Oil Painting Blog

Blog about oil paintings by Robert Dawson

Lucian Freud's color

One of my favorite figurative artists is Lucian Freud. He achieves striking volume with his use of color. Today, while watching a documentary about him, called Lucian Freud: Portraits, I noted several interesting things about his use of color that contribute to that effect.

First, he uses lots of yellow ocher and other yellows for the base of skin tones. He also uses a thick white for highlights (the exact color is mentioned in an article I found online, but I forget where). I noticed pale and light pinks for areas that project into the foreground, such as the outside edge of a thigh, dull and muted greens for recessed and shadowy areas, and, finally, maroon and other deep reds for areas of focus, like the nose.

Imcreativity - in search of impractical creativity

Tonight, I turned my attention to the meaning of creativity. Wikipedia defines creativity as that which is both novel and useful. Using this definition, any new product or technology is creative.

But is art useful? My first thought is no. However, the reinforcement of beauty is a very useful pursuit in that it is often forgotten amid the plethora of pain and suffering we encounter. But is appreciation on par with practical use, as in the case of a new product or technology? If you're trying to save a life, then appreciation is not only useless but irrational. However, if you're trying to cheer someone up, then don't count on a shiny new toy to bring a lasting smile. Although, a novel antidepressant might help.

I'll leave it up to others to compare the importance of appreciation and action in our lives. What I want to do is to plant the seed of a new kind of creativity that is more suited to art. This kind of creativity is novel, but it is not useful. It is impractical. To distinguish this from creativity, I call this imcreativity. If something is imcreative, then it is new and worthy of appreciation but not useful and cannot be applied to achieve a practical result.

An example of an imcreative work of art is Dalí's The Persistence of Memory. This famous painting brings to mind any number of strange thoughts, like the relativity of time, a summer day so hot that even clocks melt, a paranoid man who was deathly afraid of grasshoppers, and so on. But is this painting useful in any real sense, except perhaps for understanding more about Dalí or his ingenious and outrageous self-promotion techniques? I don't see how.

Of course everything can be useful for something, even if only to recognize that it isn't useful and that a useful use of time would be not to waste any more time thinking about it. But that useless scenario aside, some things are clearly not useful while also being worthy of appreciation. Art tends to fall into this category in that, like philosophy, it does not seek to provide useful answers but to provoke interesting questions. A beautiful seascape painting is certainly worthy of appreciation, but it will not buy you a yacht. It will, however, help you appreciate the beauty of nature, just as an abstract painting might, if you open your mind wide enough, help you appreciate color and form in nature.

Back to my notion of imcreativity, I find it, as a concept, useful because it frees me to explore dissimilar concepts in a visual space without worrying that it makes a point (i.e., that it serves as an illustration). Art blurs boundaries and being imcreative helps it achieve that.

Relevant art today

It seems to me that art today should either be pretty or make a point, with the former being the wiser of choices. Art no longer has to make an aristocrat look stately or serve the Church. Today, it's free to do whatever it wants, including announce that it's not art at all or, conversely, that everything is.

But to make art relevant or meaningful to modern audiences, it needs to mean something to them. And in this age, people, at least those with Internet access, seem to be thinking about such issues as information overload, trivial virtual social connections, the increasing loss of privacy online, and rampant identify theft.

Then again, art can address any social issue and remain relevant. And it should. It's visual communication. It should say everything that's interesting visually, which is just about everything.

And I say that making pretty art is wiser because, at the end of the day, after either our battles have been won or we are tired of fighting them, what matters most are that we still want to fight, to live, and to appreciate the value of living. And beauty adds value.

Quotes from The Art Spirit

Quotes from The Art Spirit by Robert Henri (favorites in bold):

"We are not here to do what has already been done."

"For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself."

"Don't try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscape looks to you--your pleasure in the thing."

"An interest in the subject; something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a portrait."

"The work is done when that special thing has been said."

"To start with a deep impression, the best, the most interesting, the deepest you can have of the model; to preserve this vision throughout the work; to see nothing else; to admit of no digression from it; choosing only from the model the signs of it; will lead to an organic work."

"The value of repeated studies of beginnings of a painting cannot be over-estimated."

"To stop in the process of drawing the lines of a feature to inquire what next is surely to leave a record of disconnection."

"Hold to this principle that the greatest drawing, the greatest expression, the greatest completion, the sense of all contained, lies in what can be done through the largermasses and the larger gestures."

"Seeing beauty in nature is a compositional act."

"Windows are symbols. They are openings in. To draw a house is not to see and copy its lines and values, but to use them."

"THERE IS NOTHING in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body."

"I believe the great artists of the future will use fewer words, copy fewer things, essays will be shorter in words and longer in meaning."

"If you want to know how to do a thing you must first have a complete desire to do that thing."

"Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done."

"Do not let beauty in the subdivisions destroy the beauty or the power of the major divisions."

"If you look past the model at the background it responds to your appeal and comes forward. It is no longer a background."

"Generally in pictures which give the illusion of fine color and form we find one, less often two, areas made up of pure color."

"There will be new ideas in painting and each new idea will have a new technique."

"The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of his spirit and all the littlenesses are in it."

"Painting should be done from the floor up, not from the seat of a comfortable chair."

"THE PICTURE THAT LOOKS AS IF it were done without an effort may have been a perfect battlefield in its making."

"Don't worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to."

"An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic."

"All is as beautiful as we think it."

"One of the great difficulties of an art student is to decide between his own natural impressions and what he thinks should be his impressions."

"Art after all is but an extension of language to the expression of sensations too subtle for words."

"ALL THE PAST up to a moment ago is your legacy. You have a right to it."

"All satisfying things are good organizations."

"It is often said The public does not appreciate art! Perhaps the public is dull, but there is just a possibility that we are also dull, and that if there were more motive, wit, human philosophy, or other evidences of interesting personality in our work the call might be stronger."

"Art has relations to science, religions and philosophies. The artist must be a student."

"Be willing to paint a picture that does not look like a picture."

"What moves you is beautiful to you."

"Your eye does not follow the muscle and bone making of the arm. It follows the spirit of life in the arm."

"Don't become a victim of line."

"There are lines that are heavy, dragging, lines that have pain, and lines that laugh."

"I think the heart should be the master and the mind should be the tool and servant of the heart. As it is, we give too much attention to laws and not enough to principals. The man who wants to produce art must have the emotional side first, and this must be reinforced by the practical."

"Intellect should be used as a tool."

"THE LACE on a woman's wrist is an entirely different thing from lace in a shop. In the shop it is a piece of workmanship, on her hand it is the accentuation of her gentleness of character and refinement."

"A drawing is an invention."

"It seems to me that before a man tries to express anything to the world he must recognize in himself an individual, a new one, very distinct from others."

"A man should not care whether the thing he wishes to express is art or not, whether it is a picture or not, he should only care that it is a statement of what is worthy to put into permanent expression."

"To award prizes is to attempt to control the course of another man's work."

"We must realize that artists are not in competition with each other."

"Technique is to me merely a language, and as I see life more and more clearly, growing older, I have but one intention and that is to make my language as clear and simple and sincere as humanly possible. I believe one should study ways and means all the while to express one's idea of life more clearly."

"All good drawing or painting is compositional."

"I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life."

"PAINT LIKE A FIEND when the idea possesses you."

"I am quite certain your best work will come from dealing with the memories which have stuck after what is unessential to you in experiences has dropped away."

"It would be easy to divide artists into two classes: those who grow so much within themselves as to master technique by the force of their need, and those who are mastered by technique and become stylists."

"More and more things are produced without a will in the creation, and are consumed or used without a will in the consumption or the using."

"Work always as if you were a master, expect from yourself a masterpiece."

"Don't be ashamed to keep your bad stuff."

"No work of art is really ever finished. They only stop at good places."

"Every change must count, and count strong."

"THERE IS A PAST, present and future in the fall of a dress. Don't arrange it."

"The reason for the survival of the award system is purely commercial."

"Prevent your drawing from being common."

"The man who becomes a master starts out by being master of such as he has, and the man who is master at any time of such as he has is at that time straining every faculty."

"All nature has powers of response. We have always been conscious of it. Our idea that things are dead or inert is a convention."

"People have not looked largely at life, mainly because our education drowns us in detail."

"Your style is the way you talk in paint."

"The painting of a nose is the painting of an expression."

"Do WHATEVER you do intensely."

"A GREAT PAINTER will know a great deal about how he did it, but still he will say, "How did I do it?""

"All real works of art look as though they were done in joy."

"Take care that your compositions are an expression of your individuality. See things not as they are, but as you see them."

"A WORK OF ART is the trace of a magnificent struggle."


I began by trying to paint a photo of Michael Jordan realistically. And I made it 75% of the way. But then I got bored and began deviating from the original without rationalizing the changes. For instance, why stars? I have a good interpretation! He's thinking about fame and it's fueling his jump. But I didn't paint the stars with that in mind. The same is true of the white man's "mask," which looks to me like something a wrestler would wear. Is professional basketball set up to sell tickets and ads? Maybe. I'll let the viewer decide.

What art isn't?

Below is something I wrote very late a few nights ago and then revised tonight. I'm not sure if it's any good. But I can't say I disagree with it. I don't know.


I appreciate art because it defies definition. I don't know what art is in the general sense. It's art. Art defines itself. By not defining itself.

Art defines itself by defying itself. Art doesn't like to be defined and, therefore, confined. Art would be a form of rebellion if it could tolerate being confined to a single form.

Back to nature. Categories abound. Logic and structure abounds. Sense just makes sense.

Conformity. Stability. Comfort. Sleep. 8-5. (Nobody ever did 9-5.)

Order. We need order to make sense of things. Because of how our brains work, we can't help it. Thinking is ordering. It helps us survive. We make sense of things automagically.

But art embraces order as well as disorder. In his book, The Art Spirit, which I’ve been reading for ages now and need to finish, Robert Henri equates art with an appreciation of order. It is, but it also isn't. Art has moods.

If I recall, Heidegger applauded art's ability, and made it a necessary quality of valued art, to escape rationalization or, in other words, to blur and, more likely with modern art, blow up preconceptions. Art helps us think differently about the same things.

You might ask, "What use is art?" The most common answer: It helps us appreciate life. Second: It reminds us of beauty.

But art is also a form of philosophy, visual in my case, in that it provides us with stimuli that provoke us to ponder ourselves and the world around us. Moreover, it asks us to reconsider our place and, even more, if having a place makes sense.

Put a brick on a pedestal. Strip this ultimate symbol of utility and function of its common purpose (assuming the pedestal itself isn't made of brick). You might be tempted in a creative exercise to carve a tiny door and two windows into it.

This time, do nothing. Look at it, differently. Strip away not only its preconceived, practical, pedestrian purpose, but also, if you can, its very definition. It isn’t a brick. Voilà! It isn’t even a rectangle if you can help it. It just is.

That's art.

Sort of. It's also pretty.

What I'm learning

I am learning two things about my art, specifically oil painting, that I need to find what I love to make (as art) and that I need to embrace some measure of irrationality. With regard to subject, it hit me that I have little interest, aside the fun of playing or the technical challenge, in painting, for example, a still life with random objects. This might sound like a strange thought, but thinking about it made me realize that I haven't taken much time to think about what I want to paint, and specifically to paint to remember. I need to care about an object before I paint it. The same applies to the people I paint, in which case, I have to at least find them psychologically interesting.

Second, with regard to irrationality, it hit me yesterday that one reason my paintings aren't very interesting so far is that they don't allow for enough disorder, such as unfinished strokes or strikingly raw colors and lines. And to create such disorder, I need to be in a mindset that encourages it, which isn't pure practicality. I think the most interesting paintings balance order with disorder or, at least, give disorder a rightful spot at the table.

And on an unrelated aside, I've gleefully rediscovered the work of Frans Hals.

In honor of Eric the Thief

Today, I plan to paint Michael Jordan. Why Jordan? Because it takes me back to my first days with art. And in memory of a great young technician.

I attended a magnet school in junior high. This is where I took my first art class. One of the kids in that class could draw exceedingly well. I think his name was Eric. Eric really inspired me, showing me what someone could do technically with art at such a young age.

Unfortunately, one day, Eric stole something, I believe it was a handful of colored pencils, and found himself expelled. He might have stolen more than once, I forget. But seeing him go was tragic. Had I been my art teacher, I would have tried my best to keep him at school and I would have bought him a set of colored pencils or whatever else he needed to continue making art. Maybe my teacher did try, but I never heard about it if so.

Eric liked to draw basketball players. Specifically, I think he liked to draw Michael Jordan, which would be understandable given the man's talent. So, in memory of Eric the Thief, I plan to paint an action shot of Jordan. Only, I'll use oils, because that's what I'm into. Sorry, Eric, but I'd also have to steal a set of colored pencils if I didn't want to throw down a pile of money, because, you're right. Colored pencils are overpriced.

But that's not all I plan to paint. Eric also liked to draw, or did draw at least once, a crumpled Coca Cola can. Yes, in colored pencil. It was amazing, almost like a photo. So, that's what I'll paint after Jordan.

The other reason I plan to paint a Coke can is that it seems to be a rite of passage for artists in the US, at least those of my generation. If you can draw a crumpled Coke can realistically, then you can draw. I've never tried.

I should add that these paintings are what I'm calling "break" paintings. They’re paintings that I plan to create between paintings for other people. In this case, this is a series, short at present with only two paintings included, of art related to my first days with art. So, actually, I will probably also paint ninjas and the Hulk at some point. Ooh, maybe ninjas vs. the Hulk!

Blending success!

It's a small feat, but I'm happy to note that I have, let's say since it's not perfect, sketched out a solution to the problem of blending with oils.

As I say, it's not perfect. You can see brushstrokes and this picture, because it's a close-up, is grainy. But it is a leap forward compared to previous work.

And, yes, this is a new painting. It's a surprise for someone. It's also unfinished. So, I can't show it yet. Soon!

Portrait of John Cowan

This is a portrait of a friend and former co-worker, John Cowan. Aside from his day job as a lawyer, John is also a very creative artist whose work ranges from metal sculpture to comic art. I asked John to send photos of himself and this was painted from a close-up of one. I like both photos, but the light on John's face in the one from which this painting derives seems almost angelic (if I may) in that much of it is bathed in bright light and the shadows are not equally as dark but, rather, add subtle volume to his features. Of course, I couldn't help but take liberties with that, not because John is evil but because I was honestly more inspired to play with color. And I also wanted to present him in a somewhat comic-like manner.

The technique, as you can see from the progression of photos here, was to sketch him with olive green paint, block in lots of different colors, blend them, and then add detail.

  1. Sketch
  2. Block
  3. Blend
  4. Detail

I like this approach a lot. It allowed the joy of creatively applying color and the altogether different enjoyment of applying detail (although, knowing when to stop is hard). I'm not sure I will do it again exactly like this, because my current goal is to experiment and learn new techniques. My first goal was blending and now, and maybe forever, it's experimentation. It's fun! And I hope John likes it.


Against efficiency as a motivating factor in the production of art

I’m painting in oils again. A traditional medium. Slow. Messy. Smelly. I love it!

I'm getting comfortable with it, relearning how to blend and, generally speaking, to use the medium, tools, and ground, themselves, to reveal a pleasing result.

But it takes work. And one of my current, preparatory goals is realism. Accuracy. Not photorealism, because I like brushstrokes (and why not take a photo?). But to make what I paint look like what I see. I'm pretty good at it without assistance.

But what if I do use assistance? What if, for example, I paint on top of a photograph or a tracing from one? There don't have to be any rules in art, so I wouldn't be cheating. I'm my own authority (aside from nature). And the process would be faster. I'm already using a grid to ensure basic proportionality in a portrait I'm painting now. So, why not go the limit and automate and, it would seem, improve the process as much as possible?

But it feels wrong! It's boring. Boring is wrong. I might as well work in a paint-by-number factory.

It isn't art. Okay, it could be a Warholian commentary on consumerism (even though we're into prosumerism). Art can be anything. But punish myself in the repetitive, robotic (no offense, future overlords) process? Shoot me.

Notes from Problem Solving for Oil Painters

by Gregg Kreutz


I1. Every painting needs an abstract idea. You have to find that idea interesting.

I2. Eliminate extraneous details to simplify the painting's message.

I3. Always have an area of focus. Differentiate and prioritize.

I4. Consider how the viewer "reads" the painting and build the composition to direct the viewer's visual attention.

I5. At every moment, ask yourself what you can do to make the painting great or better. Always seek improvement. Try finishing one area.


S1. Simple shapes carry. Are the dominant shapes as strong as possible?

S2. Are the shapes too similar? See I3.


V1. Could the value range be increased to maximize the painting's visual tension?

V2. Could the number of values be reduced? Fewer details, more impact. "Art is a synthesis, a condensation, not a documentation." See I2.


"The thing to remember is that you're not really painting a green apple, you're painting light hitting an apple."

L1. Is the subject effectively lit? Single light-sources are more powerful than multiple light-sources.

L2. Is the light area big enough?

L3. Would the light look stronger with a suggestion of burnout?

L4. Does the light have a continuous flow?

L5. Is the light gradated?


H1. Do the shadowy shapes describe the form? Don't copy shadows. Use them to reinforce the overall shape of the object.

H2. Are the shadows warm enough?


D1. Would more foreground material deepen the space?

D2. Does the background recede far enough?

D3. Are the halftones properly related to the background? Halftones are shaded areas, which imply a connection to the background. Therefore, they should have some background color to recede properly.


O1. Is the underlying form being communicated?

O2. Is the symmetry in perspective?


C1. Is there a color strategy?

C2. Could purer colors be used?

C3. Do the whites have enough color in them?

C4. Are the colors overblended on the canvas?

C5. Would the color look brighter if it were saturated into its adjacent area? Create a sense that a color is so intense that even the air around it is saturated with that color.


"The viewer becomes involved with the painter in making the transition from reality to canvas." Let paintstrokes show to involve the viewer.

P1. Is your palette effectively organized?

P2. Is the painting surface too absorbent?

P3. Are you using the palette knife as much as you could?

P4. Are you painting lines where you should be painting masses? "The painterly approach is to see reality as a series of near or far volumes."

P5. Are the edges dynamic enough? Alternate hard and soft edges to enhance depth.

P6. Is there enough variation in the texture of the paint? Dark, thin. Light, thick.