I’d avoided it long enough – it was time to bite the bullet.
The studio’s built, all the the excuses and fears have been put aside and it’s time to tackle painting in oil… but where to start?
The Watts Atelier eases into its first oil painting phases by introducing several monochromatic palettes. Starting in monochrome (or a single colour) means that you can focus solely on concepts such as manipulating edges and values in the oil paint without the complication of discerning and matching color in addition.
There were three monochrome palettes I worked through (each palette adding an additional element to grapple with) and for each I chose to complete a head study and figure study.
Burnt Umber Pick-out
A burnt umber pick-out starts as a monochrome wash of burnt umber oil paint over the canvas and then the lighter masses are literally picked out with rags, cotton buds, and brushes containing solvent to allow the white of the canvas to show back through. You can then go back with the brush to add washes of tone in various values with the result looking like an old sepia photo. I actually really enjoyed this technique because of the slow, relaxing, methodical nature of manipulating the edges and tones over the course of the session until happy with the result. The slow drying and blendability of the oil paint meant that any decisions could be made thoughtfully without the need to rush before something dried.
Burnt Umber and Titanium White
Next up was to add Titanium White to the palette and progress more into opaque wet-into-wet oil painting. This allowed you to push the oil paint around and experiment with value control, edge manipulation, and shape design. I noticed a considerable temperature difference between similar values created by canvas showing through thinned burnt umber alone, and those which were created by adding white to the burnt umber. Even though the value may have been the same, the white cooled the burnt umber considerably.
Phthalo Blue, Titanium White and Ivory Black
With this palette the Burnt Umber was switched for a very strong blue in Phthalo Blue (which gave a more electric feel as opposed to the sepia looking Burnt Umber), maintaining the Titanium White but now also adding Ivory Black. For the head painting I chose to use the black only at the darkest values and as a result the blue comes through very strong. For the figure I tried to use more of the black but I don’t think I quite nailed that one – probably my least favourite piece of the six. If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t think I quite nailed the initial drawing and then I was struggling to rein it in from that point on. Lesson learned – get the drawing right to start with rather than assuming you’ll be able to polish a turd later on.
I quite enjoyed these studies and can see myself using these techniques in the future. Quite often the burnt umber pick out is used as an underpainting to establish the correct value range before the colour painting is completed over the top, but I quite like them as a piece in their own right.
This exercise has also been a pretty nicely staged process to get my toes wet with oil paint which no longer seems as daunting anymore. Have to be happy with that!