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Rob Nicholls

Toronto, Canada

I’ve latched onto an idea of some kind of landscape, this Cliffside vista. The work came about after a trip to Italy. Driving south along the coastline there’s this cascading landscape down to the water.  I hoped something would inspire me on that trip; I didn’t know at the time but reflecting afterwards on the kinds of visual information that I could take away it was these steep hills that go up and up.

It’s just slightly echoed here.  I like that you can’t quite say what the landscape is, it could be anywhere, underwater, imagined.

Before this I was making architectural abstract work, not a ton of color and I was honestly a bit lost. But I was working all the time. And then I went to Mexico.  I tried to paint this kind of canopy that was happening on the back deck of our Airbnb.  I was able to articulate the space through memory; it was a total departure. I was articulating space but also really moving the paint and being satisfied by that.

I made this series of 1 hour paintings with an oval mirror/portal central object. That’s canvas over panel.  This one has less ground, you can see the weave coming through.  The paintings had these repeated leaves and organic forms that became a language which I wanted to push.

I switched up the brushes, got the sables, and got a kind of brush effect where marks become hair or feathers.  Things evolved after that, getting looser, using my imagination more and working on the fly.


The acrylic gesso process I’m using goes back to NYC in 2011 when I did an internship and primed canvases for Marc Handelman.  He makes these great big paintings that have the illusion of marble, granite or different types of stone.  It’s about 3 layers of gesso sanded and then the rest of it is applied with a palette knife. It’s numerous layers with the palette knife; putting it on and taking it off and working it across the canvas until it become slick.  I kind of took this with me.

Because I use so much of it I use a cheaper gesso and it works fine.  Because you’re putting so much on you create a quite fragile surface so you have to be careful with the drying time between layers.  I have to feel the surface, gauge the coolness to the touch because if it’s not totally dry it can crack.

I like the smooth surface, thinning down the paint with oil and mineral spirits and the way that it slides. This ground gave me some structure; it’s become a constant over the last 5 years or so.


The stretched canvas is lighter and easier to deal with than panel.  Because panel is so rigid it’s harder to get the gesso on in such a way with the palette knife.  If you were to sand and gesso and sand and gesso what happens is, unless you wet sand, you see evidence of the sanding marks.  It happens a lot in panels and can be a real distraction if you paint as thinly as I do. Sometimes I stretch canvas over panel but the problem with that is that the gesso goes through the weave, sticks to the panel, and as it starts to dry it will slowly release. If you look at the painting from the side you can slightly see it billowing out.  Not cool.  Especially on big paintings where you’re trying to get it perfectly smooth.


I’ve really gotten into pearl, iridescent, bronze and copper paints.  The Williamsburg copper is kind of a pink-orange so applying some color theory strategies opens up some pretty nice options.  I mix them into umbers, greens and oranges and it just slightly sparkles.  You can’t quite pin it down, it’s not heavy handed at all.


I use a 60:40 walnut : mineral spirits medium. It’s brighter, clearer and less yellow than linseed and it creates a lot of transparency so I can play with the ground coming through as a light.  It’s an in-between finish, the reflective surface tones down as it’s drying.


I’m into the sables and really cheap brushes, like $3 brushes.  They’re soft and I can get the right touch, usually flat or chiseled. I’ll use these small brushes as well as a bunch of 1-2” brushes.  I stopped using the bristle brushes with these because it just didn’t make sense.

That’s the paint brush graveyard.


On a big painting I just kind of plan my day around it.  They really have to be done in one sitting which I love. I prefer to paint and finish and go; it’s just my personality. I set myself to make paintings that happen in a day because I know that’s when I’m at my best and when my energy level is there.

The longest part of these paintings is the priming and then the palette mixing will take a couple of hours.

I can’t go back into them or touch them up, it just doesn’t work.  Usually I have 1, maybe 2 days before the paint is dry although in the summer things are drying really fast. I’m exploring what can happen when I set a deadline and push the time.

With this one I pushed it to the point where it was kind of uncomfortable.  In the two sessions it was made I was moving so fast I didn’t know if it was going to work but I didn’t want to allow for too much consideration and instead just rely on my ability to make decisions.

These are on Yupo. It’s a nice synthetic paper which is a ready-made surface for me.


I go back and forth.  I play music for a couple of hours and then I paint and tire myself out.  I love the relationship between the two. Painting is a solo activity.  Music is very intuitive, spontaneous and there’s a quick satisfaction.  I was trying to find a connection with that in making the paintings. Like repeating a guitar riff over and over and being satisfied; maybe I can do that with paintings.  That’s where the speed thing came into it.  I tried not to be self-critical while in the process and not to have everything figured out or articulated before I worked through them.

I love the freedom and independence of painting.  I have the control, I don’t have to coordinate with other people.  I’m all about independence and freedom.

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