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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