A Diminutive Survival Guide to Oil Painting
By Maria J. William
If you came here hoping to find out everything there is to know about oil painting, I'll suggest that you refer to others sources. Thousands of fat books have been written on the subject, and to sum up everything in one little article for me, or anybody out there, would be mission: impossible. What I'll do is, tell you everything I know based on my own experiences, on what I've learned - myself or with the help of my artist friends (to whom I owe a LOT: you know who you are).
Another thing to consider is, a book can never teach you everything. You can't teach, say... karate through words alone. Same with painting. You've got to get out there, get some tools and let yourself go - practice, experiment and practice more. Don't be afraid to fail. Just remember that it's always hard to succeed on the first try. As they say where I come from, 'the first pancake always turns out a dumpling'. Many artists consider oil painting annoying, frustrating or just plain 'so hard it's not worth getting into'. Others think it's good only for landscapes a-la Bob Ross, and that it's just impossible to achieve that smooth, clear blending. I've met some people who'd stare at my paintings and go, 'You did this with oils? No way!' Way. And you can, too. What you'll need first of all (and in my opinion, most importantly) is lots of patience and faith that you can and will conquer this *evil* medium.
What you'll have to deal with
There are many things to love or hate oil paints for. There's their great versatility, which makes it possible to combine transparency and opacity in the same painting; the lack of color change when the painting dries; ease of manipulation for some. Then, there is slow drying time, uneasiness of manipulation for others.
The colors are made by dispersing pigments in linseed or sunflower oil. What you choose to do with them is up to you - all depends on your style and goal you set for a particular painting. You may want to use them thickly, straight from the tube, or thin them with a solvent. Unlike acrylics, they are slow-drying (well, you already know that). That becomes convenient when you need to rework sections, or scrape off the paint from a part that has not turned out well.
Of course, have a comfy ventilated workplace, don't eat the paints, yadda, yadda, yadda, I'm not going to teach you all that, we're all big boys'n'girls now, ain't we? =)
Oil painter's best friends
I.e., the tools. These funky thingies are:
One tube of dark color acrylic
Varnish (that you'll need only if you succeed at actually completing a painting)
Toothbrush (make sure it's not the one you usually brush with!)
Your fingers(good thing you won't have to spend any money on that).
You may choose to use all, or use some and discard others - again, each artist is an individual with his/her own unique art-creating process. As for the brands... I normally use paints and brushes made by Winsor & Newton. Now, they're known as one of the best and hence, most expensive art manufacturers out there, but - and I've learned this the hard way - if you want to get better, you've got to use the best stuff. If W & N is too much for your pocket to handle after all, Grumbacher, Rowney and Utrecht are pretty good.
Haste makes waste (preparing the surface)
Let's start where it's always best to start: at the beginning. The beginning of all for you, of course, would be your head, where the wild mysterious ideas form and turn into unbelievable images... let's skip over that. =X Before you do anything else, prepare the workplace and the surface you're going to be working on. Of course, the preparation of your surface depends on what surface you're going to paint on (hope I'm not being too confusing). In my endless travels through the art stores, books and personal experiences, I have found out that, for some reason, illustration boards accepted my otherworldly painting ideas best.
If you don't want to bother, skip the next step. But what I recommend to do is, get three things ready: an illustration board (I use Strathmore hard pressed), a roll of masking tape and a foam board (any will do, just make sure it's the same size as your illustration board, or you'll be struggling a whole lot trying to cut it). Put the illustration board painting surface up on top of the foam board and tape it together at the edges with masking tape (four stripes, one for each side will do). This can get tricky, but it turns your teeny-weeny illustration board into a solid working ground. Now get some more masking tape and define the border of your future painting the way you want it, unless you want the edges to remain sloppy.
The next step is to get a can of gesso (which can be found in any art store). Attention: don't skip over this part if you don't want your surface to be eaten away by paints as time takes its toll. That's exactly what happened to the painting I did 10+ years ago on a totally un-primed cardboard that once was a box of chocolates... *ahem* I won't go into that. So, get your gesso and slightly dilute it with water. I usually cover the board three times - horizontally, vertically and diagonally - waiting each time for the previous layer to dry. The different direction of layers will later help that paint to stick better.
Canvas: If you don't want trouble, buy the ready-primed canvases or canvas boards. You may choose to put a layer or two of gesso over it anyway, but in general, those are ready to work with. Many people prefer a textured surface of some sort, although obviously the degree of texture should be related to the size of the picture and the subject matter. You don't normally want to use a strong texture on small panels or canvases.
Wood, glass, masonite, hard papers can serve as alternative surfaces if you aren't happy with illustration boards or canvases.
It is best to start with a palette of just a few colors, then add more as you gain experience: Titanium White, Payne's Gray, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow, Ultramarine Blue. Apart from those, I love using Prussian Blue, Naples Yellow, Burnt Umber, Cerulian Blue. One thing I'd suggest is to dump Black altogether - it only produces muddiness. The good example of no-black oil painting would be Julie Bell. Really, it's up to you. Some artists never use Siennas. Others say you shouldn't use too much white, yet Luis Royo can serve as a perfect example of a highlights-over-the-top master.
Always use a good-quality brush. Good brushes are expensive bastards, but a pleasure to work with, will last far longer and won't lose any hair which will get stuck to your painting and become a real pain in the neck. Any size is good, from #0 (for detailing) to #20 (for rendering backgrounds). Fan brushes are fun, too. Plus, I keep one large brush for gessoing and another one for varnishing later on.
If you want to achieve smooth blending effect, your brushes have to be as soft as can get. Again, the best bet here is Winsor & Newton. You can use a variety from pure red sable to squirrel or hog-hair. Sceptre Gold brushes are a cheaper alternative to pure sable, being a mix of sable/synthetic, and polyester fibers can replace either soft hair or hog. However, in my most humble opinion, pure red sable is the stuff. Wash your brushes carefully in water, then in turpentine (or specially designed all-purpose brush cleaning chemical menace), then in warm water with soap. They'll last longer.
Or solvents. They thin the oil color by diluting the linseed oil. Turpentine is the traditional solvent, with a characteristic smell. There also are petroleum distillates and linseed oil. The latter will make your painting dry forever and ever. Refined linseed oil is best, cold pressed dries quicker, thickened - slower, and bleached is even slower than that and is mostly useful for pale colors. Yuck, whatta mess. May I suggest the oil paint thinner from Winsor & Newton instead (no-odor is best for your health and comfort). If you really prefer to use the oil as thinner, I recommend the drying linseed oil, or drying poppy oil - they dry fastest of them all.
If you do decide to use the aforementioned W & N thinner, keep in mind that the more of it you use, the faster your painting will dry. Just don't overuse it. I think that knowing just how much of that stuff to use comes with experience - so experiment till you drop. =P
Some oil painters use them for applying the paint in strokes or flat slabs - that adds physical texture to the surface of a painting. I'm more of a smooth surface fanatic. A couple of palette knives I have are very useful for mixing large amounts of paint on the palette or removal of unwanted paint from an area of a painting by scraping (very carefully!) in broad strokes.
The best is made of hard dark wood like pear. But it doesn't have to be. I use a plain boring white plastic. Paper tear-off palettes will also do fine, especially if this is your first time painting in oils. Use it as your ultimate test'n'experiment ground. If your palette is wooden after all, wash it with turpentine and scrape it with a razor after work. You can also wipe the palette with linseed oil before work (especially if it's new).
Blah. You could just use an old glass jar to hold your thinner..
For wiping your brushes while you're painting and after. I wouldn't recommend paper towels or anything of that sort. Use white fabric, cotton preferably.
Sketching and underpainting
Imagine you know exactly what you want to paint and you have a basic sketch of your future painting (if you don't, then go to the drawing section of FARP first). Have your sketch transferred to the board (there are different ways to do that - tracing paper, carbon paper, actual sketching freehand, etc. Erasing from the board wouldn't be a good idea, so make sure you get it right the first time. I prefer to transfer the sketch to a sheet of tracing paper, then transfer it to the board by going over the lines with a mechanical pencil - this way the transfer is cleaner and more defined.
The next step is to get out the good ol' acrylic. I use Burnt Umber, but in general, any warm dark color is fine. Get a relatively thin and soft (#2 at most) brush and go over the lines of the transferred sketch, defining lines and shadows some more. You might want to skip this part if your drawing is clear and dark enough, but adding this sort of underpainting can only help in the future. The last thing left after that is to add a light wash of the same acrylic color over the entire surface. The acrylic layer will make the darn oil paint stick to the surface better and blend more smoothly. Wait till the surface is dry - and you're all set to paint!
Finally! The! Painting!
There are so many ways to do this. You can take paint straight from the tube and layer on to your painting for impasto (slightly three-dimensional) effects, or work with a dry brush for texture, or 'scratch out' with a sharp tool. If you thin the paint with a solvent, you will get a pale transparent effect that is useful for underpainting on the canvas or board before you start applying thicker paint. You can glaze, scumble or squash paint onto the canvas (the latter is called decalcomania, and is quite tricky - you never know what the result is going to be).
A number of these painting techniques is excellently described by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law in her Introduction to Acrylics article. I suggest that you read it, because many techniques and color mixing are pretty similar for acrylic and oil paints. I couldn't have described it any better myself.
I've found subtle blending without an oil underpainting (or, alla prima) to be much more pleasant, take less time and leave the colors brighter, more defined. Since we're talking fantasy art here, I'd say that this sort of blending is most effective to achieve the results of realism.
Some artists prefer to put the overall tones in first, then work over that to add shades and highlights and define the details. Others start from darker to lighter tones, putting them next to each other and then, using a very soft and dry brush, blending the colors together. When I just started painting, I used the former ways; now I use the latter. It's especially useful and important when painting your characters - because no two human bodies are colored the same, and no human body is the same color from head to toe. There're more blues where the skin in thinner (like under eyes), more warm colors where it's thicker (knees, elbows), more pink on the nose, etc.
Try to think differently (like, the snow isn't really white) - each object preserves the colors of the world surrounding it. I’ve seen many pictures where an artist would paint, for example, a huge red setting sun, then all the objects and people around it in all different bright colors without a hint of red. The way our eyesight works is also very important - only a camera can see a landscape perfectly clear from the point where we’re standing all he way to the horizon. Human eyes don’t. I love the way Tim White, a great British fantasy artist, adds blurry effects to his paintings that encompass movement. You'll probably need lots of practice and time to get the knack of depth, perspective and other such torments. Look around you, see, notice, practice. Use less color and contrast on the objects in your painting that are supposed to be far away. But I guess that goes for all art, so I suggest that you read the related FARP articles.
Use it on your completed paintings to protect them from time and damage. Varnishes are normally either gloss or matt, but there is a variety of them available made from different resins which provide relative levels of gloss - many artists have their own personal preferences. I use Damar varnish, which is a traditional high gloss one. The mattest one would be the Wax varnish. Apply it with a brush you've reserved especially for that purpose. Spray varnishes are also out there.
Warning: do not varnish too early! Even the thinnest oil painting should be allowed to dry for 6 months or longer. Don't use varnishes as mediums! This would make the painting sensitive to solvents, and if you try to clean it in the future, it may remove the painting instead. Oops! <=/
One last advice: copy & learn
I have done quite a number of copies of famous paintings upon requests of friends, family and neighbors... 'Tis been a great experience and practice. (Italian Noon by Brullov is still hanging in my bedroom, and people who don't know that it's my job, wonder endlessly where I got it... ha! suckers!) Copying masters and even contemporary artists is fun and can teach you quite a lot. Just remember about the ©!
Good luck with your oils, and paraphrasing Bob Ross, I wish you all only happy accidents.
| ||"The Encyclopedia of Oil Painting Techniques" by Jeremy Galton. |
I just love this series. Same as "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Techniques", featured on the FARP main page, this book is wonderfully presented and enlightening, and it will inspire you.
| ||Oil Painting for the Serious Beginner|
"Oil Painting for the Serious Beginner : Basic Lessons in Becoming a Good Painter" by Steve Allrich. This author is one great teacher. He's very helpful, thoughtful, clear and logical. The chapters flow like a river, with over 100 illustrations to accompany the text. I personally learned quite a few things from it.
| ||"Fantasy Art Techniques" by Boris Vallejo, Foreword by Isaac Asimov.|
I'd recommend this book even to those who seem to dislike the subject matter and style of Boris' work. Only a fool would deny that the technical execution of these paintings is superb. The artist takes you through the creation process, complete with illustrations, tips and step-by-step descriptions. If you want to succeed at painting in oils, look this one up and read it.