Oil Painting: Centuries Old & Still Going Strong
Oil painting dates back for centuries and is an incredibly
far-reaching artistic practice. The earliest discovery of its usage goes as far
back as the fifth century A.D. to the Bamian Valley of Afghanistan, where Indian
and Chinese artists created hundreds of paintings in the nexus of caves there.
|Bal du moulin de la Galette
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, oil on canvas, 1876.
But oil painting art did not achieve widespread prominence and
usage until it arrived in Northern Europe in the 15th century. Netherlandish artist Jan Van Eyck is most
often credited with "discovering" the practice, having experimented with oil
painting techniques in his wood panel works, including his famed Arnolfini
wedding portrait. Eventually oil painting swept through the rest of Europe,
replacing tempera painting as the most prominent medium of choice and becoming
the painting practice most closely associated with the art of the High
What initially made oil painting art so appealing was the brightness
and richness of its colors. What has allowed it to stand the test of time is
its adaptability to an artist's whims and requirements. For instance,
Renaissance oil painting artists tended to use oil paints in layers, working
fat over lean (which means adding more oil to the pigment as you go through
each successive layer to allow for proper drying or curing so the final surface
of the painting won't crack) and dark to light. This is usually called indirect
painting and allows an artist to build up the painting surface from toned
underpainting to finishing glazes.
During the Impressionist period, much of that changed. Oil
pigments were put into tubes and artists were free to move outdoors, where they
often painted "wet into wet," mixing paint directly on the surface and not
waiting for a layer of paint to dry before going into the painting again. Nowadays
artists often combine one or both of these methods in their oil art.
And oil painting's further appeal lies in the
fact that its translucence, sheen, and thickness can all be adjusted. It can
also be used with waxes, resins, and varnishes, proving that the process and
possibilities inherent in fine art oil painting are as varied and faceted as the
artwork that has been made with over the centuries.
How to Oil
Paint: Brushes, Brushwork 101, and Beyond
|Oil painting brushes come in a
variety of types and sizes.
Our Oil Painting Picks
Buy oil painting brushes with bristles that are firm and don't
bend too sharply over the ferrule, and watch for loose or splayed hairs. In terms
of types of brushes, flat brushes are often used when applying large areas of
oil on canvas. Filberts soften edges; brights are short flat brushes and
usually used when figuring out how to texture the surface of a painting for
bold impasto effects. Round brushes are versatile and can be used almost
anywhere and on anything during the painting process. Fan brushes take after
their name and feather away brushstrokes and soften tone gradations.
You can approach oil painting brushwork in a number of ways. You
can apply the paint in thin layers, working fat over lean. The key to success
is to apply paint that contains more oil with every successive layer. Impasto
techniques are quite different. You can apply oil paint straight from the tube,
working with a brush or a palette knife. To heighten the textural effects on
the surface of the painting, you can also try mixing the paint with sand or
For subtle textures and soft transitions,
scumble your paint, whereby you apply a thin film of dry (no oil added) paint
to a dry surface. This will give a painting a delicate mist of color, revealing
the underpainting color and optically merging it with the scumble layer. To
scumble, start with an old or worn brush and scrub the surface of the painting
freely and in any direction that suits the nature of painting.
Painting: Color Temperature & Color Charts
|Overcast Roses by Timothy Thies, 2005,
oil painting, 10 x 12.
|Hunky Dory by Timothy Thies, 2005,
oil painting, 11 x 14.
Landscape artist Timothy R. Thies teaches his oil painting
workshop students how to capture the elusive and nuanced temperatures of light
and shadow in their work.
Cool Light, Warm Shadows
"Overcast Roses illustrates the principle of cool light and warm
shadows," said Thies. "What I want to convey here is that every object in the
light has been painted with cool colors--the coolness being the light
temperature of an overcast day. All of the shadow areas in this painting are
painted in warmer colors, especially in comparison to what surrounds them.
Color temperature is always about comparing two colors next to each other. For
instance, in this painting, the colors in the light areas are cooler in
comparison to the colors in the shadow areas.
Warm Light, Cool Shadows
"In Hunky Dory, we have just the opposite," Thies continued. "You still
want to contrast all the shapes in your painting that are in the light of a
sunny day to those in the shadows. On a sunny day, as in Hunky Dory, all
the color notes in the light are warmer than those in the shadows--the shadows
being predominantly cooler. Also, on a sunny day you produce paintings that
have lighter, brighter colors and more contrast than in paintings done under
cool light or overcast conditions. Compare the paintings side by side. The
overcast painting has very subtle color changes. In Hunky Dory, the
sunny-day painting, you can see more distinct color changes and a wider range
of value changes. Most artists prefer the sunny-day paintings because the color
changes are more obvious and the overcast paintings can appear to be very gray
and unappealing. If you take a closer look, however, you will begin to see the
subtle color shifts of the cool light and warmer shadow concepts, very similar
to painting under north-light conditions in a studio. By painting in both
lighting conditions, you will add variety to your finished paintings."
Color Chart Art
A few weeks before a workshop, Thies sends each of his students a packet of
information about how to make color charts before arriving for the three-day
event. He encourages the artists to complete the color charts to better
understand not only the colors they were using but also how they interact with
one another. "How many times have you looked at an object in nature and
thought, 'What color is that and how do I mix it?'" Thies asked in his letter
to students. "By mixing two colors plus white from your palette, you will begin
to learn and then memorize color mixtures that are quite beautiful. What could
be more satisfying and fun?"
|Thies' color charts.
color chart focuses on a dominant color--sap green, for example--and how it
interacts with each of the other colors on a palette. Thies' charts--which he
recommends painting on canvas panels, one square inch for each color block,
sectioned off with 1/8" white graphic arts tape--are always five horizontal
rows deep, with the top row always the darkest value and the bottom row always
the lightest. The number of vertical columns depends on the number of colors
experimented with--ideally, enough to accommodate the number of colors on the
palette. The horizontal color rows are composed of mixtures of each color on
the palette combined in varying percentages with the dominant color.
first column of paint in every chart is the dominant hue mixed with only white.
Begin by painting Box 5--the top box--right out of the tube so it is the solid
dominant color. Next, mix the dominant color with a lot of white, so the
mixture is only slightly darker than white. That mixture goes in Box 1 at the
bottom of the chart. Now Box 5 and Box 1 are complete. Box 3 is an even mixture
of white and the dominant color--say, sap green. Boxes 2 and 4 are in between
the values of 1 and 3 and 3 and 5, respectively. Squinting at the column should
reveal an even gradation of colors from top to bottom. Now mix colors for
rest of the columns are combinations of the dominant color with other colors,
for instance sap green with ultramarine deep, sap green with cobalt blue light,
sap green with viridian, and so on. "There is no perfect way to paint color
charts," Thies reminded the students, "just be patient with yourself. It's a
lengthy process, but the results are beautiful and very satisfying."
Source: From an article by Edith Zimmerman, Fall 2006 issue of Workshop
Top Ten Oil Painting Tips
|The Cove by Randall Sexton,
oil on canvas, 40 x 30, 2010.
Artist Randall Sexton has inspired countless students with his oil
painting lessons. Here are a few of his favorite oil painting tips sure to
trigger best practices in your art.
- Keep your oil painting palette
organized with the paints laid out the same way each time you work.
- Premix piles of paint that
represent the big "puzzle pieces" or large masses of your composition, starting
with the colors you know and working toward the ones you don't.
- Be aware of changes in color at
the edges of shapes, which will give your shapes form and volume.
- If you want to see shapes flatly,
close one eye.
- Make color relationships on your
palette first, and then try test spots on your canvas.
- Work on very small panels on
location to experiment with color rather than on your final surface.
- Make color charts that relate the
various colors on your palette.
- Stick to a limited palette.
- Keep one hand on the wheel,
glance at the mirror, and coast. In other words, relax!
- To judge both value and color,
step back from your painting to make final judgments.
Source: From an article written by Steve Doherty, Fall 2006 issue of Workshop.
Building a Center
of Interest in an Oil Painting
||House at Arroyo Jacona by Doug Higgins,
2006, oil painting, 18 x 24.
Call it the
focus, the focal point, or the center of interest. For Doug Higgins, it's a crucial part of planning his paintings. Once a scene
strikes him and he has a clear image of the composition in his mind, he sets up
his easel but Higgins says he never accepts nature as she comes. "I know I can
change the scene--make things up, eliminate some things, simplify others, move
elements, brighten or neutralize colors--to serve the idea of the painting," he
says. "I carefully balance and design the elements. My goal is simplicity.
Complexity is easy--anyone can achieve that through thoughtless copying of
details. You need intelligent strategies to keep it simple."
begins with an image of a painting in his mind, he has no need for thumbnail
sketches. His first considerations are establishing the focal point, locating
the horizon line, and placing the largest masses. "A painting is not a
collection of parts, but a construction," he says. "I establish masses early
on, stick to those decisions, and retain those masses by using close values."
sketches in the main elements with a small, soft brush. The next step is
applying a thin turpentine wash with a big brush using transparent
colors--alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and viridian for the
shadows and warm local colors in the light areas--to establish the major shapes.
With this step done, the artist wipes down his board with a paper towel,
creating an interesting variety of colors. Using thicker paints, he begins with
the focal point, completing that before moving on to other areas. By
establishing his lightest light, darkest dark, and highest level of detail and
contrast in the center of interest, he sets standards by which to judge the
subordinate parts of the painting.
Because the eye is
attracted by contrast, Higgins uses the strongest contrast in values, colors,
edges, textures, and degree of detail in his center of interest. Linear
elements lead the viewer's eye toward the focal point. To keep the viewer from
being distracted by the foreground he simplifies and abstracts that area.
Sometimes Higgins makes figures the secondary focus. The artist also uses
secondary focal points to balance the oil painting and avoid weighing down one part
of the image.
Source: From an article for Artist Daily written by Linda S. Price
Take a look at a
handful of the oil painting offerings that have been created by some of the
most famed and lauded artists throughout history, and learn a little bit about
why each painting is worth a further look.
Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, oil
on panel, 1434: The vivid colors in this work
incredible celebration of what oil painting can do,
and the multiple
associations and meanings of
objects in the work--from the mirror, dog, candle,
and cherries on the window sill to the figures' joined
hands--give rich symbolism
interpretations to the work.
Mona Lisa by
Leonardo, oil on panel, 1503-06:
An enigmatic portrait that displays Leonardo's
famed gift for composition, this painting's
notoriety throughout history has
led it to be
stolen, recovered, merchandized, identified with
at least ten
sitters, and reproduced in at least
300 paintings and 2,000 advertisements.
|The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, oil on
canvas, 1770: This is the artist's most famous work
and served as an homage to
the Flemish Baroque
artist Anthony Van Dyck, which is why the figure is
dressed in a costume that would have been worn
some 140 years prior to when the work
The Raft of the
Medusa by Theodore Gericault, oil on canvas, 1819:
An emblem of French
Romanticism, this incredibly large fine art oil
painting is based on the
horrific aftermath of an 1816 shipwreck
and also serves as an example of how
complex a composition can
be--two overlapping pyramids direct the viewer's eye
and through the work. (Above, a detail of the work.)
Painting Light: The Cape School Method with Camille Przewordek
Oil Portrait - Erin by Daniel Greene
American Artist Guide to Painting Techniques
Oil Painting Techniques You Can Try Today