Archive for July, 2016

Rules made to be broken?

Friday, July 15th, 2016

Art is one of those pursuits that benefit from continuing practice and analytical study, as well as reaching out in different media.  As I delve more heavily into using oil paints, I am investigating the ramifications of a dilemma that long-standing rules of painting don’t appear (to me, anyway) to address sufficiently.

Traditionally, oil paints have been thinned with turpentine or other solvent for a looser, freer-flowing consistency, particularly in underlying layers that must dry before subsequent, “fattier” layers (with a higher proportion of oil to pigment).  This approach is stated in two ways—“fat over lean” (meaning that layers with lower oil content should precede layers with heavier oil content) and “thick over thin” (meaning that thin applications should go down on the canvas before thicker, more viscous layers).  A third “rule” is that darks go down before lighter values.  The first two of these rules help to ensure that underlying layers set up firmly and dry before the upper layers.  If the upper layers dry first, they are subject to cracking and possibly flaking off as the underlying layers continue to dry.

My dilemma arises through my preference to avoid using solvents.  I’ve tried using water-soluble oils, but I don’t like the feel of working with them.  The consistency and behavior aren’t the same as those of traditional oils, so I rely on thinning my paint with additional oil, rather than with solvents, even in the underlying layers.  So what is the best approach to layering my paint under these conditions?  By adding oil to thin the dark, underlying layers, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to maintain the fat-over-lean requirement.

I surveyed a number of colleagues who paint in oils, as well as a paint manufacturer (M.Graham) who advertises their paint as being ideal for solvent-free applications, to see what all of them would recommend.  The results were overwhelmingly that thin, underlayers should remain low in oil, ideally being used straight from the tube.  But “straight from the tube” is rarely (if ever) a thin application.  And if subsequent layers of the tube paint should have any additional oil incorporated into them, they would necessarily be thinner, not thicker, thereby breaking the guideline of thick over thin.

So which rule takes precedence—fat over lean, or thick over thin?

In order to overcome the problem, I’ve decided to try mixing alkyd medium (which promotes more rapid drying) into my darks for the initial applications.  This will allow the underneath layers to dry more quickly, before the later layers.

This brings to the fore a second but related issue:  To speed drying, to more easily transport fresh paintings, plein air painters often like to incorporate alkyd medium into their typically slow-drying titanium white, which is used to raise the value of tube colors.  For my purposes, however, it probably wouldn’t be advisable, as the alkyd incorporated into the value-raising whites would increase the drying rate for the later, higher-value layers.  This would compromise the relative drying-rate difference between the upper layers and the initial underlying dark layer, in which the alkyd medium was used for thinning.

Although the manufacturer recommended against using both oil and alkyd medium in the same composition, I am inclined to overlook that guideline to allow me to use additional oil in any final glazes used to incorporate detail into the almost-finished composition.

If you have faced and found a solution to this same issue in your own work, I would be interested to hear how you resolved it.

Deferred, not Deterred

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Totally aside from travel, sometimes simple demands of life interfere with consistent—or even any—painting.  I was reminded of this fact this past month, when, after having been out of the country for a month, my husband and I got caught up in the need to take frequent, time-consuming shopping trips to research and select materials and appliances for a rather extensive home update, demanding considerable time and energy I could otherwise have preferred to devote to painting.

Although my easel stood abandoned for yet another month, that didn’t mean my art was forgotten.  Instead, it simply meant that the mental exercises I would normally apply to observing and painting a locale were still carried out as though I were going to paint the scene.  I still shot reference photos with painting in mind.

Not only did I continue looking for interesting compositions, but I was also observing the finer points of color—the variations of hue between warm light and cool shadow, the comparative width of a penumbra (the diffused light at the very edge of a shadow) in relation to the strength or diffusion of the light source, the effect of backlighting, how value and saturation differentiated overlapping layers of foliage, and determining the actual hue and value of shadowed or reflective “whites.”

Foliage, rocks, and water, photographed for study and reference.

Foliage, rocks, and water, photographed for study and reference.

I also paid attention to the form (or “itness”) of different types of trees and rock formations in the area, and how I could express them in paint.  I considered what concepts occurred to me when I was drawn to certain scenes we passed along the road on our outings.  For instance, why did one cluster of buildings interest me while another did not?  How would I indicate the textural difference between two types of trees?  What pigments would I use to illustrate the color and translucence of backlit flowers?  How could I mix (and avoid desaturating) a color to achieve exactly the representation I was looking for?

Even when I couldn’t actually apply the paint to paper or canvas, I was still making a conscious effort to train my eye to observe these things carefully and my mind to consider potential approaches to representing what I would want to express to others.   Yes, even though the fun of actually painting had to be deferred, sometimes there’s real value in delayed gratification.