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Oil Painting: An Intro for Beginners

Painting in oils - what you need to know about the paint.

You can liken making paintings with oil paints as making mud pies with different color mud or plaster. Why?

Oil paint usually has "thickness" so it can be shovelled, spread, pushed, trowelled, brushed and scraped - just like plaster or mud. It can be flattened or piled up and much more.

It has all these qualities - if mixed right. It can be made to be spread as thin as gossamer or as thick as clay. All this depends on just two things:

a) The thinness or thickness of the paint (its viscosity)
b) The implement you decide to use to push it around (knife, brush, stick, trowel).

So, what sort of mud or paint will we make, how dry, how runny?

Oil paint is made up of three main elements.

1. Pigment - a powder made from ground rock or earth or root anything dry that is intense in color.
2. Oil (medium)
3. A drier of some sort as oil sometimes takes too long (a thinner)

You can try this:
Go to the kitchen and get a little powdered saffron or powdered red food color and add a little oil ( sunflower, canola, peanut, it dosen't matter which). Now mix it up with a knife or spoon. You have now produced a genuine oil paint ( and unlike many others, one you could eat it without harm).

If it is a little hard to mix you may add a little turpentine, thinners or petrol which will cause it to mix easier and dry faster.

Note: it is usually the type of chemical pigment or the thinners that causes the extremely poisonous nature of most commercial oil paints (lead and arsenic are old culprits). If the powder you use is unusually strong you can add a filler to bolster up the mixture. This could be chalk or ground marble or some other neutral powder. Student oil paints usually have more filler than Artists' brands. You get what you pay for.

OK, so what do we do with our mixture? If we had two lumps of "mixture" (paint) say a red and a yellow and made them very oily and put them side by side on a flat surface they would gradually spread out and merge and take ages to get dry.

So more oil will help paint to blend and merge as oil is the lubricant for the pigment and helps it slide around on the canvas.

How can we reverse this and stiffen up the paint?
We could add more pigment, or we could get rid of some of that oil.

How do we remove the oil? By putting the mixture on blotting or absorbent paper and waiting. The paper will absorb a lot of the oil and a little of the pigment. Obviously to make it more runny we could add more oil and to dry faster and spread thinner we could add turpentine, thinners or petrol. Get the general idea!

One more thing - we can also add other things that are mixable with oil like certain resins and varnishes which will make the mixture sticky and shine and maybe dry in a layer like a clear plastic sheet. This might allow what is underneath to shine through. And when we add a little strong pigment to this sheet we can maybe make what is called a "glaze".

What now?

Like a potter you have now made you clay, only in your case it is called paint. Instead of water you have added oil and some pigment and, instead of a wheel, you will be putting your mixture on a flat vertical surface, although you will mix it on a bench or pallet. There is no rush with your paint though, as it is oil based and will mostly take a long time to dry, which you can control adding oil or spirits.

One main point before you apply your paint, if you first apply a thick layer of paint to your canvas it will take ages to dry because the oil will have to dry out. If you have ever watched oil dry out you could probably also hear you hair growing. When thick paint dries it shrinks and sometimes cracks. So if your first layer of paint is very thick and you add a thin layers on top of it before it is totally dry it will crack all the layers thereafter, and as it continues to dry the cracks will get bigger - especially if the color on top is darker. Painters prevent this by painting the thick slow drying layers last and usually begin with thin fast drying paint - as a background.

Thick to thin and light over dark' is an old painters saying. If we don't want to wait at all we can paint what is called "wet in wet" That means putting wet layers of paint on other wet layers all in the one session (or over the total time it takes the paint to dry ) This can still be hours - or days until a "skin" forms.

This is an important point as many painters would like to finish their painting quickly and are forced to paint 'wet in wet'.

More later.... :-)