I’m primarily a pastel painter, and I blog about that here.
But not always. I’m also an oil painter.
This summer, for a few weeks, I returned to my oil painting roots. Why (even temporarily) abandon my beloved pastel sticks? Because I’m an artist, and as an artist, I like to mix things up. Compelled to paint something different, I was browsing my photo files when my husband sagely suggested, “You haven’t done an oil in a couple of years.” Two years? Seriously? That long? What was I thinking, going two years without painting in oils? Jim, the forever helpful mate that he is, was likely worried I’d launch into some ill-chosen creative phase such as painting portraits of deceased pigs. (Someone seriously asked me to do that once, which is among the reasons I don’t seek commissioned work.)
The thought of sniffing paint fumes got me so excited, I ordered boards. (My nearest art supply store, a hobby and craft nightmare, is 3 hours away. I order everything online, then, wait.) I use Ampersand Gessobord because it’s archival, and its consistently smooth surface allows the detail I put into my paintings. My masterful framer, Ramon Gonzales (Midland Framing and Fine Arts, Midland, TX) pointed out a handsome molding that complements my work, so I bought a large frame from him before I started painting. Sounds backwards, but it works– I call it “painting to the frame”, which simply involves being aware of color and making things match as I go along.
I dusted off brushes worn to a nub, shafts lacking bristles. Uh Oh. I ordered brushes, and more dollars seeped from my checking account. I’m not a supply-a-holic by any means, but sometimes, an artist’s gotta do what an artist’s gotta do.
No one can accuse me of not getting maximum use out of a brush. I’m sure I could use this single hair to paint, but frivolously, I replaced the brush instead.
New brushes and the ones I replaced. Sometimes, buying art supplies is inspiration in itself.
No matter the medium, choosing a subject for a large landscape painting means deciding where I want to vicariously spend my next several days. Sweltering in mid-summer heat, I switched seasons by selecting a photo of a winter storm moving into the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park. Cool. (My photo files include about 4o images taken here this winter morning. While I don’t use all as painting references, going thru all of them helps me recreate the feelings I experienced as I stood there snapping shots. I usually choose two or three to paint from.)
Painting a different season can give an artist a vicarious vacation. I left sweltering Texas heat as I painted this winter storm moving into the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park
A couple of weeks later, I finally had my supplies. It was time to paint.
Pastels are so immediate. Richly colored sticks rest in tidy foam cradles. Pick up a stick and touch it to canvas and instantly, you’re painting. Oils require daily preparation and clean up. I’d forgotten, for instance, how long it takes me to lay out a palette. Before I started laying out my palette, I struggled with the glued-on lid of an old bottle of Liquin. (I use Windsor Newton Liquin as a drying medium and also, a glazing medium. Love the stuff, when I can get the artist-proof lid off.) Fifteen minutes later, I broke down and called Jim for help bludgeoning open the wretched lid. (With pastels, this wouldn’t have happened.)
I used a limited palette for my underpainting and initial sketch: alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, Titanium White, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow
What colors did I want to use? I tried to remember my old standbys. Most paint tubes had self-sealed themselves, creating their own colorful glue. Those required pliers. My trusty Ultramarine Blue was almost empty, and I found I had just three disposable paper palette sheets to my name. The thrill of new supplies already having been seriously dampened by paying my credit card bill, I rationed my deep blue paint, and scraped my paper palette clean after every painting session. (Who’d have thought that paper was so sturdy?) As I dug through tubes of paint, I struggled to recall which colors are opaque, which are transparent. And how to arrange them on my palette? There’s no “right” way, but I once regularly used a pattern I could lay out in my sleep.
I squeezed out paint, giving each primary color its own side on my palette, white in one corner, Burnt Umber in another.
The Bad Voice whispered, You don’t know how to do this anymore!
The Good Voice shouted, YES! I! CAN!
I poured an inch of Turpenoid into a wide-mouthed jar, dabbed alizarin crimson onto the center of my palette. Seizing a big bristle brush, I applied a thin turp wash underpainting. This is basically what I do when painting in pastels, but in pastels, I usually use hard pastel washed with rubbing alcohol. Because pastels are pure pigment, they’ll mix successfully with any other medium. So, I could’ve done a pastel wash as my underpainting, using either Turpenoid or water or rubbing alcohol. I’d have done this, had I been doing a portrait or something that required careful drawing, where pastel pencils and hard pastels would offer more control. Since my subject was a very simple drawing challenge, though, broad brushstrokes were the quickest way to underpaint.
I created my loose underpainting using a thin wash of Turpenoid and oil paint. I let the wash run, which doesn’t hurt anything and often suggests contours and pleasing shapes I can incorporate into my composition. Here I’ve laid down four main shapes, sky, cloud, mountain and foreground. If this stage of a painting isn’t interesting, it will be hard to make the finished work hold interest.
I use underpainting to create an inner glow, and also to lay out the simple design elements of a painting. It looks loose and abstract, but starting with a few bold shapes instead of an intricate drawing helps me create a strong composition without getting hung up on detail too soon. As I put in these underpainted washes, I stayed acutely aware of the four points of intuitive interest created by dividing my canvas in horizontal and vertical thirds. Just like I do when I start a pastel painting. Something should happen at at least a couple of these intersections– a cloud breaks, a mountain peaks, a line points, a plant rises. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering, just something. And, the easiest place to lay the groundwork for those points of interest is at the start of a painting.
Here, the top of the peak roughly hits one high point of interest, and the point of interest beneath that one is where the ochre tree line and the red mountain meet. On the opposite side of the composition, the high point of interest holds a dark spot breaking through the thick white clouds, and the lower point is where three design elements (mountain, tree line, cloud) meet. Small things, big impact in a finished painting.
I lightly blotted my turp wash with a soft paper towel so I could continue adding color before it dried. I mixed my sky color using Titanium white and Severs blue. The teensy touch of cad orange I picked up from my underpainted layer helps gray the brilliance of the blue. White clouds painted boldly pick up touches of the alizarin and ultramarine blue wash, and I use that to soften and blend clouds within clouds. I still haven’t drawn anything, just used shapes of color to suggest form.
By the time I’d completed my painted sketch (above), I was in the groove. Perhaps not feeling as in control of my medium as I would with pastels at this point, but still in control of the medium, because I was in control of my composition and color.
I had laid down a strong foundation. All that remained was to apply color, let it dry, apply glaze, let it dry… monitor, adjust, add more color… and over a couple of weeks, I had me a finished oil painting. (This took me about the same amount of painting hours as a pastel the same size would, but there was much, much more time when I couldn’t be painting because I use a traditional method of layering oil painting and it had to dry. I used that drying time to paint several oil miniatures so I wouldn’t waste the paint on my increasingly tattered and stained paper palette page.)
Switching to a different medium for awhile was surprisingly good for me. I found myself analyzing color in new ways, thinking out composition with a brush in my hand instead of a stick of pigment. The strokes I use, whether I’m holding a brush or a stick of color are almost identical, but wielding a brush made me more aware of the way strokes of paint add energy to a composition. Oils are an old friend, and I enjoyed visiting them again. I won’t go two years without another visit, either. Just like a friendship, you can’t take old skills for granted, and I’d rather not go through those awkward first conversations again.
“Casa Grande Embraced By Clouds” by Lindy Cook Severns, a 20″ x 24″ oil on Ampersand Gessobord 2015
Years ago, my mentor Albert Handell asked me whether I defined myself as an oil painter or pastelist. Albert also paints in both mediums. I said, “I like whichever I’m painting with at the time.” Which is true enough. My teacher said, “But if you had to choose one or the other…which kind of painter would you be?” I didn’t have to think. “I’m a pastelist,” I said, not really understanding why I had to choose, or why I chose pastels. At that time, I was using oils and pastels for roughly the same number of paintings each year, and loving working in both.
I think I finally understand. Every artist needs a center, someplace you can comfortably navigate on autopilot, day in, day out. A pilot can be proficient at more than one type of aircraft. (Studies show that pilot proficiency remains equally high on two different high performance planes. Add the third type aircraft, however, and proficiency drops for all three planes. Interesting.) Like a pilot and her aircraft, an artist can be proficient in two different mediums, and switching between them offers the excitement of diversity. Choosing one doesn’t mean abandoning the other. It does mean not having to readjust your seat every time you climb into a cockpit.
I broke down and ordered a new tube of blue paint, and a new disposable palette. I owe myself those things. I’ll do without something less intrinsic to my well-being than French Ultramarine Blue. (Coincidentally, while I was breaking back into oils by painting this one of winter in the Chisos Mountains, I sold a major oil painting, one of only two oils that remained in my unsold inventory and I also sold two of my new oil miniatures. Is the Universe sending out smoke signals or what? It’s been a good summer to be an artist.
And what am I currently painting with?
Visit my website, LindyCSeverns.com to see more finished paintings, in oils as well as pastels.