Oil painting advice requested
December 30, 2004 10:24 PM   Subscribe

Artistic Metafilter users, I need your advice! I have recently acquired some oil paints and a brush, and am very much enjoying using them so far. I wonder if anyone has some advice about the non-obvious stuff regarding oil painting. I've already discovered some things that I didn't know before (i.e. a bit of red paint and an equally-sized bit of yellow don't make orange, they make slightly lighter red), but please post obvious things anyhow - I probably don't know about them. I (to my shame) have spent almost the entirety of my artistic life using Photoshop and Lightwave, so this is very fun and confusing territory for me.
posted by GriffX to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
work in well ventilated areas and use a respirator. this is perhaps more towards the obvious, but you can get really sick over time from the fumes...
posted by judith at 11:15 PM on December 30, 2004

Try mixing various other substances for texture - sand, ash, gessos. Try mixing your own paints, and try painting on different substrates - masonite, canvas, wood panel, glass. Play around. If you enjoy experimenting with canvas, you may have more fun with acrylics than oil.
posted by luriete at 11:22 PM on December 30, 2004

Duh! if you enjoy experimenting with TEXTURE, you may have more fun with acrylics. Sorry.
posted by luriete at 11:23 PM on December 30, 2004

Go slowly. Let the paint dry, and plan ahead about what you're going to do next. Work in layers. Oil paints most closely resemble watercolors. Colors in oil word better if you layer them and let them build on each other. Don't just fill in spaces with flat colors, unless that's what you like.

The trick to oil painting is like the trick to watercolors: colors work best if they're interacting glazes rather than flat patches.
posted by interrobang at 11:28 PM on December 30, 2004

If you’re going for realism, toss out your black.
posted by Tenuki at 11:32 PM on December 30, 2004

...and what I forgot to say was that it takes days for oil paints to dry. If you want them to dry faster, there are things to mix into them, but with most of them, mixing in too much means cracking.

And Tenuki's right: black sucks. You can always get a better dark by mixing or layering colors.
posted by interrobang at 11:37 PM on December 30, 2004

what interrobang said.

and if you're just starting out, have fun with the brushes by all means, but get yerself a palette knife and go crazy. the first time i got my hands on one, it was as if oils became a whole new medium.
oh - and don't be afraid to ask for advice at your local art suppliers. here in australia, they tend to be staffed by art students, artists and "artists" - and they love the opportunity to discuss whichever techniques (methods, ideas, etc) are currently inspiring them (interesting them, being used by them, "taking over, like, their enitire spiritual universe, man", etc)
posted by bunglin jones at 11:40 PM on December 30, 2004

I would simply recommend getting familiar with the medium through touch - rub the paint all over your hands, get it in your hair, spill some on your shoes. Like running your hands through a big pot of canned tomatoes, it's nice to get the stuff ON you, and get a sense of what it is you're working with.

Then, like Pollock, you'll have a better idea of what it can do. Maybe you'll find a unique style. Skip the books and museums. Have some fun.

[buy some mineral spirits]
posted by ValveAnnex at 11:47 PM on December 30, 2004

1. Smoke weed
2. Paint
3. ???
4. Profit
posted by ludwig_van at 11:51 PM on December 30, 2004

Check out The Oil Artist's Handbook (edited by Sally Harper). This book is a basic but useful introduction to oil painting. It covers supplies, basic brush techniques and color theory. It's spiralbound, which makes it a very convenient reference to use while you're painting.
posted by rhiannon at 12:01 AM on December 31, 2004

Unfortunately, as much as the romantic in me agrees with ValveAnnex, you simply can't behave that way with oil paints, if you want to retain your health. Oil paints are often loaded with heavy metals, nasty solvents, ketones, etc, etc. They are very very toxic substances- note the first advice in this thread- get thee some good ventilation or a respirator.

Tanuki is spot on- get rid of your black. You don't need it. Use dark blues and reds to make shadows- put dark warm shadows in cool paintings and vice versa and watch your paintings come to life.

The other non-obvious thing- use LOTS of paint. Don't be skimpy. Just pile it on thick, and be patient with parts of it drying. Have fun!
posted by fake at 1:48 AM on December 31, 2004

Highly recommended (by my artist girlfriend) is Michael Wilcox's Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green which isn't specifically about oils but gives a great understanding of all colour mixing theory...
posted by benzo8 at 2:01 AM on December 31, 2004

benzo8! Greet minds think alike. I was just about ready to post the same link -- and I still will (I'll give the Barnes & Noble version for those who still find Amazon loathsome: "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green". This is a brilliant book; so simple and obvious in its conclusions -- yet oddly overlooked until Wilcox elucidated the problem. It WILL change the way you view color.

On another track -- I'd suggest trying "glazing" over a grisaille underpainting. For some reason that's fallen out of fashion. Maybe because (if done properly) it is a tedious process building up several layers of thin color. Nor does it reproduce particularly well in photographs. But the original can have a breathtaking luminance if done correctly.
posted by RavinDave at 4:01 AM on December 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

Get either a bar of Masters' Hand Soap, a pot of Masters' Brush Cleaner, or both.

The hand soap works well, and the brush cleaner can literally bring a rock hard oil caked brush back to new.

The Williamsburg Oil Paint Co. makes some very high quality stuff, but it's less expensive than other premium pains like Holbein. They also sell archaic sounding stuff like "Rabbit skin glue". If good paint/pigment is a luxury you can afford to enjoy, by all means, do.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 5:19 AM on December 31, 2004

Color theory is a wild and wonderful thing. Definately put your black and your white away - my biggest mistake was to add white to lighten a color, and black to darken it, which leads to muddy paintings.
And it's fantastic what putting an orangy yellow object next to a violety blue shadow will do.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:39 AM on December 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

Kind of a tangent, but kind of not--draw. Carry a small sketchpad around, and practice drawing from life whenever you've got some spare time.

Not only is it good for honing your basic draftsmanship skills like composition and perspective that are (potentially) just as important in oils as on paper--if you're going for some kind of realism--but drawing is a fantastic exercise in focus and attention.

Not to sound to much like an undergrad art teacher, but it really helps exercise your ability to "see", in the broader sense--to sort out the visual components of an image that really matter, and ignore that parts that don't.
posted by LairBob at 6:30 AM on December 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

Fat over lean. Bottom layers are more dilute (with whatever medium you choose to use -- there are several different kinds, but all will be called "oil medium" somewhere in the name) and thinnner. Then you work up to fatter, that is, less dilute, in the layers closer to the top. There are times to break this rule, but it really does make life much easier and makes your paint behave in a more predictable and less muddied way.

And do be careful -- oils are the classic medium with plenty of real poison inside. And be aware that flake white == lead.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:43 AM on December 31, 2004

Try painting on copper instead of canvas. The colors will stand out more. Painting a black background on traditional materials before applying other colors creates a moody, velvet painting effect; it was used in the Batman cartoons a few years back.

Another trick is to use an airbrush to apply small touches, then adding the brushwork and palette knife. Thomas Kincade is often credited with this approach, but matte painters in Hollywood have been doing it for years.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:53 AM on December 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

Wow, some excellent advice here -- I didn't realize there were so many painters in the Meta. Sadly, I cannot add much to the conversation that hasn't been covered so, hey . .

Why oil at all? If you aren't doing cramping hours of realistic brushstroking, why would you want the hassle of the slow dry? And the smell? (tho linseed oil has a nifty scent). If you are going for the above-suggested layering approach, acrylics, particularly with a gel-medium, are a perfect solution. They'll rag out your brushes quick tho, and acylics do have less "classic" appeal . . .
posted by undule at 3:18 PM on December 31, 2004

Color theory is a wild and wonderful thing. Definately put your black and your white away - my biggest mistake was to add white to lighten a color, and black to darken it, which leads to muddy paintings.

This is so very true -- for oils. It's easy to get lots of brown canvas; my experience is very different in acrylic, however. If you start with the basic primaries, whites and blacks are essential. In fact, premixing fat batches of paint prior to a session is handy as it tends to prevent the "out of the box" tonality so many amateur/beginner paintings display.
posted by undule at 3:24 PM on December 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great responses, everyone! I'm using oils mainly because I liked the colors that were available in the moderately priced set I found. I'm working on smallish stuff, as I'm a little more intimidated by giganto-canvasses, but I will try to pick up some acrylics. They seem like they're fairly expensive, but that might just be the store I was in. Thanks again, all, and have a happy New Year.
posted by GriffX at 4:02 PM on December 31, 2004

I find Wet Canvas helpful for getting ideas & learning new techniques. They have forums devoted to different media and interesting articles. The oil painting page currently links to "Glazing With Oils" and "Knife Painting Oil Landscape Demonstration".
posted by belladonna at 4:12 PM on December 31, 2004

Although I'd check with someone else before going for this, I'd suggest (if it's not too obvious) the use of turpentine to clean the brushes afterwards - it worked wonders back when I used to do a lot of oil painting in high school.
posted by GirlFriday at 10:57 AM on January 2, 2005

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