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How to make an original oil painting. Follow the creative process from inspiration and technique to completion.
Buffalo - Oil on canvas 760mm x 610mm
Obviously, the first step towards creating a new work of art is inspiration. This comes in many forms. In this case, as documented, inspiration exploded into my mind as I watched a T.V. program about wildlife. At one brief instant, an aerial-shot of a heard of cattle thundered across a dusty plain. It had a lot going for it. There was movement, atmosphere, pattern and most importantly it invoked emotion.
I paused the HD TV and stepped through frame by frame until that certain 'something' was oozing off the screen. I let it rest on the eye for some time and tried to imagine how I could depict this in paint.
You may have heard of 'artistic license'. This is often used in the context of an excuse to change something from the original if it's too hard or somehow inconvenient. But to me, 'artistic license' means 'The expectation to alter what is seen in order to improve the resulting composition and overal artistic result.'
So I set about studying what was, in effect, wrong about the image as it stood.
- The pattern was great, but it was rather monotone which reduced the impact. The colours needed work.
- Although it was certainly a herd of animals, the picture did not make it obvious what it was. I liked that, but felt it should be a little less challenging. I decided to create something that looked abstract from a distance, and then magically morphed into a herd of cattle as the viewer got closer. This means that it needs a strong composition that stands alone from detail when viewed at a distance while still being a representational work. In this way, it is like two paintings in one.
- The subject was crying out for an impressionistic treatment, although I didn't want to go to the extreme that is seen in some of Turner's work.
Reference shot from an HD TV
There is a lot of heated debate in the art community about supports. (These are the things that you paint upon.) Sometimes wood is used, but it expands and contracts unevenly in the two directions. Sometimes it cracks or warps. Hardboard, metal, even newspaper are valid choices. But many people like to see a painting on canvas -- especially if it is an oil painting.
There are several grades of canvas. Some are fine-woven and smooth, and expensive. These are often chosen for accurate portraiture. Some people make their own stretchers and buy raw canvas. Purists will advocate the use of rabbit-skin glue, gesso and many layers. Then there are the mass-produced cotton-duck canvas-like supports that are easily available already on a stretcher.
I chose to use one of the mass produced, relatively cheap prepared mounts. But I never use them without further preparation. These are usually sprayed with a size to protect the canvas from the oils in the paint. If oil gets onto the support, over time it will rot it. So I lay down several protective layers as follows:
- Find some good quality acrylic all-preparation primer/undercoat which is sold in paint and hardware stores. You can use this on naked wood as a primer and surface preparation for either oil or acrylic top coats.
- Lightly sand the bumps off the canvas.
- Remove all dust. ... Important
- Stir the paint well with a flat blade.
- Bring the blade out and dribble it over the canvas evenly.
- Take a wide soft good quality brush and move the paint to all areas evenly.
- Now draw the paint brush first vertically, then horizontally in even strokes to even out the surface.
- Repeat this until all areas of the canvas are evenly covered.
- Finally, with the brush nearly dry of paint, use the lightest touch. Draw the tips of the bristles through the paint in long slow even strokes. This is called 'laying off' and you will find that the brush strokes vanish when the paint is dry.
- When it is dry, lightly sand and apply another coat.
- Apply about five coats or until the grain of the canvas has gone.
This preparation does two things. First, the smooth surface makes it easier to control the application of paint whether that is by brush, fingers, cotton ball, stick or whatever. Second, it provides a tough water-proof, oil-proof long lasting flexible support for the oil paint. People who demand the use of rabbit skin glue might hate me. But I've got paintings now 30 years old with no signs of problems.
If you like to use the grain of the canvas as a feature in your painting, then don't put too many layers of undercoat on it. In either case, don't go too smooth because the oil paint will slide around and possibly fall off sometime in the future. To prevent this, key the final surface with some medium-grade sandpaper.
Let it dry thoroughly.
Prepare reference material
Rather than try and print the reference photo, better results are gained by viewing it directly on computer screen because the colours are more controllable. In this case, I did not do any colour correction to the reference thus leaving room for artistic decisions during the actual painting.
I also found a reference of a bison and spent about half an hour studying the associated shapes. This one animal will be the only one in sharp focus. The rest will be in various stages of muted colour, mist, and fuzziness. I will use this one animal as the focal point for the painting. It's a trick that will fool your mind into seeing more detail in the rest of the animals compared to what is actually there.
Practice drawing a buffalo using MS Paint only
Stage 1 - the background
My primer/undercoat has a mild blue tint. I tint the undercoat deliberately because it's kinder on the senses when painting over a pastel shade compared to stark white.
This acrylic undercoat was used just to map out rough spaces in different tones. I don't worry too much about colour, but try to get the values about right, and work fast on the composition. This is a manic time, using broad sweeping movements and frantically stabbing at the canvas with a loaded sponge. There are only two main areas of colour - a green grassy patch, and a sun-light misty yellow earth with sparse vegetation. The sun is low in the sky, and we are looking from an aerial perspective, so the shadows are long and extend down the canvas. This means that highlights on the animals will be on their backs. Form will be suggested by deeper values as the beast's bodies curl under. The shadows will be muted through the dust that is kicked up in the morning light.
I used my typical palette of cobalt blue, yellow ochre, chrome yellow (but do not eat it like Van Gogh did!), white, Vandyke brown, vermilion. It's a limited palette but perfectly suitable for the range of colours in this painting. In reserve, is a transparent permanent alizarine. Transparent colours, or the technique of thinning out opaque colours give a receding effect, so these are good for distance and shadow. But this painting has limited scope for such perspective.
The brown and the blue are mixed to make a credible black for the darker tones. Pure black will not be used in this painting, even for tinting.
The highlights will be warm and yellowed, sometimes tending to orange to bring out the suggested dark brown of the animals, while some highlights will be almost white.
For the most part, I used my fingers. It's easy to feel how much paint is lifted off the palette, and easy to get that impressionistic result for the majority of the figures. For slightly bolder shapes, I used a stiff round brush, but fuzzed out the transitions and edges using a dry, tiny fluffy little watercolour brush.
The grassy areas were half-drawn, half splattered with one or other of the brushes.
Throughout the painting, I used an oil medium to introduce a translucent layer where needed, and to make the mist, pure paint, rubbed on using my finger. To do the latter, I had to wait till the first layer was fairly dry.
The only detail in this painting is restricted to one solitary animal that will appear to have stopped in the mayhem and is staring curiously at the viewer. All the other figures are oblivious to the observer, and are either thundering across the canvas, or milling about the grassy patch.
In general, diagonal elements make a strong compositional statement. I used a general flow of animals from bottom left to top right through the focal point, and a highlight of diagonal mist from mid left to the focal point. The viewers eye will be guided to the curious animal while peripheral vision interprets the rest of the scene. Colour, intensity and focus graduate gently to the focal area. This is a way of giving some depth to what otherwise is necessarily flat because of the aerial view.
I tried to use gut feel for balance. This is the idea that if you lifted the painting on a point from the middle of the bottom edge, would it feel like it would tip one way or the other. Unless you are trying to make a specific statement, it's usually a good idea to get a balanced result. In this painting, the heavy darker impressionistic figures in the lower left balance the blast of colour around the focal point.
My wife is a stern critic. Luckily, she likes it. In fact, she was the one to make me spend more time on the one buffalo that is in focus, and the whole painting is better for it. She won't let me sell it -- typical! But I am going to ignore that.
I like the contrast between believable realism and the overall abstract nature of the work. It seems to work. From a distance, it's a pleasant decorative pattern, but as you walk closer the herd-theme slowly appears, and finally when very close you can see the detailed realism of the focal point. The colours would look good in many settings like a corporate waiting room, office or living room.