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Painting Stuff with Oils
Oil paints are luxurious, regal even. They lounge on your palette and radiate under the light. Oil paints are never in a hurry. If the tubes you bought are too dry or tight or stringy, buy another, quick. Once you put out a little scoop of the colors on a palette (read, pie tin), you might have them moist and usable for two or three days. If a skin forms on top, it is easily pulled aside to the fresh color. The general concensus among oil painting professionals is that linseed oil as a binder is more stable and trustworthy over time, especially for the under layers. It is faster drying than other media. You can use walnut oil based colors later on in the process. Someone said ‘layers.’ That’s right, layers. Even a la prima artists concede they really don’t do it all at once, usually, except maybe in a demonstration.
Painting with oils raises all sorts of issues that we innocents fail to consider. Things like, if it will stick on the canvas and stay there for years. I bet most people just thought, well if they sell paint and canvases, then, duh. No, but it isn’t so easy. You are right that a manufacturer has thought it all out for you, but are you right that they have made the best choices? The information I am receiving is that our assumptions are somewhat faulty, at best. For instance, the existence of zinc in a white makes it instantly problematic. Yet zinc is in almost all whites on the market. Who’d have thought. So maybe, just maybe, it pays to ask hard questions and get good answers. There’s even a course going around just now on the best oil practices to use which I would give a pretty penny to join. Yet I soak up all the answers to the questions given on oil materials’ feeds. And lead white, extremely poisonous, is the white of the Old Masters, and without zinc, it makes the strongest bond on the canvas.
Then there’s the matter of surface; in art, this is called ‘ground.’ Which ground is best? Linen canvas has been used for centuries. Seeing Old Masters in museums has lured us into complacency thinking that linen canvas survives all forever. Maybe we ignore the news stories on restorations. Nearly every Old Master painting has undergone some restoration. Now I am all for knowing as much as I can, but controlling all the variables in an oil painting? Let’s just say the variables are myriad. Stretched canvases are superior to those student ones, 3 to a pack, where canvas is wrapped around cardboard–and everyone who’s been in any part of the industry for a period of time knows that cardboard has high acid content which will turn the cardboard and the canvas yellow and brittle. The same will warp if allowed to dry in the back dash of a car.
So, use some of the rigid boards that are new on the maket. That’s great, actually better, because then some of the paints that dry stiffer than the loose-but-stretched linen won’t pop off or ‘de-laminate.’ But then you have to see what the panel itself has in it. Formaldehyde? Really. Well, then there’s tin, treated, with all its attendant nature and problems. Or there’s wood, which we already know, warps. Some types are better than others. And then you must consider whether or not it has been sized to keep out moisture on both sides, and whether with the right materials or does it contain that ubiquitous zinc again. Oh-oh. And after the sizing comes the gesso. People just think the white surface is pretty, but that gesso or acrylic or alkyd stuff is a necessary layer that helps paint adhere to canvas, and yes, it is also up for discussion.
Wait. I didn’t sign up for this brow-beating, I can hear you saying. Well, just don’t try to sell your paintings at all, and you will be all right.
So forget it all for now, or start laboriously learning the ingredients like a health food fanatic. I think you should go that direction right away, while you are learning, studying, and maybe making progress producing some lovely paintings. For now, let’s forget business and turn to pleasure, the pleasure of mixing rich, creamy, oil colors and laying them onto whatever your choice of canvas or board was.
We have to assume you bought a great brand of oil paints, and mostly straight-edged brushes to begin with, probably synthetic, as they have a fineness and a spring to them. I assume, since it is cheap, that you bought odorless mineral spirits to mix them with, because, as we all know, you can’t rinse them or use water with them at all. Now just because that mineral spirits can is odorless doesn’t mean it is harmless. It is a solvent, and people shouldn’t be breathing its fumes.
Newbies to the delights of oil painting will need to pick a subject. I discourage an abstract subject because it leads to uneven coverage and under-par, off-the-cuff painting, in my experience. So, find a photograph of some stuff, or a photograph of a painting of some stuff, or set up an apple in the light, and let’s start.
Now for the drawing, which is really the most important phase, and anyone can refer to my drawing eBook, or any of my articles on drawing. (link, links) Those who follow my training exercises know I like to begin with circles, one for the overall shape, and an oval for the top of the apple, say, with a smaller one inside it. That way your apple will turn 3-dimensional in no time.
Now back to your oils. Go for the color the way you see it. Just one little tip for free, mix a tiny bit of white into your color, and even the most transparent color will achieve coverage so you don’t have to add repeated layers just to keep the squares of the canvas from showing through. The mixing is really such fun. I put my white in the middle of a circle, the other colors surrounding it, and make a little trail from the sides of the white to the sides of each color. And that tempting little peak of white that looks like whipped cream? Don’t stick a color in it. Your white won’t be that much longer, if you do. I have hundreds of students who would agree, whose white turned grey way too soon.
Change colors every time your subject presents you with a new facet of his character. It’s wet. It will mix and blend. Over-blending is frowned upon, if you want to keep the colors showing. Since all colors begin with only three, red, yellow, and blue, it doesn’t take very much mixing to lose your hues, your tints, your chroma. Think mottled, think stripes, think patches, think modeling, think dark to light, and splotches, anything to keep your mind from settling on one drab tone of wall paint and you end up with a flat apple a truck ran over.
While I’ve been talking on and on, I bet 3,000 paintings have been successfully begun. Know your obstacles and maneuver through or around them. Much to learn and my eBook, Oil Painting Techniques Easy(ier) (link) will help you spread that luscious oil color.