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About Oil Painting Techniques

The site is maintained by LitLangs Ltda., a small publishing company incorporated in Santiago, Chile.

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Oil painting techniques are the personal views of LitLang's technical editor, C. John Holcombe, who adds the following comments:

Though this appears to be among the fullest of websites devoted exclusively to oil painting techniques, it largely consists of private notes, put together over many years of painting, thought and reading. All the usual techniques are covered, but space and copyright considerations restrict what can be convincingly demonstrated. The essential need is to try and see for yourself.

The coordination of hand and eye, a dexterity with pencil or brush, a knowledge of composition and aesthetic harmony, of how paints mix and their properties may be modified with oils and balsams — none of this can be learned from exposition. I hope this site will allow a deeper appreciation of old master paintings, but also that it will encourage contemporary painters to explore and develop the range of techniques still open to them. Above all, I hope they will follow up these suggestions with experimentation, and will keep practicing and practicing. There is no alternative. Knowledge is essential but stays only words until employed.

Getting Started

Oil painting as taught and practiced today generally employs only a fraction of the techniques available from its four hundred years of resources. Contemporary oil painting is mostly 'direct painting', the immediate application of paint to a canvas with only a minimum of prior planning and underpainting.

Direct painting has its strengths, and can produce works of great vigor and freshness. Unfortunately, it is also a rather hit or miss method, and requires skills — from conception to manual facility — that cannot be acquired without long application, and then not by everyone. The beginner has to start somewhere, and not be too easily discouraged, so that the authors of various 'how to paint' exercises are providing a sterling service. But the starting painter does not realize just how much expertise has been compressed into these deft strokes of the brush, or how difficult it may be to extend them to create other forms of pictorial reality. Many hopefuls give up at this point. Others persevere, but find the demonstrations do not take them where they want to go. Books, classes and individual tuition have then to be sought, which are expensive, and usually boil down to what this site recommends — that the many different aspects of oil painting technique should be studied separately, which is what the earlier painters understood was necessary.

Learning from the Past

Looked at carefully, painting techniques are as numerous as the styles of artists employing them. Rubens and van Dyke ran large studios, but Vermeer's two paintings a year are all in leading museums and collections. And that is worth dwelling on. There is no one correct way of painting. Artists train themselves in a wide variety of approaches, which they continually practice and extend as they find occasion and need for. And whatever the public may suppose, art is not dashed off in fits of inspiration, but comes together after long trial and thought. With the older approaches, however, which broke the picture process into manageable steps, there was more opportunity to get things right. Each stage had simple requirements, which could be more completely achieved. Unlike today, where a happy idea may win an artist the appellation 'genius', with a markup in newspaper copy and gallery prices, the old masters strove simply for the best balance of effort with financial reward. Naturally they did, as there was no alternative. How in practice they achieved their objectives depended on their clients' commissions and their own gifts and inclinations. But they certainly made technical matters as straightforward as possible, since only by proceeding methodically could they free themselves to meet their clients' larger expectations. Such requirements did not exclude imagination or original expression, but placed them within the context of practical concerns.

Every artist creates his own working methods, which deploy his innate gifts and extend its successes. Rubens and van Dyke were superb draftsmen, and their studios could not have flourished without those extraordinary facilities being turned into efficient picture-making processes. Rembrandt was an even more extraordinary draftsman, but his drawings and pen-and-ink sketches were more exploratory and improvisational, leading to paintings that needed more experimentation with layers and glazes, until the clients' needs were gradually left behind, and the painter was pushed into bankruptcy. Vermeer and Chardin had none of that facility, but worked steadily to produce small pictures with a quiet poetry that was beyond the reach of the prestigious names. Cezanne was even less gifted — a bungler, Sickert called him — but those painfully hesitant steps set painting on a new course.

What this site urges is therefore what every student is told on entering a craft profession. Don't reinvent the wheel. Learn the established practices. Nothing is written in tablets of stone, but you must understand the rules before you know how and when to break them.

 

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Illustration

Detail from 'Charles I of England, Hunting' by Anthony van Dyck. Musée du Louvre. Paris. A masterpiece of political portraiture: a devious and self-centered man is invested with the aura of kingship while modestly posing as a private gentleman. But for touches of blue in the sky, the composition uses an analogous color scheme, superb line drawing and careful control of tones.