Category Archives: oil

blobs in space


This doodle in oils started out as an experiment in blending thin layers of paint with a soft make-up brush. It worked quite well as a way of getting a smooth transition without brush strokes across the spheres, and the light and dark areas could be gradually pushed around. It helps to tap the end of the brush in the starting colour and then blend only one way. If you try and blend back the other way, it pollutes the opposite colour and you have to start again.

After that, the eye and ear were very loosely based on a photo reference, but the lighting and perspective had to be invented. The trouble with inventing objects is that there’s no quick way of checking if you’ve got it right. James Gurney often uses maquettes or makes a model of his imaginary scenes, and this can help solve the major lighting problems and perhaps make you aware of things you’ve missed. But I think he uses these models only as a starting point, and completes the artwork by relying on his knowledge of lighting on forms gained from many drawings from life—which is what I need to do.

bare arms


An oil painting of a pencil copy of a drawing found in Risunok: Osnovy uchebnogo akademicheskogo risunka (Figure: Basic educational academic drawing) — a book full of beautiful drawings but with Russian text. I can’t read the words, but at least I can learn something from copying the drawings.

I’m trying to develop the ability to see things in terms of their three-dimensional form, as an object in space, as recommended by Robert Beverley Hale in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters. He suggests visualising forms in terms of very simple mass:

…the block, the cylinder, the sphere; occasionally the cone; as well as simple combinations and modifications of these forms, principally the egg.

When we wish to create the illusion of reality on the surface of a piece of paper or canvas, nothing is more helpful than the ability to visualise in terms of simple mass. Troublesome problems connected with general shape, proportion, direction, planes, detail, light and shade, and line can all be solved by thinking in terms of simple geometrical masses.

In this painting, many liberties were taken with the lighting, which was developed and invented from the original line drawing. For instance, the light catching the muscle in the top left coming from the shoulder blade is lit too strongly, but I liked it as a centre of interest. I took a picture of the half-finished painting into Photoshop to experiment with the background glow and highlights, and then used that mock-up as a guide for finishing the painting. And the anatomy has no doubt become distorted through the multiple copies (final year students of Medicine & Surgery take note). I recommend as a great site to learn how to visualise and draw anatomy.

This was also an exercise in developing a method of creating a final painting. I quite like this process of starting with a pencil drawing then transferring it to the canvas, or in this case the usual gessoed paper. A scan of the original pencil copy was enlarged to the final size and printed out on normal office paper. The back of the printout was rubbed with charcoal then taped in place and the outline traced with a red ballpoint pen (red ink makes it easier to see which parts have been traced). I found it helpful to trace not only the outlines but also areas of shade. With the charcoal transfer in place I could quickly build up a tonal underpainting. After that, the experiments could begin with building up layers of paint, blending (or deliberately not blending) the tiles of adjacent colour, making many mistakes, and trying to correct them.

layers and glazing


Another painting in oils, going up in size to A4 acrylic paper covered with an extra layer of acrylic gesso. The still life was set up on a shelf in a cupboard, illuminated with a desk lamp.

A terra rosa underpainting was covered in a grey ‘dead’ layer (grisaille) and allowed to dry in preparation for glazing, which was the main point of this experiment — seeing layers of transparent glaze build up into forms, shadows and colour looked so satisfying when watching others do it, I wanted to try it myself.

But I had some problems. Thinned down with Galkyd Slow Dry medium and spread with a soft brush or rag, the diluted paint seemed to collect in the grain of the surface. So instead of a smooth layer of colour, it gave the underlying paint a dirty appearance. Maybe the previous layer wasn’t completely dry, or perhaps the surface needs to be smoother. Anyway, I ended up adding the final layers in opaque paint, which was quite satisfying as the work had already been done with the previous layers and I could follow the tones of the rough glaze below. I could probably have created much the same effect by painting the final colours directly over the underpainting — I’ll have to do some more glazing experiments.

I didn’t capture the subtle difference between the slightly grey-green jug and the warmer-toned porcelain of the vase (in the end I was just glad to get the shading roughly right). The red of the apple could have been more striking if everything else had a cooler tone. And the vase doesn’t pass the mirror test. But that’s the whole point of these studies: to test out materials and to get to know the pitfalls.

eggs first


The world is full of eggs and egg-shaped things, so I need to know how to paint them. It turned out to be quite difficult. Once I got over the apparent simplicity of an egg, I realised that they are full of shifts in hue, value changes, and variations in colour saturation. To add to the confusion, all these shifting variables change according to what’s around them. For instance, the high chroma oranginess of the egg only appeared when the background darkened and turned towards a blue-green-grey.

My aim was not to create a good composition or even an attractive picture, but to paint what I saw as accurately as possible. I used the Holbein Duo Aqua oils with a little of Gamblin’s Galkyd Slow Dry medium as an experiment in smoothing out the brush strokes. Sometimes the light rakes against the tiny ridges made by brush strokes in paint straight out of the tube causing patches of glare, which can make it hard to judge the colour. The medium evens out the surface and also makes the paint thinner and easier to blend. (Oil paint mediums are a rabbit hole of conflicting advice, I found out.)

The set-up was the egg placed on a slightly faded cloth-bound book with the light coming mainly from a desk lamp fitted with a daylight bulb placed a few inches away. I surrounded the back and sides with some black-covered sketchbooks to lower the reflected light and increase the contrast between the light and shadow.

There appeared to be a halo of washed out colour around the highlight, followed by increased saturation moving through the halftones into the shadows, but some areas of the darker halftones also seemed to have low chroma. It really was a case of careful observation then trial and error. Sometimes I would hold the mixed paint on my brush next to the part of the scene I was painting to see how they compared. Mark Carder has invented a colour checker for doing just this but it requires close attention to the lighting to use it accurately, so somehow I need to develop an intuitive way to get to the right mix of paint. This will probably involve painting lots of eggs.

apple to imp


Don’t ask…


About to be binned

This started out as an experiment with oil mediums. I wanted to see how adding extra linseed oil to the paint would affect its handling properties. I was hoping for a smooth, fluid application but the linseed oil is too stiff and viscous on its own and would need to be thinned down.

In my haste to experiment with mediums I neglected the painting itself, distorting the perspective and missing all the colours. It was meant to be a still life of two apples on some books. I was about to abandon the whole experiment and prepare a new sheet of acrylic gessoed paper when a friend saw a face in one of the apples and suggested I develop this and make my own Hieronymus Bosch.

The results are hardly Bosch, but it was an interesting exercise in inventing forms and deciding how they might be lit.



Oil on paper, model courtesy of New Masters Academy.

I was pleased with this one, not because I think it’s a good painting (the anatomy is questionable, and the finish is more like a rough underpainting) but because it was done quickly and spontaneously while using up leftover paint from the previous oil sketch. The revelation for me was that the paint could be overlaid, built up, corrected and modified without too many of the problems I’ve encountered before, such as underlying paint being dug up and polluting a newly applied colour. I applied the paint fairly thinly and kept two brushes on the go at the same time, one for dark paint, one for light. If a major correction needed to be done, such as moving a light edge further out into the dark background, I loaded slightly more paint on the brush and just went over the top. Old paint could be wiped or scraped back if necessary, but generally it seemed that the workability of the paint was due to the confidence of ploughing forward and not getting too fussy.

It was meant to be a monochrome sketch, the leftover colours being mixed into a mud, but the permanent rose and burnt umber created a kind of flesh tone and I added a bit of blue to the shadows.

I’m posting this as a reminder to myself to do more quick oil sketches and to be bolder with the paint. To see someone who really knows how to play with oils and revise and modify a painting, have a look at this short video by Duane Keiser.



Painted in oils on paper, based on a photo of a farm near Rode, Somerset.

I was attracted to the various abstract shapes in this view: the vertical blocks of the building in light and shade, the horizontal stripes of the sky, trees and distant field, and the diagonals of the shadows. In his book Imaginative Realism James Gurney talks about a technique he calls shapewelding to link adjacent areas of similar value or colour to make a stronger composition. Even though I played around with the colours in the main shadow on the left, the values are similar enough to merge with the wall and form a single shape.

I also tweaked some of the details for better effect, such as darkening the right edge of the distant trees to provide more contrast with the white wall, and making sure there was something light behind the left gatepost so it wasn’t lost against the background.



Some isolated clouds out to sea, viewed from a Cornish cliff top.

I’d like to say I made this postcard sized oil sketch on the spot as a pochade, but it was based on a series of photos. A quick underpainting of acrylics was overlaid with layers of oil.

The titanium white is the slowest drying of all the oils in this palette and only goes tacky after a few days. This can lead to problems if extra glazing is attempted too soon. I’ve heard that the slower drying walnut oil is sometimes used for whites instead of linseed oil as it is less yellowing, but I don’t know if this is the case with these Holbein Duo Aqua oils.

The finished painting was hard to photograph accurately. Subtle changes in the ambient light makes the colours and contrast look markedly different.

white jug copy


An attempt to copy a painting by Larine Chung, found on Will Kemp’s page about choosing a basic colour palette. I was impressed by the effect created by just three colours (ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and titanium white) in Larine Chung’s original. I used ultramarine blue, burnt umber, a little azo yellow and titanium white in the Duo Aqua oils.

The handle was the hardest, with the whole three-dimensional appearance being easily thrown off with just a little paint in the wrong place – I still don’t think I got the light quite right, and the alignment of the spout and the handle seems wrong. And I haven’t captured that beautiful luminous glow of the porcelain in the original.

I used a small fan brush to do some of the blending, and found how easy it is to pollute the darks with lighter paint. See Mark Carder’s video on just this problem.



More experiments with oils, getting to know their properties and how they behave. I wanted to get away from using an on-screen photo as a reference, but painting the bookshelves in the corner of the room presented the problem of continually changing light. Not only did the illumination in the corner of the room change during the few hours spent painting but the painting itself was in turn lit by overcast clouds, direct sunlight and sunlight through a drawn curtain – not ideal, but it underlined the importance of consistent lighting when attempting to get any sort of accurate colour.

I started with a perspective sketch and spent some time with a pencil held at arm’s length to get the proportions right. The various mistakes (such as the angle of the top of the books on the lower shelf) were going to be corrected the next day, but the paint had already become tacky and unworkable. Maybe the way round that is to let it dry even more before correcting, or use a slow drying medium so the paint stays workable for days.

I’d bought some low-tack masking tape to hold down the acrylic paper, hoping that would cure the problem of the paper ripping on removal. If anything, this was worse than the masking tape bought from the DIY shop. Perhaps I need to rethink the whole painting on paper technique.