Scared of Oils
Updated November 2017
A recent article in a main UK art magazine made me remember why I took so long to discover the joys and beauty of using oil paint. Although oil paint is one of the oldest and widely used art materials, many people will hesitate to use it, like me at the time, because of all the stories they hear about toxicity, strict rules, and the complex array of materials needed. For a long time I feared all these technical issues would spoil the joy of painting for me, and so stayed away from oils.
Learning from Other Artists
However over the past ten years I have learned a lot from professional and amateur artists who were a goldmine of help and information. They provided experience and – sometimes opposing – opinions on the use of oil paints, mediums, techniques and materials and when I decided to jump into oils I could experience a lot of it myself and come to my own conclusions.
Books, many online resources, chats with other artists and practice have got me where I am today. I have not read enough books nor learned enough yet to be able to publish the one-and-only guide to using oil paints (far from it, in fact) and I cannot test the longevity of my painting techniques ( where is that time machine when you need it), but I hope that my take on things might help some hesitant beginners to get started.
I do my best to always paint with archival materials and according to techniques that will stand the test of time as best as I can. I strongly believe that whomever is gracious enough to pay money for my work, should expect it to be created with proper, professional materials that won’t disintegrate over time. But I am also painting because I love doing it and I avoid methods and materials that are overly methodical or complex.
The enormous amount of questions I had and many beginners have about oil paint is enough to put anyone off the stuff forever:
Which brands should I choose, which colours do I start with, can I mix different brands, what is a medium and do I need it, and which medium should I choose? Do I need turps or white spirit and what is the difference, can I use solvents from the hardware store, how can I avoid toxic fumes, are the paints toxic themselves and are they safe to use with pets/kids around (or any living creature like artists perhaps)?
How do I mix my colours, do I premix or not, should I use a brush or a palette knife to mix? Is it ok to use ‘convenience mixes’ such as skin/sky colour? What does fat over lean mean and how do I apply that rule?
Can I clean my brushes in solvent, or in oil or with washing-up liquid? What is glazing, scumbling, impasto and alla prima?
What support should I use and which is better in the long run: cotton or linen, wood, or aluminium? Should I prime canvas myself, and if so how, or is it ok to buy ready-primed materials? What is the best primer to choose and how do I apply it?
And I haven’t even started on brushes or pigments yet…..Surely this would put anyone off who just wants to have a go and have some fun?
Keeping it Simple
All this said, there are always those who enjoy a methodical and exact approach to what they do. They might enjoy finding the answers to all these questions and carefully learn and note down medium recipes and priming methods. I must admit I am not one of them, and although I want my work to be sound and archival (and therefore I do learn about pigments and priming for example) you won’t find me measuring out exact oil/solvent ratios for my medium with a pipet (I was always rubbish at maths and science at school). It was a revelation to find out that with oil paints there is actually the option of KEEPING IT SIMPLE.
Of course a blog post like this is not the place to answer all of the questions above and I am not going to try to unless you really want me to. Time and place and all of that. But when I learned that it really doesn’t have to be as complicated as I feared and that you can actually just buy a canvas, a brush and some paint and just go for it, a whole new world opened for me. When I hear some others talk about the strict rules and regulations of using oil paints it sounds more like a chemistry project instead of art.
The Fat-over-Lean Principle
The Fat-over-Lean principle is one of these (in-)famous ones that has a tendency to scare people. Talk of cracked paint falling off your canvas in the future is scary to say the least. Not that we all envisage our art to need to last for centuries, but surely it would be nice to know that in a few decades our doodles in oils are still remotely visible. So artists explaining this rule as if it is a vital necessity to carefully and exactly measure the oil/solvent ratio in your medium, and slowly adjust it in parts with a pipet, as you paint in clearly defined layers, are taking it too far in my opinion.
The Fat-over-Lean principle is fairly simple. Artists should keep in mind that added oil slows the drying time of paint. It also makes total sense (I hope) that applying a quick drying paint over a slow drying paint will cause problems. The top layer of paint would dry quicker and ‘seal in’ the slow drying flexible layer underneath, causing it to dry even slower as no air can reach it, and cracking the upper layer of dried paint.
Therefore, IF you decide to use additions to your paint such as solvents (making your paint ‘leaner’) or mediums (making your paint ‘fatter’ as it usually contains oil) you need to keep in mind to use ‘lean’ paint (less oil content and therefore faster drying ) first and make sure you don’t seal in oily layers of paint (‘fat’ paint and slower drying). This is especially relevant if you work with thick paint, or in layers.
Use Common Sense
It is important to apply common sense when using additions to your paint such as solvents or mediums. Too much of it (additives I mean, not common sense) will break down your paint and pigments and cause trouble. Too much added oil will disperse the pigment and you’ll end up painting with just oil – which will dry slowly, wrinkly and has no ’tooth’ for next layers to adhere to. Too much solvent will break down the paint as the pigment will not mix with solvents alone. As a general rule it is wise to not add more than 20% or so (or so!) of medium to your paint. Keeping in mind the fat (oily) over lean (less oily) principle you should not start a painting with medium-rich paint. Many artists use only (a tiny bit of) solvent for the initial underpainting as it dries quickly and is, by definition, lean. Alternatively you can use no additions at all in the first stages.That brings me to another point.
IT IS OK TO NOT USE ANY MEDIUM AT ALL. Yes really.
Some oil painters enjoy talking amongst each other about mediums and the various recipes they discovered featuring exotic sounding ingredients. So let them. It does not mean you have to use a medium. It sounds all snazzy and exciting but honestly you can actually paint with a brush and a couple of tubes of paint. Unless you want the paint to do something that it doesn’t naturally, there is no need for a medium or a solvent. No need whatsoever. And if you find your paint too fluid or too thick, instead of adding a medium, you can also try to change brands as all brands have different characteristics. Try and experiment until you find what you like.
Talk to Other Artists
I am still experimenting and learning. There is a lot I don’t know and more seasoned artists do. Thankfully I can ask, read and learn and I would always recommend that artists do that. Don’t take my word, but ask others, read up and decide for yourself (that’s me covering my back). The more I learned and listened the more I realised that many artists have their own way of doing things. What works for them, might not work for you. When they say you should do this, someone else might say the opposite. Use common sense and you will find your own way.
Some things are more set in stone than others, of course, such as oily paint drying slower than lean paint, and the various behavioural characteristics of types of oils, solvents, supports and pigments. But while paddling around the facts, use your own instinct and sense in finding your way. And don’t forget that the more stuff you add to your paint, the more complex the potential problems can be. Keeping it simple has its benefits.In the end I have come back to using a fluid paint brand (as I like to paint thinly) so that I don’t need to add a lot of medium. Fluids paints are Vasari, Blockx, Mussini, but I also use Michael Harding and Winsor & Newton. You are by no means limited to a single brand.
When I want my paint to be even more fluid I do add a little bit of medium, but after experimenting with quite a few (some of which had ingredients I turned out to be – ugh that was fun -allergic to) I often come back to the simplest version: a tiny drop of linseed oil. Sometimes I use a mix of linseed oil/stand oil/odourless white spirit (I have always used and liked W&N Sansodor) for detail work. I do an underpainting with a touch of of Sansodor. But most of the time and the vast majority of my paintings are painted without any additions at all. Its just paint and a brush and that’s all.
You Choose your Painting Process
So although you might not want to work like this, I just wanted to share that it does not have to be complicated. You can choose the level of complexity you apply to your painting process. Many artists will just dip their brush in a bit of medium now and then. Our aim is not to come up with the most scientifically archival painting, but with an amazing art work that will stand the test of time. So increasing the oil ratio in your medium mathematically, according to the layers of your painting, is not something we have to do in order to produce a sound and archival painting. If, like me, you don’t want to work with pipets but just brushes, just keep your sensible hat on, don’t forget some basic principles and dive in. Turning the painting process in an overly methodical science process kills the fun and creativity for me (but perhaps not you), is unnecessary, and will put off many newbies wanting to try.A brush, a few tubes of paint and a canvas is really all you need and maybe all you’ll ever end up with.
If you are a newbie dreaming of using oils, I hope these thoughts have helped to get started. I’d encourage you find more information online, in books and magazines and ask other artists if you can. If you are a more seasoned artist, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you are a mathematician who likes pipets…well, er… never mind. 😉