An oily transition

For decades, I’ve lugged around a crate full of oil paints. Several tubes were even left over from my college art student days. I had long stopped working in oils, but I knew I’d return to them someday.

As soon as the baby began sleeping for longer stretches at night, I knew I was ready to take on the task of re-learning how to work in oil. Despite my appreciation of acrylics, somehow I knew that in order to mature in my painting, I would need to go back to the medium that first seduced me. And conveniently, it turns out that all those old tubes were mostly all usable!

Oil paints get in your blood. Quite literally, if you don’t use gloves. But also figuratively. Oil painting is one of the most alluring of artistic mediums. Certainly, the paint’s viscous, tactile quality – from pasty to buttery to watery – is a factor.

The smell might be another. Linseed oil has an earthy odor – I imagine like an old attic or ancient cellar. It harkens to another era. The names of the pigments, at least the non-chemical ones, such as “raw sienna” or “burnt umber” add to the mystique. I’m never one to rail against new ways, but in contrast to so much in contemporary art, oil paints connect you to a long tradition in which painters actually mixed their own pigments from stone and plants and mummies(!).

But I think the real reason oil painting holds such a grip is that mastery is elusive and by definition experiential. The knowledge of working in oil can’t be transferred from a teacher to a student. Rather, it must be pursued. In his book “What Painting Is” James Elkins likens painting to alchemy, another ancient endeavor in which visionaries pursued the elusive.

After a few months of experimentation (what else to call it, if not failure?) I have reached a point where I feel my work in oil is at least defensible. It took time to regain the muscle memory of how the paint feels, out of the tube, thinned out in a wash, mixed with some more oil, or scumbled across the tacky paint from two days earlier.

Below are some of the pieces that made it out of the studio. There are many others, but for now (perhaps forever) are “in progress.”

Oil on canvas
15 x 15 in
oil on canvas
18 x 18 in
Divided and Conquered
Oil on canvas
30 x 30 in

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