November Tomatoes in Raku Bowl; oil painting on board, 9x12"

November Tomatoes in Raku Bowl; oil painting on board, 9x12" (click to enlarge)

UPDATE 12-11-10: I revised this painting again and it’s posted here.

At the end of the season we harvest the crops (or in my case, tomatoes). The last green stragglers are picked from their shriveling vines and set near a window to ripen. And that leads me to think about my own ripening as an artist; reflecting on which artistic pursuits have borne fruit, and which are still hard and green despite my best efforts.

After working in a realistic style in watercolor for years I began to explore other media, eventually focusing on oil painting, determined to gain comfort and competence with it. The path felt wide and long because I’m attracted to so many painting styles, from classical realism to impressionism and even expressionistic figurative work.

But as I get closer to competence with oils (while still far from mastery) I’m beginning to narrow the path and here’s why….

Oils vs. Watercolor

I found that trying to paint in oils in the same detailed, realistic style I enjoy so much in watercolor felt like work, not fun. But why, I wondered.

And here’s what I realized: Watercolor has its own spirit that moves, flows, mixes, and makes every stroke an adventure. You put the paint down and then watch what happens. Even with years of experience and good control of the medium, it still surprises.

In oils, you mix a color, you brush it on, and it sits there. Sure, there are plenty of challenges in mixing the right color and putting it in the right place. The paint is rich, vibrant and beautiful, a pleasure to work with. But the artist has to bring the spirit of adventure and playfulness to this obedient medium; it’s not built in as it is in watercolor.

I’ll always admire the beauty of classical realism and the technical skill behind it. But I’m choosing the fork in the road towards a more looser, freer and more playful approach to painting in oils.

About the painting at top of post… Here’s the first quick pencil and watercolor sketch just to get a feel for things:

November tomatoes, watercolor sketch

November tomatoes, watercolor sketch

Here’s the first (partly scraped off) oil painting version:

Earlier version of painting after scraping off background &  before deleting the stems

Earlier version of painting after scraping off background but before deleting the stems

A friend looked at the painting in progress and said it was too busy; the background detail and stems were taking away from the tomatoes. I scraped off the quilt-patterned background, took the above photo, and then scraped off the stems, repainting to simplify resulting in the painting at top.

November Tomatoes Photo

The painting done from life. Photo taken after I snipped off the stems, as a record of the set up

Art theory, Oil Painting, Painting
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Join the conversation! 11 Comments

  1. Well Jana, I don’t agree with your friend.
    I very much like the version of the oil painting
    that didn’t get scraped.
    With my own work I am careful not to show it
    to people until I feel it is complete.
    I like what you said about watercolor. I think it
    has a lyrical quality, I think your initial oil painting
    did too.
    Thanks for showing your work, I really enjoy looking
    at it and reading about your process.


    • Thanks Kai,
      I agree with you. When I saw the photo of the partially scraped painting on the screen I had that moment of wishing I could rewind. It had a freshness and–I like your word–“lyrical” quality. The stems were my inspiration so I was sad to see them go. It was pretty silly to start scraping before giving it any thought. But each time I rework something that ends up being better before the reworking, hopefully eventually I’ll learn to let things be. When I’m not sure if something is done, I do like getting input from others, but maybe I should be more selective about the others and ask an artist not a plumber! (Even if he is a sensitive plumber.)


  2. How interesting that the medium can dictate our style – I hadn’t thought about that but you’re so right. I love both versions of your tomato piece. It makes me want to try oils again but I don’t have a ‘messy’ room to do it in!


  3. Each version of your tomatoes has its merits, but I am most attracted to the simple and sensuous round shapes in the first version. Isn’t there just something about that round bowl that almost embraces the fruit? I also hear you about going back and forth between the merits of looseness in watercolor and the luster and feel of oil. Perhaps it’s like reading material – some days one thing is what your soul needs, and some days it’s something else. Anyway – I’m jealous of you having tomatoes – all I have is snow.


  4. I think the unscraped version had a little more life in it, but the first oil posted had a beautiful depth of color that speaks of late summer. Heck, I like anything you do! So go for it–more lively oils, watercolor, “unlively” oils—I like them all!


  5. Hi Jana, I, too, like the pre-scrape oil, just because I like the line quality of the stems and the quilt lent a softness. Anyway, the finished oil is very nice, with a vibrant reminder of summer. You captured perfectly the joy of watercolor and I like your wc sketch too. Thank you for sharing your work and the thoughts you’re having. Ambal


  6. I agree with Kai, that first version is just so “you”. Simplifying the background cloth was a good call, but I love those stems.


  7. It’s interesting that we are on a similar journey. I’m exploring acrylic and you, oils. I may yet go there, but loving to challenges of another medium.
    Thanks for your lovely comments the other day.
    We are getting the best days now.
    Last year we were in SF for Xmas, and had our first white Xmas at Tahoe. I intend to paint from my snow reference soon!!


  8. Beautiful painting of the tomatoes. In this case, I like the oil one better. But, I’ve seen you do some fabulous watercolors too!


  9. Thank you for sharing your work and insight here. I’m a beginner with oils (water mixable ones) after many years with watercolor, and finding your comparison of the two media interesting.


  10. So interesting to read your comparison of oils and watercolor. I favor watercolors for the unexpectedness and joy they give. Would like to learn oils Turner’s style )) when oil breaths in the painting in a way that only watercolor can do.
    Very appetite raising tomatoes)).


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