Switching to Oils (part 1)

Recently I decided to give oil paints a try. I thought it worth sharing some of my experience and frustrations with the medium. I’ve been working in acrylics exclusively the past few years. And even though I painted using oils in my late teens – that was a long time ago and I don’t remember any of it.

I haven’t actually switched to oils 100% but I want to be able to work in both mediums as the situation and mood demands. So I picked up some Windsor & Newton Water Mixable Oil paints and mediums (water mixable thinner and Liquin) and have been doing a few paintings to get a feel for them.

Coming from acrylics there are some basic things that make oils a challenge. First, the dry times. Since oils take much longer to dry, the approach to a painting has to be different. Unless you paint wet-into-wet with acrylics and use a medium or acrylic paint that stays “open” or wet longer, then you have to rethink your approach to a painting. Instead of layering and correcting colors, values, etc. all in one sitting as you can easily do with acrylics, you have to either scrape off your mistakes, wait a long time between layers, or get very good at painting thin layers that you can then carefully apply a thicker layer over in oils. The challenge is that your paint will readily mix since it stays wet. So careful planning, accurate mixing of your colors, and precise brushwork become more important when using oils.

I will probably anger some acrylic artists with this next statement, but I almost feel that working in oils forces you to be, if not a better artist, a more careful one, than working in acrylics. I know it depends on your style of painting, but in general you will want to have more control over your paint and its application when working in oils, at least working in the “alla prima” (all in one sitting) method. Certainly if you wish to develop a painting slowly over time in layers you can do that in oils, just like with acrylics but over a longer timespan. You have to develop patience. With acrylics I like that I can paint whenever I am in the zone and keep painting for as long as I want. Oils force you to take more time.

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Painting Luminous Trees

I recently received a question on how I painted some trees in the painting you see below. So I thought I would walk through this painting to illustrate how I went about getting the luminous quality of the backlit tree which is the focal point.


To start with, since the whole purpose of the painting was to capture that moment when light hits this group of trees creating a backlit glow, I thought about how best to capture that effect using paint. The three things I knew would help in this were the concept of simultaneous contrast (the effects of two colors next to each other), contrast (light and dark) and saturation.

But before working out those details I knew I wanted to start with a colored ground for my canvas, using a color that would enhance the vividness of the orange tree. So I chose to cover my canvas with a combination of Cadmium Red Light and Burnet Umber. I could have chosen to use Yellow Ochre, but I wanted the red ground to add some energy to the hills and greens so I went with this choice. I knew the orange/yellows on top would pick up some of the undying redness and energy of the ground anywhere it peaked through and would maintain its brightness on top of it. Continue reading “Painting Luminous Trees”

Bluebirds & Dogwood (in 12 steps)

Here is a breakdown of how I approached my latest painting. The painting itself was a request, and for guidance I had an idea of the color palette and that it should be calming. I also knew it should be fairly large, and in landscape orientation. So I first drew a number of sketches, to get a general idea of the composition. Then it was time to paint. I chose a 15″ x 30″ canvas and paint the edges (1 1/4 inch deep)

Step 1: Blocking in the background.
For the background the initial step was just to get color on the canvas. You can see in the photo below that first I blocked in a lot of color in the general color family I wanted for the final result, but without worrying at all how it looked. The photo below shows the end of that block in and the start of step 2.

Step 1: Background Block-In


Step 2: Working the background for atmospheric effect.
For this step I worked with the same color palette I used for the blocking in of the background, but now started applying final color in blotches using a 1″semi-soft synthetic brush that let me blend the splotches as I went. As I worked I would adjust the colors, lighten some areas, and go back over areas to soften or adjust the colors and values. I kept my sketch handy to inform me where I would be putting elements on the canvas so that the background would compliment the focal points. I keep the corners darker and light in the center to draw attention to the middle of the painting and keep attention from leaving at the edges. Continue reading “Bluebirds & Dogwood (in 12 steps)”

Finding Your “Style”

About a year ago I was slightly obsessed with figuring out what my “Style” was. I had read that to be successful it was important to develop a unique style. An artist that is recognizable by their style of painting is, so they say, worth more, since buyers know what they are buying and what they can expect from that artist in the future. At least I think that’s the theory. Wikipedia states it like this: “The identification of individual styles is especially important in the attribution of works to artists, which is a dominant factor in their valuation for the art market, above all for works in the Western tradition since the Renaissance.”

Regardless, I was struggling to figure out what my “Style” of painting was, or should be. Should I paint in an Impressionist style, like Monet? A realist, or photo-realisitic (or hyper-realistic) style? Something in between? And how would I stand out? What would set me apart from the thousands of others painting in the same artistic space? Continue reading “Finding Your “Style””

Mixing Color Values Exercise

Colors can really affect one’s perception of values when painting. And mixing colors to match values, especially in acrylics where colors dry darker, can be intimidating – especially when you are just starting out. This is one of the challenges when first starting to paint, learning about values, and then learning how to both assess and mix different color values without a lot of trial and error and re-painting.

There aren’t a lot of exercises on directly mixing values. Most information out there tends to be about the use of a 9-value scale (or 13 or some other number) that you can use to assess values, but not much is out there about how to practice reading and then mixing different values using different colors.

So I decided to put my own exercise together. My criteria where that it had to be quick to do and easy to assess.

What I put together is a simple little exercise that anyone can use both to strengthen their ability to read and mix values in different colors, but also as a simple warmup they can do each time they sit down at the easel to get in the proper mindset. Both the exercise and the setup is simple.

In addition to this blog post, with instructions below, I put this exercise into a youtube video as well. You can view it on my channel here: Value Exercise

Continue reading “Mixing Color Values Exercise”