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Controlling color in oil painting.

Painting in oils, one of the oldest media, has been taught in art classes since the fourteenth century. Despite this prolonged exposure, the oil medium is often regarded with anxiety by students, who sometimes find it difficult to control, hard to gauge, and a bit intimidating due to its permanency and reputation in the arts. Technical skills aside, students often find oils somewhat unmanageable in the practical studio. The use of glazes, turpentine and tube paints can be cumbersome, hard to regulate, and damaging to clothing and furniture. The art studio feels the brunt of this drawback, with smatterings of thick oils clogging sinks and littering tables, even with students' best clean-up intentions.

Obstacles aside, there are methods of painting in oils which can be conducive to obtaining unique effects. When examining the masterful paintings of the Van Eykes of Flanders, one can appreciate the warmth and depth of their highly developed color schemes. The soft luminosity that characterizes these and other paintings of the period exemplifies the possibilities inherent in oils. The aura surrounding these works, one which is often felt, but seldom analyzed by students, is both atmospheric and indicative of a deep visual observation on the part of the artist.

The veil control method

Most students remain in awe of the technical abilities and skills evident in these works, but regard them as "otherworldly," a bit out of time, and not attainable. With the current emphasis on direct color usage, the "veil control method," so prevalent throughout art history, has been all but forgotten in the contemporary classroom. However, it is through tiffs slow, studied approach that students are able to achieve a high level of success in the cultivation of technical skills, control of the medium, and an understanding of the relationships existing between value, color and intensity.

In order to acquaint students with this method, I use slides representing the work of various artists including Vermeer, Van Eyke and DaVinci. Students recognize these artists as being particularly adept at drawing, orchestrating unity and color coordination throughout their work. We discuss the means by which these artists might have obtained these unique results, while raising some pertinent questions. How did these artists achieve the soft luminescence and "sfumato" effects which characterize their work? By what means were colors integrated in order to obtain unity of tonality while still respecting the colors of each object painted? During these discussions, specific terms crop up: lights, layers, subtle colors, depth and color temperature.

Using a still life arrangement with dramatic side lighting, the students complete a set of drawings in white chalk or charcoal on brown paper. By squinting at the set-up, they are able to identify the various areas of light and dark. Once these drawings are completed and we have critiqued them, the students arc ready to begin the actual painting. Stretched cotton canvas is best to use, due to its flexibility and bounce, however these paintings can be done on any stiff surface which has been treated with sizing. An excellent glaze can be mixed by combining 1 oz. of stand oil, 1 oz. of damar varnish, 5 oz. of turpentine, and 15 drops of cobalt dryer. This glaze will thin the paint and provide an accelerated drying process, enabling "veils" to be placed over one another without upsetting previously placed layers. I use a few old squeeze bottles to contain the medium because they are easier for students to handle, and eliminate spillage.

After the canvas has been treated with gesso, the students apply a thin, even coat of any neutral tone to the entire surface. Once dry, this coat is ready to accept thin veils of white paint which are applied with a #5 stiff bristle brash. Students hang their value drawings in view, so that they can transfer important visual information concerning light and form. Students work slowly to build up their "ghost paintings," using a "scumbling" technique and allowing the veils to dry, creating a complete white/neutral toned painting.

Adding "veils" of color

Once all of the value concerns have been addressed, the painting is ready to accept an application of localized color. I emphasize the term "veil" to the students because it connotates the delicate, transparent quality which I want them to achieve in their work. The students carefully mix each desired color, apply it with a smooth, firm stroke in an even transparency, covering the entire object to be painted. The paint is then gently lifted off with a soft cloth in order to expose desired areas of light and dark in the underpainting. Various values and intensities of local colors are also applied, lending additional form and volume to the painting. Throughout this process, the students take visual "cues" from the underpainting, molding and shaping color veils accordingly. Students are always amazed at the ease with which they are able to control the color and the behavior of the paint when using this approach.

Once all color possibilities have been explored, and the work has been allowed to dry, a final glaze can be applied. A very thin blend of paint and glazing medium, similar to tinted water in appearance, is placed over the entire painting. A soft cloth may again be used to retrieve or emphasize desired areas or highlights. This glazing process may be repeated several times in order to impart further tonal unity to the work.


The "veil control" method of oil painting is particularly effective in bringing students to an understanding of the artistic process: (a) Students become involved in a long-range study, working from initial drawings, to ghost paintings, to finished pieces. This lends valuable insight into the analytical means by which qualitative work is produced. (b) Students demonstrate a heightened awareness and command over the studio skills involved as well as an increased capacity for the handling of tools and media. (c) Students become more appreciative of the means by which peat masters were able to execute their work. No longer regarding this level of achievement as an impossibility, they are able to apply some of these studied techniques. (d) The finished paintings are explicitly qualitative in themselves! Since we are looking "through" and not "at" color, the final works reflect a warmth and deep luminosity which characterizes the method.

Joseph Amorino is Art Department Chairperson at Hudson Catholic High School, Jersey City, New Jersey.
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Author:Amorino, Joseph
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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