Water Based Oil Paints…technical notes on painting…for the occasional student only. Very boring.

I was testing a brand of water based oils for a friend who teaches. She didn’t have time. I had about a year to play with a big box of paints, experimentally, carelessly and I took notes for her.This is all bullshit outside the confines of my own workroom and my own practice. I’m talking like I’d talk to somebody watching me paint who was curious. I’ve had a few people hang around the studio to learn from me and it was flattering, took the edge off the inherent loneliness. There’s a grungy intimacy then in the studio and it takes workshop manners to make it work. I drink a lot of very bad hunting camp tea, so strong that the spoon stands up and that’s enough to make anybody sick. But I’m really picky about my sight lines so don’t ever move a canvas. And don’t suggest subject matter. You can smoke but I don’t really like drinking unless I invite you to drink…things are too fragile. etc. The right people come back and I’m much obliged.

Here goes: I like best to paint on wooden panels, ground and sanded to a nice smooth touch. I put about 20 coats of gesso on at least in theory. I sand every fifth coat. When I’m feeling energetic. I’m skimpy with paint. I don’t want absorbency. If I want to retain the plain wood I coat it with clear, matte acrylic a few times, canvas likewise. If you want to work on absorbency the water based oils want a whole lot of premixing, with very little water, added by the drop, and as much of the impasto medium as you require for transparency. Avoid the rapid drying medium with the impasto unless you’re just going in quickly and out with your gesture pre-defined. I mix the paint in shallow white trays with a triangular knife if I’m working wet, replenishing the paint to creaminess with the following recipe.

About a pint of water, warmish when first making the mix. This in a plastic squeeze bottle with a cap you can drink from, a jogger’s water bottle. This has the right flow. The mix lasts a long time for me, but it goes gummy at the flow point. You can drop the cap in a cup of water and pop it in the microwave to loosen any obstructions.

I put about a quarter bottle of the rapid drying medium in this. The product is stupidly packaged so don’t lose whatever spoon you find will scoop the stuff out of the bottles. Pure water works too, if you’re cutting costs, but the medium added seems to help smooth the mix. Into this, against common sense and the manufacturer’s guidelines I usually add about a three inch squeeze of the impasto medium. This seems self defeating but I think it keeps up some of the gloss and the luxuriousness. I shake the bottle thoroughly, let it settle, shake it up again, for as long as it takes, off and on for a few hours. Begin with warm water. If you find one of your colors is gritty or streaky to blend, pop your bottle (not your paint tube) in the microwave for a few seconds. Or stand it in hot water.

If you’re working with thin paint, just squeeze some into your dish and go at it with your knife. Each color is different, distinctly, with these paints. The earth colors are often gritty, sometimes unusable. The payne’s gray can be curiously streaky, but in a drawing color the unpredictability is worth keeping. The blues are difficult in another way, clotting a bit, so add the water drop by drop. The reds are uniformly smooth going. The cadmiums and darker yellows often require a lot of the flat side of the knife, so make sure your dish will accommodate the motion.

After I get things smooth with a knife, I’ll mix again with an old brush. A small clot will bloom extensively on the canvas, especially in the reds. These paints take time, more than oil, more than acrylic. I get pleasure in the mixing. It’s best not to mix up a red and a blue, say, at first. Greens are particularly difficult if you’re mixing from primaries. The ones out of the tube are not really nice and always need a note of something added before they come to life. Mix each colour alone at first, then bring them together. The variety in paint consistency requires this.

You can thicken the paint with impasto gel at this point, but this is very expensive. Go drop by drop until you know each color. Then just paint. The drying time is longer than with acrylic and much shorter than with standard oils. I get about a fifteen minute period of time in which the paint remains manipulable, and that’s usually long enough. I find it a lot easier to avoid muddy overwork if I use the water based oils rather than the turpentine based stuff. I find a day will dry enough for over painting, with some bleeding in the ultramarines and grays if I go in too soon.. I tend to work in layers of strokes, so these paints suit me. I don’t mind their unevenness in texture. That can be useful once it isn’t a surprise.

Now, a word on the whites. They mix beautifully, but they seemed to me to lack strength, so they were used up quickly. Here is my solution. If you’re painting to survive a holocaust, don’t do the following : Use gesso thinned with the stuff from your bottle mixed very thoroughly. When it’s smooth, add some impasto medium until it feels rich and has a nice gloss.

I do this in the early stages,when using the water based oils, and I’d suggest you do so if you’re just experimenting. I confess that in a pinch when a brown is just so much grit, for instance, I’ve used an acrylic instead, mixed with the oil and water medium. I imagine it’ll crack in a few years. I’d actually suggest that you work in acrylics for drawing, and then begin to paint over the acrylic with the water based oils. The color jump is a little bit of excitement.

Once you’re well into the painting, go into the tube whites. I keep a mason jar mixed with just water, warm, and the impasto gel. You have to use the knife and brush, mixing the paint endlessly, to cream, but the whites are lovely, and they’ll add a gloss to your lights and your other colours. If you pay a lot of attention to making your whites rich and creamy, things will look very smart. I use a blueish or greenish white, and one with just a dab of yellow ocher, a dab of grey in each and then right at the last use a pure white. These whites aren’t sensitive, like pure oil whites. They don’t seem as strong either. Both these things work in your favour if you let them.

Glazes pose a problem. The mixing can seem endless and the surprises endless, but less paint and stuff from your bottle and more of the impasto help here.

Using the bottled mix takes the gloss out of the oils, not while you’re working but after things dry, there’s an unevenness that you can ease with a few coats of your bottled water, thin, and applied flat. It dries quickly, but give it longer than you’d like, as it can go gummy like masking gel if you work it near the end of drying.

I see these paints as a midway point between acrylics and oils and find they’re best if I use them accordingly, working first in acrylic, then in water based oils, and then moving into real oils for the last third of the painting’s execution, with an extended drying time before moving into pure oils. I usually start another painting about this time and then come back when things are dry enough to use the oils. I’ve watched pictures on both canvas and wooden panels dry for a year without problems in crackling since I started painting so foolhardy. Good luck.


~ by Rocky Green on December 5, 2006.

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