Know your oil paints…

Alyson May provides informative and inspiring arts education services and timeless, quality original artwork.

Hey Artsy One,

Whether you are new to oil paints or have been using the medium for a while, there are some things you really need to know about Your Oil Paints…

Colour Names: What you see is not always what you get

You can go into a shop and buy a dozen different tubes of paint with the same name from many different manufacturers, but it doesn’t mean that the paint colour is the same. I got caught out a little while ago. I went into an art shop to buy Cerulean Blue, one of my portrait palette staples, and decided to try a different brand, Langridge Colours. I didn’t look at which pigment was used and it ended up being a slightly different colour from the Cerulean Blue I usually use by Rembrandt Paints. So, I had to adjust how I used it when painting portraits. One way you can avoid the same problem is to get in the habit of checking which pigments have been used to make the colour. Don’t just read the name of the paint.

Langridge Colours

On the back of your tube of paint there is a list of the pigments used to make that colour. Langridge Colours’ Cerulean Blue uses PB (Pigment Blue) 36, whereas Rembrandt Paints use PB 35. One number difference…a big difference in colour. Both are beautiful to paint with, I now have two cerulean blues in my portrait palette arsenal, they are just different.

So…the lesson here is, don’t go into a shop and buy a tube of paint based on its name. Check which pigments have been used by checking the back of the tube. It will help you in the long run and keep your painting consistent.

Drying Times: Love me or Hate me

Love it or hate it, oil paints take a while to dry. But that’s cool, well for me anyway…I really like that. However, different oil colours take a different length of time to dry. It’s really important that you understand which ones dry quicker and which ones take a long time to dry. The reason why it’s important, besides so you don’t lean it against something before it has dried, is because if you paint a layer of quicker drying paint over slower drying paint you will get cracking.

So, here’s a little Oil Paint 101 for you… The colour that we see is ground pigment. That ground pigment is suspended in oil (the paint’s binder). The thing is, different pigments require different amounts of oil and it is this oil quantity that determines the paints drying time. As a general rule of thumb, earthy pigments, like yellow ochres, siennas and umbers, aren’t suspended in as much oil so they dry quicker.

Other colour pigments such as, alizarin crimson, phthaloes and cadmiums, are suspended in more oil so they have a slower dry time. I have literally had alizarin crimson on my palette, uncovered, for over a week and it was still really wet. So, if I’m using alizarin crimson in a painting, I need to be aware that is goes on top of quicker drying paints, not underneath. Unless you want cracking… If you want that effect you can put quick drying paint as your top layer and you’ll get some really cool cracking. But just make sure you want that affect.

Less Oil = Quicker Drying
More Oil = Slower Drying

Paint Consistency: Hard Butter/Soft Butter

Paint ConsitencyThis boils down to a personal choice. Me, personally, I love creamy, buttery paints because I tend to use softer brushes; I don’t use hog hair (I discuss brushes in more depth in another blog).

The creaminess of paint works for me because of the brushes I use and the surface finish I like. Bu you can get paints that are thicker which work well with stiffer brushes and palette knife painting.

You are going to have to try different paint brands, which have different consistency, to find out what is right for you. There is no right or wrong. Just do what you are enjoying. And seriously, that’s the key. You need to enjoy it. Oh my goodness…you need to have fun. There is no better reason to Art.

Surfaces: Prep me properly

It is horrible to go through the whole process of knowing your pigments, knowing their drying times and getting your image all set up, putting in all that effort, to then paint on an ill-prepared surface. It is heart wrenching. Because of the chemistry make up of oil paints…remember that Oil Paints 101 lesson…the oil which the pigment is suspended in can seep through the painting surface if it hasn’t been prepared properly. It can rot canvas, linen, wood, and paper. Any surface is fine, as long as you prepare it properly for oil paints.

It is not the same for other mediums. Oil is different. Even if you buy a pre-prepared canvas which already has a ground coating of gesso, you do need to redo it at home. Trust me…they are not as well prepared as they should be. The age-old rule of, ‘You get what you paid for’, is absolutely true in this case. Higher priced store-bought painting surfaces are better than cheaper ones. So, do yourself a favour, and spend a little extra time, or money, and prepare your surface properly. That way, your oil paints stay on top of the surface and don’t seep through and damage it.

Safety: Non negotiables

Sometimes safety is easily overlooked. Even in the early days I tended to be a bit lazy and a little naive. Ventilation is paramount. Oil paints are hazardous chemicals, you need to protect yourself from them. So…make sure your painting space is well ventilated and, go that little extra step and wear gloves.

Safety GlovesIt’s going to protect your skin from having too much contact with oils. It can take a bit of time to get used to wearing them but, seriously, once you are used to them it is almost impossible to paint without them. I don’t even open a tube of paint without putting my gloves on first. So, looking after your health when using oil paints means you will have more years to paint in a healthy way. I think that’s a win win.

Know your oil paints…

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