Rediscovering Oil Painting

I know everyone is worried about Covid-19 right now, and for good reason. These are uncharted waters, and with uncertainty comes anxiety. Today then, we’ll take a break from talking about reading lists and take a look at a painting I did in January, because art is important, especially at a time like this.

Okay, first a little backstory. Brandon and I went to Florida in December to spend the holidays with his family. We spent most of our time with his parents outside of Pensacola, but we also spent a couple of days at Universal Studios in Orlando.

During our visit, Brandon’s dad gave us a bottle of his homemade pepper oil.

When we got back to Williamsburg, I kept finding myself looking at the bottle. Between the rich color palette and the subtle play of light reflecting off the bottle, I knew I needed to paint it. Over the next few nights then, I drew some preparatory sketches of the pepper oil bottle in a variety of arrangements.

I ultimately decided on the third composition below, the one on the right. As much as I like the bottle filled with shells in the second sketch, I found myself more interested in the colors and textures of the other objects. Having settled on my composition, then, it was time to bring our my paints.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve done canvas paintings in acrylic paints. When you live in dorm rooms or small apartments with no studio space, quick-drying, easy-to-clean acrylic paints make more sense than slow-drying oils. I’ve also never been a big fan of turpentine, so for many years, I’ve regarded it as a medium that simply wasn’t for me and got accustomed to acrylic paint.

Until I ran out of paint, that is.

I used up most of my acrylics for my year-long art project. Normally I would have just gone out and bought some more, but I’ve been trying to be better about using materials I already have, as I had done with last year’s holiday card. So instead of just giving in to my usual painting habits, I decided to see if I had any other materials I could use.

That’s when I remembered that I’ve been carrying around a box of water-soluble oil paints for the last several years, a hand-me-down from Shelburne Museum’s education department. I’d used them a handful of times for monoprints and linocuts, but had never tried painting on canvas with them. A lot of them were still in good condition, so I decided to give them a try.

And goodness, was this a fun project! After spending so many years getting up close and personal with oil paintings as a curator, it was really fun to try out this medium for myself again. If this had been an acrylic painting, I probably would have taken about a week because I usually work in thin glazes, but I had so much fun with this that I finished it in three days. I found myself enjoying the robust, buttery texture so much that I launched right into piling the pigment onto the canvas with thick brushstrokes. I even pulled out a palette knife and worked with that, a tool I never felt comfortable using before. Throughout the experience, I found myself working with the kind of loose energy I usually use for drawing. Instead of worrying about erasing every brushstroke, I let my mark-making be more obvious, as I’ve found that as a curator I personally enjoy looking at works that revel in the materiality of paint (for an example, click here).

After three days, I had this painting:

It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but I enjoyed myself while working on it, and could definitely see myself using this medium again in the future. And who knows, with social distancing being a priority these days, that could happen sooner rather than later.

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