Painting with Oil Paint

Some of these paints are 35 years old!
Some of these paints are middle aged!

About 35 years ago when I was an art student in East Berlin at the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, I painted with oil paints. At that time, in the 1970s, it was impossible to buy acrylics in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). I suspect that there was a shortage of raw materials that made plastics. Thus there were absolutely no plastic bags (people used cotton bags) and there was very little product packaging using plastic. It’s funny that now, 35 years later, we are trying to reduce our oil-dependancy by scaling down plastics usage.

In that land of socialism, university tuition was free and art students received a monthly stipend to live on. The rent on my little apartment was capped at 8% of my monthly stipend.

Deciding where to place the next flower.
Deciding where to place the next flower.

My area of study was painting so a couple of times a year I accompanied my teacher, Professor Wolfram Schubert , to the school store room to receive about 30 tubes of oil paint, compliments of the state.

Evening on Nepperminer Lake by Wolfram Schubert, 2009 (oil)

Oil paints last a long time, so after three years I had accumulated quite a few. I brought a lot of tubes home to Canada with me and even though I’ve given quite a few away over the years, I still have a container full of them that I brought here to Bear River with me.

I was reminded of this a while ago when I pulled them out to use as ink in printmaking. I wondered what it was like to paint with oils compared with the acrylics that I’ve been using for the last 20 years.

My Flowerdale tea pot. Oil painting by Flora Doehler c2006
My Flowerdale tea pot. Oil painting by Flora Doehler c2006

I love the smell of linseed oil (which actually is flax seed oil!) That’s right! The flax plant gives us linen fabric and the seeds are pressed into an oil. When it’s boiled, it becomes linseed oil. Because of the high oil content, the paint is thick and creamy like peanut butter. In comparison, acrylic, which is plastic, is very slippery. Watercolor, like the name implies, is like brushing colored water over a sheet of paper.

I have a very cheerful pot of daffodils and I wanted to create a feel in this painting of the chaos and joy and persistence of the life force that are reborn every spring.

Inspiration in a pot.
Inspiration in a pot.

In the smaller painting I started with a pale green yellow ground. A few months ago I bought some oil sticks and I just had to try them out! They look like gigantic crayons but they are actually oil paint suspended in a medium that makes them a little harder than paint. If you dip your brush into a solvent and move it over the oil stick mark on the canvas, the colors will instantly dissolve. I enjoyed experimenting with them.


It is so different than working with acrylics- which dry extremely fast…sometimes too fast. I had to wait several days until the oil in the paint was dry enough to paint more colors that won’t dissolve the colors that are already painted. I have discovered an advantage to this slow dry. Using solvents, I easily removed a section of the painting that wasn’t working for me.

Removing some paint.
Removing some paint.

I’m very happy with my finishedl daffodil painting. I like the drawn lines and the colours that are softer than I usually use. I think it has a good centre of interest.

Daffodils. Oil paint and oil stick. Flora Doehler,  c. 2009
Daffodils. Oil paint and oil stick. Flora Doehler, c. 2009

The larger painting has been more challenging. I have probably spent more time repainting a daffodil in the middle of painting than on the 2 canvases put together. I overpainted it way too many times. Finally I have just scraped and sanded and painted out that section. I’m going to wait a while to complete it because right now it feels like I’m having a power struggle with the poor flower! One day I’ll be in the studio and I’ll sneak up on it and finish it!!

Daffodils in progress.
Daffodils in progress.

Although switching mediums can be frustrating, I really like to mix it up because it keeps me learning new ways to approach the subject matter. It keeps me more aware of the properties of the colours and brushes I’m using. Each new way of interpreting the beauty I see around me helps me to better understand what I’m actually looking at. But most of all, it’s just so much fun moving from oil to acrylic to watercolour to printmaking and squeezing out a bit of the past into my present painting.

6 thoughts on “Painting with Oil Paint

  1. I love your post. So much inspiration. I also love the fact that shared so much in this post. The images are also beautiful.

  2. Thank you Alyice! I enjoyed working with oils again. I really love the smell of linseed oil. My mother used to paint with oils and perhaps that's why I like the smell.

  3. Thank you for the historical and informative post! (I still have some of my dad's oil paints that date to the early 50's; the paint is still good and viable.)Wonderful teapot painting, too!

  4. Thank you!It is surprising how long oils last, isn't it? The down side is that I found it a huge challenge (and a good learning experience) to patiently wait for them to dry. It's like Goldilocks and the 3 Bears "The acrylics dried too fast, the oils dried too slow, but the watercolour was just right!"

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