I borrowed this phrase from the recently deceased Canadian painter Robert Genn who believed that there is only so much we can learn about how to paint from the many fine instructors and resources available today. The true learning comes from going off on our own and just doing it - Go to your room!

I have had the good fortune to take instruction from outstanding artists in Canada and the USA. I continue to work on my own development ( Going to MY room!) . I share, through this blog and workshops, what I have learned and what others have shared with me.

I created this blog primarily for those attending my workshops to keep in touch and to further share as we grow together. If others are interested in following that would be great.

Enjoy the journey.

Monday 2 April 2012

Six Months Deep in Oil

I have been playing off and on with oils for a number of years - probably averaging about 2-3 weeks per year. There are things I have always liked about working in  oils ( over my beloved acrylics) and have wanted to become more confident with them - but most of my artists friends (and my wife) and galleries have discouraged me - saying that I should stick with acrylics as using them my work was much more inventive and interesting and a personal style was beginning to show. Its true, with acrylics I am playful and inventive; with oils I was tight.  That was the challenge.

So last October I decided that I would shift my focus from mostly acrylics to mostly oils for six months - to see what would happen.

I started with a plein air workshop with Calvin Liang in Glacier National park Montana and finished a few weeks ago with the workshop with Carol Marine. I should clarify that I use water soluble oils - used with appropriate mediums and brushes they are comparable to regular oils. In fact, by the end of my 5 days I had Calvin convinced that there was no difference in application  and the practicality of travelling with them made them worth considering. More about how I work with ws oils in a future post.

I admire the work and style of many oil painters. I am particularly drawn to those that work in the heavy impasto application  and those that lay down spots of colour with minimal blending ( as I tend to work in acrylics).  So for six months I have been trying different applications ( thick vs thin, start thin and finish thick, etc) different surfaces ( course linen, canvas, smooth masonite, Terraskin), different brushes (synthetics, nature figres, filberts, flats and brights), different mediums (water with linseed, sometimes adding Stand Oil, sometimes adding quick dry alkyd) a mix of under-paintings ( acrylic vs oil)   and playing playing playing.

I made a whole bunch of lousy paintings. I made some that were so far off the edge for me  that I almost like them. I gradually felt trends developing - choosing systems from the list above that just seemed to suite me and my personality. By that I mean I am not a detail person and have a short attention span. I am not interested in mucking about day after day with the same painting. I like to work direct over indirect. I would have made a lousy Old Master.

What have I learned? I am enjoying the oils. I am starting to loosen up.  I like working thick and juicy and am starting to develop some control - previously I would get thick too early and needed rubber boots. When in trouble I easily scrape off and start again - in part of in whole.

I really like working in spots of colour - one after the next varying hue or just value and temperature. Working spots of colour is improving my colour mixing and my eye for colour in both oils and acrylics.
I like working on linen. I like a warm coloured underpainting. I like synthetic brushes - brights and flats ( have recently fallen in love with Ivorys from Rosemary and Co).

I am comfortable now in that I don't need to  have one approach or style or even one medium -and  be damned to those that say I do. Each painting is an experiment and needs to stand on its own. Now  I generally start thin and work towards thicker - finishing at completely thin stage or with spots of thick paint or completely thick using a palette knife.

Big thing is that I am not afraid of oils any more - and that is when the real learning normally begins.

Painting at top is my son and daughter-in-law done THICK - mostly palette knife. Below is a portrait done in HEAVY THICK and JUICY - mostly palette knife. At first it was a throw away - but I kind of liked it as it represented a step in learning/ risk taking. Below that is a plein air done totally with palette knife - my first.

The rest are a mix of thick and thin, all trying to apply spots of colour with minimal blending. Some plein air -some studio. You should see that they are all quite different in their approach and style. My guess is that with continued work and more confidence  there will be less variation in the outcomes - maybe that's good or maybe not.

So, for better or worse,  that's my six months with oils. Completed over 200 oils in all. Most junkers ( maybe they all are) - but the junkers are the ones we learn from.

Got three acrylic workshops ahead of me  now so its back to acrylics to rebuild my comfort zone.

Click on photos to enlarge and see degree of texture for each. 


  1. You're a talented guy Brian, and I find both mediums pleasing. Truly, it's 'what' and 'how' you paint, more than what you paint with.

  2. Hi Brian,
    It's BC's loss and Ontario's gain that you're moving to Ontario. Nice work with your oils. My wife and I are acrylic painters and every winter struggle with oils. (Can't paint plein air with acrylics at 20 below.)
    My greatest struggle has been to keep the colours from blending. I've not yet perfected a deft enough stroke.
    When you come back, you might consider joining the Ontario Plein Air Society (OPAS). We're a growing group of artists who paint together all across Ontario. Check us out at
    I also run plein air art retreats in Ontario and I'm always looking for great instructors. We should talk.
    PS. Thanks for Liking our Facebook page.


Thanks for your feedback.