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?

Trying Thicker Paint Applications

If you listen closely, good watercolorists will talk about beginners never using enough paint.  Insufficient paint is the cause of the pale images produced by beginning watercolorists.  This is true and I’ve been guilty of this sin.  Why do we do it?  Because we’re timid.  Pale washes are easier to control because they have a lesser impact on our sketch/painting.

A similar phenomenon exists in oil painting, but for different reasons.  If you were a 16th Century painter, it’s likely that you’ll be applying very thin coats of paint, generating very detailed paintings.  You might even be adding many layers of very thin glazes over the base paintwork.

At some point, however, some artists started using more paint.  The impressionists started working with “broken color” and the placement of thick spots of color became the order of the day and the notion of “brushwork” became a more prominent portion of the artist’s “signature.”

Fast-forward to today and we have both of those forms of painting, or maybe its best portrayed it as a continuum of thin and thick ways of applying oil paint.  For someone like me, who is trying to figure out how to use oil paints, I have found this confusing as I watch some artists use large brushes and apply thick layers of paint with a flourish while others use thin layers of paint and, typically, smaller brushes.

So, with this sort of variability, it leaves a “let’s try it” kind of guy like myself with a need to try both approaches to see what approach bests suits the kind of painting I want to do.  This last thing is important as I’m not interested in heavy impasto painting where identifying the subject is obfuscated by the brushwork.  Instead, I am trying different paint thicknesses within a narrow range in an attempt to paint fruit (or flowers).  I’m still a detail-oriented kind of guy, much to the chagrin of the painterly types who tell me to “loosen up” (grin).

Here’s an attempt at using thicker paint.  I find this approach fun but it’s so easy to muddy up the shadows while trying to turn the form.  This is a good example of this problem.  But it is a pumpkin; it’s just a slightly out of focus pumpkin.  I’m having fun with oils and learning a lot.  I feel it will improve my watercolors in the long term.

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.

 

Another Oily Baby Step

I’m continuing to slip and slide down the oil painting rabbit hole, trying to figure out how to make gesso’d panels, whether using a fabric base is a good idea, and a bunch of other stuff.  I’m spending way too much time on YouTube trying to learn how to thin oil paint, mix oil paint, etc., etc., etc.

But I’ve also been applying paint, mostly to little avail.  Switching from contour drawing to form creation with a heavy, opaque paint requires a shift in mindset that is a struggle, at least for me.

This experiment was to see if I could paint a somewhat complex object, like a squash by defining its shapes without line.  I added the knife and cup without expecting to truly paint them and so once I got the squash painted I left this one unfinished.  Right now I’m learning more from the beginnings of paintings than from spending hours trying to get details “just right” as I did with my peach painting.  So far this is lots of fun and that’s my real goal.

 

What’s Up With Larry?

My last few posts haven’t generated a lot of comments on the blog itself but there’s been a flurry of msgs via email.  All but one have been from kind and gentle artists and most from people I’ve known, though never met, via the internet.

Most were of the nature of “if you’re having fun, that’s great” type, but others asked questions.  A couple wanted to know how oil painting could fit into urban sketching while others asked why I was leaving urban sketching.  Maybe those are all the same question (grin).

Anyways, I thought I’d clarify things a bit.  I am NOT leaving urban sketching and still expect to sketch on the streets to the extent that I can (more later).  All I’m doing right now is trying to learn some aspects of art that can’t be learned while concentrating on contours of objects.  Yes, you can do this with watercolors, but I felt I needed to get away from my pens AND watercolors because the two are currently tied together in my mind.  And no, I’m not selling my pens and won’t be ditching my watercolors anytime soon.  I love both too much.

As for whether oil painting can be done as an urban sketch, my interest in oils comes from an urban sketcher, Alvin Mark, who does watercolors, draws people with a fude pen, and does oil paintings, often during the same session.  He’s in the Singapore and I’ve followed him for years.

I’ve been playing with the idea of doing small, quick paintings too, either with gouache or oils, experimenting with the idea of replicating what I would normally do with watercolors but doing the paintings direct with paint.  Here’s one, based upon a watercolor done by Whee Teck Ong.   I did this one by drawing, with paint, a single line along the back of the two sheep to position them and then I jumped in with oils to complete the sketch in less than 10 minutes.  Not a milestone but this, and others, has convinced me that with red, yellow, blue, burnt sienna and white I can sketch on small panels once I gain better control over the medium.

I hope this clears things up a bit.  Oh…as for me continuing to be an “urban sketcher,” I’ve never completely understood what that meant as the definition has slipped and slided along, evolving to include pretty much anything done outdoors.  I remember watching as Marc Taro Holmes produced a two-panel 11×14 masterpiece while standing on the terrace in old Quebec.  As we walked I asked him what the difference was between plein air painting and urban sketching.  His response?  “I guess it’s Plein Air if you have a stop to pee.”  He nailed it.  These distinctions are mostly meaningless and questions about them even more so.

But on a more serious note, my operation was wildly successful but I am 73 years old.  I used to walk at least 45 minutes, each way, to do my urban sketching.  I’m getting to a stage in my life where that just isn’t going to happen every day as it once did.  So, I suppose I WILL be doing less urban sketching.  Maybe I’ll paint roses and onions more.  In any case, I’ll be putting pointy and fuzzy sticks to paper as often as I can.

One last thing.  I mentioned there was an exception to the nice bunch of emails I got.  Can you imagine someone feeling the need to call another person nasty names for “abandoning” urban sketching and for me suggesting that you can’t learn everything while drawing in pen?  Neither could I.. until I received that email.  Our society has gone mad.  I wonder if it will ever regain its sanity.