Three Lessons From Oil Painting Class

During my final term in college, I had the opportunity to pick an elective studio class. I opted to learn something to paint with oils. I’d painted with tempera, watercolors, and pastels before. I’d also drawn with colored pencils, markers, and ink pens. (My favorite to this day.) Oils intimidated me. I’d seen my mother use them and knew how much patience and dedication they required. I also knew they could produce spectacular results. I wanted to learn how to do this.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but learning to paint with oils would also teach me lessons that would help in my design career. Here are three that have been particularly important to me.

Lesson 1: Learn the Particularities of the Medium

Our oil painting instructor (sadly, I’ve forgotten his name) didn’t have us painting on day one. Instead, he wanted us to become familiar with oil painting as a medium. After learning about the materials we’d be using (brushes, paints, palettes, easels, etc.), our instructor had us undertake our first exercise: stretching and priming canvas. At first, I was baffled. Why waste time doing this, when we could buy ready canvases at the art supplies store? Eventually, I realized the surface we’d be painting on was an essential part of the medium. Paints take differently to canvas than they do to paper or wood. Stretching and priming canvas gave me a hands-on understanding of the characteristics of this surface.

When we’d mastered the surface, we turned our attention to putting paint on it. Oils are different from other paints: they dry more slowly. As a result, they offer different possibilities and constraints than other paint mediums. For example, you can blend paints on the canvas to create soft transitions between areas of color. You can also change your mind, blending out “mistakes.” You can build the painting over time. This is different from other media such as markers, where the color you lay down becomes instantly fused with the paper definitively. Learning about the particularities of the oil medium would influence what type of work we could do with it and how we would approach that work.

Lesson 2: Focus on Composition First

Because of the particularities of oil paints, you must work differently with them than with other media. For example, when drawing with an ink pen, you must focus on the lines that define the elements you’re drawing. With oil, the lines are less important than the broad areas that will create the overall composition. You will be building out the painting onto these areas, so it’s important to get them right. (This is not like coloring-by-numbers; it’s more about getting the tonal composition right so you can then layer details on top of it. It’s like carving a bas-relief sculpture in reverse.)

This approach requires that you pay attention to different things about the objects you’re painting. Instead of focusing on the lines that define them, you must pay attention to the relationships between them, and how those relationships are revealed by areas of shade and light. You must make decisions about the framing of those elements (where they sit in relation to the borders of the canvas) and which will be in the foreground and which will be in the background (and therefore less detailed.)

This way of working requires a bit more planning upfront than other media. We’d often start by sketching out studies to explore these relationships and the build-up plan without yet committing to the main painting. Our instructor also taught us a trick that has been very useful to me throughout my life: he asked that we occasionally step back from the easel and look at the painting through unfocused eyes. Were we still able to perceive the overall composition? Was it clear? Was something structurally broken?

Lesson 3: Don’t Overwork It!

Oil is a forgiving medium: If you do something you don’t like to the painting, it’s fairly easy to re-work it by layering in different colors. You can also mix paints to produce a great range of colors. Both of these characteristics make oil a very flexible and powerful medium. However, these characteristics come with a price: overusing them can turn the painting to mush. I saw this happen with most of my first paintings. I’d lay down the base, work in the colors, change my mind, lay some more color down, etc. Eventually, the bright colors I’d used in my first passes had turned to gray tones. (I can lie and say my earliest paintings were all still lifes of porridge.)

With time, I learned that some things that seemed “mistakes” could be worked into the painting. Sure, it wouldn’t look exactly like the thing I had in my mind (or the one I was trying to capture from the real world), but at least it was clear and vibrant. I’m sure practice would give me greater control of the medium, bringing the final result closer to my vision. This would take time, but at least I understood the path forward. It’s been a long time since I’ve painted with oils; I haven’t put in the time needed to master the medium. (That said, I loved painting and will someday make the time to pick it up again.)

The lessons I learned from painting with oils have been useful to me in a variety of design situations. For example, I find it essential to learn what makes a medium special. For me, this calls for hands-on experience with the underlying technologies of the medium — much as I got when I learned to prime canvas. Also, the details of a work are very important, but you must first get its overall structure right. This calls for occasionally stepping back to look at the big picture: the relationships between the main elements of the compositions. And finally, don’t overwork the thing. You can’t please everybody all the time: understandability calls for clarity, and this, in turn, requires tough decisions. You emphasize some things at the expense of others; waffling invariably produces tepid, muddled results. True of painting and of any other communication medium.