The LARA (London Atelier of Representational Art), was established in response to the rarity of rigorous representational art education and is unique in the UK in its approach to teaching the most fundamentally important aspects of drawing, painting and sculpture from life. Inspired by the atelier method of instruction, the emphasis of the course is given to working directly from the live model in a continuous pose of no less than a week and up to a month under unvarying light conditions, giving optimum time to observe the figure and understand how to see.
Working with tutors 6 hours a day and using the “sight- size” technique we aim to teach essential concepts of proportion, line, gesture, form and light to best master expression of the human form.The previously lost atelier method of teaching, passed down through generations of artists, provides the ideal environment for students and professional artists to perfect their skill.
It is our belief that it is necessary to teach the grammar of drawing, thus giving the student the confidence to execute their ideas, whether they decide to become a representational artist, or pursue any alternative visual medium.To help nurture this creative confidence we also encourage the student to apply their knowledge by exploring further techniques and media through quick drawing.
- The morning model poses between 9:30pm and 12.30pm. You are encouraged to arrive 15 minutes before class begins to prepare your materials and set up. Short Course times may differ.
- The door to the model room locks at the beginning of each session and does not open again until the next break. If you are late please respect those students, models and tutors who made it to class on time! Please do not try to gain access to the model room before the break. No knocking!
- Class finishes at 16:30. You are expected to clear up and leave the studio by 17:15.
- At the end of the pose at lunchtime and in the afternoon all model heaters must be switched off fully.
- It is your responsibility to set up and maintain the pose before class. You are also responsible for keeping time and calling the breaks for the model. If the following class has a different arrangement of boxes, please be courteous and remove your set-up.
- Model sessions typically last 20 minutes, depending on the model, and are followed by 5 minute breaks. The third break at 10:35am is the long break and lasts 15 minutes. The same schedule is followed in the afternoon after lunch.
- Please respect the concentration of others; keep your mobiles set to silent and refrain from setting up your easel and equipment during the pose. If you are late to class you must wait for the next break to enter the model room.
- Due to the space consuming nature of the sight-size method, it is suggested, if possible, you do not leave and re-enter the model room whilst the model is posing, as you would likely interrupt the focus of other students.
- Take care not to obstruct the pathway between another student’s easel and their viewing spot, as this can prove extremely distracting. Sight-size is a method that requires a particularly high level of focus and concentration, so please consider those around you.
- Eating in the model room whilst the model is posing is considered disrespectful and is discouraged. Alcohol is similarly forbidden during class time.
- No photographs are to be taken in the model room whist the model is in-session without express permission of the model.
Correcting the pose
- On correcting the pose If you notice a significant deviation from the original pose, feel free to suggest to the model corrective measures in an effort to control the pose. A consensus must be reached, however, with your classmates, and the model, to realise a solution that is beneficial for all.
- If the model experiences difficulty with the pose, bear in mind modifications to the original pose may have to be made. You are encouraged to approach and walk around the model in order to understand the form, however you are not permitted to touch the model.
- Neither are you allowed to take photographs of the model without their express permission.
- It is due to the democratic nature of the model room in which students are expected to work together and communicate that earphones and personal music players are discouraged, as they isolate individuals from the group. (Bear in mind a great deal can be learned vicariously from the examples made in the critiques of other students.)
- Position your easel at a vantage point where you can see the model easily to one side of your paper.
- Now walk back in a straight line from the easel to a spot roughly equal to three times the paper’s greatest dimension Make sure you can see the whole model and your drawing without moving your head.
- Mark this observation point on the floor with masking tape and write your name on it in a bold marker pen. This will need to stay in place for the length of the pose so it will need to be taped well – but please don’t use duct tape!
- Make sure both easel and paper are perfectly vertical by holding a plumb line perpendicular to your line of vision and parallel to the side of your drawing.
- Make sure that your observation point, ‘trackline’ to your easel, and your working point (at the easel) do not clash with other students, and that you can all work comfortably side by side.
- Have your tutor check your set-up and positioning to make sure that you have it all correct. You are now ready to begin!
- The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed, Dover Publications, 2003 [Required]
- The Human Figure by John H Vanderpoel, Dover Publications Inc, 2000Vaderpoel was Bridgeman’s mentor. His illustrations are concise and informative.
- Charles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gerome: Drawing Course by Gerald M Ackerman, Graydon Parrish, 2007
- Figure Drawing for all it’s worth by Andrew Loomis, Viking Press, 1943Aimed at aspiring illustrators, there is a lot of useful and accessible information in here
- Life Drawing by George Bridgman, Dover Publications Inc, 1972
- Master Class in Figure Drawing by Robert Beverly Hale, Watson-Guptill Publications Inc, US, 1991
- Oil Painting Techniques and Materials by Harold Speed, Dover Publications, 1987
- The Practice of Oil Painting and of Drawing as Associated with it by Solomon Joseph Solomon, Seeley, Service & Co, 1941
- Velasquez by R. A. M. Stevenson, BiblioBazaar, LLC (10 April 2009)
- Artistic Anatomy by Paul Richer, translated and edited by Robert Beverly Hale, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 1971A good general reference book for anatomy
- Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck, OUP USA, 1982The most accessible anatomy book for beginners or intermediates.
- Constructive Anatomy by George Bridgman, Dover Publications Inc, 1974
- Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger, OUP USA, 1992 For the intermediate student of artistic anatomy, Goldfinder answers soem specific questions not addresses in some of the more accessible texts.
- Der Nackte Mensch by Gottfried Bammes, Dover Publications Inc, 2004 19This text is in German, and there is no complete English translation, but the pictures alone are worth attention.
- The Human Machine: The Anatomical Structure & Mechanism of the Human Body by George Bridgeman, Pelham, 2939Not to be overlooked, this is an excellent book to help visualise the basic mechanistic functions of the skeleton. Several Bridgeman titles are available, but this is one of the best.
- Robert Beverly Hale video lectures, sample here.
- Either wood pencils or mechanical 0.7mm clutch pencils in the following grades: 2H, H, HB, B
- Nitram charcoal (vine): H, HB, B
- White pastel
- Cretacolor Sketching Charcoal (compressed charcoal)
- Pencil sharpener or sharpening block
- Putty rubber/kneadable eraser
- Nitram Sharpening Block
- Masking tape
- Paper stumps in a range of sizes
- Craft knife
- Canson paper
- Roma paper white
- Tracing Paper (different sizes)
- Mahl Stick
- Black Mirror
- White Mirror
- Wooden arm palette
- Hog bristle brushes (a set of at least 8 ‘flats’ and ‘filberts’)
- Selection of flexible steel palette knives
- Cold pressed linseed oil
- Sennelier Odour Free Mineral Spirits/Sansador
- Airtight metal brush cleaner
- Metal dipper for medium
- Stretched linen canvas or gesso panel – 18”x24” approx.
Colours for LARA palette
- Cremnitz/Flake/Lead White (basic lead carbonate in oil)
- Yellow Ochre
- Cadmium Red (As a cheaper and non-toxic alternative to Cadmium Red we recommend Winsor and Newton Scarlet Red)
- Raw Umber
- Ivory Black
- Cobalt Blue
For painting materials, we recommend the following suppliers:
- Michael Harding
- Old Holland
- C Roberson
- Winsor and Newton
Good for pencil drawings; using smooth side for Bargue drawings.
Smooth side very good for pencil drawings.
Using the smooth side, for cast drawing, charcoal drawings. Good for long projects and dark backgrounds since it holds charcoal very well.
2H, H, HB, B, 2B
Graphite pencil: Faber-Castell makes a very good pencil with a green handle. Other brands are Tombow (Japan), Rex Cumberland (GB), Staedtler (G) or Berol (USA). Mechanical pencils can be very useful for keeping sketchbooks.
The Nitram brand can be purchased from the LARA shop. Buy all three grades:
Nitram Académie Fusains B (Soft) 5mm
Nitram Académie Fusains HB (Medium) 5mm
Nitram Académie Fusains H (Hard) 5mm
Faber-Castell makes a good quality series of chalk pencils which are wax and oil free.
The plumbline is a weighted string used for checking vertical, either in the subject or on the easel. It can also be used to measure distances within the drawing when held between two thumbs.
The mirror can simply be used to see subject with a fresh perspective or it can be used to check levels in sight-size, by using the ‘butterfly’ technique.
Compresses the visible value range, bringing it closer to what the artist can achieve with charcoal or paint.
A block of wood with secured sand paper for keeping pencils and charcoal sharp.
Mahl or Drawing Stick
Rod with ball on the end, used to keep hands off the paper while working on larger drawing or paintings.
Putty rubbers have major advantages over other types of eraser, since they can be shaped into precise, delicate drawing instruments.
A stump is a cylindrical drawing tool, usually made of soft paper tightly wound into a stick and sanded to a point at both ends. It is used by artists to smudge or blend marks made with charcoal, Conté crayon, pencil or other drawing media.
Skin shammy is a piece of porous leather known for its non-abrasive composition and absorption properties. It’s used to erase large areas of charcoal, especially in the block-in phase of a drawing minimising stress to the paper surface.
Essential to protect finished charcoal drawings. Please never use fixative inside the studio. Use aerosol spray or white shellac and rubbing alcohol. This must be stored in the fire cabinets.
When buying oil paints, it is very important to make sure you get the correct pigment, as labels can often be confusing or even misleading. Pigments have many other properties than just their hue: For instance a paint tube labelled ‘cadmium red hue’ may contain a number of different pigments which combine to give the hue of cadmium red but have different levels of transparency and colourfastness.
The best way to make sure you get the correct pigments is to use the ASTM number on the label. ASTM is the international standards agency for pigments. Whereas the ‘traditional’ names for colours are often ambiguous ( for instance Naples Yellow could mean a range of different colours) the ASTM number for a pigment specifies the pigment exactly. ASTM numbers are always written in the form LL NN. If a paint brand does not show the ASTM number on the label that is usually a sign it is not to be trusted.
See the materials list above for LARA’s recommended palette.
Oil, as a vehicle for holding the coloured pigments which reflect light and make up the image, has two main purposes. 1) It must hold the painting together in a durable, archival fashion 2) It must transfer light from the air (outside the painting) into the pigments and back out again.
The great advantage of oil over other painting mediums such as guache, egg tempera, watercolour lies in the fact that it does point 2 more successfully than the others. Because oil (and its potential additional components such as varnish and oleoresins) has a refractive index in between that of air and the pigments themselves it ensures that more of the light hitting the surface of the painting penetrates the pigments, improving the chromatic intensity of the light which comes back out. This is the same reason why gloss finishes to anything, such as furniture, photographs, cars always produce richer colours.
However, oil’s weakness is that it can be susceptible to yellowing or cracking over time, if used improperly. Luckily, since oil painting has been practiced since the sixteenth century, we have plenty of experience in which kinds of oil and other additives archive well and which do not.
Linseed oil belongs to a class of oils in chemistry known as ‘drying oils’. These oils share a common property that when left in air they will eventually harden, through a process called polymerization, which requires oxygen as the catalyst. It is important to realise that when linseed oil ‘dries’ it neither loses nor gains moisture, nor in fact any other molecule, rather it temporarily gains some oxygen atoms (causing it to expand slightly) and then loses them again. Once the process is complete the oil has longer chain molecules than before, making it stronger.
Linseed oil can be prepared in several different ways, each of which affect its colour, thickness and drying rate. We will discuss these in greater detail later.
Linseed oil is not the only drying oil suitable for oil painting. There are others such as poppy oil, walnut oil and safflower oil. However, of these three, linseed oil has the best overall combination of properties for oil painting. In addition, some resins and thinners can be added to drying oils to enhance the properties desirable for the painter.
Properties of Oil-Based Mediums
Some properties, such as flexibility when hard, are universally desirable in a painting medium, others depend on technique. For instance, an alla prima painter might prefer a slower drying time in order to work edges wet into wet, whereas a painter wishing to glaze successive layers over one another would prefer a faster drying. Some painters might which to use impasto techniques, so they will want a stiff, buttery medium which will maintain its shape, while others might prefer a syrupy, levelling medium to give a smooth finish. Below are some of the most common components of painters’ mediums.
Linseed oil is the most common medium for oil painting. Good quality paint manufacturers use it for mixing the paint in their tubes, as opposed to the safflower oil used by poorer quality brands, which is more brittle.
The best quality linseed oil is cold-pressed, because it dries to a more flexible, less brittle film than hot-pressed oil. Flexibility is important in a dried paint film because it makes the painting less susceptible to cracking. Cold-pressed and filtered linseed oil does not need refining.
If you cannot find cold-pressed linseed oil, a hot-pressed and refined linseed oil is the next best thing. These oils typically go by the name ‘refined’, omitting the ‘hot-pressed’ part. As a general rule, the paler varieties of refined linseed oil will yellow more as they dry so it is better to use the yellower strains, since their colour will stay relatively constant. Small amounts of yellowish linseed oil will not affect the colour of paint mixed thickly enough for alla prima painting.
Poppy oil has sometimes been used as a medium for paler, lighter pigments because it is naturally less yellow than linseed oil. However, we do not recommend it primarily because it dries (slower than linseed oil) to a brittle film which makes the painting susceptible to cracking. Additionally, it does yellow slightly as it dries. Since temporal consistency is paramount in oil painting, it is preferable to use a darker oil which will not change over time than rather than a pale oil which will darken even slightly. Poppy oil is completely odourless and is even used on salads by some chefs.
Walnut oil, similarly to poppy oil, dries to a less durable film than linseed oil and so we do not recommended it. It dries faster than poppy oil, at about the same rate as linseed oil. However, it does not store well and tends to go rancid in the bottle.
As with linseed oil, if you are going to use either poppy or walnut oil it is preferable to choose cold-pressed varieties.
Stand oil is linseed oil which has been heated to around 550 degrees centigrade for a number of hours. This causes to the oil to partially polymerize, making it thick and viscous. When dry it has an enamel-like finish and is strong and flexible. Additionally, it is less susceptible to yellowing than cold-pressed linseed oil. Due to its high viscosity stand oil must be thinned before it can be practically used for painting. It is often combined with other components such as varnishes or oleoresins in composite mediums due to its ability to impart its strength and flexibility to the other components.
Stand oil has one unique characteristic which may or may not be desirable to the painter, depending on their preference and technique. Because it is very slow drying, stand oil levels as it dries, giving the painting a smooth, flat surface. While this might be highly desirable for some painters, others, who wish to use impasto or surface texture of the painting to create certain effects will not find stand oil beneficial to achieving the effect they want.
Sun-thickened oil is of a similar viscosity to stand oil, and has a similar enamel-like finish but has some significant differences as well. Instead of polymerization taking place in the absence of oxygen at high temperature, the oil polymerizes in open containers over a period of weeks in the presence of sunlight. Additionally, sometimes lead or other driers are added. This leads to a product which dries much faster than stand oil. Ultra-violet light bleaches the yellow out of linseed oil, so sun-thickened oil is generally paler than stand oil. Because of the presence of oxygen, the oil both polymerizes and slightly oxidizes. Over-oxidation will impair the longevity of the paint film, so it is important to choose a sun-thickened oil which has not been over-oxidized, although ascertaining this information can be difficult. Additionally, over-bleached oils may yellow over time.
Additives in Paint Tubes
Some pigments have an effect on the drying rate of linseed oil. For instance, raw umber speeds up the drying rate of linseed oil considerably. Accordingly, some paint manufacturers add driers to the ‘slower drying’ pigments and use slower drying oils such as poppy oil for the paints which contain ‘faster drying’ pigments (although we should note that it is not actually the pigments which are drying, they are merely altering the polymerization rate of the oil).
However, as discussed above, these driers or alternative oils may weaken the final paint film over time. As such, selecting paints mixed with simple cold-pressed linseed oil is preferable. The experienced painter can work with the different natural drying rates of different pigments without much difficulty.
Oleoresins, sometimes called balsams, are essentially tree saps. Confusingly, some of them still go by the old name of ‘turpentine’ although they bear no relation in behaviour and use, only origin, to the solvent turpentine. They contain a volatile liquid component and a soluble resin.
Sometimes called larch turpentine, because it is made from the larch trees found in northern Italy and Austria, it imparts a lustrous gloss to the paint film, but must be used in conjunction with other flexible components of painting medium, such as stand oil, otherwise it creates a very brittle film susceptible to cracking. Some of Reynolds’ paintings which have cracked did so due to his experimenting with too much of this kind of resin in his medium.
Made from the silver fir of the Tyrol region of Italy, Strasbourg turpentine is similar to Venice turpentine but it is preferable due to its property of drying into a more flexible film, less susceptible to cracking. Unfortunately, it is the hardest of the oleoresins to find in the shops. L. Cornelissen and Son, of London, usually have it in stock.
Made from the Abies Balsamea of northern USA and Canada, this is easiest of the oleoresins to find since it is used in a number of industrial processes. However, it is also the most expensive. Since the Abies Balsamea is similar to the silver fir, Canada balsam is more flexible, like Strausbourg turpentine and is preferable to Venice turpentine.
Solvents and Thinners
Solvents and thinners are used for reducing the viscosity of oils and resins, as well as dissolving hard resins, such as damar. They tend to speed the drying rate of the medium, simply as a result of producing a thinner layer, thereby exposing a greater proportion of the layer to oxygen.
The traditional painter’s solvent, sometime known as oil of turpentine, is produced by distilling the tree saps of coniferous trees. It comes in two types: gum turpentine, which is produced from pure tree sap and wood turpentine which is made from the scraps and stumps of the same trees. Wood turpentine is actually almost identical to gum turpentine in all properties except from smell. Turpentine is the fastest drying of the thinners.
Turpentine is slightly toxic, and some people are allergic to it. Because of its strong smell and highly volatile nature it is not suitable to for use in group studios or those with poor ventilation.
These are distilled from petroleum and have the advantage of not causing allergic reactions like turpentine can do in some people. Some varieties, such as white spirit are highly pungent and should not be used in poorly ventilated studios. However, odourless varieties are now common and generally preferable to turpentine for use in the studio. It is important to note that odourless mineral spirits, despite smelling much less strongly, are still slightly toxic and contact with the skin should be avoided.
One failing of mineral spirits is that they cannot fully dissolve damar resin. However, this is only an issue if you are making your own damar varnish. If you wish to use damar in a homemade painting medium you can simply buy bottled damar varnish (5lb cut is preferable), which already has turpentine in it as the thinner and then use mineral spirits for any further thinning. Mineral spirits tend to dry more slowly than turpentine.
Zest-it, a brand name for a thinner which actually contains two components, is a thinner derived from citrus skin, which is diluted with a non-aromatic hydrocarbon. It has similar properties to mineral spirits but is less toxic. It is the safest of all the thinners suitable for oil painting and can actually be drunk in small quantities (although we don’t recommend this!) without causing much harm. It dries slower than mineral spirits and will completely dissolve damar resin, so it can be used to make damar varnish for those who are acutely allergic to turpentine.
There are many different types of varnish, but we only recommend one for oil painting and that is damar varnish. Other types include mastic, copal, shellac and various synthetic varieties. However, none of these surpass damar (and in most cases are inferior) in terms of durability, mixing properties and longevity.
Matt or Gloss Varnish
Matt varnishes reflect more of the light which hits their surface than gloss varnishes, which allow the light to penetrate into the paint layers, producing richer, deeper colours. As such, we always recommend using gloss varnishes. The only exception is if the painting is to be hung in a location where it will be particularly susceptible to glare, however a better solution would be to use a gloss varnish and hang the picture in a better location.
Damar resin is gathered from varieties of Shorea and Hopea trees in Malaya, Borneo, Java and Sumatra and comes in a variety of grades. It is actually quite easy to make damar varnish from the raw solid lumps of resin (which are for sale in specialized art shops) and turpentine or Zest-it but the result is likely to be less well filtered and less consistent than simply buying it ready-made (it is sold ready-made in most good art shops). Unlike drying oils like linseed oil, which once polymerized become impevious to thinning with mineral spirits or turpentine, damar varnish will dissolve in thinners once when hard. This means that a painting which has properly dried and then been varnished can have the varnish removed using thinners without damaging the paint layers. As such, varnishing a painting gives a protective layer which can be removed when it gets dirty and re-applied periodically.
Damar Retouch Varnish
Damar retouch varnish has the same ingredients as regular damar varnish but with a higher proportion of thinner to resin, such that it does not form a solid film on the painting and can be painted over or into. The painter must be careful with mixing too much retouch varnish into their paint layers however; the varnish component of the layer will stay soluble in mineral spirits, turpentine or Zest-it, so when the painting is cleaned, layers including pigment may come away, unintentionally damaging the painting.
Over the last hundred years great leaps have been made in the chemistry of synthetic resins suitable for painting. The most notable of these are alkyd mediums, of which the best known trademark is LiquinTM, but there are several other on the market.
Alkyd mediums generally dry very quickly and produce very flexible paint films (LiquinTM for instance, once hard, can be stretched to 110% of its original length without cracking). They can be purchased in gloss varieties and even in ‘impasto’ varieties which are stiff yet malleable.
Before we can hail alkyd resins as the holy grail of mediums however, they do have some problems: due to their fast drying nature, when painting alla prima on successive days they have a tendency to ‘sink in’ very badly; they have a powerful smell and are not suitable for using in poorly ventilated studios or group studios; there is some concern that although the flexibility means they are very durable in the short term, driers contained in the mediums may not deactivate over time and over the 100 year timeframe could cause problems. Since these mediums have not be around long enough to know for sure we cannot know exactly how great this risk is.
Perhaps the most important factor in ensuring the longevity of a painting is the support on which is it painted. The two types most common for oil painting are stretched canvas or solid panel. Both can be prepared with a varying degree of texture or smoothness to the surface according to the painter’s preference. Perhaps counter-intuitively, a smoother surface enables the character or individual paint strokes to show through more clearly, whereas a more textured surface hides the paint strokes. To what extent you wish your paint strokes to show through in the final picture is highly dependent on the painter and the particular subject of the painting.
The first thing to know about canvas is that it is a generic term. In fact there are two main types; linen and cotton, of which linen is by far superior and also more expensive, but synthetic canvas is now also available. While much is made of the quality of different kinds of canvas (for instance, Belgian linen is generally known to be the best) the quality of the primer or ‘ground’ on the canvas may actually make more difference to how the canvas feels to paint on than the canvas itself. Canvas can be bought unprimed or primed, unprimed being far cheaper but more work, since priming and sometimes ‘sizing’ is required. Primed canvases can be either single primed or double primed, which simply refers to the number of coats of primer, double primed being generally considered tougher and more durable, although some advocate single primed for its greater flexibility.
The best linen comes from flax grown in Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of eastern Europe. It comes in a wide range of textures, from extremely fine, such that when primer is applied it yields an almost perfectly smooth surface, to heavily textured.
The only type of cotton canvas really suitable for oil painting is the heavier, closely woven kind called ‘cotton duck’. Finer cotton will not stretch well or take sizing well and as such may not age well.
Canvases made of artificial fibres have some distinct advantages over those of traditional natural fibres. They tend to be stronger, less absorbent (although this will vary depending on the primer used on top of the canvas) and they expand and shrink less with changes in temperature.
‘Sizing’ with Rabbit Skin Glue
If you are going to prime a natural fibre canvas with an oil-based primer you will need to ‘size’ the canvas first. This has nothing to do with altering the actual size of the canvas rather it means filling the pores of the fibre with a hardening liquid which will prevent the acids from the oil paint penetrating the fibres and ‘rotting’ them, i.e. making them brittle and crumbly. The most common ‘size’ is rabbit skin glue, which can be purchased from most good art shops. It must be heated gently and stirred before applying to the canvas.
Sizing is not required when using an acrylic-based ground on canvas since acrylic grounds do not contain the acids which damage the canvas fibres.
When choosing pre-primed canvases it is very common to find only those primed with zinc or titanium white or mixtures of these with lead white, whereas lead white is in fact the most preferable oil-based primer, due to its flexibility. The reason manufacturers do this is a foolish one; they do it to give the canvas a more brilliant white appearance, which an experienced painter knows is not actually a characteristic to look for in a canvas and is, if anything, a disadvantage. Lead-based oil primer is available to purchase for reasonable prices and is generally mixed with alkyd medium, to speed up the drying process and lend additional flexibility.
Acrylic-based primer has the advantage over oil-based primer in that it is cheaper, expands and contracts less with temperature changes and will not rot the canvas, so no ‘sizing’ with rabbit skin glue is required. Acrylic-based primer is generally more absorbent than oil-based and the first layers of paint will bind to it, whereas with oil-based primer they will tend to slide around.
Chalk in Primer and ‘Gesso’
Gesso is a much misused word in painting. Traditional gesso is chalk, whiting or plaster of Paris held in an aqueous glue, such as calfskin. However, these days any ground containing a substantial amount of chalk maybe be referred to as ‘gesso’. Primers with a high chalk content will be more absorbent and the degree of absorbency is a matter of preference for the painter, depending on their process. It should be noted however that to paint directly onto a true gesso ground would not suit most modern painters as it is highly absorbent. Gesso was popular for its smooth finish, but there are other ways to get a smooth support to paint on without the extreme absorbency.
Furthermore, gesso, or any primer with a high chalk content is not suitable for priming canvas since the chalk makes it a highly brittle layer, vulnerable to cracking if the canvas expands or contracts. It is more suitable for rigid panels.
Technically speaking oil-based grounds containing chalk are called ‘emulsion grounds’. One should be wary of choosing emulsion grounds with a high chalk content because they absorb moisture, which can lead to the breaking up of the ground.
Stretcher bars come in increments of five centimetres and are easily assembled. For small paintings economy stretchers may be adequate but for larger paintings heavy duty stretchers should be used. Stretcher bars, like pre-made canvases, come with ‘keys’; small wedges of wood which can be knocked into the corners with a hammer to push the bars out slightly if the canvas has become slack.
The two main types of panel are wood and aluminium. Panels can either be used as a support for canvas, attaching the two with rabbit skin glue, or can be used directly without canvas, which is what we will consider here. The main reason for attaching canvas would be to lend more texture to the surface but it is an unnecessary expense since texture can be achieved through the application of the primer, if desired.
Wooden panels can be made of either one piece of solid wood, plywood or MDF. One piece boards have the disadvantage they are susceptible to warping, while MDF boards emit too many gases and are generally not durable enough for long-term use. Good quality plywood boards can be used for painting but it is essential that they are either sized with rabbit skin glue or two or three layers of acrylic primer, to protect the wood from the acids in the oil paint, and also to protect the oil paint from the gases emitted by the wood.
Aluminium is non-reactive, since it forms a one molecule thick non-reactive oxide layer on its surface. This, combined with its relatively cheap price, light weight and industrial abundance makes it an excellent support for oil painting. The best boards are plastic honeycomb, laminated with aluminium, which are all-pervasive in the signage industry and can be cut to size using a Stanley knife and straight edge. They come in different thicknesses, with the thicker varieties being suitable for larger paintings, which may need additional bracing if the painting is greater than 100cm square. Some brand names for this type of panel include Dibond and AluPanel.
These panels come with a pre-existing primer which is not suitable for oil painting. Before applying either an acrylic or oil-based ground, this existing primer must be sanded using fine grade sandpaper, so that the new primer will adhere to it securely.
When priming panels a smoother or more textured surface for painting can be achieved by using different kinds of brush to apply the primer and choosing whether or not to sand each layer of primer.
The painter’s choice of brush is largely determined by how thickly they like to apply the paint with each stroke. Generally speaking, the thicker the paint and the more pigment you wish to transfer to the canvas with each stroke, the stiffer the bristles you will want on your brush.
It is very important to use good quality brushes, however good quality does not have to be expensive. Online brush suppliers such as Rosemary and Co. and Art Discount offer some good quality brushes for not much more than the price of bad quality brushes on the high street.
Hog bristle is the choice of most alla prima painters, since the hog hairs hold more paint between then than finer bristle brushes, allowing the painter to make bold, substantial strokes. It is almost always advantageous to choose longer bristled hog brushes, either long flats or long filberts, since these not only hold more paint but also enable a more delicate touch when required.
Sable is often talked about as the ‘best’ hair for brushes but this is not necessarily the case and, for the alla prima oil painter, it is often inferior to hog bristle. Sable is much finer than hog and so it is more suited to watercolour painting or oil painting where a lot of medium has been used to thin down the pigment layer.
Mongoose is stiffer than sable and suitable for oil painting in areas where great delicacy is required, such as a blended finish or a very fine soft edge. They still do not hold as much paint as hog brushes however so the painter who wishes to apply paint thickly will find them unsuitable.
In the past synthetic fibres did not hold as much paint as even the finer natural hairs and as such were only suitable to small details, however increasingly they are being designed to imitate natural hairs. Today synthetic mongoose, badger and even hog bristle approximations are available, combining that spring of synthetic fibres with the pigment holding capacity of natural hairs. Ultimately the choice of these brushes over natural bristles comes down to the painter’s preference for stiffness or ‘spring’ in their brushes.
Other Painting Tools
Long, flat palette knives are useful for scraping paint off the palette at the end of a painting session but not very useful for mixing. Small trowel-shape painting knives are the best shape for mixing large piles of main colours on the palette, from which smaller mixes can be made with the brush. Additionally these shapes can be used for scraping down the painting in its early stages, however, make sure to use one with a rounded end, as some have a pointed end which could damage the painting.
Palettes should be of a neutral colour, ideally close to the colour of the imprimatura which you start your painting with (which should be quite light) although light palettes can be harder to find. For comfort, you should choose a ‘weighted palette’ which is balanced such that the centre of balance is directly on top of your thumb holding the palette. This way it will balance nicely on your hand and you will not have to grip it.
A rod with a padded ball at one end which is laid on the canvas and used to balance one’s arm upon when painting more detailed sections.
Colour has three aspects: hue, value and chroma.
Hue is one of the parameters that define the appearance of colour; it is what generally is described as ‘colour’ (blue, red, yellow, etc.). Hue also encompasses the definition of ‘temperature’ of a colour which in itself is much more left to interpretation, based on human experience. For instance an orangey sunset is ‘warmer’ in colour than a ‘cold’ cloudy, bluish day, but this does not relate to the actual measure of hot and cold.
By value (or ‘tone’) we generally refer to how light or dark a colour is based on a range between black and white. Light colours are said to have a ‘high value’; dark colours are said to have a ‘low value’.
The chroma of a colour is how intense or how dull any given colour can be. Bright colours are said to have a high chroma; drab colours, a low chroma.
A glaze (like a scumble) is a method of applying a thin layer of paint to allow subtle adjustments of the dry paint layers below. In a glaze a higher ratio of medium to pigment is used to achieve subtle and transparent transitions that usually suggest depth.
A scumble is a way of applying a thin layer of paint by scrubbing it into the canvas. This paint is usually relatively dry (or short) and applied sparingly to achieve subtle transitions. Because a scumble generally builds up texture, it is usually more effective in areas of the painting that are designed to come forward or emerge from the picture plane.
Under impasto we understand a heavy stroke of paint. This technique is used to convey a textural feel to the painting.
Grisaille is a painting where colour is disregarded in favour of value. In theory it should describe a painting completely void of colour and solely expressing shades of grey, however in reality, grisailles tend to be quite monochromatic paintings with an implied (yet muted) use of colours traditionally ranging from browns to greens.
The process of applying medium (not necessarily oil) to a painting which is fully dry in order to allow better adhesion of a successive paint layer. However in our atelier ‘oiling out’ is generally used to restore the original value in areas of an unevenly dry painting, also referred to as ‘sunken in’ (matt) areas.
The process of removing excess paint and/or medium by means of a palette knife.