Thursday, December 27, 2012


The two courses I had this fall were both oil painting courses, FA 616 - Portrait Painting and ILL 607- Figure and Environment - what seemed to make sense when I registered was probably a totally foolhardy and naive decision, matured from my total ignorance of what it means to work with oils. And then again, after having managed to do this (this being an average of two paintings a week), the fear of oil and the activation energy to start a painting are gone forever. Indeed, making an oil painting is not that much more of an effort than sketching on the back of a napkin, once you have a routine going that allows you to start and/or finish a painting almost every day. 

One of my first paintings from Situation and Environment
One thing has to be stated before anything else: oils are fabulous. They fit me like a glove: paint handling, intensity of color, flexibility, scope of treatment, open time (i.e. time they stay wet), possibility to test things on the go and always correct for is a dream come true. If you have ever asked yourself why oils are the media of choice of generation after generation of painters since 500 years, ask no more - start using them and all will be clear.  While slowly crawling up the learning curve, I now look forward to a lifetime of playing with the scope and potential of this medium, hopefully getting better along the way. I am not partial to traditional media, but I do believe traditional painting is never going to disappear....and am intrigued by the possibility of mixing it with digital, like Hugo Award winner John Picacio.

One of my first paintings for Portrait Painting

 I decided to share some of the things I learnt in our blog, but I have to put in a disclaimer -  this is MY experience, MY views and opinions and MY personal relationship with oils.  Too many artists pretend to have the world’s wisdom at their feet regarding this medium and I do not want to do the same - I have still so much to learn that it would be ridiculous to do that. So do not expect THE solution, just one of the many possible views and ways.
This discussion will span several entries, and in the first I would like to address some of the common concerns and beliefs many have (me included, until four months ago) about oils which were totally shattered for me during this semester:
  1. Acrylics are no substitute for oils. There is nothing acrylics can do that you cannot do with oils (more on that later), while there is a world of things you can do with oils that acrylic can approach only with a lot of tweaking and wrestling.
  2. Safety. Everybody who refuses to use oils in favor of acrylics seems to be concerned with safety, toxic fumes, odors and the like. I have not invested any serious research in this, but I do believe the most toxic component of oils is the pigments...which are mostly the same in acrylics and watercolors. The oil medium is unlikely to be particularly toxic in this context, unless you decide to eat the colors. Plus, it is not volatile (oils dry by oxidation, not by evaporation). I actually use liquin (also called alkyd), a synthetic medium that dries faster than oil. Some people complain of allergy to liquin, but I luckily have no problem with it and it is reported to be even less of a concern than natural oils. I do not ever use turpentine or other volatile solvents. Not even for washing the brushes (I found out that they can be washed perfectly well with water and LOTS of liquid soap). During paintings, if I need to clean the brushes I use the medium and lots of kitchen paper. For very lean underpaintings, I use a less-toxic equivalent of turpentine which is called OMS (Odorless Mineral Spirit or Odorless White Spirit). I do not know about  the toxicity of this one, but I use so little and so rarely that I doubt it is a concern. My studio does not actually does not smell of anything. I use an apron and one-way gloves all the time (I know some people do not like one-way gloves, but, hey, I am a chemist... I spent most of my life with latex gloves on...), so I can actually jump out of a painting and tend to my children with no fear of “contaminating” them. Needless to say, my studio is off-limits to both of them. I am sure you can use lots of fancy media mixtures, varnishes and the like and I am equally sure there are troops of artists who swear that the ONE WAY to work with oils is with medium x or medium y or pigments z. all my limited experience, I do not believe there is something like a “best” way to work with oils. I have scouted the internet for hours and have 50 cm of bookshelf occupied by books on oil painting and the conclusion is: there are lots of great artists and lots of different ways these artists work, each with their own lineup of media, supports and pigments. So, if you do want to work exactly like a specific artist, you probably have to follow their recipe, but if you are just looking for your own way, be assured that you can use oils comfortably without ever smelling a whiff of solvent.
  3. Oil painting is not slow. At least it was not for me. You can pace a painting as fast or as slow as you wish. Of course a 40” painting with multiple figures is going to take a while, especially if you want super smooth rendering, but during the semester, with four paintings a week going, the majority of paintings took no more than 8 hours from start to finish. Add about 2 hours for preparing and drawing and you can easily do a painting a day (or every three days if you paint after working hours, as I do). One week we even did 30’ paintings and 1h paintings and the results are not at all bad: some people actually prefer those to the more polished ones. Here are 30 min and 1h paintings:



Larger projects take longer of course and if you go into glazing and refining stages you can actually go on forever, but the key is: it does not NEED to be that way. It is your choice how long you want to invest in a painting, and you can happily specialize in 1h paintings and do beautifully. For myself, I sort of “evolved” into a way of painting which is either direct (ala prima window-shading, no underpainting) or uses what I call a “poster” underpainting followed by a single second pass. I will give examples of both in a future entry, but both are fairly fast approaches.

This painting took almost exactly 9 h

Using my kitchen as environment!

Portrait "Sargent-style" - about 10 h of work

No comments:

Post a Comment