Stumbling into oil painting

All the Menger sponge stuff — the wall, the wee canvas — got me thinking about the idea of what some snobbish part of my brain thinks of as painting painting, as legit for realsies no fuckin’ around oil painting with oils like an oil painter.

There’s a giant discussion to be had (and which has already been had ad nauseam) about what art and Art are and what’s legitimate and who legitimizes it and so on that I don’t really want to even try to to start to unpack and examine here, so I’ll just acknowledge that, whatever historical and cultural and etc. baggage is involved, this is me painting a Menger sponge with latex house paint and thinking “maybe I should try doing something like this not using latex house paint” and going from there.

And so I’m stumbling in the direction of doing some oil painting. And I usually sort of toil away on art project stuff without sharing it or talking about it online until either I come up with something I’m excited to share or I let it die on the vine.


This time, I think it’s gonna take a while to get to the “something I’m excited to share” bit, so I’m gonna make an effort instead to document the process of trying to get to being not-lousy.

Stumble feels like the right word: the catalyzing purchase of a few tubes of oil colors was a total whim, and left me sitting at home with said tubes of color and none of the other stuff it turns out I ought to have to make use of ’em.

Things I have subsequently gone and bought myself to fill out the kit:

– a couple of bristle flat brushes and a couple smaller sable brushes
– a small glass palette that may turn out to be too small for my sloppy-ass color mixing
– a couple of palette knives, one that’s just right and one that’s ridiculously large in retrospect
– some odorless paint thinner, after I discovered to my relief and delight that “no you’re totally gonna be using turpentine” stopped being an ironclad rule with oil painting at some point
– some linseed oil that at some point I’ll experiment with but am too overwhelmed right now to try and add to the mix
– a few small canvases to start putting paint on

Things I have not yet bought that I’m realizing I really ought to:

– a few more colors to save me from amateur mixing hell
– a goddam easel so I have something sane to stick a canvas on

Books I have put holds on at the library:

– like a half-dozen titles, all over the place, I have no idea what I’m doing basically

Ask MetaFilter questions about oil painting that I have read:

– several, though there’s fewer than I would have guessed. And nobody agrees about anything though a lot of folks think the thing to do is just work with acrylics for a while instead, which honestly seems like it’d make a lot of sense if my aim were to just do more flat designery patterns like the Menger sponge stuff. But a lot of other folks are like FUCK THAT, GET OILS, DO OILS, OILS ARE RAD AND FUSSY AND RAD, so. Mixed messages out there in the Ask archives.

But the prevailing theme: just get painting. Just buy some whatever you’re gonna buy and get to painting. And so I have and so here we go:


Yikes, is my reaction. My wife was not so negative; I think we’re coming from really different perspectives on it and hers is a lot saner and healthier: she’s taking the “hey, it’s your first oil painting and look you did some nice shading bits” tack, where I’m on more of a “HOW AM I NOT THE SECRET SAVANT VERMEER OF OIL FRACTALS” kick where failure to somehow be inexplicably excellent on day one of an unfamiliar craft is somehow a surprise.

I mean, to be clear: it’s not a surprise, and hey I painted a thing and learned a bit about several basic things I didn’t know yet about oil painting, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t really expect anything more than this. You learn by sucking and then eventually sucking not so much.


But in retrospect making my first go with oils thematically connected to the previous project I’d done with more familiar tools and much more confidence was probably a silly move — the contrast in how sharp the recent Menger piece feels and what a weird amateurish mess this is just setting myself up for an artificially stark bummer.

So but yes: this is me painting a simple Menger sponge from memory, trying to blend my three primary colors just using a bit of black and white for darks and lights respectively, against an abstract blended nowhere background, using not enough paint like a miser, and not really thinking about where the hell the light is or the cube is, and all in all making it way, way too dark. The blue face basically just disappears into the background, and the shadow I decided to throw on for the hell of it (shadow against what? the magical void the cube is floating in?) is basically swallowed up as well.

It started as a simple cube, but I was unhappy enough with the look of it that I figured trying to add in some holes and playing with a little depth would add something, and there’s something to that but it’s still a turd-polishing sort of maneuver.

Coming back to it and essentially repainting the whole thing in a couple days feels like a good plan; I can take what I’ve learned from making that and other stuff since and try and make a more coherent go of my sponge rendering.

Speaking of other stuff:


This is this morning’s go at doing a still life, when I’d gotten as far as sketching with some thinned out paint an approximation of my bowl of fruit. I thought about doing something other than the literally most cliche subject possible, and then decided that (a) I didn’t really have anything else that seemed like a specifically great first subject and (b) hey it’s probably cliche for a reason. So Ikea bowl and a couple of dodgy apples it is.

And…it was a better choice than sponge-from-memory. The painting is all kinds of dodgy, shapes are wrong with a misshapen bowl and poorly represented angles and I’ve punted hard on background details and there’s not as much contrast as I’d like and and and. But it’s a more careful effort and I tried to start incorporating some of the color mixing theory and compositional process I read and watched tutorials on last night, and the difference between that and my first go is definitely there, at least.


And the use of the same mix of yellow, red, and blue in a context where I tried harder to figure out what to do with them and where to mix them together was a nice antidote to my feelings about the first cube painting. I’ve got a long, long way to go to actually feel comfortable there, but it was nice to feel like a couple of basic things were at least starting to seem approachable.

On my todo list:

1. Develop some fucking patience because it’s gonna be a couple days before I can come back and futz with either of these.

2. Try doing something different, on the bigger 10×14 canvas I bought. Maybe something monochrome, try and just worry about values. Maybe dare a fucked up self portrait.

3. Get an easel, jesus. The first cube painting I did flat on my desk, like I was drawing, because that’s a familiar way for me and my not-super-steady hand to work. For today’s fruit bowl I decided to get the canvas upright, but that means terrrrrible lighting on my desk, and anyway I have nothing easel like and so resorted to putting a couple nails in a post on the lee side of our garage/shed, and that at least let me get vertical but reacted poorly to any kind of serious pressure on the canvas or really any at all around the edges. The thing fell a couple times, wobbled several more. Heartbreak and frustration just waiting to happen. Get an easel.

4. Try doing some detail work. I’ve been so far embracing the idea of trying to use larger flat brushes just to force myself to get to work with forms and colors and not obsess over details, but I gotta try these wee ones out and see how small brush head in sable feels. And see if I can start to see how to balance that out against the big brushes in how I bring backgrounds and foregrounds together, etc.

5. Use more paint. Use some more goddam paint, you skinflint. I know it’s five bucks a tube, but the tubes aren’t that small and the canvases aren’t that big and I keep running myself out of a painfully, dodgily mixed color before I’m really done with it and that’s not helping anything.

6. Figure out a workspace in more detail. Find something to put my supplies on and in other than my desk or a spare 2×4 nailed to my garage. Figure out where I want stuff and how I want to get at it and so on.

Author: Josh Millard

I manage and help moderate the community website MetaFilter, where I go by "cortex"; in my spare time I get up to all sorts of creative nerdery on the internet and in Portland, Oregon.

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