ART Smart: Oil Paintings

No one is born understanding all the different types of paintings and art that artists are creating. In this series we will be taking a look at the basics of each type of art so that you can feel confident and art smart! Wondering how I got to be ART Smart ? I apprenticed in an art shop for three years and while I was there it was my job to play with everything and teach people how each medium works.

What are Oil Paints?

Oil paints are likely what most people think of when they think of painting. Oils are an old medium- many of the great masters were fans and mixed their own paints. Like all paints, oil paints are made up of pigments (basically coloured powders) and a binder  – which in this case is most often a slow drying oil known as linseed oil. When you squeeze oil paint from a tube it has a fairly thick consistency which is great for impasto painting (think of paintings that are made up of blobs of paint) but not so great for painting the Mona Lisa. So to thin the paint, artists commonly use either mineral spirits or turpentine to get the consistency they need.

Oils take a long time to dry to the touch and even longer to cure. It often takes 6 months or more for an oil  painting to completely dry. Artists who love oils love this quality and the ability it gives them to thoughtfully consider their paintings and make changes over a longer period of time. I personally am much too antsy for this – my philosophy is “If I don’t like it, I’ll paint over it”.   

How should I care for an oil painting?

No painting does well in direct sunlight or near heat sources – the sun gradually can bleach color from the painting and heat can cause the canvas to warp or the paint to get soft and crack. Another thought – keep your painting out of the bathroom. Humidity is very unpleasant to original art. Buy a print at Walmart if you need to spruce up your “crapper”.

More about Oil Paintings

Unlike acrylics, oils are beautiful on glass and copper pannels and many contemporary artists are taking advantage of this versatility.  Oils are a very traditional medium – they came into popularity in the 16th century replacing egg tempra paints which are extremely difficult to work with. Oils gave artists a much easier way to correct mistakes and edit their work and gave beautiful luminousity to their images.

I mentioned earlier that oils are used in conjunction with turpentine and mineral spirits.  These substances and other mediums that are used with oils are highly toxic and require a well ventilated working area. Since my studio is in my basement and has no windows this would be a huge drawback for me. (Or at very least it would be safe to say I’d be in a completely different state of mind when I finished a painting session then I was when I started. )

In the last 15 years major oil paint manufacturers have created water-soluble oil paints like Grumbacher’s Max 2 and Windsor Newton’s Artisan series. I have played around with these paints and I enjoyed working with them. I think I still have a few tubes kicking around in my toy box.  They do clean up nicely with water and can be used and mixed with regular oil paints. You just have to remember the golden rule: mix 2 parts Max2 with 1 part regular oil paint. The only thing that was a turn off for me was the drying time and that is for oils across the board.

 What can I say? I hate waiting.  

They can be thinned with water to replicate the look of a watercolor painting, or used directly from the tube to create paintings that look like oil paints or they can be used to create looks that no other medium can make.

Some critics suggest that acrylics are not as luminious as oils. (Then again – everyone’s a critic, what do they know?? I do happen to be biased to acrylics myself…) But to get beautiful, transparent layers you can add gloss medium to the paint from your tubes. It creates luminousity and makes your paints last longer.


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