Like many artists, I collect things to draw, or at least that’s the excuse I use. Along the top of every bookshelf in my office/studio are crammed old bottles, vases, skulls, diecast cars, animal figurines and statues of all sorts. In the old days, pre-pandemic, I loved to visit flea markets and garage sales, looking for something I “needed.” A few years ago I found a plaster head that I think is Japanese. As I recall it cost me a buck, maybe two. Like so many of the items that I’ve bought to draw, I’ve never drawn this head… until this weekend. Here’s the result. The time spent was well worth the $2 purchase price.
“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.
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 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.
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.
I remember, it must have been a decade ago, and I was taking part in a Cathy Johnson workshop/tutorial on pen and wash art. It may have been the one she did for Strathmore. Anyway, one person asked, “does this require drawing?” I thought this was the stupidest question ever because Cathy made it clear that we were going to draw THINGS from life or photos.
Since then I’ve given little thought to that question because I have run in urban sketching circles where everyone understands that the base skill of everything urban sketching is drawing. But now that I’m wandering in the world of oil painting, things are different. All the instructors have to emphasize that to paint well you have to draw well and if you don’t, you won’t.
And so I ask you, what is drawing if one assumes you can paint without doing it? I bet, as a person who draws themself, you have an answer. I thought I did but here’s what The Primacy of Drawing, a 500+ page book on drawing has to say about it:
“It should be reasonable to expect that a book devoted to the exploration of drawing should begin with an authoritative definition of its subject. However, my examination of many, many definitions of drawing, both contemporary and historical, has proved to me the futility of attempting such a task. Any formula would have to encompass the indefinable status and contradictory aspects of drawing, and therefore would immediately dissolve into a web of disclaimers.”
So that’s why people don’t understand what drawing is (grin). One of the big problems of defining drawing is that definitions should not only define the thing being defined is, but also what it is not. We have a similar problem in modern definitions of art, which exclude nothing from being considered art, including cans of excrement contributed by the artist.
And so we’re left with “drawing” being an amorphous activity where people believe they can paint scenes or objects without drawing, all the while using a brush to define the outlines of said things. Very confusing.
And so I come to the earth-shaking question. When I draw an onion with a brush, using oil paints, is it a painting, or is it a sketch of an onion in the same way it would be if I drew it with my fountain pen? Why is this relevant? It isn’t really. Only something to ponder. But I was adding tags to my latest oil painting/sketch/drawing and I came to the choice of “Sketch” and I wondered, is it a sketch or not simply based upon the medium I used. Yes, yes, it can be anything I want it to be. But which is it really?
Back before blogs and such artists could decide to learn something brand new and experiment to their hearts content without anyone knowing they were doing it. When one has a blog, however, there’s still a desire on the part of the blogger, as well as his two followers, to continue to post “results.” This is balanced by another desire, a desire to not embarrass oneself (grin).
I’ve mentioned that I was doing lots of experiments with pencil and, as a pen driver, how disappointed I’ve been with the results. But I’ve now had three emails asking why I wasn’t posting those experiments. I’ll try to explain.
They are experiments. When Edison did his proverbial 2000 attempts to develop the light bulb he didn’t report failures or even partial successes. The modern way of looking at art these days is that we say “It’s all about the process,” but most people still believe that it’s about the product and the internet underscores that belief.
So, at the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ve scraped together a few of those experiments. I confess that most of these things get thrown in the garbage and are done on photocopy paper. I don’t digitize them, don’t display them, and, frankly, I don’t think much about them as most of the thinking is done while I’m doing them. I’m learning, or trying to, how to use pointy devices that aren’t fountain pens.
Here’s the tool kit I’ve been using. I added the large charcoal holder because I have it on my desk and sometimes do really quick sketches of something or other that’s part of a YouTube video I’m watching. From left to right is 1) Blackwing pencil, 2) General charcoal pencil, 3) Prismacolor black, 4)&5) Abrecht-Durer watercolor pencils, 6) Derwent water-soluble pencil, 7) Monol Zero eraser, 8-11) Mars-Lumograph 3H HB 4B and 8B pencils, 9) Ticonderoga #2 soft pencil.
All the capped pencils have very long points, sharpened with a knife. I carry small pieces of sandpaper to sharpen them. Oh…the charcoal holder is an old Cretacolor holder that I love. I tried to find a source to get another one but I could only find a metal one from Cretacolor. I love the wood handle of the one I have.
Ok….as I said, I throw most of my experiments away but here’s what was laying on my desk from yesterday.
The tree sketch has nothing to do with the sketches to the left or right, the car was just an imaginary car because I picked up an Indigo pencil and wanted to see how it worked. You might begin to see why I throw these experiments away. Yes, I could do them on separate pages in a sketchbook but, once again, these are experiments, not products.
I was watching an artist interview and they were showing some of the artist’s work. One was a portrait of a woman. I picked up that big Cretacolor charcoal holder and started quickly sketching her. I had about 2 minutes and, as you can see, I ran out of time. Still, these quick attempts are invaluable in better training my visual cortex.
Ok…I looked in my sketchbooks, and I found these few sketches. In a toned book I found this one. All I can recall is that someone was doing a life-drawing portrait and I drew this one. I worked quickly and spent no more than 15 minutes on it. It shows 🙂
I had my Bargue book out and decided to quickly (emphasis here) draw the Bargue planar eye page. My experiment was to see if I could “see” all the angles quickly (no measurement or analysis). My performance was, at best, ok.
This gave me the idea to draw some real eyes and so I turned to the internet again, simply pausing videos when I got a close up image I could draw. These two were the results of that experiment.
I do apologize for not posting more regularly but, as you can see, there isn’t much in finished products coming from my pencil drawing. Maybe I need to get a pen out (grin).
I’ve been doing a lot of drawing with graphite. Mostly this has been done in a 4×6 book I carry everywhere. I have come to a couple conclusions:
1) I think I prefer using graphite IF I approach a sketch as a watercolor, not a line drawing.
2) I don’t have enough patience to use graphite as an end product drawing tool.
Let me explain these one at a time. I started running down this road because Shari Blaukopf showed me what is possible if you allow watercolor and not ink pen lines to define the edges of a drawing. Clearly she is right. She’s Shari Blaukopf after all (grin). Thus, I won’t throw my pens away and I’ll use them to do line drawings, but if I’m going to do color, I’ll switch to pencil so I can take advantage of the power of watercolor/gouache.
Ok…number two. I’ve done a few drawings where I’ve used pencil work to tonally create objects. To do it right, it just takes too darn long for sketching. Throw on top of that the fact that the graphite gets smeared either during sketch creation or while it sits inside your sketchbook. I don’t like it, not at all.
So, what are the alternatives? Well, there’s not much that can be done about the second problem as long as you want to stuff your sketchbooks in a pocket or backpack but it is possible to simply be faster in the sketch creation. This means speeding up the toning process and accepting the compromises it entails. Everyone has their own thresholds for when these compromises are unacceptable.
Here’s one such compromised drawing where I’ve added tones more quickly in a scribble fashion. This produces a sketch more quickly but I’m not happy with the messy results. And yes, I know that with practice I can get better at this but, why bother when watercolor over pencil layout brings so much more to my sketching.
I can always wield the pencil the way I do my fountain pens. In my opinion, however, the results are not as nice as if I’d done them with a fountain pen. Not bad, not good. But if I’m going to do a line drawing, I will pick up a fountain pen.