pears study for SV Intro to Oil Painting lesson - featured

Still life study of pears

Recently when I bought a group of Sadie Valeri’s video lessons, I went ahead and purchased her Introduction to Oil Painting video. Even thought I’m not a total beginner, it seemed like a good way to ease into her oil painting instruction.

I’m really happy I got it! Even thought I’ve been painting with oils for a little while now, I learned new things from her. Her simplified explanation of the types of brushes (grouped into hog bristle and sable) was clarifying for me, as well as a process for which type of brush to use when. The approach she covers in the video allows for the painting to be done all at once or in 2–3 sessions.

pears study for SV Intro to Oil Painting lesson
Pear still life study, 9×12, oil on linen panel

I did my brown underpainting with raw umber one day, then went back to finish with the first and second color layers the next day. Thinking in terms of layers has been very liberating for me — even though I knew some people painted in layers I didn’t have a good working understanding of the spectrum available to us.

It was also really cool to see her color mixing strategy because it was structured around a basic process of local color, shadow color, and highlight, but she also showed how there’s flexibility within this framework. With painting landscapes, there’s a bit less emphasis on modeling form so my color mixing usually ended up all over the place. By working with still life and controlling the lighting, I’ll be able adopt a more coherent process for mixing colors based these logical strings of colors.

I’m excited to one day be able to combine fresh, loose brush strokes with accuracy and intentional mark-making. Basically to be able to control what’s happening on my canvas instead of overworking it. I think the best thing I can do toward that goal is to enjoy the process and keep practicing. And be willing to use more paint! Continuing to study Sadie’s oil painting curriculum will definitely help.

I think it’s going to be fun to experiment with different still life setups now that I have this nice box installed on my wall. I don’t care for the angle I chose for this painting very much, and next I want to try raising things up closer to eye level.

straight line block-in warmups

Still life warm-up sketching

My focus for quite awhile has been on painting landscapes, but recently I’ve become frustrated by my progress. And when I’m frustrated more than not, it’s a sign to take a step back and reassess. I think what’s going on is a combination of a few things:

  • feeling rushed when painting outdoors
  • not having enough outdoor painting experience to be able to enjoy working from photos
  • struggling with making the materials do what I want
  • trying to paint fast when indoors

Reflecting on this made it pretty obvious to me that a good next step in my painting practice would be to focus on still life so I can paint from life rather than photos, and to do some classical realism painting lessons to gain more control over the materials. Since I’ve been curious about other methods of painting besides alla prima, I decided to continue my study with Sadie Valeri through her online programs. (She also teaches alla prima, but starts students off with indirect painting techniques.) I took her drawing course a few years ago to get a more solid drawing foundation. Her teaching style is such a great fit for me because of her structured, methodical approach. After completing the drawing curriculum I strayed away from the straight line block-in that she teaches — but I can’t quite remember why! Maybe just because I like exploring different methods and wanted to try some others to compare.

straight line block-in warmups - paper bag and egg
Days 3–6 of the 10-day straight line block-in project

In any case, my intention at the time was to complete her drawing curriculum simply as a means to getting to her painting curriculum. But I got off on another track, as is my tendency. I’m super excited to be back on that track now though! To prepare for the painting lessons, I did a 10-day series of straight line block-ins from life with a variety of subjects. It was really satisfying to get back to basics with drawing, and each day I could feel getting a bit quicker and more confident about capturing what I saw.

The biggest psychological gain from the project was reconnecting with one of Sadie’s principles: be willing to do what it takes to fix the drawing before moving on. Keeping this in mind helped reset my baseline expectations for how long the drawing/painting process should take. Since my schedule tends to be segmented up into lots of smaller chunks of time and I aspire to a high level of skill, it’s important for my morale that I let go of time expectations and let the process take as long as it takes. With the painting techniques taught in Sadie’s course, I can still paint as often as I want, without the constraint of finishing in one sitting.

straight line block-in warmups - vessels and geometric shapes
Days 7–10 of the straight line block-in project

Over the course of this project I made several improvements to my studio setup. My easel is now positioned far away from the window that caused tons of lighting problems. For consistent light, I set up a light over the easel, and installed a large black shadow box for still life staging (with a ton of help from my husband). It’s fun to have a new environment to go along with the new course and subject.

The thing I’m most excited about is returning to an instructor who relishes taking her time with paintings, and desires no pressure to rush through the process. Sadie’s knowledge and perspective are inspiring because I can tell her training will provide the tools and experience for painting at whatever pace I want — whether that’s completing a painting in a day or doing it in bites and pieces over many days or weeks.

low key light study oil painting - featured

Study of landscape in low key light

Overcast days are common here in North Carolina, and I’m drawn to the quiet moodiness of the low key light when the sun is hidden by clouds. But so much of the teaching I’ve followed has been about how to address brightly-lit landscapes. That’s one of the big things that Impressionists often capture — the sun and its effect on color — and most of my virtual mentors have been in the Impressionist camp. Lately I’ve been exploring Tonalism, and along with that how to handle more diverse light situations related to the landscape.

low key light study oil painting
Study of low key light, 9 x 12, oil on linen

I purchased several lessons from Dianne Mize recently, some of which I applied in my 9 mini landscape paintings project when I experimented with color schemes. Another lesson was on low key light, and how to set up a structure of light and shadow when the lighting is diffused. The shadows are softer, shorter, and the value contrast is reduced. Colors are also lower in intensity. To practice these concepts, I chose a photo I took last March on a local trail, when the sky was filled with a thick cloud layer.

After making some adjustments to the composition in Procreate, I set up a palette of lower intensity colors:

  • yellow ochre light
  • burnt umber
  • terra rosa
  • chromium oxide green
  • purple mixed from permanent alizarin and ultramarine blue (not low key, but there to help lower the intensity of other hues)

Using Centurion oil primed linen mounted on a masonite panel, I rubbed yellow ochre (regular, not light) over the surface and wiped out the light value of the sky. Then I used a bristle brush to scrub in the values of the darker areas. I love the process of doing these monochromatic block-ins! They ease me into the process and are almost meditative. I like how they set me up for a general value structure.

This was my first time using the chromium oxide green. I chose it over sap green because it’s opaque, and I was painting over a monochromatic block-in where I didn’t want the transparent nature of sap green to mess with my values. The yellow ochre light is a little irritating to me because it has a low tinting strength and I kept having to put more and more out on the palette. It would be interesting to see how regular yellow ochre does with this set of colors. Or, a tip from Dianne was to mix an approximation of yellow ochre light with cad yellow deep and value-corrected purple.

This was an eye-opening exercise! There’s still a lot I can study on this topic, but I’m better prepared for what to look for when painting overcast conditions. And I no longer feel like I need to limit my plein air painting experiences to sunny days.

And as an experiment, I put a yellow photo filter effect on the completed painting in Photoshop. This is a direction I’d like to head — where I’m deciding the mood of the painting rather than following the light I see in the reference. I like the color harmony between the sky and the land when the filter is applied.

oil painting of mandarin orange Mar 15 2020 - featured

Simple mandarin orange still life painting

Every time I took one of these mandarin oranges out of the bag to eat, I had the thought that I’d love to paint one of them. Since this was the last one in the bag, today was the day to make it happen!

oil painting of mandarin orange Mar 15 2020
Mandarin, 8 x 10, oil on linen panel

I’ve been studying classic oil painting a little bit and wanted to try this with an old-masters-classic feel. I used an 8 x 10 oil primed linen panel that had been toned with burnt umber to a light value. To begin, I brushed a thin layer of burnt umber all over the panel and wiped out the light values to create a monochromatic block-in. The oil primed linen worked beautifully for this technique. I had also rubbed a thin layer of 50/50 Gamsol/linseed oil on the dry canvas before blocking in, which helped make the paint move on the surface nicely.

I used Gamblin’s Solvent-Free Gel Medium and my palette consisted of:

  • cadmium yellow light
  • cadmium yellow
  • cadmium orange
  • cadmium red light
  • alizarin permanent
  • yellow ochre
  • transparent earth red
  • ultramarine blue
  • burnt umber
  • ivory black

During my 9 mini landscape paintings project I learned that I like using an analogous color scheme as a color strategy. That’s what I used here: red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow. The surface the mandarin is sitting on is a very dull yellow.

oil painting of mandarin orange Mar 15 2020 - grey
The completed painting converted to greyscale to double check my values

It was fun to study this simple object and look for the nuances of color and temperature. The painting didn’t turn out as loosely as I had hoped, but I was generous with the amount of paint and took my time with it. It was a very enjoyable way to spend my Sunday afternoon!

9 mini landscape paintings project featured collage

Wrap-up of the 9 mini landscape paintings project

9 mini landscape paintings project - compilation
Completed mini landscape paintings, each 3 x 4 on oil paper

My goal with this 9 mini landscape paintings project was to get over feeling rusty with painting and have fun getting back into landscape painting. To do this, I would go through my painting process from start to finish (except for varnishing) 9 times within 3 weeks. The deadline was simply so I didn’t let the project linger without making progress.

I’m very happy that I did reach my goal! Doing regular, small work and going through my painting process worksheet several times got me over the fear of starting and helped generate enthusiasm for exploring more ideas. More ideas than I can possibly get to, lol.

My worksheets came in very handy for helping my mind focus on making decisions rather than sitting there figuring out how to get started. This is huge for me — I overthink the beginning stage and am paralyzed by options. The worksheet methodically led me through the steps so my mind felt more free and less worried about missing pieces. One of the points I’d like to reach is for some of the painting process to feel routine, where things come easily and naturally so every little bit isn’t hard effort.

This project helped me reconnect with the joy I feel when painting. And even the enjoyment I get out of planning. I don’t enjoy my time at the easel when I jump in willy nilly.

I did a lot of color palette exploration, and to my surprise found that even though I was using different color strategies (tube colors, schemes, mixing approaches), they ended up looking remarkably similar. That was something I was not expecting!

Some things that came out of this project that I’d like to explore more:

  • using analogous color schemes (I liked this much more than I thought I would)
  • using my concept to push the colors beyond the reference
  • using a mother color to bathe the landscape in one harmonized color
  • comparing the experience of alla prima and indirect painting methods
  • painting on smooth oil-primed panels (as contrasted with linen and canvas)
  • adding more texture and layering

Other things to explore

Since I’ve been all excited about painting the last few weeks, I bought my first bottle of varnish (Gamvar gloss) and tested that out on a couple of old paintings. For the most part I love the look of it! A few spots didn’t turn out as nicely, and I think that’s because of differences in surface quality of the unvarnished pieces. So I also learned about how to oil out a painting to make the surface quality more consistent. I used straight linseed oil on a different painting (not a varnished one) that had a lot of dull spots, so once that’s had time to dry I can try varnishing it to see how it turns out.

I also did a tiny bit of experimenting with glazing over an old study and a toned panel. I only used linseed oil to thin the paint, not a glazing medium. The toned panel was a cheap, acrylic primed panel, and the thinned oil paint did not want to go on nicely — it beaded up because the surface was too smooth. But the little bit of experimenting I did was pretty cool because it helped me see the possibilities with shifting the temperature of a finished painting. I’m curious to see just how much can be done with the materials I have before purchasing glazing mediums… I also have a small tub of cold wax medium that I’ve never even tried so I’m looking forward to playing with that as well.

What’s next

I’m not quite sure what my next project will be. I have a huge list of things I want to try, and lately have been thinking about painting animals. This is something I haven’t done much of, mostly they’ve been mixed media illustrations. Creating some animal portraits in oil is on my short list, so maybe it will be that!