Oil painting as creative medium, joy in underrated form of art

By Sojin Shin || Op Eds Editor

Photo courtesy of Sojin Shin.

The joy of oil painting: not watercolor, not gauche, not acrylic, and not kiddie paint. They are all fun, though!

What image comes into your mind when you hear the words “oil painting?” Mona Lisa with her glowing skin and the bluish mountains to frame her face? The Dutch Vanitas, still lives of mortality and secular luxury (or other words, human skulls next to bling)? Or is it a work of Jackson Pollock, those flying streaks of paints? There is no end to the list of famous works created by oil painting.

As you can see, oil paint is a paint medium beloved by professional artists due to its versatility, slow drying time, and luminous quality. Well, those are qualities that we non-professional people can love, too! Today, let’s find out why oil painting is great and why it might be something you want to try.

First of all, versatility. Oil paint is the most versatile of all paints, and much of it comes from the wide range of consistency and viscosity it can have. Oil paint is traditionally made with pigments and linseed oil, and when squeezed straight out from the tube, it has a nice, heavy creamy texture (the thickness of paint depends on the amount of pigmented suspended, however. Paints with high tinting power tend to be thicker). At the same time, oil painting can be diluted so that it becomes as thin as watercolor paints. This is usually done through paint solvents. 

What does this mean? Well, it means that you can either slowly stain a painting by adding layers of thin oil paint wash, or go right at it with thick loads of paints (after some underpainting or priming, though.) The former is used to create more traditional paintings, such as Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, because it leaves very little brush marks to be seen. The latter technique is used in modern paintings, where mark-making and the painting process become more significant. Monet’s Water Lilies (1914) is a good example, as well as paintings made by Lucian Freud. A good way to start is by doing an underpainting, or laying out values, with some variants of earth-toned colors like Burnt Sienna.

Another source of versatility in oil painting is the solvent. As I mentioned, solvents can control the consistency of a painting. 

At the same time, each type of solvent gives unique qualities to the paint it is mixed with. Turpentine, distilled from pine resin, gives paint a matte quality. It is often used to create a rougher (or teethier) surface that slipperier paints can latch onto. It can also dissolve previous layers of paint. Gamsol or white spirit is just a more environmentally friendly version, although based on my experience, the drying time is a little longer. Adding more linseed or Safflower oil to the paint thins it out, slows down the drying time, and gives the paint a shiny quality. Theluminosityof Girl with Pearl Earring comes from agents like these. Galkyd gives a different kind of shimmering quality but shortens the drying time. There are also numerous other options that I have not listed.

Drying time, which you can either increase or decrease by the addition of the above mentioned solvents, is one of the greatest aspects of oil painting! Oil paint dries slowly. While that may sound like a hassle, it is actually great to have that legroom! If an error is made, you can easily fix it because the paint is still wet (not fixed). Oil painting is particularly great for color relationships, a very important aspect of painting. Let’s say you have one door that is too red. In acrylic paint, the only option is really to cover the bottom layer, getting rid of the details. In oil paint, you can just blend in a smidge of grey or sap green! 

Bob Ross, the host of the PBS show Joy of Painting, actively utilizes this quality to summon fluffy clouds and streaks of red on his sunset. If you have seen the show, you will hear him say a coat of “liquid white” a lot. That’s because he uses the white as a base (which is kind of unorthodox, lighter color typically dries slowly) and adds all the bright pigments that blend in softly with the white! By the way, Bob Ross is also known for some ingenious quotes such as “happy little trees,” “everything that exists has a shadow,” and “beat the devil out of it.” I just had to tell you.

Now, having hyped up oil painting, I do have to give some disclaimers. First and foremost, ventilation, ventilation, ventilation! Ventilation is key! While solvents are fun to work with, they can be toxic if you don’t have a well ventilated work area. Doing it outside is ideal, but just a well-aired space is fine, too. An alternative I strongly recommend is to use water-based oil colors. That sounds contradictory, but many brands make them. They even have water soluble linseed oil, a modified version of the traditional one. With these, you can paint without worrying about your lungs. As for a more minor flaw, oil paint is difficult to get out of clothing. Prepare a pair of work pants and a smock. Do not buy extremely cheap oil paints, some of them are terrible. Tubes that are 36 mL go a long way because of their high tinting power.

Oil painting is fun because it’s a more physical paint than the other kinds. You can build on top of it, thin it down, drip it down, or splash it like some maniac. Oil paint is fun, because you can make mistakes and you don’t have to worry about it (if you screw up a stroke with watercolors, well, you are screwed). 

Oil painting is so much fun because you can hang it up by the door and say you painted it! Just a few tubes of oil paint – cadmium red, cadmium yellow medium, prussian (or ultramarine) blue, ivory black, and titanium white will be good enough to start. Oh, and get a big tube of white. Throw in a viridian green or burnt sienna for a more varied palette, but they are not absolutely necessary. Getting a starter set is also a good idea. 

“There are no mistakes, only happy accidents,” Bob Ross once said on his show.  But more than anything, he preaches an attitude that it is okay to make mistakes in art. Whatever mistake you make can be turned into another beautiful element, just like how a single black line turns into an evergreen in his videos. And yes, you can do that with watercolors if you are good at improvising, but it’s easier with oil. Want to try oil painting, make some mistakes, and paint beautiful things? Courses on painting are always offered at F&M, and a new art building is finally being built. 

Sophomore Sojin Shin is the Op Eds Editor. Her email is sshin@fandm.edu.

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