of buying it in the first place. I cut some picture frame moulding to fit a couple of small paintings and assembled the pieces to make sure the corners looked okay, which they did. Tight, accurate mitres.

And now I need an underpinner and a point gun.

Things to bear in mind:

1) Safety. You'll need safety glasses, hearing protection, and a dustmask. A turning blade can throw things in your face. The saw is surprisingly loud, and will damage unprotected hearing. And wood dust is just plain nasty.

2) RTFM. Read the manual before you turn the machine on and use it for the first time. Again, YouTube is your friend. There are a lot of videos about using mitre saws.

3) Make sure the wood is firmly clamped, and let the saw get up to speed before making a steady, smooth cut. This helps avoid tear-out.

4) Keep your fingers well away from the blade.

5) There's a work light and a laser on the cutting head. The work light is useful, but I find the laser distracting and not much use for its intended purpose of showing you where the blade will cut.

6) The sliding function is useful in dealing with wide stock, and the turntable for cutting mitred angles is smooth and accurate; but the tilting head for compound angles is a liability when it comes to cutting simple mitres. If it moves, it can get out of whack and mess up your cuts. Something to consider if you have a model in mind. I've fixed the head bolt upright at a measured 90 degrees and never touch the tilt lever at all.

In fact... if all you want to cut is picture frame mitres, you might be better off getting a table saw and making a mitre sled.

7) Lastly, never get complacent when using a tool like this. If you're slightly anxious about using it every time you plug it in, that's a healthy attitude. 

Accidents with power tools can turn very ugly very quickly. (Do a 'woodwork accident' image search on Google if you don't believe me. A little stomach churning, but very educational.)

Is this a good solution to the problem of framing my work?

Meh. In a perfect world, I'd send my PA up the road to Bramptons to see if my huge annual order was ready, and have her pick them up by the skip load in my personal hovercraft. I wouldn't waste a minute making frames or priming boards, or stretching canvases, because time you spend doing these things is time you could spend painting.

But it is a solution, and the best one available to me here and now.

Framing your work presents it in its best aspect. It's an essential part of professional practice. Learning how to do it yourself, and do it well, is one solution to a problem all painters have.

* I lent my previous mitre saw to a relative. Never, ever, do that.

In fact, if anyone ever asks to borrow one of your tools - your precious, lovely, useful, expensive, well maintained and cared for tools -  just stab them until they go away. Use a freshly sharpened pencil. Make an angry face. Say, 'No. No. No,'  repeatedly, in time with the little stabby motions, as you advance on them. Go for the soft spots, and strike with venom.

They have to learn. It's for the best.

Persistence, rage, tomato, tomato.

Out painting this morning on a crisp Christmas day. Work in progress is my second attempt at painting this footpath. It looks horrible, and if I didn't know better by now I would cast it aside like an unwanted frisbee.

Experience, however, has informed me that no matter how bad a painting gets out in the field, I can usually work wonders with it back in the warm. Of all the personal qualities you can bring to painting, persistence - or, better still, sheer bloody minded spite and a furious refusal to be beaten - is one of the most useful.

Here's another from this month, from what's turning out to be a series.  

3 extremely useful colours

And they're all pretty similar:

Titanium Buff

Naples Yellow

Flesh Tint

Titanium Buff is cool and greenish, Naples Yellow is warmer and more yellow, while Flesh Tint is a pale pink. Using them to lighten landscape greens means you can get the light tone you need, along with the correct colour temperature, without resorting to white.

They provide a useful short cut, in other words. I started using them to hit the right notes in landscape greens back in the spring, painting March fields in cool, rainy weather.

Painting out of doors at that time of year meant I had to find a way to paint bare trees, a technical problem I'd always balked at before. I did some woeful winter landscapes last year, but since then I managed to find a way to paint bare branches en masse that looks half way convincing. As ever, the best way is to work from large masses to small, adding only as much detail as will suggest more than is really there. Masses of bare twigs can be suggested by fuzzy edged paint scrubbed into the darker wet paint used for the mass of branches. Edges and sky holes do most of the work.

Painting in the open air makes a huge difference. I find I'm relying much less on photography these days, though I still take reference shots before I start painting. I find that working from life - even when the weather changes between painting sessions - gives me far more to work with, and even if I manage to ruin the painting on site, I can rescue it in the studio. When you work from life, your visual memory is more engaged, and you bring things back to the studio in your head, as well as on board or canvas.

Oak in a field, March.

On Drawing Trees And Nature

...Is a book I've had on my Amazon wish list for a long time, and I finally got around to finding and downloading a pdf copy from Google. It's long out of copyright, so feel free to go ahead and do the same.

The drawings are beautiful. Oddly modern looking, and not as weirdly formulaic as I'd half expected. (If you've ever looked at a collection of 18th or 19th century drawings or prints you'll know what I mean, those wavy, unlikely looking trees with feathery foliage.) 

J.D.Harding's trees are splendid. He's obviously worked from life, following his own excellent advice, that he passes on in the text in somewhat indigestible wedges of dense prose, but it's well worth your effort to read and re-read his lessons and take all you can from them.

He tells you how to look at things we're all used to seeing, but in a manner that will help you draw or paint them. Consider his instruction another tool in your internal toolbox, a starting point for your own investigations. Just like the writer has been handed down the language and grammar he uses, or the musician the notes and scales and theory, painters have access to a wide and deep body of knowledge. You don't have to invent drawing. 

Rembrandt self portrait

I painted a copy of a Rembrandt self portrait this past week. Copying is one of the best ways of learning how to paint, providing you pick someone worth copying. You get in their head, plus you get to know what painting a masterpiece feels like.

You also get to see the quality gap between your work and theirs, which is chastening. But you find ways to close the gap a little.

I don't think I'll be starting a career as a forger any time soon. The finished piece is a different beast from the original, even at a casual glance, but I learned a thing or two in the painting of it. Such as:

- How to make a restricted palette work hard.
- How to use glazes and scumbling over an underpainting.
- How to control tone for a dramatic light effect.
- How to control edges to describe what you're painting.

The whole of art history is a Google image search away. If you want to kick your painting up a notch, go to it.


I'd been passing by this crumbling old building on my regular walk for years before I got around to painting it.

I have painted it before, from the road. It featured in this painting I did back in '92 or '93, 'Albert Mansfield's place', which is what my old man called it when he recognized the place in the picture.

Finally I got around to taking the photograph that would act as the basis of the painting. The tree shadows did it for me. Some subjects just need a light effect to set them off, and I always like the challenge and reward of including a cast shadow in a painting. Shadows tell you so much: where the light is coming from, and what, unseen, lies outside the picture and casts the shadow, and the nature of the surface on which the shadow is cast. The challenge lies in managing tone and colour temperature and edges to make the shadow convincing, and the reward lies in the opportunities this presents for the use of rare and beautiful colour.

The photograph presented some difficulties with the composition. The original photograph included a strip of sky and the full height of the background trees, and the tangled tree shadow on the wall to the far left. I did a small watercolour study on site which told me this might present insoluble problems. I used GIMP to crop the photograph in various ways, and eventually settled on my usual 10" x 12" study format for the painting.

I took the painting to what I thought was a finished state, but put it away to get some mental distance from it. When I took it out again after a couple of weeks I saw that the foreground saplings had to go. They broke one of my own rules: Don't try to paint something through something. I rubbed out the saplings with a piece of sandpaper and repainted the wall. 

I also took one of my most useful tools - two L shaped right angles of mount board - and decided on a new crop for the painting, cutting off the distracting and redundant two inches at the far left to end up with a 10" x 10" painting.

That seemed to solve all the composition problems.* Now the painting just had a few components that all worked together: the building, with its pointed roof, the tree shadow that sprawls across it, the trees in golden light behind the wall and the ivy bound tree in the middle, plus the foreground with its shadowy grass and reflecting stream.

I worked and reworked the wall, aiming for an effect of sun struck stone and brick. I did as much with the background trees, using texture and colour to add interest.

Any painting I can bring to a conclusion and in the process come up with a couple of tools to add to my inner toolbox, I'm happy.
Why Rapunzel? Every time I passed the building, it put me in mind of those Hockney etchings of Grimms fairy tale, and the contrast between that and the building's original purpose - it was a pig pen - made me smile.

* A square format has a kind of power of its own to please the eye. For many simple subjects with a frontal quality, it often ends up being the best choice.