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Updated: Sep 9

Oil paints are my favourite medium, but it took me a long time to get started with them. Like many beginners in oils, I thought that one needs a lot of expensive materials to get started, that the materials are toxic and hazardous, and that the techniques are very difficult to master.


A few years on, I am painting almost exclusively in oils and have fallen in love with their luscious, rich colours and textures. In this blog, I will share with you what materials I use and will give some insights into the environmental aspects.


Materials

This is the first stumbling block for many artists wanting to explore oils. Luckily I had a good teacher in my early days who helped demystify some of the materials, but I have also done a lot of my own research since. Here's what I came to after a few years of trial and error:


Paints

Paints in every medium are basically made up of pigment, and a binder. In the case of oil paints, the binder is often linseed oil or another nut oil. This makes the paint rich and luscious, and slow to dry. Paint is where you can get very expensive - the professional artist's varieties contain a relatively high amount of pigment. But many paint brands offer a student or studio quality, which is a step lower and a lot less money!



I like to be economic with my paints, and because I use a lot of it, I buy large tubes. This is the most inexpensive way to go with oils, as the smaller tubes are relatively expensive and you go through them very quickly. My favourite oil colour is Daler Rowney Georgian, which is available in 225ml tubes. They last me a long time and the quality is great. I also buy smaller tubes to take out with me in the field, but these are my defaults.


Solvents and mediums

This is where people often get confused when starting with oils, and you can indeed make this very complicated. Basically, where a watercolourist uses water to dilute their paints, an oil painter uses medium. A common medium that I use is linseed oil, which makes the paint more runny, without breaking it down or diluting the colour. It is great for those first washes of colour, that need to be thin ('lean') and versatile. Other mediums can be used to alter different properties of the paint - for example liquin speeds up the drying time, while other mediums make the paint more glossy or more thick, etc. I don't often bother with any other mediums as I'm pretty happy with just my paints and linseed oil. Linseed oil can be picked up from any hardware store, as it's also used to treat wooden furniture, although art stores offer oils which are less chemically treated.



As a solvent, turpentine is often used. This breaks down the paint, so it's good for cleaning brushes or for scrubbing down semi-dried layers on your painting. I don't use turpentine, as I don't like the smell and it's not very good for the environment. Instead, I use Zest-It, which is a non-toxic alternative made from citrus peels. It is a bit more expensive, but so much nicer to work in as my studio is a small enclosed space and I'd be driven out by the smell otherwise!



I use zest-it mixed with linseed oil in a clean jar as a way to thin my paints when I'm working, and zest-it on it's own when I'm cleaning my brushes.


Brushes and palette knifes

Brushes really don't have to be expensive. In fact, I often prefer the cheaper varieties as I tend to ruin them anyway. Oil paint is pretty tough on your brushes, so there's no need to buy the best of the best here. My favourite brushes actually came from Lidl, and are synthetic acrylic brushes. These are the ones pictured below, they are pretty close to the end of their life-cycle. The other brushes I like to use are Winsor & Newton's acrylic brushes, which I pick up from the stationer's. Oil painting brushes tend to have stiffer, coarse hairs, like hog's hair. I prefer the smoother acrylic-type brushes as they allow me to work more thinly. The large brushes I often pick up from the hardware store.



Another fun tool to use is the palette knife. It is pretty essential for mixing colours on your palette, but I like to use it as a painting tool too. It tends to leave more texture and variety and you can build up your layers quite thickly working with a palette knife. Painting with palette knife is a similar feeling to buttering toast!



Palette

I like to use a large palette to lay out my colours and have plenty of space for mixing. But here, there is really no need to buy an expensive art-store one, as (surprise!) it will get covered in paint anyway and I often find them too small. Any slab of primed wood will do, but I prefer to use glass sheets for my palettes. My favourite palette is actually an image frame that I picked up from the charity shop, so you can be creative in where you source yours! The reason I use glass is that it's easy to scrape off dried layers of paint with a glass scraper between each session. I don't like to let the paint build up as it becomes very hard to see what colour you're mixing. Good palette practice is key to avoiding muddy paintings, so I'm quite good at cleaning mine between sessions!





Rags

This speaks for itself, but you want to make sure that you have a lot of them! I like to cut up old clothing for rags, as a way to recycle and to avoid using endless paper towels. Rags are used to wipe my brushes when I want to change colour and of course at the end of each session. I sometimes use rags in my painting, when I want to wipe off paint or just add a nice blended texture over a large area.


Surfaces

Now what to actually paint on? There are a lot of options here, and if you're starting out with oils I would suggest going for the cheaper canvases. There are budget-stores that stock a range of smaller canvases that are excellent for experimenting with. Going cheap to begin with means that you won't feel too precious about your paintings and what you are using for materials. More experienced artists often prefer to buy rolls of canvas and wooden stretcher bars to stretch their own, but I find this a bit too labour-intensive for my own practice. Recently I have taken to painting on wooden panel - which is a lot smoother to work on than canvas. If you would like to experiment using panel, I would suggest getting some hardboard from the hardware store, cut to a size that you like to work on. Hardboard is not great if you want your painting to last for 10+ years as it tends to soak up moisture, but again is a great surface to practice on without feeling too delicate. I like to use plywood panels as they are more durable. Using a wooden surface means that you do need to prime or gesso your board. This creates a barrier between the paint and the board, so that oils don't leach into the wood and there is no discolouring.


Environment

A few notes here - as I thought for a long time that oil painting is very harmful for the environment. In fact, it used to be in the days that actual pigments were used. Pigments often contained heavy metal, like zinc or lead, which are hazardous even in small quantities. Nowadays, paints are often made using cheaper synthetic pigments, indicated on the label with the word "Hue". Eg Cadmium Red Hue indicates that a synthetic pigment is used rather than actual cadmium. Paints nowadays are largely non-toxic, except for some reason Titanium White, which still has one of those triangular warning signs on it's label. I am still on the look-out for a non-toxic white oil paint, so give me a shout if you find one!



I hope this was helpful, and offered you a nice peek over my shoulder into my painting process. Let me know by sending me an email if you have any questions or would like to share any tips or insights you might have about oil paints!

Updated: Jun 5


If you have been following me for a while via social media or via my newsletter, you'll know that there has been a change happening in my work. I have loved working on my bird paintings for most of 2020, but I felt the need to expand my work and make it wilder and more authentic.


My new series of paintings is an expression of my connection to nature, and to forests and trees in particular. Let me tell you a bit more:



During my first years in Scotland, I took up a nature connection practice called The Sitspot - picking a favourite spot in nature to spend time with every day. My spot was a large beech tree about a minute from home.


It was an exercise which I relucantly picked up (it was cold, wet, boring!), but as it was part of the learning program I was on, I stuck with it. It was only about six weeks into this habit that I started to thoroughly enjoy my 'tree-visits'. By this time, I was starting to notice some subtle but powerful shifts within myself.


My senses had become sharper. My thoughts cleared, my mind was still and focused. My body felt easier, freer, my motions more fluid. I became more alert and perceptive to my surroundings. I felt myself settle into a relaxed and awake state of being, that extended beyond my sit-spot into other areas of my life.



As I made notes of things I observed at my sitspot, my curiosity was raised and I felt inclined to learn about the various plants, birds, and wildlife tracks I came across. I learned to read the signs of various animals that had passed my spot when I wasn't there - squirrel, badger, deer, fox, pine marten, woodpecker. I tuned into the variety of birdsong until I could discern the voices of most birds, and notice when they erupted into alarm in response to threats. Soon enough, it was like all the separate bits of my observation knitted themselves together until I could read the forest as naturally as I would read a map of our town.


Something very profound was happening - I was reconnecting to nature in a way that felt ancient, much older than me. It felt like some deep and ancestral part of myself had been dormant for most of my life and was only now waking up - and I hadn't realised how I had missed this part of myself until I found it again.


At times, as I went about my daily farm chores, I unexpectedly felt a deep sense of joy well up inside my chest. It was a reawakening and a coming home to the world. A visceral sense of the great web of life all around and within me. The life that was rippling through me with every breath I took, a breath echoed by the trees and the wind and the movements of animals around me.




At the same time, as the joy of reconnecting wove it's way through me, a deep grief made itself known too. A grief of never having felt this alive-ness before, of realising that I had been sleep-walking all this time, locked in the ratrace of human society. A grief for my fellow human beings as I knew that most of us never get to reawaken in this connection, which felt so natural, so essential.


Only now, some six years later, can I put into words what was happening and what I felt at the time. I still often return to my sitspot, which feels like an old friend to me now, a sacred place. I feel as intricately part of that woodland as the trees themselves.



It is this journey, this amount of feeling, of joy, of grief and alive-ness, which I express in the paintings I am working on right now.


Above are some smaller field studies that I did on location, in woodlands around my home. These sketches and studies are now forming the basis of larger paintings, some of which I have finished, others are in various in-progress stages.


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My new body of work is called: "Undergrowth - A Journey through Trees"




Updated: Apr 6

My artwork is very much inspired by the natural world, and I consider myself fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful regions on the planet (in my not-so-humble opinion)! Here in the north-east of Scotland, I have easy access to beaches, rivers, forests and hills.


One of my favourite things is to head out with my sketchbook and camera and immerse myself in these places of beauty. My trusted field easel lives in the back of my car and I have various sketchbooks and sets of art-material that are easily thrown into my backpack.




I have a few spots I often return to, that are off the beaten track and never fail to inspire me. It takes me a few minutes to set up and find a composition, but after that I lose myself in the process of capturing the scene. Very often, I start to feel completely still, my hectic mind quieted down into a meditation-like state. Then, the language of the place starts to move through me.


As I work, I do not think. My hands translate the shapes and tones of the scene onto the paper, almost without my conscious interference. I become aware of the hidden conversations around me - a woodpecker drumming in the treetops, a buzzard's mewing call while circling overhead, the whisper of the wind and the rustling of small creatures in the undergrowth. Sometimes I make a small note within my sketch of an observation that caught my interest: "Blue Tit calling". "Fox prints". Notes like this invariably get lost underneath layers of colour.


When I leave my spot, I feel richer, brighter, clearer than when I arrived. I breathe a silent "thank you" to the place that gave me inspiration, and I continue on my way.