Thursday, February 9, 2012

Oil Painting Class: Orange and Peppers

In February I've started a scary but exciting new journey -- I've taken up an oil painting class with the amazing artist David Cheifetz in Palo Alto. The beautiful thinly painted shadows, intriguing compositions and juicy, glowing colors together with the confidently executed brushwork in his painting lured me into this class -- before which I was seriously intimidated by the thought of taking up oil painting. But, after learning that he only started painting in oil in 2007 (!!!), I decided I have to study with him and steal the secrets... (;-P)

David was trained in the Schuler Atelier School in the classical lineage. His work was built on top of a solid foundation of brush drawing, but differs from (what I understand) classical still life in their confident brushwork (a lot classical oil paintings emphasize the rigorous blending of any brushwork) and dramatic lighting. He is also an equally great teacher -- I've only taken three classes with him so far, but I've learned a ton:
  • A painting starts with straight-line block-in of main object shape, cast shadow and form shadow shape, which are sketched in before the painting part starts with Burnt Umber mixed with Gamblin Gamsol, normally on an umber-toned ground. David usually use Burnt Umber for his still life paintings, and Raw Umber for his figure paintings, since the cold greenish tinge of Raw Umber sets off the warm skin tones of the figure beautifully;
  • After straight-line block-in of the shadow shapes, the entire shadow side (including the form shadows and cast shadows) are blocked in with flat Burnt Umber mixed with a little Gamsol, very thinly but dark enough to differentiate from the light side;
  • The actual painting starts from areas around highlights -- where the color is the riches and most saturated. After that, highlights are immediately put in thickly -- now you have both the light, mid-tone and shadow values in an object. In this step, David would mix the color pigments with his favorite medium, Gamblin Neo-Meglip Gel Medium to allow more fluid brushstrokes;
  • Slowly block in the various color-values in the light side of the object, studying each section carefully before putting brush to canvas/board, painting attention to both the value and the color of the brush work. David does not pre-mix, instead, he mix each brushstroke of color on the go using his filbert brush. Each color patch is carefully mixed, laid-in, then manipulated on canvas to create the corresponding edge effects: hard, soft, diffused...
  • Only when the entire light side of the object is done would David move t the boundary between light and shadow, and lay a dark color swatch parallel to the edge of the shadow, partly in the light section and partly in shadow to connect the two. Then he would check the value steps between the most saturated color section and the edge of shadow, making sure the value transition is consistent with what's showing in the object you are painting;
  • David emphasizes that making what he calls "Starts" to be the most important of this training process -- the detailed steps of which is described above, and ask his students to do one "Start" of each three-hour painting session. This is very critical to getting the most out of the training time, according to his opinion. He also ask us to pay close attention to the quality and accuracy of the block-in lines, the way brushstrokes are laid when painting, and the value of each stroke put on canvas/board (value is more important than color!). He is kind but strict, and does tons of hands-on demonstrations on our canvas to illustrate each point he emphasizes...
  • At the end of each three-hour session, he suggests us to wipe-off any unfinished painting after taking a photo as a record of what we have done. This way would ensure we are not so attached to the painting itself and try to fiddle and finish it at home. "The next painting would always be better than the last one!" This is absolutely right -- I am reminded each time that the purpose of me coming to these classes is not to finish a painting and having something to show around, but to practice and exercise under the guidance of a master painting, and get the most out of it!
So, what have I produced so far? Not much -- I did one single-colored object for each of the three-hour sessions, first an orange, then a red chili pepper, finally a yellow bell pepper to explore how to paint shadows on yellow objects -- since yellow has such a short value range (as you can see, I am still obsesses with my yellow rose experiment... :-P).

The orange is my first attempt and a bit of a disaster -- I have no experience in oil painting, and the support I was using -- Ampersand Gesso Board is very slick. As a result, I have very thick paints on the board, and my brush is slipping around with no control of brushwork whatsoever. The highlight is painted as a single round dot -- no edge quality or shape accuracy. But, everything has to start somewhere!

Oil Painting Session 02/01/2012, on Ampersand Gesso Board

I got slightly better on the red chili pepper -- this is my second brush drawing and I wiped the whole drawing at least three times in frustration, but I did learn to control my brushes a little better, and finally learned the right quantity of pigment and Gamsol in the brush to make a thin, deliberate line. David showed me how to manipulate paint to create fussy edges of the intricate highlight shape, and I tried it on my own -- not too successfully, but definitely improving compared to my last attempt...

Oil Painting Session 02/06/2012, on Ampersand Gesso Board

The third time, I experimented with a different ground -- RayMar Fine Weave Linen Canvas Board, on which color is absorbed much more than the Gesso Board. They have a good grip on the brush which I like, but the color definitely is less brilliant compared to the Gesso Board. I also experimented with less pigment on the brush to avoid pigment pile-up on canvas. On some sections of this painting, the pigments seem to be spread too thin -- I am still struggling to find the right amount. But, I feel that my brush-handling has definitely improved. I am squinting more to look at the big value changes. And my initial block-in lines got much better! This "Starts" are really great exercises indeed...

Oil Painting Session 02/08/2012, on RayMar Fine Weave Linen Canvas Board

At the end of each session I wiped the painting straight up -- after taking these photo evidences. I will keep on trying -- maybe one day, there would be something worth keeping. But until then, I am going to be satisfied of being able to take the lessons learned and skills improved back home with me...


  1. I thank you for the very complete explanation of your teachers methods. A good tried and true way.

    You have a huge advantage, Arena, of being able to draw very well so once your own handwriting, so to speak, of brushwork appears then you will never go back to painting with anything else but oils. I think what you have done so far is excellent and I am filled with happy anticipation for following your exciting journey ahead.

    May I recommend Centurion oil primed canvas pads to start off with. Oil primed adds brilliance to the colors. They are very reasonable and are on sale at ASW at the moment. I tape them to a piece of foam core board.
    I have found with teaching, that artists are more willing to be experimental if they are not painting on something costly. If you get a good piece of work then it is easy to glue it to a board with Yes paste or Miracle Muck..

  2. Hi Arena, I meant to tell you I think your watercolor florals are exquisite! I am sure with practice you will be creating the same level of oil paintings and I commend you on learning a new medium. I look forward to seeing your progression.

    1. Thank you so much, Robin. I am learning very slowly, but I will continue on. This is so much fun...

  3. Arena, good for you for getting into oils as well. It sounds so very different from watercolor. Your description of the process, as always, was wonderful to read!

    1. Thanks Kathryn for your kind words... It is very very very different, but a lot of fun too. I want to learn to paint oil because from time to time, I would love to paint with confident brushstrokes and leave them there in the painting! I'd also like to experiment with thick paint texture, which is a bit difficult with watercolor. But I love watercolor so much, especially the soft, wet-into-wet transitions!

  4. Good for you! You'll find what you'll feel comfortable working with/on by experimentation.....then you'll have years of pure joy ahead. I paint in both watercolor and oils, can't say I prefer one over the other, but they are both very different. I'll find I go for months in one, then switch to the other, OR I'll have piles of each I'm doing at the same time. Just keep at it, don't give up and don't be critical of yourself. Painting, you know is for the pure joy of it all. Contrats and happy painting! :) Carol

    1. Thanks Carol! I would definitely remember your words and try not to lose heart when I encounter frustrations... Being able to switch back and forth would be so nice!

  5. I paint in oils with lots of blending and smoothness in layers, with an ultrafine outline drawing first, much more like your watercols than the technique you're learning. The nice thing about oils is that you can paint any way at all! Looks to me like you've already picked up how to do it. Are you learning faster than David? :)

    1. I wish -- I am a very slow learner. :-P Much like an old dog trying to learn new tricks...

      I am actually going to study with another artist in the method you were describing. Her name is Sadie Valeri, and she paints this way without visible brushstrokes. I want to try both methods to see which way I like better and right now I am knowing too. little to really decide... I am also sponging down information from books and instructional dvds... So much to learn! It is a completely different medium, completely different challenges. There are just not enough hours in a day to try everything I want to!!! (I know you must feel the same way since you not only paint, but also write, make music and program, ha! I really shouldn't complain...)

  6. Arena, thank you for sharing what you are learning in oils. I'm giving them a go too. So appreciate what you've posted.

  7. I had to bookmark this page because of all the useful information on it. This is perfect for me because I have just moved from watercolor into Acrylics. I want to work in oils next. Thanks for sharing this.


Thank you so much for taking time visiting and commenting on my blog! Your feedback and encouragements are things that keep me going with I am feeling down or frustrated... I will try my best to reply to every comment ASAP but sometimes life gets in the way and I am a bit slow in my response. I would like to apologize if that happens...

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