What is My Oil Painting Process

I get the question a lot "What is your oil painting process?" "What inspires you?" "What is the motivation behind that painting?" Well, these are weird questions to me...and my response is either "I don't know how to answer that" or, if I'm feeling cheeky then I give a complete BS answer (which by the way, if someone says the words 'existential' or 'imperialistic nature' or 'degradation' of xyz when explaining their artwork - they are full of $h1t - just saying...😃).

 Anyway, just the other day I was asked "What is your oil painting process?" and instead of giving a blowoff answer, I asked them "what do you mean?" and the response was "how do you get from a blank canvas to that?" - AHHHH, well that I can answer!

1. Artist Reference Photos

I am constantly on the hunt for great imagery to paint.  I prefer to paint from reference photos and the following resources have royalty free reference images: 

I admit,  there are times, when I don't know what I want to paint cause frankly there are so many choices, all I know is I just want to paint.  When this happens, I turn to my kids or my Facebook Fans and ask 'what would you like for me to paint?'.  

2. The sketch

I draw out the painting using one or a combination of six drawing methods at my disposal. Once I have the sketch down, I seal the sketch with "Krylon Workable Fixative", this prevents the oil paint from moving around the graphite sketch.

3. Tone the Canvas

The Kryon Workable Fixative dries pretty quickly so I then tone the overall canvas with a base color that I see throughout the whole image.  Toning the canvas means, applying paint that is thinned down with Gamsol (or odorless mineral spirits).  Toning the canvas does 3 things

  1. Takes away the white obstacle.  Looking at a white background is somewhat intimidating - like I've gotta cover every piece of this!
  2. Gets you applying paint - taking away the mental issue of what if I screw up.
  3. Sets the base color of the painting, so even if you don't cover every single area with another layer of paint, there is still color rather than blaring white.

Some artists today and historical artists, tone the overall canvas with raw umber or burnt sienna - what I do is tone it with the color that I see the most in the painting.  So for example, if I'm painting an ocean scene, I'm likely going to tone the overall canvas with thinned down ultramarine blue.  If I'm painting a yellow lab, I'm going to tone the overall canvas with a thinned down yellow ochre. 

4. PreMix 

I always have a standard palette of Ivory Black, French Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, Raw/Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange Medium, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Medium and Titanium White. 

With these standard colors I will mix the 2 or 3 foundational colors that I see in the painting in shades of Light, Medium and Dark without using a medium. This allows me to:

  • Start thinking in terms of what colors I see and the harmony I want to create.  
  • Mentally moves me from my task list/logicial mentality to my painting, creating and seeing colors and shapes mentality.  I'm switching to the right side of my brain
  • Quickly grab that color and mix others from my standard palette while in the painting process.

Now, I will also say, I don't always premix, but when I do premix, the painting process is a lot more elegant and easy. 

5. Define Highlights and Lay In The Darks

I can start defining very quickly the direction of the light by laying in the darkest of darks and wiping out the highlights.  To wipe out the highlights, I dip my brush into Gamsol (odorless mineral spirits), wipe my brush a bit and scrub off where the highlights of the painting will be.  

6. Block in remaining shapes and Blend

Now that I've defined the highlights and darks, I can start blocking in the medium shade.  

After I have in the light, medium and dark of throughout the painting, I'll then blend the light into the medium and the medium into the dark.  By blending this:

  • Creates those very subtle transitions in color and
  • Smooths this first layer to a nice thin layer of paint (you need to paint thick over thin or it will cause cracking issues later as the paint dries at different rates of time).

I'm still on the first layer of painting, which means I want to keep the paint thin and so - I blend.  

7. Break - it is important!!!

I'd like to say I'm good about taking a break every 30 minutes, but that'd be a lie - I take a break at a breaking point and that is when I have the 1st paint layer on the canvas.   

During the break I:

  1. Step back and look at the overall painting.  And evaluate what I like, did I lose anything, is the structure off (oftentimes remeasuring is needed), what I don't like, do I want to shift away from the reference photo to relay a different part that is speaking to me.
  2. I stretch, grab something to drink, snack, walk, play with the dogs, hit a golf wiffle ball in the back yard...something to get my mind and body a break. Sometimes this break will be for a day or two, sometimes it is 30 minutes. If it is a day, I'll wash my brushes and prep the room for the next session.  The bottom line, is I step away. 

When I go back, I'll evaluate the painting again as I did in the first point.  Then, to break the spell of "I don't want to screw it up", I start with the easiest part first or the part that requires the most detail.  For example: if there is a large dark area, I'll start there cause it is a quick win...but if it is a dog/cat portrait, I start with the eyes cause I'm pretty up tight when I first start painting. 

 8. Refine the painting

Now that I've blocked in the painting, I've defined the highlights and low lights again, now I essentially paint another layer all over, moving all around, with a little less concern about the blending - I'm adding details by adding the darkest of darks and the lightest of lights.  At this point, the process is more about letting the brush make marks with the colors. 

This sounds like a short step, but the reality is; this may be one or two additional paint sessions.  On one of my 8x10 pet portraits, there is at least 3 layers or 3 paint sessions in this stage.  

9. Final details

By far, this is my favorite part of the whole process: the last details like the glints in the animals eyes, the sparkle in the glass, the whiskers on the kitten, these are a few of my favorite things 😀.  To get these details in, I need a steady hand and I don't want to lay my hand on the panel/canvas so I use a handy, dandy device that costs $2 and you probably already have one :)  A ruler.  You can treat the ruler like a mahl stick:  you can place the ruler tip on the edge of the painting and then rest your wrist against it while making detail/controlled marks. 

10. Sign and prep for sale

Signing, well that's a whole other blog post I'll have to write about, but yes I sign it. Then I have to wait for it to dry (about 2 weeks), but during this time I create the certificate of authenticity (check out this blog post to 3 reasons you need a certificate of authenticity).  Once it is completely dry to the touch I'll seal it with Gamvar Varnish.  Then I'll scan it in for prints and other documentation. 


So...that's my process....I bet you're sorry you asked now 😃.  

But seriously, if you have questions about my process feel free to pop over to my Facebook Group: Learn To Paint and I'll be glad to answer questions!.


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