Thursday, January 30, 2020

All about oils, part one

Before you paint, you need to plan. This is why the NaMoPaiMo registration form asks people to commit to a color and a medium. This isn't a problem for experienced finishwork artists, but new painters often struggle with choosing a medium. Which one is easiest? Which is cheapest? Which is the best? These are questions we hear over and over on the run up to NaMoPaiMo. In this series of guest posts, Allie Davidson asks some of the hobby's most accomplished artists to discuss the pros and cons of their favorite medium. Today, it's the oil painters!

What Should I use to Paint my Model?

by Allie Davidson


That is probably the top question asked by people who want to leap into the world of customizing their models.  Welcome!  I hope this article will help make that leap easier. As a long time customizer myself, I think it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of our hobby.  Have a great idea for a model?  There’s nothing more satisfying than learning to do it yourself.


To write this article, instead of relying on my own rather narrow focus of oils and recently some pan pastels, I contacted some hobby experts on various mediums commonly used, and what they believe is the pros and cons of that respective medium.


Before I hand this over to the panel of experts, it’s important to note that to become proficient at any medium takes practice.   Don’t give up.  You have to give yourself time to learn and trust your medium; to understand the first few layers may look awful but know that it’s all part of the process.  All mediums require layers whether it’s oils, pastels, airbrush etc.  You will never achieve the perfect finish in one layer.


I wanted to first highlight some fantastic advice from Jennifer Scott of Aspen Leaf that should be considered before making a decision:  I always advise people to find their starting medium by looking at what models appeal to them most. Do you prefer horses done by pigment artists, airbrush artists, oil artists? Most top level artists use a mix of mediums with an emphasis in one particular. For example, I use predominantly oils, but I’ll use every medium at my disposal on the piece to help in certain ways. Every medium has a super power. Use it.


Many times my models will have a combination of oils, pastels, pencil, acrylic… whatever it takes to achieve the color I’m going for.  Mixed medium works, the only caveat is to seal (most people use Testor’s Dullcote) between layers.


So let’s dive in! Part one of this series is all about oil paints. They're easier and less scary than you think!


Jennifer Scott - Aspen Leaf Studios

Jennifer Scott
If you are a fellow #TeamOils admirer, let’s talk about some of the properties that usually appeals to an oil person. First, there’s the sheer brilliance of color. Oils have a brightness and purity to them that doesn’t have to be fought for. Luscious color is easy with this medium, and color blending is smooth and beautiful! They are also the most durable. They stick to almost anything and stay stuck. You can rub set oils and they won’t come off. But it’s also their thickness that helps the durability. You are definitely putting good coverage on your model, so working small means it’s going to be more difficult unless you really thin them.
various pieces finished by Jennifer Scott
Yet even with those strengths, so many people are afraid to try them! Why? Because they’ve heard all about: a steep learning curve, long drying time, brush strokes, dust in paint, smell, and the need chemicals to clean like mineral spirits or turpentine. Let’s make these things a lot less scary!

1. Learning Curve: Oils do take longer to get the hang of than other mediums, but that’s because there are just so many ways to use them! So in essence, it takes longer because you’re developing many skill sets at once. And the word skill never goes hand in hand with instant. There can be some pretty major “ugly stages” and you just have to keep pushing through. I promise it’ll get beautiful if you just keep going. Maybe not on one piece though. It’s important to learn what you can from a piece, call it finished, and move on to the next. This is more in general than specifically to oils, but I find a lot of beginners want to make their early pieces look perfect and so never finish them. Fact of life: your early pieces are not going to look all that great. Go in with low expectations and treat those initial pieces as what they are – teachers. They’re not going to be your million dollar sales pieces right away. They’re going to be the ones that show you how to get there over time.

Sweet Basil, Morgen Kilbourn Hazel resin painted by Jennifer Scott in 2010
a really nice horse, but not as nice as her 2020 work
2. Drying Time/Particulates in paint: Why did I list long drying time as a con? Because even though you have plenty of time to play around with paint and get it exactly the way you want it, it’s also plenty of sitting time for things to get into the paint. Now, the mistake most make here is that they instantly try to get out any hairs or dust specs that landed on their wet paint. All this does is grind them in further and now they’re truly mixed into the paint and not going to come out. Just let them be! Leave them alone until the oils underneath are fully dry. Then you can just lightly rub or blow them off as they’re still only barely sitting on the surface. I do not have a spic and span painting area. I have two Saint Bernards and there is hair and dust everywhere. The thing you are going to want to keep clean is the surface you are painting (your model – so make sure it’s dust free), the small area it’s sitting on, and your paint mix and brushes. I use throw-away things like paper towels (the blue shop towels are great!) to paint on and tin foil as my paint palette (a tip I took from Mel Miller but you can use things like wax paper as well). If these are dirty and linty, they get tossed and a new fresh sheet gets laid out. Never try to reuse paint. Mix fresh every time for smooth lint-freeness.
Jenn's painting table
3. Brush Strokes: These are super easy to avoid. If you get them, you’re using too much paint. Simple as that. Remember, too thin is better than too thick. You’re not going to cover a piece in one layer, or even two. Maaaaaaybe you can with three once you know what you’re doing and depending on your technique. Be patient and build up to coverage in layers. I have a soft large square brush I use to softly smooth my work down after each session to further help remove any brush texture left in the work.
Smoothing out those brushstrokes!
4. Clean up: Oils may not be just soap and water, but they’re really not that much more difficult to clean. I have a glass cleaning jar with the metal agitator to rub brushes on. You pour your mineral spirits/turpentine/paint thinner in this and when not in use, it has a lid to keep it contained and fresh. If the smell bothers you, there are odorless versions of these cleaners. Once I’m finished with a session, I will clean my brushes in that jar to remove as much paint as possible. When it looks fairly clean, I’ll then treat my brushes to a liquid soap and water wash just to be sure and remove that oily feeling left over. Remember to shape your brushes before putting them away! I mentioned the paper towel surface and tin foil above. With these being throw-aways, there’s literally no cleanup time spent there. I have a metal palette knife I use to mix my paints with and I just wipe it clean on the paper towel after each use and that’s enough.
Anise, sculpted and painted by Jennifer Scott, 2020
Hopefully having instructions on how to work out those difficulties gives you the confidence to dive in. It’s a really great medium to work with! No other medium has that smooth, gliding feel as you work with the paint that oils do. The blending is so smooth and soft and easy and you never have to rush and stress to get it. You can take as much or as little time as you need by adding driers to the paint, and your colors will always pop. They play so nicely with all the other mediums too! Just add a little fixative/dull cote between layers that you change up the mediums on and you’re good to go. I think oils bring out the best from all of them, but that’s my very biased sentiment.

Melanie Miller - Mel Miller Equine Art
Melanie Miller, photo by Julie Ward
The benefit of painting with oils is their superb blending capabilities and long working time, which allow the painter to leisurely adjust and refine overall shading and finer details. The downside is the drying time.  If using driers (Allie: dryers are for example Liquin or Japan Dryer), you can paint a layer a day, if not, you may have to wait a week or a month between layers.
Mickey, Breyer Shannodell custom by Melanie Miller
Winner of the 2017 BreyerFest Best Customs Contest, Finishwork
If using oils paint, it’s a good idea to have a dust free space to leave the horse while it dries. As far as how oils look when finished compared with other media, oils tend to have a glow that is very naturalistic.  It is much more difficult to achieve sharp edges than with acrylics, so they will not excel at, for example, sharply detailed eyes with the same ease acrylics do.
Escar Go For Broke, Breyer Emerson custom by Melanie Miller
You may have heard that you cannot paint acrylics over oils, but this is not true in the case of model painting.  Because we are painting on solid, firm surfaces and use thin layers (as opposed to thick layers on canvas), all you need to get the best of both worlds is a layer of Testors Dullcote (or Model Masters lusterless) between layers of oils and acrylic.
Melanie Miller's 2019 NaMoPaiMo model
acrylic over oils

Lynn  Cassels-Caldwell - Snowdrift Studio
Lynn Cassels-Caldwell
PROS: Rich pigmentation. Fade resistant. Blends extremely well. A little paint goes a long way. Layers extremely well. Proven permanence.
CONS: Slow drying time. Can be messy.  
Aashiq resin painted by Lynn Cassels-Caldwell
I personally prefer to pain with oils because of its quality, performance and flexibility of available techniques. It’s a proven medium having been used successfully for hundreds of years for traditional painting. It can be applied thick, or built-up in many thin layers. I like how the colors behave when mixing; it’s quite predictable especially when using the classic colour wheel. It’s also relatively safe to use. There is no spraying until the model is finished, no dust and it does not require toxic thinners to clean up. Plain walnut oils and soap and water will clean the brushes.  
Lynn Cassels-Caldwell's 2019 NaMoPaiMo model
Drying time is slower than most other paints, so I generally have several models going all the time. Even so, the layers are generally thin and often dry overnight.
various pieces finished by Lynn Cassels-Caldwell
Coming up next: more oil painting pointers from Shane Langbauer, Heather Bullach and Kimberly Bleecker.

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