28 Apr Great Art Blog April 2015-Vernissage Oil Paints
This month: Vernissage Fine Oil Colour
Oil Painting goes way back in time as an artist’s medium, and indeed if you’ve studied Art History or spent any amount of time looking at paintings in galleries, a high proportion of what you’ve seen will have been painted in oils. It used to be thought that the first artists to use them were probably the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck who were painting in Bruges in the 15th century.
(Both brothers were accomplished painters who sometimes collaborated, but Jan is the better known:http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait)
However, there is now good evidence that there were detailed instructions for making up oil colours in the Middle Ages, in the form of The Strasbourg Manuscript. This dates to the very early years of the 15th Century and was a kind of early handbook for artists; written in German it listed recipes for making up paints :http://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/strasbourg-manuscript
Recent research has also revealed that early Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan were painted with oils as early as the 5th Century, long before they were being used in the West-http://www.livescience.com/2465-earliest-oil-paintings-discovered.html
Modern oil paints are made from finely ground pigments combined with a binder which is usually Linseed Oil. Linseed Oil has a tendency to make colours very slightly yellowish, so whites are often manufactured with other oils, such as Safflower oil.
Interesting fact: Both the Linseed Oil which is used to manufacture oil paints and the Linen canvases oils are often painted on, derive from the same plant, the Flax.
Using Oils and Cleaning up– Oil paints are often thought to be very smelly and messy, but in fact a few simple guidelines make them very manageable, and worthwhile trying:
Oil colours can be mixed and used direct from the tube, or you can ‘let them down’ a little to produce an easier to use paint using either a drop or two more oil; Linseed, or Walnut, Poppyseed or Sunflower Oil, or by adding a little Turps or White Spirit. ( Turps or Turpentine comes from Pine Tree Resin and is a traditional solvent for oil based paints. White Spirit is a strong solvent that is derived from petrol). These are actually the things that make Oil Painting smelly, so the best tip is to decant them into jars with good lids, and keep them covered as much as possible. It is also really important to work in a well ventilated room. Modern low odour versions make a lot of difference and are well worth trying- I go for a premium Low Odour White Spirit which is definitely worth the slightly higher cost. If you really can’t cope with even low-odour white spirit etc…there are a number of ranges of water mixable oil paints which can offer a good solution, e.g Winsor and Newton Artisan (water mixable) Oil Colour.
Cleaning up-Brushes, Palettes, Palette and Painting Knives etc…Ideally brushes need cleaning up straight after a session with oil paints. If totally desperate they can sit in a container of turps or white spirit for a short while, but this doesn’t really do anything for their longevity. The best method is to take each brush in turn and remove as much of the paint as possible on newspaper or paper towel. This is worth persisting with as it really helps, but bear in mind that you might well need several lots of paper for a heavy load of paint Then dip the bristles into a small container with Turps or White Spirit, and wipe again onto paper to remove the bulk of the remaining paint-repeat until the brush seems clean and doesn’t leave colour on a fresh piece of paper or the palm of your hand. Finally put a few drops of hand wash on your palm and work well into the bristles of the brush taking care to get right down to the bottom, lather with a little warm water and then rinse thoroughly, reshape and store upright in a jar to dry. Palettes, Palette Knives and Blades and Wedges basically need the same process, but most of the paint will wipe off really easily onto paper towel. You may need a small amount of turps, just to remove any stubborn bits, followed by a quick wash and rinse.
A Good Basic Palette of Colours in the Vernissage Range:
Medium Red- Warm red Quinacidrone Rose- Cool red
Medium Yellow- Warm Light Yellow- Cool
Cobalt Blue- Warm Ultramarine Blue- Cool
*You can see that I’ve gone for a broadly warm and broadly cool version of each of the primaries as this gives me the maximum flexibility to mix a wide range of different hues.
**It is also worth having a couple of ‘Earth’ colours to add to your range, and here I’ve chosen; Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber
Although you can mix a wide range of greens, it is helpful to have a couple on your palette, and in this range I’ve gone for:
Emerald Green and Sap Green
Titanium White – I chose Titanium White as it is the ‘whitest’ and most opaque. It is definitely the most versatile white as it’s great for highlights and mixing.
*I’ve avoided Black as it can be very harsh and it’s possible to mix really good darks without it, often making more interesting colours as a result, but I have included Payne’s Grey which I always tend to buy in paint media. It’s a bluish grey which is really good for mixing, and a bit of a personal favourite!
What kind of Palette?
This is very much a personal choice. Traditional palettes are wooden and kidney-shaped. When you buy them they need treating first with a good coat of Linseed Oil to make them less absorbent before you start to use them. They are good if you like to hold a palette in your hand whilst working as they are also quite light, and their darkish colour is good if you like to paint on a dark ‘ground’.
Lots of artists use safety glass or acrylic sheets or ceramic tiles, which also make good palettes that are easy to clean. I tend to use different sized safety glass sheets which I find work really well, and a good tip is that you can put white or coloured paper underneath, to help ‘see’ the colour as it will be on your work….simply match it to the ground you are working on.
Laying out your palette:
Whatever kind of palette you choose, it makes sense to lay out your colours in the same way each time, as you will save loads of time looking for colour and instead reach for it instinctively.
There are loads of different ways of doing this; you can go for arranging colours ‘light to dark’, ‘warm to cool’ or any number of other variations…It doesn’t matter, just pick an arrangement that you like and stick to it!
Mine usually looks something like this one on the right, i.e primary reds, with primary yellows underneath, primary blues next along with greens underneath. Earths at the bottom edge and ‘neutrals’ i.e white, grey and black if used on the right hand edge.
If I need a lot of space for mixing I make a line of Pure Colour-i.e not mixed with anything, along a long edge of my palette in the following order from left to right; reds, yellows, blues, greens, earths, black, grey and white. This allows all the remaining space for mixing.
The Picture below shows the same palette after a good session of colour mixing…I know it looks messy, but actually I really do know exactly where to find each colour!
Brushes, Palette Knives etc… Oils work brilliantly with painting knives, brushes and blades and wedges too!
Brushes: For painting in Oils you can use a wide range of both stiff and soft brushes, but as a guide all the brushes listed as, ‘for painting with oils and acrylics’ will be suitable. Ideally start with a small selection of both stiff bristle brushes, which are great for dabs of colour and for applying paint thickly and to create textural effects, and also a few soft hair brushes which work well if you are painting with your oils in more liquid form, and for glazing ( glazes are like washes in watercolour, i.e translucent layers of colour made by adding additional oils or thinners). (For more information on brushes, please see my January 2015 Blog which has a more detailed guide.)
Palette Knives and Painting Knives: strictly speaking Palette knives are plain straight-ish knives that are mainly used for mixing paint and for cleaning paint off your palette etc, whereas painting knives are just that, for painting…actually they are pretty much interchangeable.
In the Picture above:
The knife at the bottom is a palette knife, for putting out and mixing colour and for scraping it off the palette ready for cleaning.
The knives above are painting knives and show a nice variety of shapes-these have the typical metal blades with a nice spring to them and durable wooden handles. My favourite is the one at the top which belonged to my Dad and is now officially ancient but still going strong!
Palette knives are great for applying paint in thick slabs for amazing texture, for applying sweeps of smooth colour, for blending colours directly on the work, and for applying tiny dabs which add vigour and textural interest.
Catalyst Blades and Wedges: These are specialist tools made from very advanced silicone, and they are brilliant with oils…think of them as a half-way house between brushes and palette knives…(For a detailed guide, please see my February 2015 Blog which is all about them).
Supports-or what to work on?
- Traditionally oils are painted onto canvas which can be cotton or preferably linen-this is stretched over a wooden frame to produce a fairly firm and stable surface to paint on. Canvas varies a lot, some is coarse and has a rough texture and some is much finer with a less noticeable texture. You can buy ready prepared canvases that have already been primed, which saves a lot of time. If your canvas has not been primed you need to give it a couple of thin coats of gesso( Gesso is an acrylic based medium which is used to prepare surfaces for painting with both oils and acrylics-it is made of chalk, Titanium White and Acrylic Polymer). The gesso provides a really good surface to paint on, and also helps with the brilliance of the colour you apply. * Some artists do like to work on unprimed canvas, but this is a rather specialist thing and not recommended if you are just starting out with oils.You can also prime wooden panels and other surfaces with gesso before painting. If you use a thick layer of gesso you can incise marks or textures into it before painting.
- Canvas boards are very useful- simply canvas which has been stretched over a rigid board and firmly mounted down- these are ready to go and great for small scale pieces especially, and for trying things out or making studies for bigger pieces. I love them for working outdoors as they stand up to a lot of punishment with no problem at all!
*In the photo above, you can see that I prepared both canvas boards and stretched canvas with a coat of thin gesso before use, although they came ready primed…it’s a personal thing, but I prefer the feel when they have a really smooth finish. I tend to put a blob of gesso in the middle and smooth it out in both directions using either a large plastic glues spreader, spatula or a wedge, which I find is excellent for getting rid of ridges. Some people will then sand down the surface lightly with fine glass paper, but I find I can usually get the surface finish I want without doing this. The trick is to experiment and see what suits you.
- You can also paint on many other surfaces so it is worth trying a few. Painters in the past often worked on wooden panels, and modern day aluminium panels are excellent for painting on with oils. Safety glass which has been sand blasted lightly is a brilliant surface for oil painting, but in this case remember to work on the underside of the glass, so you need to plan your image accordingly.
- You can buy very good pads of paper which are specifically designed for painting on with oils-this is important as the oil content can be a problem with normal papers….these papers are ideal for testing colours and practising techniques. I’ve also had very good results on black card which is NOT ideal for finished pieces as the paint will tend to sink in too much, but useful if you want to test your colours on a black ground, without having to paint one and wait for it to dry!,
A Quick Note about Oil Painting techniques!!
The trouble is there is so much to say about Oil painting; much too much for one blog!
Oils take a long time to dry, typically anything from 3 days to two weeks to be touch dry and months or even longer in the case of large scale work with really thick textured effects, to dry out properly. They dry because of oxidisation and do not successfully dry out in the dark- in fact oils left to dry in a dark cupboard often get a strange pooling of oils which come to the surface.
Different colours dry at totally different rates, which is a complicating factor because of the chemistry of the various pigments involved. For instance Ultramarines tend to dry slowly whereas Umbers are fast driers….
The very fact that oils dry slowly can be a huge advantage as it means you can rework areas many times until you get precisely the result you are looking for, which allows for very fine adjustment. You can even wipe away areas of paint with a rag and repaint them if you aren’t happy with the initial result.
There are many different approaches including the rather slow process of building up paint in layers, using a principle called ‘Fat over Lean’. This really needs a blog to itself, and requires that you allow each layer to dry out and stabilise before applying the next.
So for this blog I’ve decided to concentrate on painting ‘Alla prima’, which derives from the Italian roughly meaning ‘at once or in one go’…. in this approach you complete your painting in one sitting, which gives a freshness and spontaneity to the work and has the advantage for impatient people like me that you don’t have to wait ages to be able to get on and finish your piece!
Trying out my Vernissage Oil Colours!
In the picture above you can see I have begun by testing each of the colours in my chosen palette in turn. I made 3 samples of each; straight from the tube, with a drop or two of White Spirit and lastly with a drop or two of Linseed Oil-I did this on Oil painting paper.
In the two pictures above you can see that I always spend time doing some colour mixing with any new range of paints. I make colour sheets like these which are great to refer to, especially if you record a simple colour recipe as you go.
*I’m particularly impressed with the quality of colours in this range and their ability to mix well and produce a huge variety of different hues. It is quite a new range and they have been put together specifically to help artists by evening out the drying times between the various colours, which is a big advantage as you are much less likely to get parts of a piece still wet whilst other areas are dry.
On the board above I was playing with using the oils with painting knives and blades to create different textural effects; both rough and smooth. With this approach you can mix your colour both on the palette and directly, by blending on your work. Use the paint pretty much direct from the tube, or with a few drops of Linseed Oil or a little ‘Quick Drying Paint Additive’, known as ‘Dryers’ if you want to try to speed up the drying process a little.
In the examples above, I experimented with using Blades, again using paint in thick undiluted form-these give really excellent textures and I find them very intuitive to use producing a nice flow in mark making.
Above: Here I worked with a range of brushes onto black card to simulate painting on a dark ground. This gives you a great feel for how your colours will look, but isn’t really suitable for finished pieces as the colour will tend to sink into the card surface too much as it is too absorbent, which can result in a dull finish.
*Working on a dark ground is a great test for the vibrancy of any media, and I’m really pleased with how clean and strong these colours appear on the dark ground.
- Two colours applied side by side, with some blending marks to soften the join, made with a brush loaded with a little yellow which was almost wiped away, giving a ‘dry brush’ feel.
- Thick paint applied in long vertical strokes with a flat brush.
- Streaks of colour applied with a dry brush technique.
- Payne’s Grey and White paint applied and blended wet into wet.
- Streaks of closely related mixed greys applied in both vertical and horizontal strokes to give a subtle variation.
- Blended blues with strokes all in the same direction.
- Patches of fairly thick colour with ‘s’grafitto’ marks drawn across using a blunt tool or end of a brush.
- Almost dry brushed reds and yellows built up in layers in a criss-cross fashion.
- Small flat brush used to apply reds, oranges, yellows and a little white in a ‘stippled’ technique, using the brush lightly and held almost vertical to the paper.
- Slabs of thick colour applied in blocks.
- Streaks of thick, part blended colour with cross hatched marks worked over the top.
- Swirls of greys, applied in a spiral then dragged outwards with a small dry brush to create a spoke pattern.
- Thick colour with detail applied using a clean dry brush in the still wet paint.
- Linear patterns created with thick paint on a small flat brush, applied in dabs.
Rapid Landscape Sketch:
It is possible to do fast landscape sketches outside in oils, especially if you work in this all in one go, ‘alla prima” approach. Take a very limited colour range and a sheet of acrylic for a palette, plus a small number of brushes, knives or blades as preferred. Take just a little White Spirit in a container with a very good lid and plenty of plastic bags with clips to seal them. Use a roll of kitchen paper and clean the worst off your palette and brushes, then seal them in bags until you get home. Put all the dirty paper towels in one bag and tie the top then you can throw this straight away when you get back.
If you get really organised this is a practical option and a good one if you want to develop your sketch into a large scale oil piece. When I’m doing this I work on small canvas boards, as in the example on the right, as they are very tough and you can stick them down on damp grass, and move them around with no problems.
My top tip here is that you need to plan how to transport your wet work, on your way home, and you do really need a car- my suggestion is to collect sturdy shallow cardboard boxes or lids which are roughly the right size. If you lay your work flat in these they won’t come to any harm, and definitely won’t get oils all over your car! The sides of the card lids or boxes prevent any paint coming off on anything it shouldn’t and protects the work too, plus you can leave your work to dry out in them.
Still Life for Practise:
Setting up a few everyday objects is a great way of practising and getting used to media and building your skills and confidence.
The trick is not to throw everything in including the kitchen sink! Less is definitely more-just go for a handful of things which have interesting shapes, textures or colours and ideally a variation in size.
Group them simply and as naturally as possible, and then have a go!
This sketch was very quick; less than an hour altogether. It’s on a roughly 17cm x 24 cm canvas and uses a very limited colour range to give a sense of unity….I began with a very simple drawing which blocked out the key shapes, and then just launched straight into paint.
This one was painted just with brushes, and you can see that I’ve tried to use very lively brush strokes and quite thick colour to keep a fresh feel.
Next I worked on an abstract panel based on some earlier sketches, but with the idea of trying out the Vernissage paint range with some more vibrant colour …I also had it in mind to incorporate lots of different techniques.
In the detail above you can see that the colours have a lovely vibrancy and blend beautifully wet into wet.
The panel is painted on a square canvas board and is a great way of trying out loads of ideas and techniques…You can see above a wide range of techniques including blending, dragging one colour through another whilst wet, overlaying, stippling, hatching and crosshatching and directional brush strokes.
I decided next to do a sketch for a large abstract landscape I’ve been wanting to do, based on a familiar view. The sketch is on an A3 canvas board and is deliberately very loose and minimal as any more detail would have made for a tight painting approach which I was not looking for, especially on this relatively small scale.
The sketch simply blocks out key areas to work within and establishes the main elements of the composition.
In the picture above I’m blocking in the key areas of colour and starting to add some textural detail. The blue tool above the canvas board is actually a clay tool, but I like to use it for scratching into paint to create linear and textural detail-called ‘s’grafitto’.
Above: I’m adding overlaid colour blocks, working wet into wet to create depth and interest….you need a gentle touch for this, but it creates interesting effects so is worth persisting with.
In the completed study above, I’ve built up my limited colour palette using mainly greys and greens, and added some definition and emphasised shapes with a little s’grafitto. When I’ve got time to get going on the larger scale piece, I will have this to work from along with some drawings and colour swatches, which I always find useful -making a small version of a piece is a great way of working out what you intend to do, and ironing out all the problems too.
Next I sketched out the face of an elderly man whose face was particularly interesting as he has extremely dark skin and very white hair.
I drew it out quite loosely onto canvas, and blocked in a dark background using browns and greys. The Payne’s Grey is very useful here as it makes great darks.
You can see in the image above that I started by blocking in the main colours and shapes, but making a conscious effort to keep a loose and fresh approach to the brush strokes, and application.
In the detail above you can see how thickly the paint was applied using a couple of flat brushes. There is a lot of movement in the strokes and the flashes of warm pinks and blues bring life to this limited palette of colours.
My Materials list:
Vernissage Oil Paint Cobalt Blue Code: 33960410
Vernissage Oil Paint Quinacidrone Rose Code: 33960325
Vernissage Oil Paint Medium Yellow Code: 33960210
Vernissage Oil Paint Yellow Ochre Code: 33960600
Vernissage Oil Paint Raw Umber Code: 33960610
Vernissage Oil Paint Emerald Code:33960510
Vernissage Oil Paint Titanium White Code: 33960105
Vernissage Oil Paint Medium Red Code: 33960305
Vernissage Oil Paint Light Yellow Code: 33960205
Vernissage Oil Paint Ultramarine Blue Code: 33960405
Vernissage Oil Paint Sap Green Code: 33960520
Vernissage Oil Paint Payne’s Grey Code: 33960700
Manet Beau-Blanc Bristle Brush Short Flat Size 8 Code: 69877
Manet Beau-Blanc Bristle Brush Short Flat Size 1 Code: 69870
Manet Naja Brush Series 841 Filbert Size 8 Code: 69725
Manet Naja Brush Series 840 Flat Size 10 Code: 69712
Selection of Daler Rowney System 3 Soft brushes-to suit
Catalyst Wedge Form 1 Grey Code: 31264001
Catalyst Blade Form 2 30mm Code: 31262002
Gerstaecker Linseed Oil Code: 34785
Gerstaecker Quick Dry Medium Code: 24123
Gerstaecker Gesso Primer Code: 20986
Set of ILA Painting Knives Code: 44590
Gerstaecker Universal Painting Boards(Canvas) -sizes to suit.
Winton Oil Painting Pad Code: 18630
Gerstaecker Studio 2 Canvases-Sizes to suit.
*All available from GreatArt UK on the link below:
I also used:
Newspaper and plenty of kitchen roll- I buy jumbo sized rolls for economy.
Safety glass sheet(s) for palettes or you can use a wooden palette.
Premium Low Odour White Spirit
Hand wash for washing brushes after cleaning with white spirit
Please do work in a well ventilated room-obvious but important!
Collect jars with screw top lids and use them to decant small quantities of White spirit, Linseed Oil and Drying Medium and keep the lids at least resting on top as much of the time as you can to reduce unwanted smells-buy these in large quantities for economy. I also have a couple of jars of White Spirit on the go, in varying degrees of dirtiness-I use the dirtiest first each time working towards the cleanest which i find means I waste less white spirit in the long run.
Experiment and get used to the feel of the paint working on Oil Painting paper, before launching into working on canvas.
Find somewhere you can put your work safely to dry-somewhere safe and out of the way, and with a nice steady temperature. Lay down some newspaper first to protect surfaces.
Don’t try to hurry the drying process with a hairdryer-I do this all the time with acrylics etc…but it’s not a good idea with oils. However drying in a well ventilated room is a good idea.
and finally some artists to look at for inspiration:
Thomas Ganter winner of the 2014 BP Portrait Prize
Sir Stanley Spencer