Oil Paint Sketching

Long ago I saw Cesar Santos, well-known oil painter, doing what he called “studies” in a sketchbook.  He’d apply a couple coats of gesso to the page and then paint gorgeous portraits, that should have ended up on a wall, but Cesar was in training mode, working on his techniques and he needed to organize painting, notes, color swatches, etc. into a book.

That was before I considered oil paints but I didn’t forget the possibility.  Of course, when I decided to try oil paints I had to try it.  You can see my attempt and discussion here.  At the time my thought was that all the gesso stuff would just not transfer well to street sketching.

But, as they say, “I’ve seen things that can’t be unseen.”  Like artists sketching with oil paints on raw paper, Kraft paper no less.  It’s being done as a way to augment a pencil value study, providing color notes for a painting to be done in a studio.  BUT, the results would be perfect as a sketching medium for quick landscape/urbanscape sketches.  The problem, of course is what I reported in the post I just mentioned – you’ve got to wait a couple days to close the book, not exactly what you want as a street sketcher.

I continued to think about this and here’s where my mind went.

  1. When we need to do watercolors on thin paper we do “light washes,” using less paint and water to do our sketches.
  2. Water-mixable paints can be thinned with just water and the water dries much faster (too fast for normal painting) than with typical oil mediums.
  3. Paper is more absorbent than gesso’d board which would help wick the water away from the paint film

Hmm…says I.  What if… and an experiment was born.  I had some paint mixed on my palette, not the right colors perhaps but they would do for an experiment.  How to get a sketch done in “no” time so that I could time how long it would take to dry?  Solution is to keep it small and not worry about the quality of the sketch, all emphasis on getting the area covered as quickly as possible.

I used a cheap Kraft sketchbook.  I create these by taking a generic 9×12 spiral sketchbook and run it through my bandsaw, creating two 6×9 sketchbooks that cost me around $5, less if they’re on sale.  The paper is 120g.  I’ve filled several of them and they’re good for “light washes.”  A Stillman & Birn Nova book would be far superior.  Anyways, this is the result of this test.

Just toward the end of my “sketch” (total time less than two minutes) I decided to add a bunch of white in the foreground.  Titanium white oil paint is very slow to dry and I thought it a useful addition to the test.  Sorry this isn’t a better sketch.  I tried to keep the paint thin and used only water to thin it.

And then I waited, but I’m not a patient guy so at 15 minutes I was sticking my fingers in the paint.  Most of it was dry, or dry enough that I wouldn’t worry about closing the book.  The white areas were still tacky though (no book closing yet).

Then I remembered Cesar Santos.  He puts waxed paper over his sketchbook oil paintings.  I cut a sheet to fit the book and used a tiny piece of scotch tape to hold it in place, and throwing caution to the wind, I closed the book.  I even placed the book in my sketch bag to simulate me carrying it to the next sketching location.  Throughout the evening I checked it and no paint moved or was transferred to the waxed paper.  This morning, everything is quite dry except for the thicker dabs of white, which remain just a bit tacky.  I suspect even this can be improved upon as I put the white on without thinning and purposefully put it on thick.  My understanding is that zinc white dries more quickly but I don’t have any.

This is starting to look like fun.  I really like the opaque nature of oil paints for sketching and the fact that I can prep 3-4 colors in a tin and be able to see the colors of my mixes before I use them in a sketch.  I enjoy investigating my subject by mixing some the dominant colors as I decide how I’m going to approach the subject.

I know that the majority of the three people who follow this blog are watercolor and pencil types but I hope at least one of you finds this interesting.  I’ve spent most of my art journey without much experimentation and it’s refreshing to do some.

2 Responses to “Oil Paint Sketching”

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  1. Tina Koyama says:

    I’m really digging reading about your experiments! What you’ve discovered here seems like a fantastic way to bring studio painting out on the street without the full-on plein air easel setup. Will look forward to seeing what you do!

    • I’m having so much fun learning all this new stuff. If only I could spend less time with the snowblower (grin). I don’t know about studio painting but I like the idea of sketching with an opaque medium. I thought that was gouache which has advantages over oils but because the paint dries up so quickly you’re always chasing dried up paint on your palette. I think that can be solved with oils in a tin. BTW, after a couple days I can remove the wax paper cover.

      Right now I’ve got to get the pens going. 100 people is coming up and I’m out of fast-draw practice 🙂