Painting at the start of the 20th century

One of the things I love most about painting is also the thing that overwhelms me about it – the are so many different ways to paint. There are so many different things to paint, too. Plenty of people absolutely adore painting landscapes. That’s not quite my jam, but I can certainly appreciate a beautifully painted landscape. Some people paint hyper-realistic fruit. That’s also not quite my thing, but again, I sure can appreciate the effort and time it takes to glaze layer after layer to achieve realistic transparently glowing grapes.

I enjoy really passionate art, no matter what the style. I tend towards somewhat intense art as well, which many people do not. That’s the thing about art – it serves different functions for different people. For example, this is one of my most favorite paintings ever created, and it sure isn’t for everyone.

My Nocturnal Self
“My Nocturnal Visage” by Ludwig Meidner


This painting is by a fellow named Ludwig Meidner, born in Poland in 1884, he died in Germany in 1966. He lived and painted during the second wave of expressionism and this piece was made in 1913. He is most famous for his Apocalyptic Landscapes, which are amazing as well, but I love his portraits so much – probably because I prefer portraits. Expressionism is most assuredly my greatest influence, and the art happening at around 1913 is my favorite period in art history. These paintings and the style and the brush strokes and the colors chosen just hit me so hard in the feels I have a hard time expressing it in words.  This is where the passion and greatness of painting comes from for me. It’s antiquated at this point most certainly, and it’s safe to say most abstract expressionism doesn’t do it for me. Some have, but most don’t. Many would view this painting as overwhelmingly disturbing and creepy, and try to not think about it too much. That’s totally fine. I find it completely visceral and raw and honest beyond comfort. This is one of the greatest roles art can function in. There is a time and a place for beautiful things to put over the couch, but there is also this ability for art to serve as a force to humanize. There is a space for art to connect, de-alienate and to allow us to not all feel so alone. This painting does that for me. This painting lets me into the world of an artist who is long dead, and allows me to see him as he saw himself in his most private moments, and he is HONEST. So honest, the vulnerability of the piece is a corkscrew to the heart. I get to share in his humanity because he shares this intimate self view. We are capable of so many terrible things, we commit such atrocious acts. Alice Walkers’ words pop into my mind whenever I see a painting like this. “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”

Here is one more, this time of a house located in Dresden.

“The Corner House” 1913 Ludwig Meidner

It’s a house, sure. But the energy and movement makes it seem alive, and even threatening. The perspective conveys a great deal about the subject. How he chose to handle the planes, even in the sky, all make this painting convey tension.

I have copied several paintings at this point, and I recommend you do the same if you are learning and have never done so. Reproducing another artists work will teach you invaluable lessons in color, brush strokes and more. I’ve reproduced Joan Brown’s Self Portrait with Fur Hat (this paintings is SO great), Van Gogh’s Postmaster taught me about the color blue, and Carlo Carra taught me about adding orange when mixing, and I have a side project (which I need to get back to) where I enjoy copying master portraits with Crayola crayon. Maybe more on that later. For now, here’s another of my favorites, Carlo Carra’s Penelope, which I reproduced at twice the size of the original, because hey, why not. It was a challenge, and I didn’t know how to blend yet, so I’ll show the original painting he made. This is the best photo I could find.

“Penelope” Carlo Carra

Carlo Carra was an Italian Futurist and coincidentally, this painting was made right at the same time Meidner was working. This painting is from 1914, and it probably reminds you of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Futurism was a combination of Cubism and mechanical imagery. There are a lot of things about this piece that make my heart thump. The way he chose to break the shapes of a body into planes of metallic material make her very robotic, but very human at the same time. The braid going down her back floors me, and so do the folds of the dress. Mixing the colors to reproduce this piece took me up to 45 minutes sometimes before the actual painting could start. Some of them were quite tricky to figure out. It was a great experience though, and again I recommend you pick a wonderful and complicated painting to learn from.

I have a total love/hate relationship with painting. Sometimes the painting is so difficult I’m hurling obscenities and about to just give up and set the thing on fire. Sometimes I really enjoy the challenge and sometimes I can really settle in and relax and just paint. But it’s very often a struggle, and I can’t imagine making these paintings were easy. To be a fly on the wall when these paintings were created! I make it difficult on myself as well – I choose difficult subjects, or fabrics or whatever because I like challenging myself and I want to learn how to paint better. Each piece is about expanding my proficiency. I may curse and mutter during the process, but eventually I’ll manage to push through the problem and eventually I’ll be satisfied enough to stop. There is an element of masochism to this, I admit, but it’s for the greater good at the end. I am positive most artists feel this way often. It’s an obsessive drive that moves us to create, and painting is truly about problem solving. I keep coming back for more, and after all of the trouble and growing pains I have a serious accomplishment (usually, sometimes I don’t!) and I’m ready for the next.

That was an aside, that little rant, so here’s one more from my favorite time in painting and then I am done for now. Here’s a painting I discovered in a museum in Houston and I stared at it for a long time. Then I tried to look at some other art. I was pulled immediately back to this painting. It has a power to it, the green of the wallpaper in stark contrast to the blue black of his shirt, the sitting position, as if he is contemplating something quite secret… It’s a very powerful painting to me, and it’s a contrast to the Meidner above. This painting is by a French fellow named Georges Daniel de Monfried.

de monfreid
Georges Daniel de Monfreid 1905

This post is getting pretty long, so I am not going to indulge in too much of a rant about self portraits, though maybe by now you can tell I adore them. It’s been said that every painting a painter makes is a self portrait, regardless of the subject. It’s also often noticed that people learning to draw may tend to even portray their sitters with a bit of their own features, that it is a subconscious tendency. de Monfreid in this painting is not quite inviting us in, he seems a bit on guard in fact. It makes me feel like he is trying to decide how much to reveal, and this feels like the truth of this piece. He is posturing and that tells us a great deal. The paint handling of the hands here makes me love it even more so then the well described beard. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these paintings!


Oils for Oil Painting: Part II

Now that I’ve gotten some information out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the oils available for painting with. We can start with refined linseed oil, since it’s the most flexible and commonly used. It gets complicated though, because there are a few variations of linseed oil in use.

First, there’s hot pressed vs cold pressed. The concept is the same as it is with cooking oils. Cold pressed oil yields a higher quality oil, it will retain its properties for longevity. It’s pretty amber in color, but will resist becoming more yellow with time. This is the original way the flax seeds were pressed to make the oil, it is a slower process, and requires a higher volume of seeds. Hot pressed became popular to increase production and lower cost. It’s still good oil, just not quite as good as cold pressed.  Dry time is 2-3 days. It’s still better then any of the oils you buy at the grocery store, which is refined for food grade consumption, not fine art purposes. So it’s said. I haven’t compared the two by microscope, and I don’t have a chemistry degree anyway. The statement made by many, is that food grade oils are not as refined as artist grade oil, and that it has materials in it that are safe for you to eat, but that are not desirable in paint films. I have chosen to not take the risk, especially if I am going to spend 80+ hours making a painting, I want that thing to last as long as freaking possible. I want my paint film and materials to be as absolutely archival as possible.

Old Holland mills with cold pressed, and their paint is very pigmented and stiff. Some painters are all about it, some are not. It’s high quality for sure, but I like a more buttery paint out of the tube. Quick note on brands – you really need to try a brand to decide if it’s right for you. I like some more then others, and I use lots of different brands and mix them. There is no one best brand, and there are a bunch of really nice professional grade paints out there. Student grade paints are okay at first, but if you start making sales, switch to professional grade paints. They handle much nicer, will last, and you aren’t cheating a client with cheap paint that may fade quicker. You also kind of cheat yourself with student grade paints – the use of more filler and less pigment means you go through it faster. It may take some time to stock up on those expensive paint tubes, but it’s worth it. If you are taking the time to really learn a craft, a trade, I feel really strongly about using good materials to create your products. Each canvas I make and paint on represents ME as a brand, as a person and as an artist. I want what I make to be top notch. My name is on the thing. The thing is my name. I take that to heart, and wish to represent myself in the best way possible. Anyways – Oils!

Cold pressed oil is better oil, but I personally can’t feel a difference between that and plain old refined linseed oil. I’ve been using refined hot pressed for a while, and use cold pressed on occasion. Some really serious painters out there say that commercially available artists oils are still not really pure enough to use out of the bottle. They purchase it, and then further refine it on their own in a process called “Oil Washing”. This refining process takes about two weeks, and leaves you with half of the oil you started with. I have never done it, but you bet if I ever do I will blog about the experience.

Next up, we have Stand Oil. Stand oil is linseed oil that is viscous. It’s thick, like honey, and needs to be thinned down. A very traditional medium used is 1 part stand oil, 1 part damar varnish and 1 part turpentine. This recipe has been around for a long, long time, and many people are still using it. The advantage to stand oil is that it’s polymerized – it’s made by putting the oil in an air tight container and heating the oil until a double bond forms between the molecules instead of a single bond. The stuff is tough, and it’s almost the most elastic form of oil you can get. It also dries much slower. I once had a painting teacher who recommended I use stand oil for an impasto technique. I made a 4 x 5 ft painting, slopped on stand oily paint with a palette knife, and that painting took a full year to dry. 6 months in, you could still dent the top paint film with a finger nail. Good news though, is that I will never have to worry about that painting cracking. It’s solid.

There’s other processes done to linseed oil to change its properties and dry times, and refinement level. There’s Sun Thickened Oil (which is actually a step up from Stand Oil, but this stuff is expensive)  Bleached Oil, Boiled Oils, all these variations.

Poppy Oil is a really popular oil as well. It’s very pale in color, and it dries slower then linseed. There’s a paint company that mills with poppy, and they are very lovely paints indeed, and they come in so many mixed colors it’s astounding. Plein Air painters seem to love them for not having to mix on site a lot. I love the slower dry time and the slippery feel of the paint is luscious. I have heard it does not yellow, but I have no proof of that. I had that one painting yellow on me, so word of advise with poppy oil – stick to panels for it, because it yields a more brittle paint layer and maybe don’t slop a bunch of it into a white background, and then definitely don’t add a few drops of Liquin to make all that poppy oil dry faster. It’s dry time is about 4-5 days. Oh! One other variable to discuss – the WHITE PAINT. Do you know about the White Test? This guy is right up my alley, check out his site.

Cassandra, 2010 Yellowed significantly with time. You can see the start at the top there.

The last oil I am going to talk about here is Nut Oil. Walnut oil is the current most popular one. There’s a very wonderful hand milled paint available with this oil and I love it. It dries in about 3-4 days. It may not keep as well as linseed, and some people who have bought very large jars of walnut oil have discovered it spoils with time if not refrigerated. I have never experienced this myself though. I love Walnut oil, and it is my primary oil now. It’s also best on rigid substrates.

Something I have encountered a great deal of while researching and experimenting with oil materials is conflicting information. This is rough. It’s best to view yourself as a mad scientist out to discover what’s really going to happen. Experiment and experience are key. I have to make that disclaimer when discussing these things. All the variables abounding are also going to make differences. All the information I give is from my own experience. Maybe the dry time of an oil is different in California then here in Texas, because of altitude or something. Remember, so many things are at play here. This is why it’s best that I stress when learning about materials to KEEP IT SIMPLE. If you go mixing different oils and alkyds into a piece, and something unwanted happens, you don’t know where the problem came from. It’s best to keep the paint films stable, and simple. I will mix poppy oil paint with linseed oil paint, but only sparingly. Plus, linseed oil paints overwhelm poppy oil paints, and then you are sort of wasting the more expensive paint. Mixing the different kinds of paint come down to the style of painting you are doing. If you are layering in the indirect method, glaze and layer away! If you are mixing and slopping that paint on, take heed and pay attention to what you are using.

That’s it for oils for now! Enjoy, discuss, and ask any questions you’d like!




Exploring different Oils for painting : Part I

Please excuse any obvious issues with my learning how to blog, and my learning curve on WordPress.  Oil painting is my preferred medium… and it’s been around for 500 years and involves pushing pigments around on a substrate with a stick that has animal hair glued to it. It’s pretty old school .

In any case, I’d like to get down to it – this blog is intended for me to talk about my paintings, my adventures in learning how to paint, and for me to share the knowledge I’ve gathered over the years. Today I’d like to discuss the different kinds of oil that are available for painting with. First, this requires my insistence on stating the first rule in oil painting – FAT OVER LEAN. You have maybe heard this before. You may be very familiar with it. Maybe once, you made a painting that cracked on you, and you aren’t sure why. It’s possible this is why.

Here’s the break down.

Solvent is 100% Lean. Oil is 100% Fat. Literally, oil is fat. It’s some other stuff too, and it’s also quite acidic. This is why it is imperative that you protect your lovely raw canvas from it. Some people like to go to the art store and buy cheap canvases to paint on that are pre-primed and ready to go. I love pre-stretched canvases for studies and for working out issues, but on the whole, I find these canvases to be cheaply made and  often times not square, or warped. The primer isn’t great either. But that’s for a different post that I’ll make about substrates at another time. Back on point – if the canvas isn’t sized properly, oil will seep through into the canvas itself and start rotting it. This is why you should not paint on raw canvas. What this means for building an oil painting is that you have to have a sufficient isolation coat to protect the substrate you choose to work on. A flexible paint film is desirable because it is more durable with time. It’s important to realize that the oxidization process takes a really long time. Way longer then once the paint feels dry to the touch. It goes on for years. The paint layers will shrink and expand on a molecular level, and the painting will become flatter with time and more transparent as well. I’d love to use the plate of spaghetti analogy, but I can’t recall the source. It’s a great aide for understanding what happens to the layers over time. They shrink and flatten out and fuse together while the exothermic process continues for years.

Lean layers, the first layers of your painting, will dry faster if you scrub in the basics using just solvent to get the paint going better. Once you need the paint more workable, for upper layers, details and blending,  you get oilier and fattier, and those layers will dry slower. Each layer can have progressively more oil then the last. This comes down to the drying processes – evaporation vs oxidization. You want the first layers to dry fast so you can get into those details. If you use oils early on though, you have wait for that to dry. If you apply a leaner layer over the oily layer, you get trouble known as ‘Why is my painting cracking, OMG NOOO”. People have asked me for solutions to fix this problem. My sad answer is “Don’t do it again in the next painting”. Fat over Lean.

There are many available oils out on the market, and it’s really confusing to figure out which is most loved. Let’s look at what oil paint even is – it’s pigment suspended in a vehicle for manipulation. If we were talking about watercolor, the vehicle would be gum arabic. If it were acrylics, it would be acrylic polymer. The vehicle is oil (and usually paint makers include a small amount of wax to keep them from separating), and when people are just starting to learn how to paint, I love to recommend that they try it first for awhile without adding any mediums so they can learn what the paint feels like before they start really altering it. In the case of really tight paint, or if they really need to thin it and fyi – solvent alone is not good to super thin down colors, then I suggest trying oil as the first additive. Too much solvent will weaken the paint film, and once that dries via evaporation, you’re left with pigment and no paint film. Too much solvent cuts down the oil and leaves you with dry pigment. So it’s best used in small amounts to get your paints the desired viscosity. Adding oil to your paints is just adding more of what’s already there and not complicated! A little dab of oil on your brush, or a dab mixed into your paint pile can really get things going. I’ve tried SO MANY mediums at this point, and at the end of the day, I admit my favorite medium is simply MORE OIL. In cases where I must use an alkyd dryer, I have my favorites, but I only resort to driers when I have serious time restraints on the painting.

Lots of painters are very concerned with the tendency of oils to yellow over time and I am too. It’s a great reason to stop using damar in your recipes, besides the turpentine necessity! Damar is a natural resin, and a property of resins is that they yellow over time. That’s TWO reasons to not use damar anymore! Wow, I feel so strongly about damar, and not using real turpentine. You’ll be seeing these outburts often I suspect. Anyway, I have a piece with a very white/celadon background, and no kidding, after 5 years I am starting to see yellowing in the whites. This is really sad! I experimented with adding a synthetic resin alkyd to a slower drying oil (poppy) and this is my reward. I don’t know if it happened because of the alkyd mixed with oil, or if it’s just the oil I used, or if it’s just the alkyd. Lesson – Keep it simple. One additive to a painting while you learn.

I have an art habit. Don’t judge.

Most oil paints are milled with refined linseed oil. Some paint companies use poppy oil, or walnut oil and those are in fact very nice paints and I use all of them. White paints tend to be milled with safflower oil, due to it’s paler coloration. I use all these oils, honestly. But there is a good reason why after all this time linseed oil still reigns despite its slightly more yellow appearance. It yields the most flexible paint film. It remains more flexible over time then the nut oils or poppy oil. Poppy and nut oils dry slower then linseed, and they are clearer in color, it’s true, but the paint film they yield is less flexible. It’s important when you build an oil painting that you take into account all the variables to ensure it lasts a nice long while. Is your substrate flexible or rigid? What quality of primer or sizing are you using? Is that ground acrylic or oil based?  And now, what quality of paints and what kind of medium are you using in those paints? All these choices are important.

That’s all I have time for today, but I’d love to continue ranting about oils in more detail, so maybe an “Oils:Part II” is in order. Congrats if you made it this far! I hope this oils rant was helpful, and please feel free to ask questions if you’d like. Writing about this stuff really brings out my passion about it, and shows me how very disorganized it is in my head. I’m jumping from topic to topic, but really it’s because all these parts work together to create a whole.  This, I suspect, is another reason I oil paint. Once you understand all the aspects at play, it opens up the realization of how much more there is to learn, and how beautifully complicated it all is. Oil painting is incredibly chemistry based, and nuanced, and it takes a great deal of curiosity and passion to jump down that rabbit hole!