Sunday, June 12, 2016

Palettes for oil painting

Wooden palettes are the way to go for traditional oil painting. But now days many believe that they are messy and hard to keep clean. I once thought that too but now that I learned how to prepare the wood for painting I have never looked back.

Pros of wooden palettes:
When prepared properly the wood takes on a neutral tone against which all colors look true. Where as when using a plastic white palette on which colors will look darker against the white plastic.
Paint blends beautifully on them
Durability and longevity, many painters use the same palette for years.

The key to using a wooden palette is sealing the wood correctly so that oil doesn't seep into it. When buying a new wooden palette buy a raw untreated one.

1. Apply linseed oil all over it. I repeat this a couple times until the wood begins to have wood furniture like finish. Maybe 2-3 times depending on the wood.

2. Apply a drier/sealer layer. Mix 1/3 linseed oil and 2/3 Copal medium ratio and apply that as the final coat. This seals the wood and prevents it from eating up the oil and solvent while mixing colors.

3. Start painting as usual but at the end of the session wipe away the paint with a rag and a little solvent. This is the most important step as this gradually stains the palette a beautiful neutral color. The neutral color serves a perfect backdrop for color mixing.

I have even heard of some old school painters heating the palettes on the stove to cook the oil into the wood but that's kinda overboard for me.

4. I always wipe my palette clean after each painting session because the paint dries too quickly for reuse. I also travel with my palette and find this most practical. Also the buildup of dry uncleaned paint adds weight to the palette.

With time the palette with get a glossy shine to it and is a joy to work with.

Salvador Dali. Wooden palette

Pierre Bonnard. Fordable wooden palette

Preping a canvas for oil painting, ultimate contemporary guide

The age old question.. how did the masters prepare their oil painting ground? "Their paintings have lasted thru the centuries and mine wont even last till the end of the semester" is what I used to think in art school.

So why is a preparing a canvas for oil painting the key to a paintings longevity?

Fabric used for oil painting supports is usually cotton canvas or linen. (In this post I will talk about cotton canvas, as linen canvas is rarely used and needs its own post)

With time the oil from the oil paint rots and weakens the canvas so there needs to be a barrier between the raw canvas and the oil paint. This barrier is the sizing and painting ground.

Sizing prepares the raw canvas for the painting ground. It reals in the raw canvas fibers and prevents moisture and oil absorption. In the old days master painters used rabbit skin glue as a natural sizing. Its still available, Utrecht art supplies sells it. It is sold dry and has to be cooked to use. 
Utrecht Rabbit Skin glue, buy here

Gamblin Rabbit Skin glue, buy here

 I know many artists swear by rabbit skin glue but its not my favorite. When cooking it, it has a tendency to get lumpy and smells.

Also, it expands with moisture. To me it seems a little outdated. I'm sure if DaVinci was prepping a canvas now, he wouldn't mess around with animal glues and use a more innovative method of acrylic sizing.
Acrylic sizing really seeps into the fibers of the canvas and seals it and as of right now it is my choice of sizing. (I am still testing different animal glue sizes, a Williamsburg one, so we will see how it works)

My sizing of choice:
Acrylic PVA glue sizing

Utrecht sizing, buy here     or       Gamblin PVA sizing, buy here

Gesso painting primer can be either acrylic or oil.

Acrylic gesso and why I don't use it:
It seems that acrylic gesso is the most popular gesso for painting. While its great for acrylic paint its not suitable for oil painting.
All thru art school and continuing education I used acrylic gesso. All teachers recommend it and its a doable primer. But as I perfected my skill I noticed that no matter how I prepared by canvases and how I painted I was still getting matte area on my painting, where the oil seep into who-knows-where(cause it was not showing on the back of the canvas)
So I did some research and found that it was the acrylic gesso that was causing these matte areas. The canvas was not sufficiently sealed and needed an oil ground to prevent this.
Now I use oil ground and wow what a difference!

Oil ground: (best primer for oil painting)

Oil ground has made the biggest difference it the quality of my paintings. The color saturation is much better, they have a buttery feel and the luster of the paint is consistent with no more matte areas. When using this primer the colors applied on top have luminosity and depth. Oil painting ground has the same texture are oil paint. Whereas an acrylic gesso is matte, dry and chalky looking. This causes the oil paint to loose its buttery texture and look plastic-like.

I use the Utrecht oil ground. It does have Lead pigment in it so I am extra careful and use cloves. Also it is best to have good ventilation as it does have a turpentine-ish smell.
Applied in 2 coats(let first coat dry to the touch before applying the second one). It has a longer drying time, once the second coat is applied wait 7 days before painting.

Utrecht oil ground, buy here 

Gamblin also makes an oil ground BUT it is alkyd resin based. I don't use this one cause I stay away from alkyd resins.

So that is the secret. To prime a canvas for painting with sizing and oil primer.

Canvas priming break-down:

1. Stretch the canvas and make sure it is tight, but not too tight as that can cause warping. (I'll write a separate post about canvas stretching) Also I sometimes iron the canvas prior to stretching, as it is IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of creases after sizing.

2. Apply the sizing evenly. I use two coats which I let dry in between application. Then let dry for 48 hours. I prefer to let the sizing dry for 3 days as oil painting and primer are so sensitive to moisture. Its best to give it extra time to evaporate just to be safe.

3. Once the sizing has dried I apply the oil painting ground. Its a little messy so first I use a palette knife to scoop it onto the canvas and then spread it with the knife. Let it dry for 7 days then re-apply the final coat and let that dry 7 more days. I know this is time consuming but the result is worth it. Master painters prepared painting grounds for months (most had workshops for ground preparation) often times sanding the ground up to 4 times.

Safety point: I do not sand the ground. This is an important part as the painting ground has Lead pigment it in. Its not dangerous when working in gloves but when sanded the particles can get into the lungs. That is why I take time to apply the ground evenly the first time.


Repairing a canvas with oil ground is time consuming but so worth it. When first learning to oil paint you will make a lot of work and it is fine to start with acrylic gesso but try to upgrade to oil ground. It completely changes the paint surface and is so rich and buttery to paint on. It makes the colors rich and bright without developing matte spots. Also it is most archival and will last for years. If you are gonna do something, might as well do it right.