BEHIND THE SCENES – painting with oils on different surfaces…

When one thinks of an oil painting, one generally thinks of a picture painted on canvas, but across the centuries since artists first mixed coloured pigments with oil they have applied their oil-based paints to a large variety of surfaces, including things like metal and glass. These days, especially within typical art school settings, the most commonly used materials in addition to canvas are, cotton duck (a cheap-yet-similar cloth cousin of true canvas), board (usually either plywood or stiff backing board), and paper. When I started out as an art student in the autumn of 1976 at Harrow School of Art, I had never painted an oil painting – on any surface – in my life.

Bottles with Fruit.jpg
Still Life with Bottles and Lemons – oil on paper – 1980.  Paper makes for a super slick surface, so that the brush or the palette knife has a tendency to “skid” across the surface – great for fast, energetic gestures.

Although I’d had in my possession a box of half-used oil-paints since I was a babe in arms (left behind by my father when he disappeared from my life) I’d never known what to do with them. Somehow, painting with anything but watercolours had always seemed mysterious and slightly scary. But all this changed in the second year of my foundation course when I realised that if my aspirations of a career in fine art were serious I’d have to learn how to paint in oils. However, my foundation student grant was only sufficient to fund the paints themselves and not the surface materials upon which I was to apply them. Fortunately though, Harrow had a junk room crammed full of backing board, So, my first experience of oil-painting was on board, primed with two or three coats of liquid PVA glue.

Ceaseria - Girl Leaning on Sculpture.jpg
Dido at Caesarea – oil on board – 1991  Board has some of the slickness of paper but conversely the brush tends to “stick” toward the end of the stroke. It’s rigidity makes it unresponsive to palette knife.

When I began my BA course at Saint Martins the following year my student grant was substantially improved and I was able to “progress” onto stretched cotton duck (or poor-man’s canvas as Sam, our school technician and unofficial canvas-stretching instructor used to refer to it). Nevertheless, large pieces of cotton duck (and I was already working on extremely large-scale pictures) cut a substantial swathe into my grant, leaving precious little for another essential “tool” of the young art student – that being copious amounts of ale every evening at one of the many wonderful local Soho pubs. This meant that I did much of my oil sketching on paper, which, when sufficiently sized, took the paint pretty well. In fact, I did not get to paint on actual “canvas, canvas” until around ten years after graduating from Saint Martins when I at last had enough dosh of my own to afford the real thing, ready-stretched, and ready-sized and primed.

Juanita Restaurant.jpg
Restaurant Juanita – oil on cotton duck – 1992   Duck is a cruder weave than canvas so that it’s slightly rougher to work on. Fine for free, painterly brush work and palette knife but not so much for fine work. No use at all for the photo-realist.

The four paintings presented here are examples of each of the four surfaces I used. In the flesh it’s easy to tell the difference, even between the one painted on cotton duck and the one painted on canvas – but that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time…

Almond Trees and Grasses.jpg
Wild Flower and Almond Trees – oil on canvas – 2000   Top notch canvas is worth the extra cost for those artists striving for total control over the paint. When correctly stretched and sized with rabbit skin, its smooth-yet-holding surface allows for the complete range of “attack”. 
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“YOU SAY MERON, I SAY MAROMA – let’s call the whole thing a tantalising 2800 year-old probability…”

In 1983 I painted one of my largest oil paintings on Canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the center piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/06/15/masterpiece-or-merely-a-collection-of-successful-daubs/), I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.

6 Meron - Mount Meron detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – distance detail

Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.

5 Meron - mid distance detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – middle distance detail

Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.

4 Meron - Cemetary Detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – foreground detail

[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough (see: https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.

2 Meron
Mt Meron From Sefad

Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!

Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.

The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.

3 Maroma Sunbathed
Maroma Sunbathed

About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.

Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.

This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma!  The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…