Oil Painting Myths: Secret Mediums and Magic Bullets
Aspiring artists do love their magic bullets. This medium will help you paint like so-and-so. This revolutionary approach will unlock your creativity in only five days (if you order now). Simply apply this magic colour theory and you'll be painting masterpieces before you know it.
The rather more mundane truth is that the road to being a competent painter is a long and sometimes arduous one, a road which most people won't travel very far down before either giving up, or deciding that they have arrived at their destination and need to go no further. But we know different, right? We know that there are no short cuts.
Take Maroger medium, the great untold secret of the old masters. Want to paint like Rubens? Want to knock out masterpieces in an afternoon with a mere flick of the wrist? This stuff is all you need. At least, that's what Jacques Maroger would have had you believe when he wrote his 1948 book, "The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Old Masters". Maroger's medium is at the top of my mind at the moment because I just tried out a high quality variant of it on my last still life painting. Lovely stuff it is. A magic bullet it aint.
The basic ingredient of Maroger medium, and the one which causes most of the controversy, is black oil. Black oil is linseed oil into which lead (either white lead or litharge) is dissolved by heating. As far as I can gather, the contention centres around two points: Did the old masters actually use black oil? And will it harm your paintings?
I couldn't care less about the first question. It seems to me that unless you could hop in your time machine and travel back to 17th century Antwerp and spend some time looking over Ruben's shoulder while he worked, you'll always be in some doubt as to the exact manner in which he painted and what materials he used. I'm certainly no expert on the techniques and materials used by those painters, so I'm not about to start pontificating about that. I'm much more interested in the answer to the second question.
Detractors of black oil will tell you that your paintings will darken horribly if you use this stuff, and they'll probably fall apart and crack. But as far as I can ascertain, there are examples of paintings done with this medium which have been around for a good few years now, and some of them have darkened, cracked and generally fallen apart, and some haven't. The ones that haven't are in remarkably good shape.
Faced with this, it seems to me that there is only one logical conclusion - it's down to the painter and how they either made or used their lead based boiled oil mediums. Common sense really. If you paint the first layer of your painting with thick paint, mixed with a lot of oil, then paint over that a thin layer thinned with turps, the top layer will crack since it will dry and contract quicker. We've all heard of this basic rule, fat over lean. But that's just using linseed oil and turps, the most basic of ingredients. It's possible to mess up a painting as badly as you could ever hope for without using any exotic materials at all. The problem is caused by user error. Why should black oil be any different?
Good, so we've got that out of the way. The third and most important question is the one that concerns me above all others, being of a practical frame of mind: Is it any good to paint with?
Well that depends on how you use it. Damn, we're back to question two again, just when I thought we were done with it. My own feeling regarding the craft of painting is that much basic knowledge has been lost, or almost lost. It would be easy to lay the blame for this at the door of modernism, so that's what I'm going to do. It's all modernism's fault. Seriously though, I find it somewhat worrying that you can go through four years of art education these days and get spat out the other side without even knowing how to stretch a canvas properly, but that's undeniably the case. If you can become a successful artist by sticking photos of your ex-lovers in a tent, or dead animals in formaldehyde, why bother to learn how to stretch a canvas? Or which mediums should be used when? Or what makes good oil paint? Why bother to teach it? Who cares?
Well I do, for one. Since I returned to painting, it's become painfully obvious to me that, although I've spent some time in art education, my knowledge regarding the tools of my trade and how they should be used leaves much to be desired. This is by no means an uncommon state of affairs, so I'm not beating myself up about it. What I am doing is attempting to put it right. For the autodidact, the Internet is an invaluable tool. Out there in cyberspace you will find, if you're willing to make the effort, enough information to at least point you in the right direction. The basic knowledge of the craft of the painter in oils has not been completely lost, it's just a bit hard to find. Let me save you some time - you won't find it on a fine art degree course.
Post 3rd January 2007