Color, Color Everywhere

I decided to learn to oil paint principally to get myself working in a medium that didn’t rely upon line for its information.  Why?  Because most sketchers are like me.  We go out, pen in hand, and draw stuff.  If we also use color (typically watercolor) we do so “after the fact.”  It’s common for people to say “I’ll add color later.”

This is fine and makes many of us happy but this approach causes us to draw without thinking of tone and any thoughts we have of three dimensions come in the form of perspective lines, object overlap, etc.  Again, that’s fine but these approaches don’t do much to teach us to see and produce value, and because of the ‘later’ aspects of our color approach we’re mentally reducing everything to two dimensions as we draw and, for many of us, the third dimension is, at best, handled by some general tone variation when we add color.

And so I thought the switch would force me to get into values and form more.  Unforeseen was my complete ineptitude with respect to using a brush to draw my oh so limited understanding of color mixing and a whole bunch of other stuff.

I bought this book, a book you come across everywhere you look when listening to oil painters.  It’s an oil painter’s bible.  Alla Prima’s reputation is well-deserved.  I have a fairly large library of art books (around 300 at least count) and this one has become one of my best.  Unlike the typical hobby books, this one is packed with into on everything oil paint, and as its subtitle says …and more.

One of the things contained within it is a suggestion for learning color mixing and to gain fluency with your own  colors.  I confess that I’m not a “swatch” guy.  I hate this stuff and, with watercolors I’ve always found it lacking because it’s so hard to know what you’re really mixing because of the watery nature of the medium.  Anyways, Richard Schmid argued that this exercise would make me smart and who wouldn’t want to be smart.

Here’s how it works.  Each panel represents one dominant color.  Each column represents a mixture of the dominant color with one of the other colors on the palette.  Then, with that mix, you do a 5-value chart of that color mix to fill up the column.  Each panel reflects 50 color mixes. I just used the Cobra Water Mixable Oils kit as my color palette and set to work.  It took FOREVER!!!

In doing this, however, I became fluent with the palette knife, learned a lot about the strengths of each color, got pretty good at mixing values and by the end I was able to do this a LOT faster than I could when I started.   Can’t say it was fun but Schmid was right, I got smarter.  I’m still dumb when it comes to oil painting but small steps are the way to success.

Here are all the panels I did to complete the Schmid exercise:

The Zorn Palette

All this mixing got me interested in Anders Zorn’s famous Zorn palette.  He painted almost everything with Vermillion, Yellow Ochre, and Ivory Black.  In reading about him I found that they found Cobalt Blue in his studio so maybe he used that on occasion as well.  I used this as an excuse to add it to my look at the Zorn palette.  Same dominant color + other colors approach applies here but as there were so few colors I was able to do everything on one panel in four blocks of value columns.   It’s amazing how many colors you can get from so few colors.


Look Ma, No Lines

I’ve made a big deal about putting down my pens while I learn to create art without relying upon outline as the main element.  In spite of this, in one way or another, all of my oil paint experiments have started with some sort of drawn outline of the objects I was trying to paint.  These outlines, in fact, have been part of my experiments.  I’ve used pencil, colored pencil and painted lines.  I’ve used complete outlines and very loose location-only marks.  I suppose this remains an area of experimentation but I’ve been pretty happy using thinned oil paint and a small brush to do the drawing.  I’ve learned that I need to keep these lines light, however, as otherwise I struggle to cover them up.

A week or so ago I did the first experiment where I used no outline at all, relying only on placing spots of color of the appropriate hue, value and chroma to create the object, which in that case was a pepper.  This really pushes the thinking towards shape and form as you have to develop those shapes by including backgrounds as much as setting color in the objects themselves.  I liked that thought process.  It felt, somehow, empowering.

The result isn’t really a complete painting as all I wanted to do was see if I could make the pepper look, well.., like a pepper.  I vaguely blocked in another pepper in the background but I never really finished it.

I realized that I never shared it here, but since it’s sort of a landmark of sorts, I thought I should.  It’s only 8×6 on gesso’d MDF.  For what it is, I’m pretty happy with the result.

More Watercolor With Oils

I continue to experiment with recreating watercolors I have done in oils.  I’m interested in this for a couple reasons.  First, I’m not just learning how to oil paint; I’m learning how to drive a brush, color mixing, and how to shape objects with paint rather than ink.  Thus, I see watercolor <-> oils to be a two-way educational process for me.  So far I’m learning a lot if learning is measured by the number of mistakes I’m making.

Here’s one of them.  I took yellow paint, created two tones (one too brown I think) and quickly drew three bananas.  This took me about five minutes and it shows.  I messed up the dimensions of the middle banana and didn’t render any of them very well.  But, as I said, it only took me five minutes to make these mistakes (grin).

At one point I also decided replicate a sketch I’d done on a park bench during pre-pandemic times using pen/ink/watercolor.  Here is is, done in oils.  I don’t find it bad but it smacks too much of the original pen and ink sketch.  I didn’t notice this until I was done.  Some habits die hard.

Field Sketching vs Oil Painting

The title of this post is probably a misnomer, but I can’t think of a better one.  Truth is, I’m comparing what I’ve done as a field sketcher to what I’ve tried to do as a neophyte oil painter.  Sort of apples and oranges but the apple and orange were both done by me and they’re both apples.  Does that make sense (grin)?

Ok…it was September of 2020 and a lull in COVID lockdown was in the air.  We went apple picking at an orchard on the south side of the St. Lawrence.  Everyone was enjoying being outdoors, climbing picking ladders and filling bags with apples.  I relied on my family for the picking while I wandered around looking for just the right view of apples and a mix of leaves.  I’m sure people thought I was nuts as I walked around and around trees, moving from one to another without picking a single apple.  But I found the spot.  So I sat down on my tripod stool and drew this with my fountain pen (S&B Beta sketchbook).

When I got home I added watercolor.

Fast-forward to 2022… and we’re in lockdown (again) because of Omicron.  I wondered what would happen if I tried to replicate one of my sketches with my very limited oil painting skills.  So, I applied a couple light coats of gesso to an S&B Beta sketchbook and went to work, using pencil to draw the closest replica I could from the original watercolor.

I’ve got to say that my limited abilities reared their head when it came to replicating the original.  Also, my pen and wash style relies so heavily on the pen lines to convey their msg that I struggled more than a little bit without them.  Still, the result kinda sorta looks like the original, though the watercolor apples look better to me.

This was an interesting experiment.  Painting in a sketchbook with oils works pretty well except you can’t close the sketchbook for a couple days.  This might slow me down as a street sketcher (grin).



Painting Oranges In Oils

I’m still plodding along, trying to figure out oil painting while also learning lots of stuff about color mixing, and the nuances of foresaking my pen and ink style.  I’d like to think I’m getting a bit better at it but there is more failure in my results than successes.  Reminds me of 2012 and my beginnings as a sketcher.  We learn from our failures so I must be learning a lot (grin).  Here’s my latest, a pot of oranges.

It’s 2022 and our province is mostly locked down as Omicron ravages our population.  We’re lucky in that Quebecers have largely embraced vaccination but still, COVID hangs over us like a wet blanket.  If the biology is sound, however, it looks like we may actually have a decent summer of sketching.  I sure hope so.  Cheers, everyone.