Things I Learned as an Oil Painter: Thing #14

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Thing #14 is:

Always use an initial wash/underpainting/imprimatura.

I feel I have to explain myself a little before I launch into this one. I have previously stated that I'm an impatient and largely lazy painter. As such, my adopted style is pretty loose and I can never guarantee that the entire canvas will be covered in paint; in fact, it seldom is.

Many years ago I paid a visit to the Canadian National Gallery in Ottawa and saw a collection of Tom Thomson studies painted on what looked like cigar box lids. I was utterly blown away and it was probably a pivotal moment in me taking up painting. Apart from the out-and-out skill in Thomson's work I was drawn to the way he had not covered 100% of the surface with paint, but seemed to strategically leave patches of wood showing.  This had the effect of pulling the piece together, kind of "anchoring" it across the panel.

Fast forward a few years and I'm desperately wanting to break out of a stiff, tight and laborious style of painting. Trouble was, the looser I got, the more dazzling white canvas peeped out. Then I remembered Thomson's work and how his panels were a warm earthy tone. So I dug around in my old acrylic paint and found an orange/burnt umber combination that mixed well into just such a warm earthy tone.  This I smeared generously on my canvas and discovered a new freedom.  No longer did I have to be careful about nude canvas patches and sure enough, the pulling together thing seemed to be happening to my work.

Now I always prepare canvases in this way.  I don't use a wash, but a good layer of opaque paint because some of my patches can be quite big.  The acrylic also gives the surface a consistent quality that I'm used to painting on with just the right amount of tooth (for me). Take a look at my gallery and you'll see the telltale traces of terracotta here and there.

One day soon I hope to experiment and perhaps get bolder with my underpainting colours - so much to learn....

Thing #1: maccski.deviantart.com/journal…
Thing #2: maccski.deviantart.com/journal…
Thing #3: maccski.deviantart.com/journal…
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Thing #12: maccski.deviantart.com/journal…
Thing #13: maccski.deviantart.com/journal…

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KanatSanat's avatar
Interestingly one of our "local heroes" in Scotland, Peploe, also painted cigar box lids and has a lot of underpainting at times (colour varying through his career)
maccski's avatar
I like his work very much - very energetic and comfortably loose...like your work. I think it's interesting how artists around the world got looser as photography started to become available to the general public. On the subject of Scotland: here's my hommage: [link] (I'm an ex-pat Brit and I get back every now and then).
KanatSanat's avatar
Ah, I know that one :)

Peploe studied in Paris, so he started off training under Bouguereau (who he didn't think much of), before picking up some of the Impressionists' habits. If I could pull off a convincing rip-off of his style it would make would be very happy!
rocoquirk's avatar
The more I read the "Things" the more interesting they get!
I also find that covering the canvas first with some tone is much more helpful and less stressful in the long run!

Thank you for sharing the knowledge!
maccski's avatar
Thanks for your comment! Plenty more "things" to come!
glunac's avatar
I do know what you mean about the white patches showing through no matter how careful you are if you don't undercoat (it's almost like the paint shrinks & little pinhole spots pop up everywhere).
Thanks for explaining this in laymen terms, I really need to stop being lazy & work on uncoating.
maccski's avatar
In my opinion there are two types of lazy: 1) Too lazy to paint or be creative at all; 2) Too lazy to spend the next month making my painting perfect. I "suffer" from type #2 which is not really suffering at all. It forces me to find tricks and workarounds (like using an under-painting)
TomOliverArt's avatar
This tip is what I like about your paintings the most.
maccski's avatar
Thanks Tom, nice of you to say so.
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