Oil Painting Returns: Five Lessons I’ve Learned

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that I’ve been having tons of issues with oil paint, from anxiety over the toxic mediums, to headaches from resin and linseed fumes. For a while I was pretty bummed about it, but soon moved on to gouache and did my best to forget about oil entirely.

That is, until I received a package in the mail from one of my AWESOME Twitter friends. He’d sent me a box of M. Graham (walnut based) oil paints. The set also included two non-toxic mediums: walnut oil and a walnut-based alkyd.

At first I didn’t know what to say or do, I was speechless at the thoughtful gift, but I soon realized the best way I could repay my friend would be to paint.

And paint and paint!

Saw this from my bedroom window when I woke the morning I received my paint. A good omen? I think so!

So I resumed my youtube research, watching videos by both Lena Danya and Florent Farges, re-opened the oil books I’d checked out from the library, and asked for tips from my friend at the local gallery. I also gessoed a few pages in my sketchbook so I could practice and experiment.

It’s only been a week since I received this awesome gift, but I’ve already learned a lot of what works for me, and what doesn’t.

Lesson One: Paint around your subject

When I first started with oil paint, I was using it like I used acrylic. I would paint my entire background, then wait for it to dry before adding the foreground. While this works alright with acrylic because it dries quickly, with oil I’d be waiting days to paint my subject and foreground. By then the inspiration would already have passed and I would be filling another canvas with a solid color.

So I started doing what Lena Danya does. I would sketch out what I’m going to paint first, and then paint from back to front. I wouldn’t paint the entire background, but rather paint the background around my subject. That way I wouldn’t have to wait for my painting to dry to add my subject or any foreground foliage.

Lesson Two: No Priming with Alkyd

I know a lot of artists who prime their canvas with alkyd, and I totally see the benefits of this. It makes paint move smoother, allows for easier blending, and also helps in the drying process. But the smell of the resin in the alkyd can make me feel sick. I’ve found that mixing bits into my walnut oil makes things a lot easier for me (and headache-free). I simply change the formula for each layer so that I can continue to follow the “fat over lean” rule. Though I’m still getting the hang of this.

Lesson Three: Keep your brushes clean

Since oil dries so slowly I’ve been getting a tad lazy about washing my brushes right away. This has led to me mid-painting, with no clean brushes, and accidentally turning white to many different shades. It’s a waste of paint, and a waste of time. From now on, I aim to keep my brushes clean!

Lesson Four: It’s okay to mess up

I’m still working on this one. With watercolor, I can rarely fix a (big) mistake, and the same goes with pen drawings. Sometimes I can visibly see my hand shaking as I draw or paint. But with oil, I can take a breather, move slower, and even mess up. Last night I had a mess-up, realizing I’d put my subject in a spot that was less than ideal. With watercolor, this would have cost me money in supplies. But since I was using oil, I simply shut down my fearful thoughts and covered it with background. I may have to wait to paint my subject now, but until then I will get to have so much fun with this background (Payne’s Gray and Prussian blue on the way!). And I won’t have to waste a canvas.

Lesson Five: Take your time

With watercolor, I often have to move super fast to keep from it drying in odd puddles. Even with the expensive paper, I have to go fast to spread it around cleanly before it dries. I’ve noticed I get into this same hurried habit when painting with oils, so lately I’ve been forcing myself to walk away from the canvas, return to it the next day, show myself I have much more time than I think to work on these things. It’s also helpful when the husband or kiddo need me, or something urgent like when the dog is barking at the cats outside. I can leave my canvas and it will be exactly as I left it when I return. Even if I return hours later.

Since dabbling with oils, I’ve begun to categorize certain subjects into certain medium types. For instance, I feel that delicate subjects, like flowers in the breeze, would be great subjects for watercolor. As would my pen illustrations. But other subjects that require density and value, like a large tree, or a three-dimensional illustration, would be great subjects for oil.

I also can’t wait to start playing with skies! I even bought a fan brush to celebrate.

If you need some guidance, tips, or would just like to watch a painting time-lapse, check out the following channels:

Florent Farges

Lena Danya

Have you tried something new lately in your art? Have you wanted to? Let’s chat below!

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