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!















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