Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Problem with Oils

My studio palette, wrapped up and waiting.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about a problem I have with pastels.  To be even-handed, today I'm writing about a problem I have with oils.

I love oils.  I love the way I can push color around on my canvas with a brush.  There's something relaxing - and yet curiously energizing - about watching color flow and change.

However, oil paint is expensive.  Good paint, anyway.   And if you're painting properly, you'll always have a certain amount of waste.   One of the worst things a plein air painter can be is stingy with paint.  Putting out a pinhead's worth and then trying to cover, say, a 9x12 will cause you to stop and remix too often.   When you're running a marathon, you can't stop for a granola bar every mile.  You'll lose focus, motivation - and probably the race.  (Not that painting should be a race!)

I always end up with perhaps a half-tube or more of paint on my palette.  Some of it is still clean, some of it isn't.   The dirty paint I scrape up into a pile and slide out of the way to the far right of my palette.  This paint makes a nice grey for toning canvas or dulling color mixtures.  If I'm painting the very next day, I'll just cover the palette with plastic wrap and tuck the wrap down around each pile of paint.  This keeps oxygen away from the paint, which "cures" by oxidation.  If I'm not painting for a couple of days, I'll also stick my palette in the freezer.  Oxidation is slowed down by cold temperatures.  This way, my paint stays reasonably fresh until the next time I go painting.

However, sometimes I go much longer without painting in oil.  (I paint half the time in pastel.)  Or, if I'm travelling, I may not have a freezer or even plastic wrap available, and usually my palette is being kept in a hot car.  When this happens, I have to throw paint away.  That breaks my heart.   The most expensive paint I use regularly is nearly $30 for a 37ml tube.  And I have used $60 tubes.

Some of you might say, Raise the prices of your paintings.   But I won't - and that'll be the subject of a future post.


Doug Runyan said...

Great comments, Michael. I, too, have a really difficult time with the waste involved in oil painting. It just goes against my nature to see money being thrown away. I know my oil paintings have suffered from not putting enough oil on my palette. I haven't tried the plastic wrap (yet) but my wife has gotten used to finding a palette in the freezer! Maybe I need an attitude adjustment so that my mind can accept that there is NO waste and unused oil paint is just a cost of doing business as a painter.

Daniel Balter said...

I agree that it is difficult to see a waste of paint and that it is troublesome to feel stingy with the paint. Thank you for the energy and wisdom you put into your blog.

Dianne said...

Good points, and good tips on saving the paint you can. I like the idea of of saving the dirty paint for toning down, that I shall have to do. My palette won't fit in my freezer, sure wish it did, but I got myself one of the Masterson sealable palettes and lined it with glass. It does pretty well in the short run, but the plastic wrap idea is great, especially if it's going to be a few days before I get back to it.

Kasturi said...

I so know what you mean! I try to use the left over paints but I realise that it spoils the painting. But I'll take your tip about the toning and storig in the freezer.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! said...

I use the fridge/freezer means of keeping old paint. I put the palette under plastic wrap with tooth picks stuck into the blobs of paint to hold the plastic off the paint, like tent poles, saving a teensy bit more paint.

I've now got a plastic box from the $ Store that holds my palette, but haven't had any paint to save in it yet.

I also use it up painting what I first called "palette cleaners". (Now I call them hors d'oeuvres, because they are outside my regular body of work (which is what these words mean). I have tiny canvases or panels and make quick, rather abstract paintings, using somewhat the same palette, but lacking whatever colours I've used up.

This challenges me to make compositions in ways that I wouldn't otherwise, and feel virtuous for busing up my paint at the same time.

Cindy Michaud said...

Nothing worse than forgetting to clean up after a day out painting only to find it all nasty and hard a month later...thanks for the tips, I had forgotten about the freezer.

alotter said...

Don't forget about clove oil. A drop or two left inside a sealed palette (I use the Mijello brand) keeps the paint soft for days.