Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Happy New Year to all!
This will be the second part of recording my experiences with encountering oils.

The choice of materials seems to be an obsession for beginners....me included. I am always trying to find out who is using which make of which colors, which brushes, which canvases, etc...Also, I am a sort of art-store junky, which does not help a bit. But I am starting to recover from this illness and can proudly report that at least five days have passed since my last material acquisition....thanks also to the season holiday!
I still do invest a lot of effort in tracking down what kind of material my reference illustrators are using, but for different reasons. Now I begin to grasp what makes one type of material different from another and how it influences your art, so I am interested on what Mr Famous Artist is using to know in what sense it supports the specific look of their art. 
Oil painting materials can be overwhelmingly complex and mining the internet or art books does not make things easier, as you will find a zillion different media, mixtures, palettes, pigments, make of pigments, types of canvas, etc.., each and every one praised as the best and only one....enough to go to your head and make you abandon the whole endevor altogether. So here are my two cents of advice to beginners:

  • Materials is going to have only a very limited impact on your art for a very long time....until you are good enough not to need any advice on that. So do not bother with the pros and cons of any piece of equipment. The only exception is colors: it pays to buy the best colors you can afford, considering that at the beginning you can make do with no more than five colors. But honestly, the hand-milled, over-expensive, fully natural old-master pigments is a total overkill until you have burnt your 100th canvas (I do possess one of those - a gift from my art store...and I find it too stiff for my taste)
  • There is big discussions about permanence, yellowing and the like. Yes, some varnishes and media do yellow, and some pigments do fade.... in a time span of decades. And honestly, do you expect to make art that needs to last the centuries? If you are just starting, chances are that you will destroy your own paintings a couple of years down the road, to avoid having your name associated with your early attempts. Look what happened to Van Gogh, who carelessly left around this.
  • The perfect choice of materials is a highly personal thing. So is the color palette. Do not bother to study the material choices and color palettes of an admired artist - it may not be the one you favor in the end. I grow hair in my ears by going through lists of color palettes of artist X or artist Y...there is plenty of those in the internet, in books, etc... The thruth is THEY do not use the same colors for each painting, YOU will not use the same colors for each painting and you can mix exactly the same colors from such a variety of different pigments that it is almost pointless. As for brushes and canvases and media and make of paint: try as many as you feel comfortable with to find the one you prefer...today. You may change your mind tomorrow. And anyways, none of it is going to make a bit of a difference until you have sorted out the basics of painting.
  • Keep it simple and environemnt-friendly...I mean your environemnt, not the rivers and forests. I know for example that I cannot use turpentine. I have an open space living area, part of which is my study. If I open a bottle of turpentine, my family comes in arms and throws me and my painting on the terrace....in January. If you have to prepare your media by cooking Dammar varnish and Venice turpentine in a pot for 30 min with gentle stirring...you are not going to enjoy painting half as much. The same is true if you have to prime your canvases with rabbit glue and five layers of oil priming and then let it dry for five weeks. So, keep it simple and easy going - there is enough choices out there in modern media and pre-primed canvases. Many people out there strive to paint like the old masters did 400 years ago..I find it more interesting and clever to try to divine what would the old masters use if they had lived today....
  • So, if you really still want to have a specific advice on materials, here is the ones I came to favor after this semester...that amounts to 35 paintings of experience, which is not the world but enough to have a good idea about what I like to use at this present moment.
  • Media: I use almost exclusively W&N liquin original - a fast-drying, practically odorless synthetic medium made by long chain alcohols and oils. Traditional oils take a long time to dry to the touch (depends on the oil, some more than others), liquin is dry within 12-24 hours, depending on the pigment.
    Solvent: I use little to no solvent, and when I do I use OMS, Odorless Mineral Spirit or Odorless White Spirit. I do not wash the brushes with solvent (OMS is too expensive for that) but with liquid soap and plenty of water.
    Brushes: I find I need lots of different types of brushes. My workhorses are standard filbert synthetic brushes for acrylics of medium stiffness, but I also use sables, bristles, mongooses and the like. Brushes will influence the look of your art enormously, so it pays to experiment with different ones. If I had to recommend a first choice, I would say medium-priced synthetic brushes in 4-6 different sizes would do. The Filbert shape (also called Katzenzunge in this part of the world) is the most versatile. Brushes are not immortal - they live a happy life painting and at some point they go to brush paradise - some earlier some later and of course depending how good you are to them.
    Canvas. There are a million choices here. Not many people know that you can also paint on paper with oils. Actually, paper for oil painting manufactured by Canson or Fabriano is a cheap and practical alternative to stretched canvas. Many illustrators work with gessod illustration board, but I have no experience with that. Canvas panels are also a practical and usable alternative, especially those that are glued to woodchip. Personally, I used either canvas board or the cheapest unstretched canvas I could find, a cotton student-grade that cost less than 6 USD per sqm. I cannot honestly recommend it, as it does need to be gessoed to be usable, so my two-cents wisdom would be to go with canvas panels or paper, especially if you have space problems, like me. If you can afford it, artist grade linen canvas is a fantastic support, but very pricey, so maybe it is worth waiting for your skills to match the investment. And of course you can paint on wood, but this needs extensive preparation of the surface. What I did at one point was to ask my art store for samples - thus I god hold of a couple small pieces of different type of canvas to try out. And no, canvas does not need to be stretched to paint on it: fixing it to a solid support like a piece of cardboard with some pegs is perfectly sufficient.
    Palette. The standard in art school is not the traditional wooden, thumb held palette you see in every artist hand, but glass. A usable glass palette with a neutral background can be easily and cheaply made from a ready-made frame: just invert the glass and the back of the frame and glue both to the frame itself. These are very practical as they can easily be cleaned...while the paint is wet. Personally, I gave them up after the first few paintings for one-way palettes: much more practical - you do not need to clean them at all, just throw them in the bin when you are finished. Do not bother to buy the art-store palette pads for 12 USD each....a roll of baking paper does the job wonderfully. You can even buy it tan, which is better for judging values.
    Colors. Everybody´s headache. In Situation and Environemnt we painted the first few weeks with just 4 colors: Ivory Black, Titanium White, Yellow Ochre and Terra Rosa. Ivory black and white make a bluish gray that can easily substitute for blue. This palette is wonderfully simple and extremely powerful - you can paint almost anything with that.
    Here is a color wheel made with these colors - the yellow on the top is yellow ochre in three values, the red at 5 o’clock is terra rosa and the “blue” at 7 o’clock is just gray. The green is a mixture of black and yellow ochre and the “purple” is a mixture of terra rosa and black. Orange comes of course from terra rosa and yellow ochre.
A color wheel made only from black and 2 hearth colors

    Needless to say, I have many more colors now (including four different types of white), mainly W&N and Rembrandt makes of paint, but the lesson sticked: I rarely use more than 6 colors in any one painting. Sometimes I am down to three. This is a safe and powerful recipe for guaranteed color harmony, simplicity in mixing and pure and singing colors. So my advice is: try to use the 4 colors above for a while and then expand your palette according to your own instict and preferences. You may be surprised. My favorite colors for example are not on the standard list of any artist I know: Indigo and Brown Madder. You need really a lot of time to learn how pigments behave, in what ways transparent and opaque pigments differ and where is the strenght of each, how much tinting strenght each has in mixtures, and so on...so start very simple and learn two or three pigments well before moving forward. The palette we started with this past semester is as powerful and challenging as the most complex artists´s palette. if you need convincing, Rembrandt also painted with a limited palette, including mainly hearth colors..
    If I can give another piece of advice is to avoid the cadmiums. Cadmium yellow and cadmium red of one sort or other is present in each standard starters set for oils. The fact is, these colors are very opaque and extremely strong, so it is very tricky to use them in mixtures as just a tiny amount too much will make any mixture go to the red or the yellow. Plus, they are very saturated, so they are difficult to tame - there is almost nothing this red or this yellow in nature, if you exclude Ferraris and London telephone boxes. You need to mix in lots of their complements to get them to a chroma you can use. All of this makes them very challenging for the beginner and I simply do not understand why they are considered the standard choice. Personally, I avoid them as much as I can, although I set myself the goal to master them in this painting, which was painted with cadmium yellow light, cadmium scarlet, ultramarine blue, titanium white and alizarin crimson.

    Sometimes they are necessary, if you have an element in a painting you are planning that needs this kind of chroma power, but I would approach them with extreme caution.
This painting used a lot of cadmium red light

    And finally: varnish. I did not varnish any of my painting, so i can give no advice whatsoever on that. A coat of liquin after the painting is dry to the touch does the same as varnish, and one of my instructors recommended using only that. Will it yellow? Will it crack? I have no idea. For the moment, I never painted on commission, so I guess i do not particularly care if my modest attempts will last the centuries. As an illustrator, the originals are sometimes just a space problem. Parrish paintings are apparently falling apart (unofficial information from a lady at Winsor and Newton) because he used so many layers of varnish before the paintings were fully dry...and a team of restorators is running to the rescue. So I guess if my paintings will ever matter for somebody in 200 years from now, they will find a way to correct whatever material mistakes I made today....

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