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.

 

 

 

What Is Drawing, Anyway?

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.

Oil Painting of biscuits

Pen and wash sketch of biscuits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

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?

Ah…The Meditation That Is Pencil Drawing

I’ve pulled these books from my library and they now rest on the table next to my reading/TV chair.  The Guptill and Harding books are still the best in my opinion but I like all of these books.  Harding has a great book on drawing trees too but I don’t have that one.

So here I am, pencil in hand, drawing stuff.  While it feels like a new road for me, I have done some pencil drawing in museums during winter, because many museums don’t like the idea of watercolors being sloshed about near the exhibits.  This is when I work with watercolor pencils too, using a water brush. That was back in 2013-2014 though, and mostly I was still trying to figure out how to deal with basic proportions.  Light and shade was mostly foreign to me.

I was walking the other day and found some mushrooms on their last legs I did some tiny sketches of them.  It was hard because they were old and falling apart.  Somehow I related to them (grin).  Anyways, the highlight was that I found some milkweed pods and I brought some home with me.  This was done in my S&B Epsilon 9×12 sketchbook.

Drawing this was… well… peaceful.  I’ve mentioned that I draw slowly regardless of medium.  That’s how this kind of drawing is done.  Pencil books don’t spend time telling you to draw quickly (grin).  The time flew by, however, and I felt refreshed at the end.  On to the next page.  I hope you find my stumbling around with new media at least casually interesting and that you’ll laugh along with me.

Baby Steps Down A New Road

In my last post, I mentioned that I was laying down my pens (almost) and picking up a pencil.   I’ve taken a baby step or two down this different road by breaking open a hardbound, 8.5×11 size Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook, wrote name and address in it and began.

I did this on the day that Chantal was chopping down our flock of Cup plants.  These are very tall, sunflower-like plants but with many smaller flowers than your typical sunflower.  They get their name by the fact that each branching of the plant creates a “cup” that collects water and the plant absorbs it through soft tissue.  Pretty cool they are and we enjoy them every year.  Anyway, I took the top of one of them and drew it on the first page of my new sketchbook.  A pencil drawer am me.