Demonstrating a technique of oil painting in class recently, I was enthusing about the glorious squidginess of oil paint, when someone asked, “is this your favourite medium?” It took only a moment to realise that my favourite is invariably whatever I have in my hand at the time.
Being able to use watercolour one day and pastels or oils the next is a luxury not everyone can afford. To be honest, some of us could bear the cost of a second or even third string to our bow if we were really convinced that it would make us more proficient painters. Whereas in fact most of the students I meet feel it must be best to conquer one medium before tackling another. I understand this line of reasoning but cannot really go along with it.
My belief is that every medium has its own pleasures and problems. Consequently, each one has something particular to contribute to our development as painters. An understanding of what oils, watercolours, acrylics and pastels have to offer as ‘teachers’ might encourage more students to try something different for a change.
For me the excitement of oil paint lies chiefly in its plasticity; that butteriness which enables the brushmarks and indeed the very gesture of my arm to be made visible in the paint. So, I have learnt that the manner in which I paint becomes an integral part of the painting. Fast or slow, flamboyant or careful, my actions as a painter will say something to the viewer. If I choose to blend away this evidence entirely, the result is invariably overfinished and somehow less satisfactory.
Van Gogh’s paintings provide wonderful evidence of the way he worked. His passionate attack, the physical energy with which he worked, is still communicated today, a hundred years after his death.
Standing at the easel, often trying to work with more confidence than I feel, I am aware that painting is such a satisfying experience because it engages the whole of me; body, mind and spirit. I try to use oil paint imaginatively, blending one colour into another by varying the pressure on the brush, or dragging or scumbling one layer on top of another to achieve my ends. Inevitable these efforts do not always come off, but this is a forgiving medium, allowing me to scrape off and re-work failed areas. This correctability is also important to my artistic development. It teaches me at one and the same time to be adventurous and to be realistic, that is to expect the progress of a work to move forward again, until some sort of conclusion is reached.
During this process I must constantly exercise my critical judgement so as to preserve the good and rework the less than good. This need to exercise judgement is common to all media of course, but only oils and acrylics afford opportunity for considerable changes during the painting process, and thus they encourage me to be less timid, more experimental. On the down side one does need a considerable chunk of time for oil painting because it can be messy (and some would say smelly, too) and time must be allowed for cleaning up at the end of the day.
These could hardly be more different. They are light and easy to carry around and quick to clear away. Forgiving they are not! The inherent beauty of the medium lies in its transparency, fluidity and freshness, so that I must keep correction and reworking to a minimum. This teaches me to plan ahead, rather than just ‘travel hopefully’, yet at the same time if my plan goes awry, I must think on my feet and act decisively if I am to save the day. From watercolours I learn to make a simple statement and then to stop.
Incidentally, the practice needed to gain control of this beautiful but testing medium also teaches me to be patient with myself. ‘If at first you don’t succeed …’ was surely first coined by a watercolourist!
It is possible to develop creativity with watercolours if you are willing to make a start by applying beautiful washes of colour, interpreting the results as you go along. This pictures-in-the-fire approach to painting will push your imagination to the limit and help you to realise the importance of the abstract qualities of art. You will be saying to yourself, “I’m not sure what, if anything, these shapes and colours are meant to represent, but they certainly look beautiful together”, or perhaps “I can increase the harmony of this work with something green in the bottom corner”. If only we thought along these lines when working from nature, we could be sure of more pleasing pictures. The very speed and fluidity of the medium enables this approach, although to be honest one needs to allow for a fairly high failure rate, especially at first, and the cost of taking a fresh piece of paper for a second or third attempt can be inhibiting.
Garden in Summer, watercolour with body paint, (13” x 9¾”)
If cost is a serious restriction on your willingness to be versatile with media, then acrylics are worthy of consideration. They can be used in the oils manner, or as watercolours, so that all the foregoing applies to one single set of paints. Of course, you need bristle brushes and canvas panels one day, and hair type brushes and watercolour paper the next, but if you must get by with only one set of colours, try acrylics.
Acrylic paint has a tendency to dry on the palette before you have time to use it, so a Staywet palette is needed whether working the paint in watercolour techniques or as oils. This quick-drying quality is for some people the down side of acrylics, but not for me. I use gel retarder when working in the oils manner, so that I can still blend, drag and scumble the paint before it dries. However, it would be a mistake to think of acrylics merely as a good imitator or substitute for other media. It has its own qualities, not least that it can be worked on so many different surfaces. The quick drying qualities already mentioned can be a positive plus too. What excites me about quick-drying paint is the extent to which is facilitates glazing techniques. In true oil paint long drying periods are needed before laying a transparent layer of colour over existing paint, but with acrylics I can glaze layer on layer with only a few minutes drying time between each. It is as if I am laying one piece of transparent coloured paper on top of another different coloured one. I have learnt much about colour mixing and harmony in this way, sometimes working so many layers that a kind of patina builds up. Very satisfying!
Acrylics are also easily correctable, again encouraging me to try things this way and that. The fact that they dry into a strong plastic surface means that one can incorporate all sorts of materials and objects into a work. The result may be part painting, part collage, and sometimes very nearly sculpture.
I personally find acrylics more suitable for the studio than for outdoors, mainly because a Staywet palette, whether a bought one or a homemade equivalent, is not very comfortable to hold for any length of time. Often the wind tries to lift the membrane paper from the palette, and sometimes the sun dries the paint too quickly in spite of every precaution. On the whole I prefer to stand when painting and feel more comfortable when the Staywet palette can rest on a table beside me. I have a similar problem when working pastels outdoors.
Hydrangeas, acrylic, (18½” x 10”)
Indoors, again, I stand at the easel with the pastels spread out on a table or my old tea-trolley. Outdoors when I stand I must work with a small range of pastels in a box in my hand, or be for ever bending down to sort out the colours I need. If I sit to work, all my pastels are within easy reach but I run the risk of the work becoming too details and pernickety. To be honest, although it is tiring to stand, somehow it is a lot more fun.
With pastels one is drawing and painting simultaneously, first using the end of the chalk to delineate the main outline shapes, then the side of the chalk to block in the larger areas of colour, and finally using the end of the chalk again to enrich the surface with mark, hatching and every kind of graphic line. So, it is from pastels that I learn to make all my marks significant, sometimes using them for texture and detail, sometimes to describe the structure and form of my subject. I must contrast plain areas with patterned ones, and have learnt that there is a narrow line between a rich and lively surface and one that has become overworked and ‘tired’.
This is a delightfully direct medium; definitely a ‘hands on’ experience. Is it the child in me that enjoys this licence to get my hands so messy? Whatever the reason, this tactile quality of pastels is very similar to that squidginess of oils with which I began.
So, it seems I have come full circle in my attempt to share my enthusiasm for different media and to explain how each has contributed something to my development as an artist. I hope my readers will be encouraged to try a change of medium, and will find the change as good as a new tutor.
Middleton from Ilkley Moor, pastel, (10” x 17”)