Last year, I gained an oil painting diploma from Norfolk Painting School under Martin Kinnear. Here are my reflections in a three-part series, Scroll back to read about my early Fine Arts training in South Africa.
- I discovered my artistic training genealogy.
- I learnt the discipline of time at the easel.
- I learnt about the properties of oil paints
- I learnt different ways of using my tools
- I plumbed new depths in what I can do.
- My goals changed.
- My taste in art changed.
- My thinking changed.
- I feel as though I am really just at the beginning of this self-discovery.
- I became an artist again.
3. I LEARNT ABOUT THE PROPERTIES OF OIL PAINTS
I spent many years in graphic design and lettering arts, but in 2016, after exploring printmaking and watercolours, I decided to paint in oils, which is where I began as a young woman of 19. (Part one).
There are so many new mediums on the market now and many new colours. Rather than spending hours and hours experimenting, I took a shortcut by visiting The Norfolk School of Painting (NPS). At NPS everyone has to do a basic course first regardless of their experience, and so I did this in 2016, following up in 2017 with a course on J.M.W. Turner. I got hooked and signed up for the NPS one-year diploma in 2019.
I love tools and materials and fell in love with oils all over again. I had flirted briefly with acrylics and while you can do marvellous things in acrylics, the paint dries too quickly for my liking and way of working.
The first three months of the diploma is about studio craft. Craft is learnable and implies a skill which can be acquired. What you eventually do with your skills may or may not become art, which requires creativity on another level.
Painting over a monochromatic colour wash:
Traditionally artists began with an underpainting in a thin wash of oils, on a gessoed board gradually building it up through glazes, and finally using thicker paint at the end. Throughout the course, our aim was to produce the same effects as the masters, but using modern materials.
Corot would have used the same materials that I used as a student – oils thinned with white spirits and linseed oil added to re-bind the pigments. Nowadays, people add an alkyd such as Liquin or Galkyd plus white spirits to thin the paint and accelerate drying.
A lot of our learning was based on copying masterpieces, which was a time-honoured way of learning ‘studio craft’ before and after the establishment of art schools. When I went to The National Gallery in London to see the original, the gallery assistant invited me to bring my easel and paints to the gallery to copy in situ. I didn’t know that this was still encouraged!
AT NPS we used Gamblin products, created by the founder, Robert Gamblin. Another group of his products, Gamblin’s Conservation Range, is used to restore paintings of a calibre such as Van Eycks, and Van Goghs at various museums including the National Gallery in London.
The next four products, other than tubes of oil paint, are indispensable in my studio: Gamsol, Galkyd and Neo Megilp.
- Gamsol: This is an odourless low-toxic white spirit. There is nothing on the market that quite compares to this in quality. I buy it in 5L containers and I use it to wash brushes and to thin Galkyd. I have an allergy to white spirits, but I seem to get on alright with Gamsol.
- Galkyd: This is a resin or an alkyd. Galkyd is too thick to be used on its own, and is thinned with Gamsol 50:50. It works in much the same way as W&N Liquin, but is less shiny and is more tolerant of the ‘Lean over Fat’ rule. (i.e. you can use thinner paint over thicker paint if it is thinned with Galkyd). Galkyd must always be covered in a thin film of Gamsol, or it reacts to the air, thickens and is unusable.
- Gamblin Neo-Megilp: This is a translucent jelly-like medium that is mixed with oil paints (at least 10% paint) and is wonderful for adding glazes to paintings. Galkyd mixed with oils can also be used to glaze, but it has a different viscosity.
- Gamvar Satin: My favourite varnish for protecting finished work.
You can also get Gamblin Oil Colours which are great, but in the UK, are very expensive as they are imported from the USA. In fact, it is quite in order to mix and match different brands of paints, because they are just pigment, a binder and oil. If you want to know more about any products, check the manufacturer’s websites.
(Disclaimer: I am not trying to advertise or sell these Gamblin products, I am simply telling you about what I use and what works very well for me. There are many great art materials out there with similar properties.)
Painting over a ‘colour beginning’:
Instead of the neutral almost monochromatic under-painting, (imprimatura) you can do a coloured under-painting – what Kinnear calls a ‘colour beginning’, which is how Turner would have begun his work. In landscape, I often do a split imprimatura for land and sky which relates to my composition. A colour wash gives a good base to get rid of the white canvas. Sometimes a more complex colour beginning is useful.
It is also very good to counteract ‘Blank Canvas Paralysis’ which an artist can experience.
This painting has a roughly
mapped out colour beginning with massed tonal values.
Although we did this in oils in our Turner paintings, I sometimes take a shortcut, and use acrylics in my own work. You can’t use acrylics over oils, only over acrylic gesso before you paint in oils. But you can always paint in oils over acrylic. (Just think of salad dressing – the oil always rises to the top, even in a painting when it seems dry. If there is oil under the acrylic, the acrylic paint will blister and flake off.)
After the acrylic colour beginning I then oiled up the board – by rubbing a thin layer of linseed oil all over it and added some thick textural paint to the foreground, made by mixing oils with white chalk (whiting), and waited a few days for it to dry. Any subsequent glazed layers would now be textured. Note that this is where the Gamblin products can defy the Fat over Lean Rule. After that, the painting was built up in layers of thin paint, using Neo-Megilp. Lastly, the sky and some other areas had thicker paint applied.
Painting directly onto the white gesso:
One can also start painting directly onto gesso without underpaintings or colour. The Impressionists, especially Monet did this. Painting on a white ground adds luminosity to colour, but it can visually fracture the end result if there are patches of white showing in odd places.
I like to gesso a birch ply board with a good quality house-brand acrylic gesso, such as Gerstaeker (Great Art) or Jacksons Gesso, packed in a 5L bucket. At the school our studio manager mixed the gesso himself and painted it over MDF boards for us. He made it a little more absorbent (a short ground) by adding extra whiting as this helps speed the drying of paintings and enabled us to build layers in a 3-day workshop.
Any substrate – birch ply, MDF or canvas is good for painting.
4. I LEARNT DIFFERENT WAYS OF USING MY TOOLS.
Initially I really disliked the clumsy hogs hair brushes (Chunking Bristle) because I couldn’t paint ‘neatly’ or control the strokes. Later I learnt that clumsy tools make more exciting marks and you can add to this by holding your brush in the way one holds a hammer. You know all those movies where the artists stands far from the easel with an impossibly long paintbrush and not much control…
Here is a detail of the effect you can get using ‘clumsy methods’ – a brush and palette knife and yummy thick paint. Note how the pink background glows at the edges. This detail has some collage added to it – another tool I have enjoyed using. I stick the magazine paper using PVA glue onto the acrylic background before applying any oils. (The ‘Salad-Dressing Rule’ of Oils over Acrylic). The gessoed board was painted in pink magenta so that I would be working on a coloured base.
I copied a Schiele self portrait and just loved the tension of the ‘watery’ mark-making with thin paint in the face, then the taut, precise designer-ish leaves of the Physalis, surrounded by thick thick impasto with visible brushstrokes. I made the thick paint by mixing my oils with Galkyd 50:50, to speed the drying, and whiting to thicken the paint. I outlined the shapes with a synthetic brush, round #6, then used a big clumsy old bristle brush to glob the paint in.
5. I PLUMBED NEW DEPTHS IN WHAT I CAN DO.
By the end of the course I was experimenting with a combination of techniques and tools. I enjoy collage, pattern and some imposition of artifice such gold or text as part of the painting. From my lettering days – or because I’m a bit of a magpie, I love gold and try to sneak it in if I can. Gold leaf adheres marvellously to pure galkyd. My love of pattern can be seen in my home – my fabrics, tablecloths, curtains, ceramics, or in my collection of various blue plates. To add it into my art is saying something about who I am in the same way as my household objects do.
Here is a detail of “Some jugs don’t have handles” where I have purloined the Royal Copenhagen tableware design for the wall paper, which I have painted in a Schiele sort of way. The overall style of this painting was Matisse inspired. This is a far cry from another painting of the same jug two years earlier, also using patterned curtains in the reflection on the table.
You may well prefer the second painting which is probably Romantic-realism. This is where personal taste and acquired taste comes in!
I feel we don’t have to try to emulate reality to prove we are virtuoso skilled artists who can recreate reality, although in the beginning of 2016, I needed to prove it to myself! The camera and talented photographers can achieve that sort of realism. Instead, we can say that painting is about paint, pattern, design and emotions. You may feel that I have ‘gone backwards’ or ‘gone primitive’ but for me, in the first painting, there is more of a visceral expression of my relationship to the object and to paint, than there is in the more realistic jug.
Nevertheless, I still like the clementine one and I won’t part with it as it reflects a stage in my journey, and it looks good in my conservatory.
I am currently experimenting with collage and I think that for the moment I’ll keep a few options open – rural landscape, portraiture and still-life. My new still life is still on the easel, but you can see the other two genres, above and below.
Portraiture is deeply personal as the artist needs to interpret the person they are painting. The mother and child series (I am on my third painting) started out as a narrative, campaigning to de-stigmatise breast feeding, but it has become something deeper and I will see where it takes me. Before 2019, I had never painted a portrait other than as a part of life painting, and I am excited and over-awed by the prospect.
Leaving the Christmas season and 2019 behind, my new decade 2020 has begun with a promise and the excitement of taking risks in painting.