Baseline yourself

Regardless of where you are in your career, you will do well to establish a baseline for your oil-painting toolkit. The baseline provides a powerful framework that you can use to analyze materials and techniques.

At some point in your journey, you begin to question the received wisdom that guided you at the outset. This is true of every field, of course, not just painting. But oil painting cut itself off from age-old studio wisdom long ago. How long ago? Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr. Johnson’s friend and the first president of Britain’s Royal Academy, complained bitterly about this–and he died in 1792.

Put the materials to the test; question the recieved wisdom–such as it is. Keep a journal and note the techniques, materials, and surfaces you used to create those masterpieces.

Here is a canvas I dedicated to testing oil mediums some time ago. I divided the 36″ x 48″ canvas into 18 mini canvases. Each numbered mini canvas was done with a different medium. The images are all spontaneous doodles completed at one sitting without any over painting. The images are just complicated enough to give each medium a fair test.

Because the images are all on the same surface, it’s a fair trial. One thing you’ll discover before too long is that the surface affects a painting tremendously.

I was careful to take notes about the ingredients and how the mediums handled, how changes to one ingredient affected the others. I made other trial canvases too and those studio journals are still my daily companions.

If, instead of dividing a surface into mini canvases, you use separate canvases, ensure that you prepare all surfaces the same way. Otherwise you’re in danger of invalidating the trial.

I used to read a blog by an artist who was obsessively careful about his medium. He even pressed the oil himself. Then I discovered that his trials were painted over previous trials, sometimes many trials. He had no way of tracking the surface. When I understood this, I stopped reading his blog.

Leave a Reply