The Story of Oils
Jousting tournaments, village witch hunts, castles protected by a crocodile moat - not many medieval traditions survive today. But oil painting art, a favorite of many contemporary artists, dates back to 12th century in Western Europe. In the old tradition, artists would mix their oil paint with walnut and linseed oils to manipulate drying time, gloss and transparency.
The great advantage of oils was that the paint could take up to two weeks to dry – compared to the almost instant drying time of the other medieval alternative: egg tempera. Scraping out mistakes with a palette knife was much easier with a paint that took a long time to dry. While an egg tempera painter mixed one color at a time and must use all of it immediately, an oil painter could mix dozens of pools of slight tonal variations to play with at her leisure. This working quality of oils can help give oil paintings a unique richness – built up from the months upon months of careful consideration of color and tone.
Rules of the Game
One of the basic rules of oil painting is to paint “fat over lean” - or to paint layers with a higher oil content on top of “leaner” layers of paint. This can be done by diluting the first layers with turpentine, and also adding increasing proportions of linseed oil to later layers. This technique heps keep paint from cracking as it dries or ages. As with all rules, this one too is meant to be broken – by artists who are looking to achieve a nice crackle finish on their paintings, or an aged, antique quality. Today there are myriad paint thinners available – pine-scented turpentine, lavender oil, liquid chemical formulae - giving artists even more room to experiment.
Smells like Art
Entering an artist's studio can be a dizzying experience – not only from being in close proximity to pieces of greaty beauty but also from the actual clouds of fumes. A fragrant jar of Turpenoid (an alternative to Turpentine as a paint thinner) even makes it into Peter Colquhoun's composition “Triangle, Turpenoid and Stretchers.” For landscape painters who work in oil such as Brian Delacey, painting en plein air- or outdoors – has the added benefit of the best ventilation nature can provide.
Originally en plein air painting was used for quick sketches to be later taken back to the studio and worked on more extensively. Impressionists turned this practice on its head to paint entirely from direct observation and also only at certain times of the day to keep the position of the sun and lighting consistent. Monet's Haystacks series explores the same subject from several seasons and different moods of lighting – connecting the contemplative quality of oil painting with the passage of time.
Labor of Love
Not only do artists who use oil paint have to suffer through toxic fumes, but they also have to complete marvelously arduous prep work. To earn your street credit as an artist, you must be able to build and stretch your own canvases. Beginner painters can go to stores like A.I. Friedman to stock up on three-packs of pre-stretched canvas, but generally the quality is poor and the pre-set size constrains the possibilities for composition. Building a canvas stretcher involves quite a bit of physical exertion: carrying a nice stack of lumber back to your workshop, sawing down your pieces to size, mitering the corner pieces together and hammering it all into place.
Even more muscle goes into the stretching of the actual canvas fabric - using a heavy pair of pliers, a staple gun and a spare foot to anchor down your frame. The ultimate goal is to stretch your canvas as tight as physically possible, with crisp hospital corners - with a satisfying resonance from a quick finger drum on the canvas. After stretching two or three canvases, your hands should be properly striped red and white - with the occasional blister. (Bonus points to Jay Gaskill for stretching canvas on curvilinear and gem-shaped frames. Also, a nod to Frank Stella – although our best guess is that he didn't stretch his own series of Irregular Polygons).
From left to right: "Monstrella" by Jay Gaskill, "Tiamat's Folly" by Jay Gaskill, "Union I" by Frank Stella