Field Sketching vs Oil Painting

The title of this post is probably a misnomer, but I can’t think of a better one.  Truth is, I’m comparing what I’ve done as a field sketcher to what I’ve tried to do as a neophyte oil painter.  Sort of apples and oranges but the apple and orange were both done by me and they’re both apples.  Does that make sense (grin)?

Ok…it was September of 2020 and a lull in COVID lockdown was in the air.  We went apple picking at an orchard on the south side of the St. Lawrence.  Everyone was enjoying being outdoors, climbing picking ladders and filling bags with apples.  I relied on my family for the picking while I wandered around looking for just the right view of apples and a mix of leaves.  I’m sure people thought I was nuts as I walked around and around trees, moving from one to another without picking a single apple.  But I found the spot.  So I sat down on my tripod stool and drew this with my fountain pen (S&B Beta sketchbook).

When I got home I added watercolor.

Fast-forward to 2022… and we’re in lockdown (again) because of Omicron.  I wondered what would happen if I tried to replicate one of my sketches with my very limited oil painting skills.  So, I applied a couple light coats of gesso to an S&B Beta sketchbook and went to work, using pencil to draw the closest replica I could from the original watercolor.

I’ve got to say that my limited abilities reared their head when it came to replicating the original.  Also, my pen and wash style relies so heavily on the pen lines to convey their msg that I struggled more than a little bit without them.  Still, the result kinda sorta looks like the original, though the watercolor apples look better to me.

This was an interesting experiment.  Painting in a sketchbook with oils works pretty well except you can’t close the sketchbook for a couple days.  This might slow me down as a street sketcher (grin).

 

 

Pen Driver Approach To Oil Painting

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“I tried it once.  The smell was bad and it gave me a headache.”

When I announced that I was setting aside my fountain pens and giving oil painting a try, I got a bunch of emails.  Most had some version of the quote above contained within them.  I understood why because that had been my assessment of oil painting as well.  Everywhere I’d watched people do it, it seemed complicated and smelly.

I’m happy to report that oil painting is being done by lots of people without complication, without smell, and with no more toxicity than using watercolors.  Doubt it?  Read on.

The common view of oil painting is that artists use all sorts of mediums and solvents and that they mix these concoctions in a fog of “petroleum distillates” to achieve their goals.  And, gosh darn it, that’s exactly how a lot of people use oil paints because that’s what they were taught.  They rave about “odorless” solvents that solve the smell problem.  These do minimize the actual smell but it does nothing to eliminate spending your days in a fog of “petroleum distillates.”  And, to make matters worse, they use mediums like Liquin that smell to high heaven and cause many to become quite allergic.  So…we’re right, this stuff is nasty… unless.

Did you know that turpentine wasn’t invented until the 1830s?  For several hundred years painters who are quite famous painted up a storm with oils without EVER smelling “petroleum distillates” or worrying about buying ventilation systems for their studios.  Seems, if museums are any indication, they did pretty well.  How can that be?

Well, oil paint is nothing more than pigment and linseed (flax) oil.  Yes, student-grade paints are also loaded with chalk because of their much lower pigment density but that’s it.  Pigment and linseed oil.  It might give you the runs but you can drink linseed oil – people cook put if on salads.  And so, when Rembrandt wanted to paint, he mixed up his pigment with some linseed oil.  If he wanted his paint thinner he’d add more linseed oil.

What changed?  Well, the idea of mediums came along, that’s what.  How do we make the paint dry slower/faster/glossier/etc.  How do we get really thick, but flexible paint?  For this sort of thing there needed to be a solvent to mix all this stuff together, and so standard fare within the ranks is to generate a “medium” or a series of mediums that contain odorless solvent, linseed oil (or poppy or safflower oil), and something like liquin that gets added along the way.  No wonder we think it’s complicated.

But there are MANY oil painters that don’t do all that.  Most seem to be professional artists who no longer follow The Beginners Guide to Oil Painting.  They use paint, straight from the tube and small amounts of linseed oil to thin the paint if needed.

Using this simple approach, all you need to paint with oils is a few colors and some linseed oil.  As long as you clean your brushes before the paint starts to harden, you can even clean up with soap and water.  I’ve taken this approach one more step.  I use water-mixable oil paints.

Water-mixable oils

A long time ago I bought several tubes of Winsor & Newton water-mixable oils.  At the time I was still scared off by the complicated stuff I saw oil painters doing and so the tubes languished.  Then I watched Charlie Hunter, a pro artist in Vermont, stand in a field painting a gorgeous landscape.  Charlie uses Cobra water-mixable oils, which seemed to be superior to my W&N so I bought a set for my new adventure.  The 10 colors cost me $70 from Jackson Art Supplies.  I use white, ultramarine, pyrrol red, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and permanent yellow light.  On a couple occasions I’ve used black, but only when doing tonal sketches in white and black.  And oh how I love these Cobra paints.  They’re much smoother out of the tube than are the W&N paints, and I’ve used very little water-mixable linseed oil, so little, in fact, that I keep it in an eye-dropper bottle, using it a drop at a time.  Using these materials there is NO smell.  I know that’s the case because I live with a woman with a hyper-smeller, who can smell, seemingly in an instant, if I open some solvent in my basement shop.

The more I learn and use these water-mixable oils the more I recommend them.  In addition to the things I’ve said thus far, if you want to apply a thin background wash, you can actually dilute them with water and apply them as you might watercolor.  While some use water throughout the painting process, many others suggest that too much water in a thicker mix will cause problems.  For a primatura, however, the water dries very quickly and so it’s not a problem.

According to Jeff Olson, the marketing rep for Royal Talens, the Cobra “artist” paints (they have a student grade) use exactly the same pigment/oil ratios as their regular artist-grade paints, which are also very creamy.  I bought a couple tubes of Rembrandt because I wanted to try something else Jeff said.  According to him, you can mix regular oil paint with water-mixable oil paint in a ratio up to 25:75 and still retain the properties of the water-mixable paints.

My Workspace

My workspace was created by placing a paper-covered board over a sawhorse and an old, antique radiator.  My palette is an 11×14 sheet of glass that I painted neutral gray on the backside.  I picked up a cheap easel, paper towels and a palette knife that I’m learning to use.  If you look closely you’ll see the dropper bottle of water-mixable linseed oil.  There’ also a bottle of water that I sometimes use to rinse out brushes.

Because I’m doing still lifes to learn the ins and outs of painting stuff with oils, I set up a  stand (on top of my roll-about) and it serves ok for that purpose.  What I really long for are better lighting choices.  As you can see, this stuff is all pretty minimalist.

My Brushes

Since discovering Rosemary & Co. and their fantastic handmade brushes, I’ve used nothing else for my watercolors so it only made sense to buy their oil brushes as well.  So many choices, so little understanding of what I’m doing.  Mostly I followed advice from the “almost everyone” on YouTube who use their brushes.  The best part about oils is that the brushes are LOT cheaper than my sable watercolor brushes.

One thing about oils is that with watercolors “best” has a common definition, with maybe a bit of an opinion difference that hinges on the “spring” vs “water-absorbancy” parameters.  With oils, however, there’s a whole lot of “it depends” based upon what sort of oil painting you’re trying to do.  But again, I’m learning.

As for the actual painting, I’ve leaned very hard on YouTube for answers.  Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima book is considered the bible of oil painting and I’ve devoured it.  I’m also a fan of Todd Casey’s Art of Still Life.  Both of these books are academic quality books with price tags to match.  I’ve stopped buying intro books on any art subject.  These two books have more in them than any 50 of my other art books so I feel fairly well equipped in the book department, though that is disappointing because my favorite thing to do is buy art books (grin).

I hope you can see that my oil painting is smell and toxicity free and VERY simple.  I should mention that I’m painting on 6×8 and 9×12 MDF panels covered with cheap gesso.  I bought 2′ x 4′ sheets of MDF and cut them in 24, 6×8 or 10, 9×12 panels.

 

 

 

Oil Painting Will Get Me Through The Long Winter

Snow has arrived here in Quebec and it’s turning cold.  The first storm is always a mess because it comes mixed with temps at or just below the freezing mark and so everything turns into an ice rink.  We’re in ice rink mode right now.

This marks the switch from long walks along my river to looking out the window and wishing I weren’t such a wuss when it comes to cold.  The Arizona boy runs deep within my bones it seems and I just can’t have fun when I’m cold.

Pre-pandemic, this was the time of year I switched from sketching outdoors to sketching in museums and coffee shops.  Post-pandemic (that seems overly optimistic) I’m reluctant to do any of that.  My museum memberships have all expired and sitting in coffee shops just doesn’t appeal to me as an old, immuno-suppressed human.  And so I look out the window.

My recent interest in learning to paint and how to create art that is less reliant on line drawing looks like a fine way to get through winter.  I’m having a fun time using small still life painting as a means to learn how to manipulate oil paint.   I’ve made a tall stack of 6×8 gesso’ed panels and they’re just dandy for a winter of fun.  All I need are veggies, cups, and stuff to paint.  Here’s one where I got the bright idea to paint something glass.  I learned a lot but, it seems, I have a lot more to learn (grin)  In the end, however, I was very happy with my onion.  How could life get any better than to be pleased by an onion?

Oil Painting Of An Autumn Leaf

Maple trees are so wonderful.  They provide syrup in the spring, shade all summer, and then they produce a spectacular color display in the fall.  There is the matter of covering my lawn with a bunch of back-breaking debris but it’s a small price to pay.

I got the bright idea to paint one leaf.  “Keep it simple,” I said, “because, Larry, you do oil painting really slow.”  What I didn’t count on was how fast maple leaves begin to curl, or maybe the one I picked up was just ready to curl.  Anyways, it was a race to see whether I could paint the darn thing before the leaf rolled itself into a ball (grin).  Here are the results and I was happy with it.

 

Oil Painting Is Just Peachy

The thing I remember most about my dad was the expressions he used to describe his universe.  When something was good it would often be “just peachy.”  Oil painting may 0r may not be an ideal medium but, for me, it’s just peachy.

Like any new medium, however, the early stages are filled with “how do you do…” about it.  For me, that’s a lot of fun but I can see how it might be frustrating for some.  I can draw stuff but everything I’m doing these days is about getting the medium to work so what I’m painting doesn’t really matter much.  I’m also facing a lot of stuff of nature that I haven’t had to think much about before as an urban sketcher.

Texture is one of those things and I was flipping through a book I own called “A Garden Eden,” which is a Taschen compilation of a bunch of botanical drawings and watercolor paintings.  It’s cover-to-cover eye candy.  Anyways, I came across a watercolor of a peach and I was taken by how fuzzy the peach looked.  I’m always surprised by what botanical artist can accomplish and I started thinking about how to do that with oil paint, or any paint for that matter.

In spite of being a complete beginner with oils, I decided to try it.  I drew the peach and its associated branch and leaves onto a 9×12 piece of MDF that I’d primed with gesso.  I was off and running.  The painting?  That was more like being at the 20 mile point of a marathon only rather than hitting a metabolic “wall”, this wall was because I had no idea how to make oil paint fuzzy (grin).

I worked, and worked, trying everything I could.  Mostly what I learned was that patience and stubbornness can go a long way to overcome a lack of skill.  I worked on that peach for at least two hours, but I think it actually looks fuzzy, though not as smooth as I’d like.  Then I had to paint all those leaves.  “How do you do…” Because oil paint dries slowly, that was ok and this is why I have to say that oil paint is “just peachy.”