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Oil Painting - A Way of Beginning
by Joneve McCormick

(originally published in Art Times)

Painting with oils is a source of joy for many people. For some it is an avocation, for others a profession, and for a very few, a destiny. If you want to explore this medium, the following paragraphs offer a way to begin.

Although we'll be using one approach, to create a still life on canvas, the information may be applied to painting other subjects, on other surfaces primed for oil; for example, to painting portraits on masonite, or to decorating chests and cabinets (a time-honored tradition in many countries).

Whether you work indoors or out, the basic materials you need will be the same:

  1. An 18" x 24" quality canvas, or larger, stretched across bars. Canvas across bars is preferred to cardboard-backed canvas because the latter tends to "soak up" paint, dulling the surface of your picture.

  2. Oil paint: 1 large tube of white, 1 medium tube each of ultramarine blue, cadmium red, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium green, and mars black. You should add additional colors, depending on what you intend to paint. Although you can and will mix colors to get other colors, you often won't get the clear, pure new color you want except by buying it (or mixing it yourself from dry pigment - not recommended for today's beginners).

    For example, if you have a purple backdrop, a mixture of cadmium red and ultramarine blue may not give you the hue you want and you will need to buy a purple; then you may need to add one or more other colors to it to get exactly the color you want.

    The art supply store you visit may have a dazzling array of paint lines. London oil colors is a student line put out by Windsor Newton - it's less expensive than Windsor Newton paints and quite good. It's wise to buy the best materials you can afford for your purposes. Once, over a period of many months, I used an "economy" white paint that took on a dingy yellow cast over time, and nothing could be done about it.

  3. A white palette: Renaissance painters used brown palettes because they primed (made their canvases ready for painting) with red and brown hues. Canvases prepared in a studio or sold commercially today are typically primed with one or more coats of white underpaint, or gesso. If you paint on masonite, it also needs to be primed with underpaint or gesso.

    You may buy a white palette at an art supply store or purchase a piece of enameled masonite, about 15" x 20", at a lumber shop. Some surfaces absorb pigment and are difficult to clean, so make sure you are acquiring a quality surface. A suggestion: avoid paper palettes - and the feeling of "disposability".

  4. Bristle brushes (hogshair preferred over synthetic fibers): Two #1's or #2's for sketching in your outline, and painting in corners, and two #6's. You should have two of each size so that you can use one for cool colors, another for warm ones. This prevents dulling. You can add other sizes later. Picasso advised using one size brush as much as possible for all work on a painting. You will also need a palette knife. An inexpensive one that resembles a butter knife will do nicely.

  5. Turpentine: Quality gum turpentine (not paint thinner) you can buy at any hardware store. Artist's quality turpentine is more expensive and really not necessary to get started.

  6. Linseed oil: Available at any art supply store. Buy a small bottle, about 5 ounces.

  7. Twin palette cups (medium or larger): They attach to a palette and hold turpentine and linseed oil. You will use both liquids as medium to mix with paint to get the consistency you desire.

  8. You will also need two quart jars for small amounts of turpentine to rinse out your brushes. The reason for the large jars is so the brushes don't topple. One jar is for cool colors, the other for warm ones.

  9. Rags: old, unlinty sheets or clothes cut up will serve well to wipe brushes and palette.

  10. A sturdy floor easel: In lieu of this, you can improvise and create your own setup by, for example, propping your canvas against a wall on concrete blocks. If your canvas is small, you may want to invest in a table easel, which is less expensive than a floor easel.

  11. A color wheel: Grumbacher makes an excellent one.

  12. An 18" x 24" newsprint pad, a few sticks of vine charcoal, and a kneaded eraser. A kneaded eraser can be pulled and worked for a clean surface, and tapered a point. Play with it before you use it. This is a good time to suggest familiarizing yourself with all your materials before using them.

It is important to know what you want to paint before you shop for colors, although basic colors you buy can be used for a variety of subjects. As you build your supply, you often won't need to shop before you start a painting.

From the beginning, it is important to think in terms of contrast and harmony. That is why the traditional wine bottle and fruit work well together - the shapes are different, yet relate.

One ordinary bottle and piece of fruit could be uninteresting though, so this painting will have two pieces of fruit - say two apples - a bottle of wine, and a crusty loaf of bread. To keep the composition strong, and avoid the confusion of unwanted details, a simple backdrop will serve as background.

To make the backdrop, cut a front and one adjacent side from a deep cardboard box and put it bottom-down on the table that will hold the objects you are painting. Use a table that is eye-level or a bit lower. Lay a plain-colored cloth (patterns are nice but may be too complicated or "busy") on the bottom of the box, draping it up and over the sides, making a "frame" for your bottle, fruit and bread. Turn the box so that it is an inverted "V" in front of you. If your apples are yellow, you might try a violet or purple cloth; if your apples are red, perhaps a dark green one would be exciting. Complementary colors (opposite each other on the color wheel) and colors close together on the wheel work well to create contrast and harmony. Now place the objects in the arrangement most interesting to you from where you will be sitting or standing. Van Gogh once advised a beginner: "Don't be afraid, and don't try to make it pretty."

When your still life is set up the way you want it, sketch it roughly on your newsprint pad with charcoal; as you sketch, you may decide to make other changes.

As you draw, find the areas in your still life that are darkest and shade them. Next shade in medium areas. The more familiar you become with your subject, the better - and that is the main purpose of a preliminary sketch. A chamois cloth can be helpful when you're working with charcoal to "lighten" areas. You can also "blow" on them gently.

The next step is to either put your drawing away and go directly to your still life, or "transfer" your drawing to your canvas, checking it against your live composition as you work. To sketch on the canvas, first squeeze a bit of color, say green, and a bit of black, onto your palette. It is best to use oil color to sketch on your canvas instead of charcoal or pencil, which do not mix well with paint. Fill one of the tin cups attached to your palette about one-third full with turpentine, the other cup about one-fourth full with linseed oil.

Now take your #2 brush and mix most of your green and black paint together (leaving a bit of each for the darkest areas, which you will make more dense), then dip your brush into the turpentine cup and put turpentine into that small mixture, adding turpentine until your mixture is very thin, but dark enough to show on the canvas. This thin layer of paint will "disappear" under your painting - it is only a guiding outline.

After you have sketched in your composition, thin and use the green and black paint left to lightly wash in the medium and darkest areas with a larger brush. One of the rules in oil painting is "fat over lean," meaning that primary layers should be thinner than any layers over them, in order to prevent cracking.

When you have finished your drawing, the next step is to squeeze colors you are going to use onto your palette. Don't squeeze out a lot - you can always add more. It's a good habit to squeeze the paint about two inches from the edge of the palette, going from warm to cool colors, rather than placing the paint haphazardly.

Use the center of your palette to mix or thin paints. Mix with your palette knife; for smaller amounts use your brush. Often you will be mixing colors on your canvas in the process of painting. Thin your paints to desired consistency, using both turpentine and linseed oil. Since most tube colors already have a lot of oil, you will want to use a bit more turpentine, but too much will give your painting a dull, dry look. Note: to make shadows, try adding the complementary of a color to black or blue to give your shadows life. For example, for the shadows on a red apple, mix green into red, and add black or blue (or both) as necessary.

Remember to put some turpentine, about one-half inch, into your jars to clean your brushes as you work and after you've finished. Use your rag, which you should usually have in your hand, to wipe them.

As you paint, remember to use one brush for cool colors and another for warm. Try painting cool and warm areas, light and dark ones, alternately.

Don't be afraid. You can always wipe paint off the canvas. You can change anything. As George O'Keefe said, "if you fall off the ladder, just get back on."

When you've finished for the day, wash your brushes gently with mild laundry bar soap and warm water. Rinse them well and squeeze the bristles between your fingers, top to end, to remove excess water, reshaping them before laying them flat to dry. If you have paint left over, lift it from your palette with your palette knife and wrap it in wax paper ("Handy Wrap" is even better) or put it in a pan and cover it with water. CÚzanne used to put his canvases in a lake.

Clean your palette with the remaining turpentine and wipe the cups clean. Pour out any turpentine in your jars and wipe them clean.

Supplement your experience. Go to galleries, and read. Try different subjects and techniques that interest you. Take classes. As you continue, you will become increasingly able to make your brush behave to create the effects you want.

Henry Miller said, "To paint is to love again." Maybe you will agree.

The moment one gives close attention
to anything,
even a blade of grass,
it becomes a mysterious,
indescribably magnificent
in itself.
~ Henry Miller