In Praise of Oil Painting

Pipe Dreams

Pipe Dreams

Oils are the most forgiving medium I know. About forty years ago, I started making art out of clay and learned that breakage and misfirings could destroy something that had taken weeks to make. Taking up stone carving twenty years later, I found that a misplaced chisel, when carving a groin, could leave your marble torso an amputee or turn your two entwined lovers into two separate figures, in that case a happy accident. Exploring painting once I learned to draw, I found that watercolor was the most exacting (every mark you make stays on that paper), and acrylics dried too fast for my taste—I need time and a margin of error.

Imagine my joy at discovering oil painting! I start most paintings with a grisaille, an underpainting drawn with thinned paint, the perfect time to make all of my important decisions: placement on the canvas, proportion, lights and darks, etc. Some days it comes easy, but I have been known to wipe out a day’s work, only to come back to my newly blank canvas the next time, because the painting depends on that drawing. Then the paint application begins. There, too, if you get something wrong, you can fix it—color, temperature, background, whatever. Even once you’ve called it done, a detail in a painting can come back to speak to you. I added reflected light from street lamps to my tango dancers in Dancing in the Dark, a few weeks after I had called it finished.

I started my smoke series with Up In Smoke, not intending a series but just enjoying the challenge of painting the background first, in an ombre effect, shading the color from deepest purple to paler violet and then adding the match and the smoke. There’s no underpainting for these—the smoke is painted free hand, with oil paints thinned with linseed oil for the transparency. I liked painting it so much, it led me to do three more, each time choosing a different source for the smoke and a different ombre background. It was only after I had finished Take a Deep Breath that I decided to hang them together, a series of four, but when I looked at them in relation to one another, I realized that the bright turquoise I had used in Pipe Dreams would not work in the group. While the charcoal gray lightens to the color of ashes and makes the pipe recede, it’s all about the smoke, as it should be.      



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