It is now 20 years since I wrote my first articles for The Artist magazine and curiously enough these were on painting in oils in low tones and limited palettes. It wasn’t until the two articles had been published that I approached Mr Parkinson, then editor, to say I was really a water-colourist but that I had enjoyed writing these articles for him. He then very kindly suggested I write something on watercolour and as a result a series followed and I have enjoyed our connection and that of the Leisure Painter ever since.
So, here I am again, writing an article on painting in oils. During the next two months I hope to be “out and about” with pen and wash and watercolour respectively.
Looking at those early articles it doesn’t seem that I have changed very much in my methods of painting or the palette used and this I find comforting since it must mean that I have been generally satisfied with that approach. I’m not sure that the word satisfied is the right one, since it might suggest that I am now complacent about my methods. This is far from the truth as I still feel I am learning, which, to my mind, is a far healthier state of mind.
I will assume that you all have some equipment to suit our purposes – some are happy with a rucksack or duffle-bag with a portable easel strapped on, but then one is limited to a board or canvas which can be carried in the bag. I have always preferred a box-easel which will contain everything including the canvas and, if this has legs attached, we then have everything we need. I should mention that, when loaded, some of these can be very heavy. On the other hand, the heavier they are the better they will stand up to boisterous weather conditions. You “pays” your money and takes your choice, as the saying is and your choice will depend to some extent on the sort of weather conditions you like to paint in. Choosing the winter conditions, as I tend to, the heavier and firmer my gear, the better.
And now to consider for a moment the surfaces of our boards or canvases and their preparation. If I am using hardboard I need to prepare this as follows: taking the smooth side I give it a coat of emulsion paint into which I have sprinkled just a little pumice powder. Very little pumice is required, otherwise it will wear down our brushes but it will be enough to give a little tooth to the surface. Some people may prefer the rough side but I find this is generally too mechanical a pattern to be interesting as a surface and furthermore is very difficult to get rid of under the paint.
After preparing some boards in this way, they will be better left for a day or two when we can, together with any prepared canvases we have, attend to giving the surfaces a warm ground. This I do with some burnt umber or burnt umber with ultramarine. This mixture gives a warm but subdued ground to paint on. I feel this is more likely to give us a pleasant glow in the finished work. This warm mixture can be applied as follows: take several prepared boards or canvases, apply several squeezes of the burnt umber followed by a couple of bursts of ultramarine to be the first of these and then with a rag saturated with turps, wipe over the surface of several until you have a variety of warm tones from which to choose. These should not be used for a day or two after that operation, otherwise your first thin under-painting may lift off the warm ground.
Let us look now at our range of colours and here I was pleased to see my own list is, today, practically the same as it was 20 years ago. With one exception all have a rating of 3 stars or more. The list is Winsor blue; ultramarine; cobalt; burnt umber; burnt sienna; yellow ochre; Winsor lemon and cadmium scarlet. The other colour I have is olive green which has a poor rating of 2 stars but I like it and it is particularly useful in the early, thin, rubbing-in of green areas. Two colours which have long since disappeared from my palette are viridian and alizarin crimson. I found I did not need them and as it is wise to have as few colours as possible to learn about, they were discarded. I don’t say there are not times when I would like to have them, but if one went on feeling like that where does one end up? Probably with a palette three times as large and wondering which colours to use. If we can limit ourselves to a few we shall know so much more readily which colours will make the mixture we want.
As to brushes, well, you can have an armful if you think you will paint better that way, but my experience suggests that three are quite sufficient. On a canvas 24” x 18” I use a 2” decorators’ brush for rubbing-in broadly the main areas, a No 9 or 10 for carrying the work further and a No 6 for finer detail, such as branches of trees, details in windows and any other necessary drawing. If readers will study the illustrations it will be seen that there is much more need for a No 6 in Off Gravesend and Afternoon Light, West Mersea than in Tinker. But more about these particular subjects after we have studied the painting of the colour plate Snow on Merrow Down.
Snow on Merrow Down. Oil 16” x 22”
I have chosen this picture as the illustration for the same reasons I chose to paint it. It is full of colour and full of paint. Maybe snow is a subject which mainly excites other painters but it can also be quite a draw to other people. We have friends who now live in Malta, who took a large snow painting of mine with them. When they and their friends are sweating it out in the 90ᵒ’s they stand in front of it with outstretched hands! But that is not the reason I am discussing it with you. What I want to do is to point out the colours to be found in it and the way it was painted.
It is painted on a hardboard panel 22” x 16” which had been treated as described earlier. Was such a warm ground necessary in the case of snow? Well I think so. It would be very easy to see the subject far too cold whereas painting on to a warm ground will counteract any tendency in that direction and will help to preserve a glow which the sunlight would give it.
Firstly, I would indicate with ultramarine the skyline, the large tree and the bushes and a suggestion of the track across the down. Next, with a big brush and plenty of turps a mixture of ultramarine, ochre and scarlet with some white would indicate the warm grey of the sky. So far there is no attempt at any variety in the sky. A blue/grey mixture made up from ultramarine and browns would suggest the distance and the banks of trees against the skyline and the large tree were suggested by olive green and burnt umber. Both in the blues and greys and in the large tree, plenty of the warm ground would be showing through.
Having satisfied myself that the composition was sound now that I could see the main shapes against the sky, the next operation was in connection with the snow. Here a mixture of titanium white, cobalt and scarlet would give me a soft pearl/grey white with which the whole of the down is painted. Except where I have purposely left a little of the warm ground showing, the whole panel has now been painted. Earlier I mentioned the use of turps. I use nothing else because I feel there is enough oil in pigment as it comes from the tube. In the early stages I use quite a lot and this is for two reasons. Firstly it enables me to cover the ground more quickly and secondly it helps this early stage to dry quickly, thus allowing me to get a result in about two hours. The work done so far should not take more than an hour, thus giving me a further hour of the same light in which to obtain a result – a comforting thought!
Apart from putting in a little variety to the sky and building up the large tree, the main job now was to be the snow itself. More thought would be needed over this area because of the subtle variations of greys and whites. First a few warm touches to suggest sunlit grasses would help give a contrast between this warmth and the off-whites in the snow. The whites would be set up still more by the cast shadows lying on the down and across the track and in the bank on the right. In the foreground the shadows will be seen to have a warmth in them but as they recede they will become more blue. Notice then the difference between the strong shadow in the foreground and the softer, bluer shades in those cast by the tree. See also the variety in the bank on the right.These shadows are setting up still more the whites and all we are really left to deal with now are the highlights. Here it is a case of mainly titanium white with a touch of cadmium scarlet and Winsor lemon, again to give the necessary warmth which makes snow look so very attractive. I hope some of you will have found similar subjects in your own part of the country during this past winter.
Off Gravesend, Oil 16” x 20”
Afternoon light, West Mersea. Oil 18” x 24”
The other subjects illustrated are a variety of scenes from some of the journeys I have made during the past 18 months; all painted on the spot and completed in one session. All, that is, with the exception of Tinker for whom I made a pen sketch on the back of my cheque book when having lunch with his owners, and from which this small panel was painted in the studio next day.
Tinker. Oil 12” x 17”