Can I Do Painterly?

I’ve been doing a bunch of “starts” in an attempt to get better at starting an oil painting.  I’ve tried all the basic approaches (eg – with & without a sketch, with/without underpainting) and I think this has been a positive exercise.  It doesn’t, however lead to things I can post as nothing ever gets finished.

Since I haven’t posted in a while, I took one of those starts and decided to complete it in a “painterly style,” whatever that is.  Though I’m not very successful at it, my tendency is to produce a more illustrative product.  It’s against my nature to purposely try to paint/draw something that’s less than a complete representation of the subject.  Never do I try to include brush strokes and such in the finished result.  But, against my nature I’ve tried to do so here.

It’s certainly less “real” than most of what I’ve done and it’s also true that brush strokes are part of the result.  So this is my attempt at “painterly.”  I don’t think this works well for a single fruit painting (6×6) but I can see myself doing a bowl of fruit this way.  To me, though, the result just looks out of focus (grin).

Painting Shiny Objects

As someone learning to paint and struggling to use brushes correctly, I should be painting a stream of apples and oranges.  I know that but, it seems, I’m attracted to the challenge of painting fuzzy things, clear things, rough things, and shiny things.  This is sort of nuts when I can’t paint the proverbial straight line with a brush but, well, that’s me.

This time I tried to paint a shiny object in the form of a stainless steel stovetop coffee maker.  I didn’t realize it at the time but I complicated things by placing it in front of a window (that was reflected) and by putting a coffee cup in front of it (which was also reflected).

This was a struggle for me and at times I wasn’t sure I was up to the task.  The end result isn’t nearly as important as the experience gained in trying to do it, though, and I am happy with those results.

9×12 gesso board, Cobra water-mixable oils

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.

Color, Color Everywhere

I decided to learn to oil paint principally to get myself working in a medium that didn’t rely upon line for its information.  Why?  Because most sketchers are like me.  We go out, pen in hand, and draw stuff.  If we also use color (typically watercolor) we do so “after the fact.”  It’s common for people to say “I’ll add color later.”

This is fine and makes many of us happy but this approach causes us to draw without thinking of tone and any thoughts we have of three dimensions come in the form of perspective lines, object overlap, etc.  Again, that’s fine but these approaches don’t do much to teach us to see and produce value, and because of the ‘later’ aspects of our color approach we’re mentally reducing everything to two dimensions as we draw and, for many of us, the third dimension is, at best, handled by some general tone variation when we add color.

And so I thought the switch would force me to get into values and form more.  Unforeseen was my complete ineptitude with respect to using a brush to draw my oh so limited understanding of color mixing and a whole bunch of other stuff.

I bought this book, a book you come across everywhere you look when listening to oil painters.  It’s an oil painter’s bible.  Alla Prima’s reputation is well-deserved.  I have a fairly large library of art books (around 300 at least count) and this one has become one of my best.  Unlike the typical hobby books, this one is packed with into on everything oil paint, and as its subtitle says …and more.

One of the things contained within it is a suggestion for learning color mixing and to gain fluency with your own  colors.  I confess that I’m not a “swatch” guy.  I hate this stuff and, with watercolors I’ve always found it lacking because it’s so hard to know what you’re really mixing because of the watery nature of the medium.  Anyways, Richard Schmid argued that this exercise would make me smart and who wouldn’t want to be smart.

Here’s how it works.  Each panel represents one dominant color.  Each column represents a mixture of the dominant color with one of the other colors on the palette.  Then, with that mix, you do a 5-value chart of that color mix to fill up the column.  Each panel reflects 50 color mixes. I just used the Cobra Water Mixable Oils kit as my color palette and set to work.  It took FOREVER!!!

In doing this, however, I became fluent with the palette knife, learned a lot about the strengths of each color, got pretty good at mixing values and by the end I was able to do this a LOT faster than I could when I started.   Can’t say it was fun but Schmid was right, I got smarter.  I’m still dumb when it comes to oil painting but small steps are the way to success.

Here are all the panels I did to complete the Schmid exercise:

The Zorn Palette

All this mixing got me interested in Anders Zorn’s famous Zorn palette.  He painted almost everything with Vermillion, Yellow Ochre, and Ivory Black.  In reading about him I found that they found Cobalt Blue in his studio so maybe he used that on occasion as well.  I used this as an excuse to add it to my look at the Zorn palette.  Same dominant color + other colors approach applies here but as there were so few colors I was able to do everything on one panel in four blocks of value columns.   It’s amazing how many colors you can get from so few colors.


Look Ma, No Lines

I’ve made a big deal about putting down my pens while I learn to create art without relying upon outline as the main element.  In spite of this, in one way or another, all of my oil paint experiments have started with some sort of drawn outline of the objects I was trying to paint.  These outlines, in fact, have been part of my experiments.  I’ve used pencil, colored pencil and painted lines.  I’ve used complete outlines and very loose location-only marks.  I suppose this remains an area of experimentation but I’ve been pretty happy using thinned oil paint and a small brush to do the drawing.  I’ve learned that I need to keep these lines light, however, as otherwise I struggle to cover them up.

A week or so ago I did the first experiment where I used no outline at all, relying only on placing spots of color of the appropriate hue, value and chroma to create the object, which in that case was a pepper.  This really pushes the thinking towards shape and form as you have to develop those shapes by including backgrounds as much as setting color in the objects themselves.  I liked that thought process.  It felt, somehow, empowering.

The result isn’t really a complete painting as all I wanted to do was see if I could make the pepper look, well.., like a pepper.  I vaguely blocked in another pepper in the background but I never really finished it.

I realized that I never shared it here, but since it’s sort of a landmark of sorts, I thought I should.  It’s only 8×6 on gesso’d MDF.  For what it is, I’m pretty happy with the result.