Oil Painting

Color studies in oil

I’ve been doing color and oil painting studies today from a new, terrific and appropriately named book: “The Oil Painting Course You’ve Always Wanted” by Kathleen Lochen Staiger. Unlike all the other oil painting books I’d found that had ugly paintings and sloppy instructions, this new book breaks it down from the most basic level to advanced in a logical and systematic way. Incorporated throughout is excellent information on drawing, values and color theory, and how they apply in the real world to making art with any medium. I thought I knew a fair amount about these things, but I’m amazed how much I learned today. I’m excited about working through the entire book.

I explain the purpose of the exercises below each. My apologies if it’s all boring.

(To enlarge images, click on them and select “All Sizes”)


(Above) Making greyed (neutralized) versions of colors without changing their value by mixing in the complimentary* (explanation below) color which has first been adjusted to the same value as the original.


(Above) Top half: Mixing blacks and greys by combining dark complimentary* colors (a mixed black will be richer and more interesting than a black straight out of the tube).
Bottom half:
Mixing shadow colors by first darkening the color and then adding it’s compliment* which has been matched to the same value (on the right of each swatch).

(Above) Darkening colors by adding a darker pigment of the same hue (adding Burnt Sienna to darken orange; Yellow Ochre to darken yellow)
(Below) Experimenting with various brush techniques.


*Complimentary Colors: Complimentary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and any two complimentary colors will contain all three primaries. Red, yellow and blue are the three primary colors. For example, orange is mixed from the primary colors red and yellow so orange’s compliment (the primary missing to complete the triad) is blue (red+yellow+blue=all 3 primary colors) which is found opposite orange on the color wheel. Green is mixed from yellow and blue so its compliment is red. Violet is made of red and blue so it’s compliment is yellow. Since pairs of complimentary colors contain all three primaries, mixing them together results in a grey color.

Oil Painting Still Life

1st layer of 2nd oil painting

1st Layer, 1st Oil Painting
Work in progress: Oil on board, 15 x 12 ”
(To enlarge, click image, select “All Sizes”)

This is the first layer: I expect there will be two or three more. Before I started this, I set up my palette, grabbed a library book with some oil painting technique exercises and tried doing the first exercise, copying a value study of layers of mountains. It was boring and awful. I finished it and tossed it, feeling discouraged. Then I decided to stop worrying so much and just start painting. I grabbed the photos I took the other day and used the veges and bowl from this one:
Vege still life setup 2

and next I think I’ll add the tablecloth from this one:

I ran out of time before I could start the background.

The biggest hurdle for me to get over is using white paint. For 20 years of painting with watercolor, I’ve learned to preserve the white in my paper instead of using white paint and to use more water to make colors lighter. There’s a big taboo about using white paint with watercolor–it’s considered “cheating” in some circles. I didn’t think I cared about that, that my preference for leaving the white of the paper had more to do with wanting the luminance and clarity that you don’t get with opaque white paint on top of transparent watercolor.

But when it came time to actually mix up colors using white paint, it felt like what I imagine an alcoholic might feel after being sober 20 years and then being told now it’s ok to drink and reaching for that first bottle. (Except I know there’s really no comparison–terrible things don’t happen from using white paint). But I was definitely stressing over it, which was interesting for me to observe. I received a couple answers to my worries about using white paint that I posted online. One person on Wet Canvas told me to paint a white object to get over it and Nel wrote and told me to “Use white paint happily and freely in oils!” She should know–her recent oils are scrumptious.

It’s going to be interesting switching back and forth between oil and water and monoprinting. I think I’ll try the same composition in watercolor tomorrow too–especially if this oil is still to wet to work with.

Oil Painting People

First pass at oil painting

First pass at oil

First layer of oil sketch with 2 colors (burnt sienna & ultramarine blue), 12 x 16 inches

I’m feeling a little sheepish about posting this wonky off kilter portrait but it’s today’s sketch….so here it is. I had the canvas on an easel at too much of an angle I think — her face seems distorted in the photo and it wasn’t when I was painting it.

Having not used oils for 20 years, I didn’t quite know how to start so I grabbed a photo of someone dear to me, squeezed out some burnt sienna and ultramarine blue on my palette and started drawing with a brush and thinned paint. I was trying to avoid turpentine, using Galkyd and Gamsol (alkyd medium and odorless mineral spirits — OMS — by Gamblin which is supposed to be less toxic than others). First I tried paint diluted with 50/50 Galkyd and Gamsol but it still seemed too rich for a first layer so I started using just the Gamsol thinner and that didn’t work too well–it started dissolving the paint around it. (Oil paint has to be painted lean to fat — the first layers need to not have too much oil in them or subsequent layers won’t adhere properly.)

I loved the way it felt to work with oil — to be able to sort of sculpt with paint and have it slide around nicely. Now I need to wait for this to dry and then I can go in and fix the drawing and then start on skin tones. It’s interesting feeling like a beginner again…I’ve forgotten so much of the little I knew about oil painting but hopefully that little will return and the knowledge and skills I’ve developed with watercolor and drawing will be helpful.

Fortunately it was a warm evening tonight, even though it’s raining, so I could leave my windows and door to my studio open while using the OMS. The stuff didn’t smell, but now I have a weird metallic taste in my mouth which means there was something toxic in the air and which means I won’t be leaving a container of OMS open while I work again.

Block Printing Oil Painting Still Life

Good day in the studio

Linoleum block print 4″x5″ DS water-based ink on Arches cover paper
(To enlarge any of the images, click image, then select “All Sizes”)

Yes, I’m back to the lantern image again. This time I drew it on paper, traced it on a linoleum block and then carved all the areas that appear white in the image. Then I inked the block and rubbed the paper onto the block. I’ll add watercolor when the ink is dry.

Doing all the carving gave me a terrible stiff neck from looking down so long. I also tried adding some colored ink designed for monoprinting that was too wet and didn’t quite work out (below).

Linoblock print with DS black ink and Akua Color yellow, red and blue monoprint inks on Stonehenge print paper

Today I also started my experiment with oil paints, although I’m wondering if I should have gone to acrylics instead. I’ve long been admiring Andrea’s acrylic paintings and Carla Kurt’s beautiful acrylic painting here. Both of these artists have generously shared information with me about acrylics that have tempted me to jump right in and try them. But I’ve already got oil paints and love their consistency so I need to give them another go first. I dug out my old oil painting kit from 20 years ago and sorted out the paints and did some color tests. I’m worried about getting oil paint on my hardwood floors, clothes and cats, though I assume the problem is the same with acrylics. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the easy cleanup and low toxicity of watercolor which will probably always be my #1 medium.

I feel so sentimental about my old oil paint kit (just smelling the linseed oil brings back many happy memories of my life back then) so I took a picture of it. Here’s the kit and my paint tests:


(Painting kit, oil paints, flesh tone color mixing chart)

It was a good art day. I also took some photos for a possible still life painting. I put these veges together for my class on Saturday and stuck the setup in the fridge so I could photograph it. But after a couple shots my camera battery died and when it was charged again, the sun disappeared so I wasn’t able to get just what I wanted. I think the one with the white cloth is my favorite except there are no shadows since the sun was behind a cloud. I’ll probably just combine elements from the photos once the veges themselves get funky.

What do you think? (ignore the background–the grass and fence won’t be in the painting).

(Comments welcomed on acrylic vs. oils, photo selection or anything else — but you have to scroll back to the top to click on Comments.)