Before today, the last time I had any instruction in oil painting, I was an international student in Germany. That was 40 years ago in East Berlin.
Since then, I’ve been to lots of watercolour , mono-printing and acrylic painting workshops, but never oil painting. I often think of oil painters as fairly traditional realists who use muted colours, whereas I prefer strong colours and an expressionistic approach to my subject matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.