Painting in oils. Such a rich, depth and textural quality of wonder…
I was asked to model for a group of artists at a private art studio for a “Head Studies” practice session. The session took place last night and the images above (apologies on the clarity as these images were captured on my iphone) were of the progression of one particular artist who produced my favorite interpretation of myself. I will say that the experience was thrilling to be the focus of such skilled artisans. During breaks, I would take photos of the transforming canvases and talk with the artists. In the time that I spent with these artists, the insight and knowledge that I gained regarding their craft was certainly inspiring. Although my eyes were focussed and remained in a set position during the sitting, peripheral vision provided me a sense of the whirling artistry that surrounded me. Amidst the bright lights and my focussed gaze, I could see their brushes measuring me and sense their eyes absorbing and scrutinizing the features of my face and profile. I could discern the often quick and then steady use of paint brushes, palate knives and rags. A constant motion of deliberate movement, indeed. I was honored to be a part of the captivating wonderment of this handcrafted and skilled art form.
Oil painting itself was brought into popularity in Europe during the 15th century, when canvas painting became the favored surface in which to paint. It was during the Renaissance time period (1400-1600) painters strived to create more harmonious, symmetrical and ideal proportions with painting with the art of portraying the human form in ‘realism’. The use of shading on these three dimensional canvases embellished the realistic and linear approach, transforming the oil paintings of this period. However, earlier history of oil painting is referenced in a book written in the 12th century by German Monk, Theophilus and there are also examples of English artists from the 13th century who had utilized oils. (Prior to oils, tempura was the medium commonly used.) That said, it is the Belgian “Flemish” painter, Jan van Eyck, who receives the credit for re-inventing the use of oils and for discovering that linseed oil could be mixed with different colors to create brilliant colors. Prior to linseed, walnut oil and poppy seed oil were used as binders for paint but were not as quick drying as linseed oil. Interestingly, it is said that van Eyck kept his discovery of linseed oil a secret until about 1440, a year before his death. Who knew? Of note, during the Renaissance in Italy, the most common oil used for this purpose was olive oil, as it was inexpensive and widely available. Again, who knew? The set back with the use of olive oil, however, was the increased length of drying time. Surely this increased time not only effected the artist, but those that modeled for the portraits as well. I now understand this in a more personal way. Sitting motionless with a focussed gaze….it is amazing what itches! Alas, focus! I will undoubtedly have a new found appreciation for the individual in a portrait!
The benefits of painting with pigments bound with linseed oil are many. Not only do they create rich, bright effects but when paired with the slow drying effect of linseed oil artists are able to work more slowly and blend further with this paint medium. Painting with oils is said to be one of the more lenient mediums, since if an error was made, the canvas could be cleaned with a cloth dipped in turpentine. The flexibility of the oils provide customary techniques to inspire any painter, such as glazing (one of the most common techniques used by the ‘Old Masters’ in which a transparent layer of paint over a dried tempera or oil underpainting is applied) impasto (the use of oils in a thick texture, adding a 3-dimensional appearance) and scumbling (applying a thin layer of different, often darker colored paint). Texture and layering with vivid hues that create a visual image that stands the test of time. A lasting art form through history…
As a side note, earlier that day, the artists had gathered to paint a still life of a stunning bouquet of peonies. How I adore peonies! The blooms of the peony, placed behind me, were not only captured into the painting above, but the fragrance floated through the air as I sat motionless. To think beautiful thoughts while being painted and to have beautiful scents wafting through the air is a moment in time I will remember as simply seizing the day. Carpe diem. Every moment is to be enjoyed….
Ps: What I love about the interpretation in this painting of myself is perhaps the lack of fine lines on my face. Lines of wisdom, I like to claim, but still lines. Reality can certainly be softened through interpretation…..
The finished portrait….