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Warming Up to an Oil Painting: Some Approaches & Thoughts on Learning & Creating

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

I’ve been fortunate enough over the last couple of years to learn from more experienced artists whom I admire. Here I share some thoughts on approaching learning to paint.

'Autumn Flowers II', oil on cotton panel, 2023.

Ann Witheridge taught me – whether she meant to or not - to just paint, and paint, and draw, and paint, and sculpt, and try, and paint, and not worry too much about consciously trying to develop a repeatable process for every painting, or worry about an algorithm-friendly definitive style. She said to me once: “don’t worry yet about what type of artist you’re going to be”. I think she means that this sort of thing will develop in its own time, in its own unique way. The important thing is to trust that to create often, work hard, and fall in love with the process of creating. Having fun, indulging in the joy of art.

Ann Witheridge - I bought this painting from her in return for a sculpture.

Other artists prioritise different things. Chelsea Lang, another mentor, has a more scientific approach. She helps me analyse exactly what it is I love about the paintings that I love, and then has produced a sort of method to follow over the months and years ahead to move me closer to specific goals. This helps me feel like I’m spinning my wheels less in the pursuit of making all this a ‘justifiable’ existence, given my anxiety that all this is some indulgent sabbatical from my former ‘grown-up’ job.

I oscillate between both approaches almost daily. Sometimes prioritising specific exercises and structured progress (for security), over experimentation and play (for adventure).

Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way:

“The artist brain is the sensory brain… Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do - spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommend critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery not mastery.”

Something that remains constant is my passion for how creating artworks makes me feel. But I can’t pretend that investing in courses, mentors, and workshops hasn’t been the biggest game changer for my confidence, and therefore willingness to practice, and therefore ultimately my competence. Some may be much better than I am at learning alone from the wealth of free material online, and I admire those people greatly. But I’m also somewhat reminded of Henny Youngman’s: “A self-taught man usually has a poor teacher and a worse student.”

Credit to Olivia Spencer Photography

I teach in person classes weekly at London Fine Art Studios, and I want to start sharing the knowledge around creating lifelike paintings I’ve picked up along the way online as well now. I learned it, and I teach it every week, and I learn it again, and I teach it again. Writing it down is another way of ensuring I really understand what I’m saying too. The approach I share below is definitely more of structured learning that could be especially helpful for new painters.

“Repetition is the mother of learning.” - Latin Proverb

I owe a lot to both Ann and Chelsea, but also a great deal to Patrick Byrnes, Luca Indraccolo, Joni Duarte, and many others. I must admit that there may be some amount of assumed knowledge in what follows, but I but I’ve included three definitions of the three main elements of a colour theory (known as the Munsell System), hopefully in very simple terms:

· Value: how light or dark something is (the lights vs the shadows). In my opinion, this is really the most important one if some element of realism is your goal. Think about how you can put a photograph in black and white – taking all the colours out of it – but you still know exactly what you’re looking at.

· Chroma: how saturated a colour is (in other words, how close to or far from grey it is – or how different that thing looks in that black and white photo you just took to how it normally looks). E.g. a bright red tomato might look pretty different in the greyscale photo, unlike the white cup next to it which might have hardly changed.

· Hue: where on the colour wheel something sits. Imagine asking yourself ‘what colour is that wall’ – is it red, orange, green, blue, yellow etc. Often we find ourselves saying things like ‘pinky purple’ or ‘bluey-green’ because it’s not as obvious as a blue sky, a green apple, or a red Ferrari. You might also hear sanctimonious people referring to a colour’s temperature as a way round this: e.g. ‘it’s a warm blue’ (maybe it’s a bit closer to purple) or a ‘cool yellow’ (got a bit of green in it). I always think of a 'colour temperature' conversation as really a conversation about hue.

Warming up to a painting with studies

When starting out on a new painting it can be pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re relatively new to oil painting from life. I imagine like a writer staring at a blank page in front of them. Compelled to paint something, but consciously or unconsciously procrastinating out of fear. It can therefore be really helpful to start with a few smaller 5 / 10 / 15 minute studies – these are where you’re solely focussing on big areas of value and colour, to get a broad universe figured out while not being concerned with juggling loads of drawing issues too (i.e. shapes, placements, proportions etc). These will be ‘low resolution’ sketches, usually very small.

5, 10, and 15 minute simplified head studies - from a workshop with Patrick Byrnes, Oct 2022.

For example, a head and shoulders could be simplified into 3 or 4 main areas of colour (i.e. to establish the value, hue, chroma of just 3 or 4 shapes to start with), even imagining the head as simplified as an egg. It could also resemble an arrangement of puzzle pieces.

Personally, I never got into the habit of pre-mixing my paint (probably showing my more ‘Witheridge influence’) but it can be extremely helpful for keeping yourself organised. Joni Duarte taught me that everything on the canvas is exactly the same as everything on the palette, just rearranged in a different order. Therefore, an organised palette is usually a sign of an organised painting.

This is how I approach all my paintings - general before specific, simple before complex. 'Summer Mango' , 2023.

Even if you don’t pre-mix your paint for these stages, you could help yourself by mixing with your brush and then using a palette knife to gather the paint together into distinct piles. This will help restore an order and intentionality that you perhaps did not fully commit to first time around.

Then when you move onto a slightly longer sitting of maybe 45 minutes, one option is to use what you have already figured out (in a low risk, lower stress environment), and then go into more specific breakdowns of shapes and values. Subdividing areas, correcting mistakes, or moving into various edges between puzzle pieces.

It can be extremely hard to resist those transitions, and pretty quickly you can find you’re working on a small painting, getting into the weeds of smaller problems, which is not the goal at this stage. You really want to hold off getting lost in smaller shapes for as long as possible.

I painted one single portrait from life for a whole week with Luca Indraccolo, and he implored me not to move beyond this stage for at least the first two and a half days. He taught me that you could have the most beautiful colours , subtleties, and finesse in the world, but if the painting was badly constructed, or doesn’t look like the person, then that would annoy me much more in the end. So you really do not want to spend all day rendering the perfect ear, to then discover that the whole thing is either too big for the head, and a little bit too light for the overall value pattern (or both). Just imagine if you had thought that you’d nailed chroma and hue as well.

Seeing the head as a set of puzzle pieces - from a workshop with Luca Indraccolo, Nov 2023.

Another option is to work in a bigger scale, allowing you to mix more and put more paint down. The larger scale allows you to work on slightly smaller shapes within the sketch, with just a little more refinement or subtlety. For example, you might notice the differences within areas of highlight on a forehead, or show a hue shift around a mouth. This might have been difficult or not have even been possible in a sketch of a smaller scale due to just the limited space for the brushstrokes. But you still need to intentionally simplify, forcing yourself to stay constrained, even as you work more carefully.

Exactly the same applies with drawing - except you don't have to battle with chroma and hue.

Squinting and stepping back will help you resist being seduced into making small statements, and help you to more objectively judge how correct the bigger, essential decisions you made earlier on really were.

Once you have built enough of a framework through this process, you can move forward into the actual painting with a bit more comfort and confidence that what you’ll end up with is exactly what you’d hoped for. This is the essence of practicing creativity – i.e. seeing a finished painting that doesn’t exist yet.

The finished portrait of Lily - 50% of the time spent on this was on the 'puzzle piece' stage above.

Of course you could always just start painting, make mistakes, and produce something beautiful by chance with less intentionality. But also be prepared in case it ends up in an unholy mess, and embrace that. Lose the fear of being wrong. Delacroix wrote: “Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.” But feel free to try with the training wheels on first.

Or do as I do - and do a bit of both - depending on which way the wind is blowing or how brave I’m feeling that day. I hope this is how I’ve come to be somewhat confident creating in many different ways – both aiming for lifelike still life drawings, abstract oil landscapes, and gestural bronze and ceramic sculptures. One day I might pick one… or not.

'Autumn Flowers' - more abstract, more paint...more fun?

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