24th May 2006
The first of a new series: Ten pairs of objects.
This painting is also a first in two other ways: it’s the first of these paintings on a panel, and it’s the first time I’ve used Roberson’s painting medium. Actually, three other ways: It’s the first time I’ve used sable brushes for oil painting as well.
The panel is cut off a large sheetof 3mm (just under 1/8th of an inch) thick MDF. I’ve always hated MDF. When I used to do commercial murals for theme pub refurbishments in the late eighties and early nineties, they used to build whole structures out of MDF and try to make them look like something they weren’t. I’ve always associated MDF with cheapness and cutting corners. Once I painted a mural on MDF panels in a motorway service station, after a few weeks the panels shrunk and big gaps appeared between them.
On all those house make-over programs that were so popular a couple of years ago, they always used to build things out of MDF because it’s quick and cheap, and that’s what the make-overs looked like, quick and cheap. MDF is to interior decoration what concrete is to gardens.
So it’s odd to find myself painting on an MDF panel now, by choice. For these small still lifes it seems pretty practical though. Up to now I’ve been painting on pieces cut from sheets of a primed canvas pad, taped to a drawing board, which works fine but you’re left with the problem of what to do with them when they’re finished. They’ll need fixing to a panel if they’re going to be framed, and unless they’re stored carefully they’ll crease. They just don’t seem very permanent.
Painting in oil on panels is as old as the hills,although I can’t remember ever doing it myself. I got MDF because a wooden panel would have to be properly seasoned, which would make it expensive and hard to find, wood is force dried in ovens these days instead of being properly seasoned. MDF on the other hand is readily available and, as previously discussed, cheap.
Since I do lots of small paintings, I wanted something I could cut up easily into the sizes I want. So far I’ve been doing it after I’ve set up the still life, so the subject defines the proportions of the picture. I like doing it that way, it seems natural to me. It might be better for framing to work to standard proportions, but I’m not in the least bothered about that, I’d rather have the composition look like I want it to, and be led by the subject.
Saying that, I’ve had to compromise now I’m painting on panels. They need preparing – cutting to size, sanding, priming, sanding again, priming again, sanding again, toning. Obviously that can’t all be done right when I’m about to paint, it would be dark by the time I started. What I’ve done is to cut up a bunch of different sized panels, with most of them at the 5 inches by seven inches I seem to use the most. I’ve ended up with a couple of long thin off cuts which I’ve primed up ready too, it’ll be interesting to see if I can get something to work on them without it looking contrived.
As it turned out this was a nice surface to paint on. I primed the MDF with Roberson’s acrylic gesso primer, with a big brush. This primer is thick, and only needs one coat, so if you put it on with a big brush you get deep brush marks on the surface, a bit like wood grain or the weave of coarse canvas. You can see the brush strokes more clearly on the enlargement. It’s a nice effect, but a bit much. I’ve started giving the panels two coats of gesso now, laying off with a soft brush and sanding each coat. The strokes still show, but they’re less intrusive.
About two hours before I started the painting, I toned the panel medium grey with a mix of ultramarine and burnt umber alkyd. I wanted a grey ground mainly because I’ve been reading about Rembrandt and Rubens’s technique, and they both used grey grounds. They would then build up shadows with dark glazes to create depth in the shadows by allowing the ground to show through, reflecting light from right back on the ground. Rubens used to leave broad brush strokes in his ground to give the shadows variation and life when they showed through the glaze when the painting was finished (apparently).
I wanted to try that. Now seems like the ideal time since I’ve just started using medium and have decided to do some experiments with it. Unfortunately my grey ground wasn’t quite dry when I started painting on it, and when I was rubbing into the shadow glaze with my finger,I lifted the grey and the white ground underneath shone through. Not what I wanted. For tomorrow’s painting, I’ve toned the panel two days ahead, thinned the alkyd with turps and rubbed it on very thinly with kitchen roll. It should be properly dry now, and enable me manipulate the shadow glazes more easily without disturbing the ground.
Which brings me to the medium. As I said this painting was done with Robersons medium, which I got from the excellent Cornelissens inLondon the other day. That’s a serious shop.
Robersons medium is quite different to work with than the alkyd-based Liquin I used in the last painting of the bottle. For a start it’s slower drying. The painting stayed workable for the six or so hours I worked on it. It felt like it started to stiffen up at times, but that may have been the alkyd ground coming through and mixing with the medium. This painting is different to the bottle one, the paint is thicker, the key is much darker, so it’s hard for me to do a direct comparison with this medium and liquin.
It felt slicker, like the paint moved around more easily, but that may have been partly due to the surface being different. I’m going to have to use liquin again on one of these panels to get more of an idea how they compare.
I tried in this painting to use the medium more in the shadows. I wanted translucent shadows and opaque paint in the areas in full light. I’ve read recently that Rembrandt used to build up the tone in his shadows with repeated glazes, a long, methodical process, but Rubens worked more quickly and spontaneously, which might explain his huge output.
Here I’m working in a single sitting, there isn’t time to let glazes dry and build them up slowly, so I’m trying to get something similar by laying in the shadows with more translucent paint with a higher percentage of medium, and painting with more neat paint in the areas in light. I came somewhere near that with this painting. It’s mostly noticeable in the shadows cast by the garlic bulb and aubergine, the ground is still showing through.
Unfortunately the grey ground got lifted a bit which I think lightened the shadows too much. I still want the shadows to match what I see in the colour and the tone, but I’m trying to get something of the depth and softness of shadows by using translucent paint. By rights, it should make the light areas stand out more. I do think the white garlic bulb stands out, but then everything else in the painting is so dark it could hardly do anything else.
I think painting this way will work, but I need more practice with it before I know how well. I tried a lot of new things at once with his painting, so it’s surprising it didn’t come out as a complete mess. Part of the reason it didn’t is the brushes I used. I’ll come clean, I didn’t know you could use sable brushes for oils. I’ve only ever used hog bristle brushes, which are much stiffer and rougher.
But working small like this, the sable brushes were much nicer. I can get a much smoother surface with them which makes a difference especially in areas of very dark tone. Hog brush bristles push through the paint to the ground, but sable seems to float over the top more. Very nice. They also seem to be much better for working paint with a lot of medium in it to me.
On to the painting:
The set up is pretty much the same as for the green bottle. I’m working sight-size again, but I was a bit closer to the easel this time, about three feet away. It meant I didn’t have to actually move over to the easel to paint, it was inside the stretch of my arm.
I close one eye a lot when I’m painting and drawing, to judge the relationships between the shapes better. With both eyes open we have two superimposed images which our brains must somehow process so that we can make sense of them as a single image. I realised when I was painting this that we need both eyes open to judge distances. I kept reaching over to paint still with one eye closed, and my brush was continually falling short of the painting, most odd.
This is roughly from my viewpoint, although I moved things around a little before I started painting. It looks to me here like the camera can’t deal with the wide range of tones, the lights are completely bleached out and the darks are too dark if anything. This isn’t what I saw.
The light is much stronger on this set up than it was for the bottle painting, because, even though the day was quite overcast again, the set up is much closer to the window. It’s astounding how much difference the distance from the window makes to the amount of light, and the quality of the light, falling on the set up. Close to the window like this, it’s hard to get good light on the canvas, or panel in this case. I managed ok today though without the panel in full light. I knew that when my whitest white wasn’t as light as the lightest light on the garlic, it was mainly because there was less light falling on the panel.
Again I did no preparatory drawing or roughing out. I painted enough of the background to show where the top of the garlic was going to go, then roughed in the shadows on the wood. At this point I put in some flat white down the light side of the garlic bulb so I had the tonal range of the painting set up. Next I roughed in the aubergine, at which point I could pretty much see how the painting was going to end up.
The pinkish patch at the bottom of the garlic bulb in shadow is where I’d rubbed into the shadow and lifted the ground, that’s the acrylic gesso showing through. In the end I had to cover that patch with opaque paint, which I hadn’t intended to do. Hopefully this won’t happen when I paint tomorrow, I’m doing the garlic bulb again, with a peach this time.
I’ve got my panels all ready, primed and dry, and I’m going to try with this same approach. This time though, I’m going to draw the whole painting out over the grey ground by putting warm glazes, or washes, for all the mid-tone and dark shadows. I should then be able to leave them alone, apart perhaps from brushing some colour into them where I can see it, and concentrate on the light parts of the painting.
A noticeable effect of the Robersons medium is that the painting has dried fairly quickly. It’s only three days since I did it, and it’s mostly touch dry already, only the titanium white on the garlic is still wet. I’m not sure about the finish though. It has got a nice, uniform finish which reflects light evenly, but it’s a higher gloss than I like. Oil paint itself has a kind of satin finish which I like more. It may change with time I suppose, it’s not completely dry yet.
For tomorrow’s painting I’m planning to try Robersons maroger medium. Hopefully that will dry a bit less glossy, but I suspect that since a major ingredient of both, and in fact most, mediums is linseed oil, the next painting will have this same high gloss finish. At some point I’ll need to learn about varnishing paintings, but for now I’ve got enough on my hands dealing with mediums.
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