Sunday 2 October 2011

The Oily Knife, part 1: Oils

Over the years, I have tried many artistic media, and several different means of applying them. From crayon to pencil and assorted pastels; from poster paint to watercolour to acrylic to oils; inks of many kinds, charcoal and chalk. Fingers, brushes, rags and knives. And that's just the two dimensional stuff!

Naturally, I like some media better than others. Pencils are a keeper: simple to use, easy to acquire, versatile and clean. But you won't catch me using anything harder than an HB, even for writing with. And I don't usually take pencils up the hill with me. (Not even for writing with; I was caught out by this once when I encountered an old acquaintance in the field and he asked me for a contact number. Fortunately, he had a pencil.)

I prefer paint for landscapes. The natural landscape is so vast, even in a small country like England, that it seems to require great swathes of colour. Graphite pencils - wonderful though they are - cannot do it justice. Even coloured pencils don't seem right, being, on the whole, quite a delicate medium. But the landscape isn't all that delicate (even if its environmental balance is); you can tramp all over it in your size 9 walking boots and it doesn't care one jot. It's solid. It's big. It's complex, and subtle, and unspeakably beautiful.

So, paint it is. There are three basic types of paint sold to artists these days: acrylic, oils and watercolour. Watercolour seems, to many people, to be the least daunting medium, but I wouldn't agree. It's actually very difficult to master. Acrylic is easier to handle, but there is something about its character that doesn't seem quite right for the sort of scene I've been inspired by of late...

I chose to paint in oils for a number of reasons. One of them is tradition, as noted above. Oils have been the medium of choice for artists since the 17th Century, and pretty much all those old masters used them, from Rembrandt to the Impressionists and beyond. But the lineage only really serves as an inducement to try the medium out. There's more to it than that.

Oil paint dries slowly. This allows the paint to be moved around on the canvas, permitting mistakes to be corrected and colours to be mixed on the picture itself. Oils are very forgiving. Unlike watercolour, which dries quickly and is essentially transparent (this makes overpainting difficult). Acrylic is also quite forgiving, although in a different way; while it dries almost as quickly as watercolour, it is opaque and you can, should you so desire, overpaint any mistakes (although I have to say that painting over lumpy mistakes doesn't always work very well). Overpainting in oils is trickier, as you have to wait for the earlier layer to dry first if you don't want the colours to blend. But mistakes can be scraped off, smoothed out or plastered over. There's always a way.

Another reason is an oddly practical matter that also touches upon the method that I use to apply the paint. When you are painting in a field, you don't have access to a sink. You don't always have somewhere to put a jam jar full of water, or a pot full of turpentine. Basically, it's hard to keep your brushes clean. Now, watercolour doesn't mind too much; the paint will usually come out of the brushes even if it's dried in. But whatever you do, don't let acrylic dry on your brush! Well, not if you want to use your brush again. Brushes used for oils can be ignored until you get home, as long as you have a rag or something to wrap them in. As it happens, I've rejected brushes altogether - but that's the subject of another post.

The only problem with painting in oils is the aroma associated with them (I must admit, I quite like the smell of oil paint, but I don’t live here alone, and I don’t have a room that I can dedicate to painting and shut the door on). However, if you're painting out of doors, the problem mostly goes away. The only residual odour (apart from post-expedition cleaning) is that of a slowly drying painting...

I am aware of the existence of a new type of oil paint - water mixable oils (the brand I see most often is Winsorand Newton's Artisan) - that apparently does away with the nasty niffs. I've never tried them, but there is something inherently suspicious about the idea. Water and oil don't mix, right?

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