Choosing the subject matter
I recently completed a kitchen conservatory ‘green space’ which I filled with plants and hanging baskets. Using recycled items to reduce cost and environmental waste was my key aim for the project. See my blog entitled ‘Conceptualising a Green Space’ for details about my process and end result. On completion of the space, I took a few photo’s to capture some beautiful moments when the light was just right. Upon reviewing these shots I came upon the ‘Beer cans with Haworthia Fasciata’ or more commonly called the ‘Zebra plant’. I thought the photo would make a brilliant reference for a large oil painting, and so began many hours of work.
My choice of subject matter extends further than a love for succulents, the beer cans were saved from a local pub & eatery called ‘The Beer Library’. Unfortunately it was one of the many small businesses in the area that didn’t survive the Lockdown and had to close doors. The beer cans are a sad reminder of better times when social distancing wasn’t a common phrase and the Haworthia’s resilience represents hope for our flailing economy and human ingenuity. My heart goes out to the many livelihoods and small businesses that were causalities during these unusual times. We always knew that Covid was a double edged sword, a biological threat that would inevitably result in economic uncertainty.
Working on Oils
I opted to work in oils after many years of acrylics and was very nervous regarding my ability to adapt to a slow-drying medium. As an art educator, I’ve always opted for acrylics as it’s quick drying time was suitable for class demonstrations and practical activities. Acrylics are also cheaper and many advances have been made regarding retardants and additives for this medium. Oils have earned the reputation of being pricy and fussy in application, add in expensive brushes, surfaces and the range of solvents required and the average student may not see it as a feasible choice. Having said this, I must confess that the luxury of oils as a painting medium is unsurpassed and worth all it’s fussiness in the end. It’s no wonder that the great masters preferred this pigment-rich viscosity to materialise their visions.
I haven’t tried ordering materials online, but local art suppliers within the Randburg area had a good range of Winsor & Newton paints (I used a basic limited pallet). I unfortunately couldn't get Liquin, but managed to acquire artist grade linseed oil, safflower oil and refined turpentine. I believe there is a low-oudour turpentine available if you are concerned about the toxicity, or just work in a well ventilated room and ensure you close the bottle after use.
My holy grail : YouTube Tutorials
Not being a great master myself I decided to update myself on techniques and materials. I found Alpay Efe’s channel on YouTube entitled ‘The mind of an Artist’ most helpful, as well as Daria Callie and Florent Farges. I am of a generation that frequented libraries, read books and didn’t have lap tops or cell phones, perhaps that’s why I value the unlimited access to information I have today. The fact that I can at anytime watch a YouTube video and share in someone’s time, expertise and year’s of experience in any given skill or craft is mind boggling. I am so grateful that I can tap into this mine of collective knowledge and broaden my skillset on a myriad of topics. I realise that during the Lockdown when all class sessions were online, many students felt bombarded by YouTube videos, which I agree is not a substitute for in situ interaction. However, I would shudder to think of how art lecturers would have managed their practical classes before the internet or YouTube. As a perpetual student myself, I’m just grateful we live in era with access to such rich and engaging educational resources.
So if ‘realism’ and I were in a relationship, I would label it on FaceBook as ‘It’s Complicated’. The high school art curriculum fostered my ability to draw and paint realistically in order to learn how to represent objects credibly , in order to understand composition, form, perspective and the play of light. Realistic rendering was valued and often the marker that separated the hopeful from the ‘truly talented’. My 3 year stint at a ‘technikon’ in the early 90’s, studying toward a fashion design diploma, further reinforced ‘representational art’ in the form of live figure drawing classes. A few years later, I decided to pursue my art degree at Unisa and that’s when it got complicated. Although the curriculum was extensive and open to experimentation and exploration, it seemed to heavily lean away from realism and representational styles. From the early 2000’s the times were changing and technology had thrown the proverbial ‘spanner’ into traditional art (fine art) styles. It felt as if the curators of artistic value had held a private caucus and had deemed realism and representational art ‘outdated’ overnight. Conceptualism and multi-media installations quickly gained favour, so I decided to explore more abstract concepts visually and include software within my processes. Looking back, I realise my university education was doing it’s job, it was veering my methodology toward the fervour of contemporary art thinking, this was a good thing. I unfortunately I threw the baby away with the bath water and stopped honing my craft with tactile materials. I wasted many years focused on lofty concepts but my application was weak due to depriving myself of any activity that felt like traditional painting or drawing.
Hopefully I’ve come full circle as I now realise that the more styles within my repertoire of practical skills, the better I can express myself in the stories I want to tell visually. I have returned to explore ‘realism’ as an art style because I enjoy the creative act of mimicry and deep cathartic observation of the world as it is. Finding beauty in some thing as mundane as a few throwaway beer cans, then labouring to achieve their likeness and wonder by meticulously placing paint on canvas can be quite meditational. I also found that student’s observational skills benefit tremendously from quick realistic drawings, as does their confidence.
Scale and Proportion
I decided to enlarge the photographic reference to suit the dimensions of an existing canvas, which was over a meter in height. For accuracy I used the grid method to transfer my image to this new scale. Level 1 students may remember this lesson using a sourced image of a ‘city scene’, I also covered 1 and 2 point perspective within this learning outcome. You could also use a projector if you have one available.
As I intended to use this painting as a tutorial for level 2 students, I opted to take the advice of many YouTube artists and start with a value painting first. Basically this means that I focused only on the degrees of light and dark areas of the photographic reference. This underpainting consists of a tonal range of blacks, greys and whites only. More experienced painters eliminate this step as they are well versed to use colour values right from the start, but I found it quite a good learning curve and an opportunity to work out the brightness and contrast that exist within the image.
I would strongly advise that students always start with assessing the values before drawing or painting as it forces you to look at the image holistically rather than focusing on details too soon. Oils are slow drying but can be mixed with solvents like liquin which thin the paint and accelerate drying times. However it’s slow drying capacity makes it the most forgiving medium for the correction of errors. Oil paint stays pliable for days after application and you are forced to take breaks between layers. This drying time allows you to stand back and properly evaluate your work in stages.
Working out colour values was easy as I had already done the value painting in tones of black, grey and white. I found this informed the tints and shades of the various hues. Achieving depth of colour by building layers of glazes was effortless in oils, but I always found this challenging with acrylics.
This practical exercise in oils was an invaluable experience and I hope it will prove to be a useful learning tool for you. Upon close inspection of the painting you will notice some creative diversions I've made from the original photograph as well as some blatant errors. The scale and proportion of the last can should be more diminished and hazy due to the perspective, the colour and ‘sheen’ on the front can should be much lighter in hue to emphasize its curved nature. The second can should be more out of focus, but I concentrated on the print so much I neglected the blur, the placement of the handle on the galvanised planter in the background is inaccurate. So as you can see, although the oil medium is forgiving, realism isn’t and you must be willing to critically analyse your work in order to improve. When attempting realism in it’s purist form, any deviation from the reference will cause a ripple effect of errors in order to justify the first one, so always stand back and reassess at every stage, and correct errors immediately as with many hours invested, you will reach a point of no return.