The Friendly Medium Of Oil Paint

Gubbart staff reports and views: Steve Ladd on the intrinsic merits, modernization of the medium…

No medium can magically make one a great painter, but if materials and techniques are cause for worry and woe in your painting, consider using oil pigments. This article of course is for those artists and visitors to Gubbart who do not already dabble in the ‘greasy kid’s stuff’ and who might be experiencing problems with the other popular painting mediums, acrylic, watercolor, casein, and egg tempera. (For insight and inspiration in the use of acrylic pigments, see the work of Gubbart’s own Ben Aubert).

Up until the modern era, when acrylic pigments became the medium of choice for most artists, oils were the go-to paint. The convenience of acrylics is a tremendous attraction; it’s water-based, dries extremely fast allowing almost immediate over-painting, is durable yet flexible, can be applied in thin glazes or thick impasto. It all makes good sense. But there are some drawbacks too: the hard-edged brush stroke is difficult to avoid, the fast drying makes blending an urgent task, the colors dry to a darker value, conscientious brush care is crucial ( good brushes are very expensive ), and keeping the pigments wet on the palette requires constant vigilance. For many painters these ‘disadvantages’ can be overcome with compensation and attention, or just accepted as part of the acrylic experience, and still preferable to oil paints which many believe ‘take forever to dry’ and require toxic solvent as a thinning agent.

But oil paints do not have to be any more toxic than other painting mediums , nor do they have to take a long time to dry unless you want them to. And they can be adapted to any technique that the artist wishes to use, without the problems and issues listed above.

First, toxicity: with the many different viscosities of drying oils offered in today’s art supply market, linseed, walnut, safflower, poppy seed,…solvent is no longer necessary to thin the paint. There are oils made so thinly now that a few drops added to the tube pigment can make the colors creamy or even flow in transparent glazes. (However, if a solvent is desired, there are odorless mineral spirits available which cut down considerably on the toxicity; not totally however, as even if there are no fumes detectable there is still some effect in the air).

Brush care: ordinary non-drying cooking oil, like Mazola or Safflower, can be used to keep brushes ‘wet’ for weeks, alleviating any possibility of their being ruined with dried oil paint. Just wipe the bristles clean with a rag before each painting session, then wash with soap and water after the work is finished.

Drying time of paint: Also available now are oils to suit any artist’s preferred method of painting. Sun-thickened linseed oil, vacuum-bodied oil, epoxied oil, refined or cold-pressed oil, oils with resins and driers,…each with inherent drying times. Some Alkyd oil mediums dry overnight, while others, like Stand Oil, allow the paint to remain malleable for days.

Blending: brushstrokes made with oil paint can be as hard-edged or soft-edged as the artists wishes, and more to the point, the strokes can be changed later. If you realize the next day that the clouds in your plein air picture are too sharp, the edges can be softened with a finger or brush. The common complaint about oils becoming muddy with blending is true of every painting medium. Muddiness is the artist’s doing, not the fault of the paint. It happens because too many colors are mixed together with a dirty brush, or too much pressure is applied to the brush thus stirring up under-layers of paint.

Value honesty: a stroke of oil paint today will be the same value tomorrow; not darker, not lighter, but just the way you first made it.

Oil painting is a friendly medium, not to be feared. And like any friend, it just wants you to come out and play. However, there is one thing that a brush loaded with oil paint can’t do: it cannot become a magic wand that paints masterpieces all by itself. And we humble brothers of the brush here at Gubbart don’t pretend to know where magic comes from or how masterpieces are made. We just try to be ready for the muse when it hits. And that’s a whole ‘nother story.

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