3.2.1_On the learning curve of art materials for the student of oil painting

10June 2008

3.2.1  On the learning curve of art materials for the student of oil painting.

The student of oil painting, whether aspiring to become a professional or simply doubling as a hobbyist, will benefit from the instruction and experience of using artistic mediums related to the application of oil paint.  We can no longer ignore that the consumer is fast becoming the voice of modern art today.  As a result of the consumer’s new strength within the arts, the idea of study and training for the trade needs to be reinforced.

The student of oil painting should not rely on oil paint alone to teach him to create works of art.  The student has not yet learned to control his hand to create what his mind already sees, and using oil paints is difficult to learn, let alone master.  The student of oil painting needs the training of simple mediums at first, mediums that are less complicated and involved than oil colors.  For this purpose, there is a learning curve that progresses through several mediums before arriving at oil paint.  Typically these mediums are designed to study artistic principles.  Albeit, as a result of artistic innovations, they have all found a place as mediums used as fine art.  As you will see, the student of oil painting treats each of these mediums as individual lessons, but with the techniques of applying oil paint at the foundation of each medium’s course.  By applying each medium as oil paint is applied, the student of oil painting prepares himself for oil, gaining a much better grasp of its nature.  So for that reason, we tailor these courses toward the technique of applying oil paint, where the medium is applied in layers to build a surface.

Starting with charcoal, the artist moves on to graphite and colored pencil, then soft and oil pastel sticks, then ink, and finally onto oil colors.  Through this process of study, the student of oil painting will arrive at oil colors with a firm understanding of basic artistic principles while discovering his own insight and artistic voice.

The artist’s progressive training of mediums begins with the delicacy of charcoal sticks.  Charcoal is the perfect study medium and is commonly used in timed studies where the student works quickly to create a work of art.  Charcoal is naturally precise for applying dark and light values.  Charcoal is not easy to work with accurately and takes a soft yet resolved hand to master how it lays dark and light marks on a surface.  Allow the medium itself to teach the student how to use it.  Charcoal is easily disturbed once applied to a surface and it can be altered for good or bad by the slightest of movements.  It marks the surface immediately and although not permanently, its bold characteristics are difficult to erase.  Traditionally the contemporary student of oil painting works with vine charcoal sticks on newsprint or paper.  Vine sticks are best used in study because their delicate structure forces the artist to build his surface over time with several applications.  Charcoal is similar to oil paints in that the artist builds a surface with the medium to produce a work of art.  The intended purpose of working with charcoal sticks is so the artist concentrates on the accuracy of form and value, training his hand to be light, but resolved.  Indeed the student is silently directed that way as a result of the nature of the medium itself.  There are a few simple tools to be used alongside charcoal sticks.  A sandpaper pad is used to sharpen the drawing point of the charcoal stick.  A gum eraser is the best choice to erase with, as gum erasers collects larger amounts of medium rather than rubbing it off as other erasers; thereby not scaring the drawing surface.

The next mediums for artistic development are the graphite and colored pencils.  Working in these different forms of pencil teaches the artist the basics of value, color, and tinting.  Pencils can easily scar the surface of a work of art if applied with too much pressure.  At times that pressure, when controlled, is exactly what the artist wants.  It is doubtless that the artist has used a pencil before.  Regardless of the artists experience, now is the time to start from the beginning with no working knowledge of the pencil.  Graphite pencil reintroduces the lessons of charcoal, but takes the study of form, line, and the diverse techniques of creating the tonality in shading and grades of depth for contour value and perspective, to a more precise form of expression.  Working in graphite pencil, the artist refines his talents with the lessons of charcoal.  Pencil is not as easily disturbed as charcoal but can be easily erased, and although the process of editing with the eraser is often an approach to the technique to creating a work of art, it is a technique that devalues the basic lessons gained by using a pencil.  At this point you will erase nothing.  If you are dissatisfied with your work, then start a new drawing with a fresh perspective.   

With a delicately resolved hand, the student uses the graphite to build a surface to create forms and values.  The artist needs to learn to control the application of graphite first, then add innovation when confident enough with the medium itself.  The first lesson is to attempt to have all marks go in the same direction.  That is not easy, all marks made includes what would be line, and line tends to go in opposition to the value of forms.  The commonly known methods of working realistic values such as blending, cross hatching, the use of stipple, and my own scribble style, all employ varying marks that are closer together to resemble darker value, and farther apart for lighter values.  Distance within marks, giving the appearance of different values, is easy when compared to a unified directional pencil stroke.  The difference is that the student is training his eye to see value immediately, instead of creating value spontaneously.  Start by drawing in the darkest values and then working in the lightest.  Focus on the dramatic differences in form values, then work towards the subtle discrepancies.  When the student of oil painting is comfortable with his ability to instinctually see the value of form, it is time to move on to colored pencils.  

Colored pencil is commonly overlooked, being considered as a business medium, most commonly used by the designer, architect, and illustrator.  I have even heard color pencil compared to the crayon.  Although they are both a wax-based medium, the comparison is prejudice.  The colored pencil is a world all to itself and indeed is a medium who’s purpose reaches fine art.  As a wax based pigment, the colored pencil has the ability to blend colors in refined layers of lightly applied color.  Wax builds up quickly and the student of oil painting will have to refrain from adding too much too fast.  The student’s hand will have the muscle memory now, after working in charcoal and then graphite pencil, and consequently has trained for the delicacy and pressure needed.  Working with color for the first time as a student will at first be more difficult than expected.  To grasp an understanding of how to work with colored pencil, the student will have to memorize the basic color wheel.  Knowing all the aspects of color mixing and how each color interacts with the other will come in time with practice of this colored wax-based medium.  

After the introduction of color, the student of oil painting moves on to both soft and oil pastel sticks.  Using pastels combines the lessons from all of the previous studies, while truly preparing the artist for the complications of oil painting.  The technique used within pastels integrates value and color together while foreshadowing the use of a brush.  Soft pastels are basically chalk, and similar to charcoal in their application.  I find them distasteful, and hopefully the student of oil painting will avoid them as he avoids the disease of acrylic paints.  Soft pastels mark a paper’s surface, but they do not hold onto paper and more times than not the pigments fall off unless the paper is treated with a fixative before and after your work.  Sandpaper is a perfect drawing surface to use for your soft pastel work of art.  Sandpaper, if quality glue was used in its construction, holds the soft pastel firmly between the grains.  Using sandpaper as a drawing surface solves the majority of your staying issues with soft pastels.  Do not spend too much time on the study of soft pastels.  They have little to give to the study of oil paintings, except the experience of a new and challenging medium.  

Oil pastels are the closest relative to oil painting.  Oil pastels are most commonly made with a non-drying oil and wax as vehicles to bind the pigment.  The technical accessibility of oil pastels combined with the lessons of the charcoal, graphite, colored pencil, and soft pastels, makes their use a true study material for the oil painter.  The pigments within oil paints are the same as those in oil pastels and you will notice instantly how when mixing color there is a bit of a grind to it until you work the stick until it is warm.  Oil stick are slightly cured oil paints.  Because they are oil-based, you can use oil based mediums such as linseed oil to create painting-like effects.  I have used WD40 for the effect of sharp textured painterly strokes of color by spraying the WD40 onto a sheet of folded wax paper, and then rolling the tip of oil stick in the medium until it mixes with the color.  The WD40 dissolved the oil pastel stick, yet bound the stick to the drawing surface.  Just as oil paint, apply the mixed medium and color to your work of art.  It cannot be erased but it can be covered over or scrapped off the drawing surface.  Oil pastels layer fast and blend easy.   They should be used to study throughout the course of an oil painters life.            

For the next stage in the learning curve of art materials, the student of oil painting works with ink.  Ink is irrevocably unforgiving and permanent, and like the improvisations, the first mark is the final mark.  As a result of the editing limitations of ink, the artist will find that the execution of applying ink is philosophically similar to the improvisation.  Using ink to create works of art teaches the student of oil painting to be comfortable with his intuition and to react to his subject-matter as he replicates it.  By that same limitation, the use of ink familiarizes the artist with the abstract idea of positive and negative space.  The artist will find himself prone to working with the negative space to complete forms of positive space.  Working this way is thinking like a painter.  In oil painting, the painter uses negative space to develop the positive.  The negative space is more important than positive space.  

The added benefit of studying ink last, is removal of color.  Removing color as the student of oil painting adds line and composition brings the mind back to the fundamentals of composition.   I work with ink as often as possible for studying composition for my works.  Oil painting is next.  As you start your first oil painting, work in monotone, simple white to black just as ink.  It will be more difficult than expected.

All of these artistic mediums are traditional for the student of oil painting and not to be set aside once the artist is working in oils, but to be used alongside oil painting.  For each work of art to be created, the student of oil painting usually starts with one or more of the lesser mediums as a study and sketch for the painting itself.  Eventually the student will develop his own method to study for oil painting.  The oil painter should explore different mediums and methods of creating works of art throughout his entire life.