Lynne Roebuck (Handwritten) 
An oil painters work bench

5 reasons this landscape painter uses oils

28 Dec 2019 (v2.6)

I'm a modern English landscape painter. I love painting my semi-realist landscapes using oils and here's why…

I'm more Lost than found (1)

Speaking as a landscape painter: it's true, I spend most of my time lost rather than found! That's another story. The lost I'm talking about here is… well, read on.

A history of found

I began my career as a fulltime illustrator. My stock in trade was visuals for architects. They needed technical but attractive illustrations. These were visuals of buildings still at the design stage. Buildings not yet built.

It was all straight lines – even the curvy ones – and super crisp edges. If I decided to be creative, blurring and smudging, it raised eyebrows. So I only did it the once… maybe twice, to check those eyebrows really did rise. Um, yes, they did.

Don't get me wrong, those years were tremendous. I've much affection for that chapter of my life.

It's all edgy stuff for an oil landscape painter

All these years later, I find I'm intrigued again, by softness and what artists call ‘lost and found’ edges. Lost and found edges are exactly what the description suggests. Landscapes are filled with these boundaries between shapes, and the odd line. Edges architecturally crisp – found – in one place. Then so effuse – lost – in another that you can't tell where something begins or ends.

You could say, after a history of ‘found’, I'm now more lost than ever… well, anyway…

A landscape lost, is a landscape painted

Trees are a great example of lost and found. From close up, standing next to one, you can see the crisp tracery of their foliage against the sky. Look to a tree in the far distance and its shape is usually softer. Trees grouped together lose all sense of where one ends, and others start. Introduce a breeze to animate the foliage and their silhouette is a blur. Lost and found edges – especially lost ones – are everywhere in scenic vistas. Clouds, grasses en mass, trees, mist, and distant haze, immediately come to mind.

I said I was intrigued again because it was Art School that introduced me to lost and found. I used the effect in copious amounts during academic drawing classes. Classical figure drawing was where I honed the skill to the nth degree. I learned to understand the value of paying particular attention to the edges of things. It pays‑off ten‑fold in a finished drawing or painting.

Now I'm a fine artist and no longer working for architects, I'm free to use lost edges again. It's been like rediscovering an old friend. A former accomplice who never failed to animate everything.

All good oil painters should get lost

Oil paint is particularly amendable to creating soft ‘lost’ edges. It stays workable for longer than most, if not all, other media. A landscape painter can let a crisp line thicken but not dry out. This allows the artist to soften a boundary to a required amount without destroying it.

An ability to blur paint applied hours, even days ago, in a precise and controlled way is the key. The oil in oil paints keeps them from drying too quickly. This means a multitude of edges can be styled. Dry brushed, textured and/or (technical term alert) fudged paint can be used. When layered on top of semi‑dry, detailed paint, the possible lost effects are many.

Oil painters paint with butter

An alternative is the ‘painterly’ approach. Wet oils smeared or smudged into one another soon become ‘lost’. Wet and undiluted oils are the consistency of slightly warm butter. This makes it easy for the oil painter to create a soft blend where paint strokes meet. I understand the Russian word for oils also means butter.

It takes time to craft soft, lost edges. They make the difference though, between a so-so painting and an accomplished one. Having relatively recently returned to the craft of lost and found, I'm relearning it. Oil paint's capacity for a myriad of levels of lostness is helping me do so. It's almost reason alone to use the medium for landscapes.

Some of my landscape paintings:

Rainbows are everywhere  (2)

Sounds soppy, doesn't it? Yet it's true, especially in landscape paintings. And rainbows are challenging to paint.

Oil paint is a gift when trying to paint rainbows. This is another reason why I use the medium – a landscape painter needs to paint rainbows.

An ordinary summer sky?

The next time you're fortunate enough to be out under a blue summer sky with time to stand and stare, have a look. How many blues and shades of blue, transitioning from one to the other, can you count? Take a late evening sky after the fireworks of a sunset have faded. That brief time before the glow of the sun disappears. You might see a soft flush of pink shading through dusty blues to dark inky night hues. Each of these skies is a beautiful and beguiling rainbow if ever there were.

Unless hidden by clouds or fog, every sky is a rainbow of colour, even if it's all blue.

I'm currently enthralled by skies and often yo‑yo in and out of the house looking at the sky (yes, I know). I'm focussing more and more on the skies in my paintings. You understand now that no sky is ever ordinary.

A landscape painters challenge like no other

Skies are a distinctive feature of landscapes. Portraits and still life paintings can contain skies. In those paintings, though, a sky is never in a supporting or lead actor role. It's a walk‑on part instead. If omitted from a still life or portrait, would a sky be missed?

Oil painting of a coastal landscape
The sea reflects the sky in this coastal oil painting.

A scenic painting without a sky is likely to look strange. Like a play without one of its star actors. So a landscape painter needs a way to paint those extraordinary skies.

Sloping shading multi-hued hills and vales

The thing is: rainbows are not restricted to skies. Vibrant colour ranges abound on hillsides, in distant haze and throughout vegetation too. Rainbows show up in expanses of water because it often reflects the sky. An Autumn tree will display umpteen colours at once, as parts of it change at differing rates.

Rainbows are everywhere in the landscape.

Oil paint passes through several stages of semi-dryness. I began describing this above. New pigment (colour) is absorbed by previous layers. I know no other way to describe it. An oil painter gets to know how to use this feature. I'm still learning. The ability to create subtle changes in colour and/or tone is considerable with oil paint.

Oils have a high ratio of pigment to binder. It's why it's often expensive. The quality means the colours don't go 'dirty' as quickly as they would in other media. All this means oil colours stay fresh and vibrant despite being worked a lot if you know how. So it's the subtlety achievable with oils that makes it perfect for landscape painters.

Detail of Whitby Harbour oil painting
Detail of an oil painting completed in my studio – Whitby Harbour.

Because not painting is good (3)

The third reason why I use oils for landscapes involves having to stop painting in mid‑flow.

It might seem odd that having to stop painting is a good thing. Here's why it is…

The difficulty with landscapes

I've suggested scenic art can be more difficult than other subjects before. This is because there's no definite structure to them. Landscapes can also be complicated, with many elements in view.

A painter chooses what's in still life paintings and what's not. They arrange things, including lighting, to suit their ambition. A painter can simplify a still life subject before they touch a canvas with paint. None of this is possible with scenic paintings. Digging up a tree to simplify a scene is a bit excessive. Trying to stop the sun moving or playing King Canute attempting to halt a rising tide would be crazy.

Portraits have a natural structure to them. A human being's anatomy is a structure we're all familiar with. Noses centre between two eyes. Heads connect via a neck to the torso. All logical, all easy to see.

Landscapes are both complex and chaotic. Add complexity and chaos together, and you've a lot of problems to solve! (I've discussed the relative difficulty of different subjects elsewhere more fully. I'll put a link in here soon when I've reviewed it).

Difficult is not better

Whether landscapes are more difficult or I just think they are is unimportant. Degree of difficulty does not equate to 'better than'.

I mastered life (figure) drawing at art school. Proficiency with portraits came a few years after leaving. Still-life was an avid hobby as a child. Buildings and cities were a forte during my illustration years. Landscapes were my last great challenge, and this informs my view rightly or wrongly.

In the end, it's not the difficulty of a process which determines artistic success. An artist's vision, decision making and execution hold the trump card. A poor painting of a landscape, however difficult, is not better than a great still-life. A grand portrait or still-life can be better than a great landscape.

More gazing than glazing

The thing is: I'm a beggar for charging on fueled by inspiration and an overwhelming urge to paint. It can be the worst thing to do. I've paid the price of angst and disappointment on many an occasion. If subjects are complex and nuanced, as landscapes are, then it's a recipe for disaster. Putting the brush down and stopping can be when the art happens. This requires a lot of discipline when creative energy is high.

An oil painter has to work in a structured way. Many of the modern mediums were invented in response to oil's inconveniences. The paint needs to be layered up correctly (fat over lean), for example. I've found my paintings need to 'settle' before adding more. This encourages a landscape painter into contemplation. A regular, careful study of a painting in progress has an impact on its success.

Subtle weaknesses created early in an artwork's progress end up biting later. Fine defects have unsubtle and disastrous effects in the finished art. They'll mean undoing days, even weeks of work. That's if it's even possible, by then, to fix things. Because they're subtle, they go undetected.

Painting with oils has slowed me down, in a beneficial way. This is one of the reasons I prefer painting with oils. I've begun to craft my paintings rather than plough paint on to a canvas. I put more thought into them. Carefully planning art before starting it is not enough. Taking time to check on progress is, in some ways, the more effective.

Colour chemistry is easy easier… maybe (4)

We're now at the fourth reason I use oils in my landscape paintings. It's all to do with colour again.

Where rainbows dance (above), it's blending colours into each other that's important. Here, it's about mixing colours.

I've always thought oil paints have a depth and sophistication to their colours. More so than other mediums. Even neutral colours keep an intensity soon lost by say, Acrylic or Watercolour.

I've found Acrylic is brash. Watercolour struggles with intensity and Gouache is duller, even when bright. Paintings are rarely all about colour. So colour purity is not a reason on its own to ignore the alternatives to oil. I've used, and use, all the paints I've mentioned for scenic paintings and each has its own beauty.

Light is colour chemistry

I should note I'm the least confident explaining this subject. It's a big topic. I'll press on though…

In portraiture and still-life, there is usually more than one light source. At the least, there's an artificial light source and residual natural lighting. This is unless painting takes place on the darkest of nights or in a windowless room. It's unlikely a set-up will be lit by only one light, even without natural sunlight. Artificial lights vary a great deal. Age, specification all influence artificial lights. So the variety of light source is much greater in studio‑based subjects.

Oil painting of saltwick nab Whitby
A painting with an interesting colour palette consisting of blues and neutral earthy tones – yet it's a colour rich oil painting.

In landscapes, there is natural colour harmony. It has a lot to do with the all‑pervasive, single natural light source, called: the sun. In a daytime landscape, there is only one light source. This creates a harmony other subjects don't always have.

Lighting has a profound effect on colour.

I'm influenced here by a seminal work by USA artist Richard Schmid. He discusses the various harmonies observable in landscapes, at length.

Landscapes are all about colour?

A landscape painter needs to be able to create sophisticated colour harmonies. A wide variety. The lighting on any given day can be different from any other day.

I'm no expert on colour (yet). Despite my lack of experience, the colour schemes of my oil landscapes are far superior to my other works. Oils are renown for supporting rich neutrals. Distant haze, for example, is all about neutrals. Being able to mix subtle colours without losing their intensity is a dream. It's why I use oils for my landscapes.

A natural destination for a landscape painter (5)

I've progressed through the different mediums as part of my development. From child artist to landscape painter.

Oil is the last medium in my journey. It feels like I've arrived at my nirvana.

When Instinct turns to gold

As a child, I worked only in pencil, making black and white drawings. I learned the basics of tone, which is fundamental to creating a sense of three dimensions in a picture. A lot of art courses start with these very exercises. Without knowing it, I was self‑teaching at home. School art classes supplemented the activity and fed my enthusiasm. I've not thought of it before, but looking back now, it's become clear what was happening.

Going to art school was where something miraculous happened. Until that point, I'd been working instinctively. While I was able to render shape and tone, I couldn't have explained it to anyone. Working instinctively only got me so far.

A marvellous tutor taught life drawing, which uses the human figure as its subject. She explained making art in sequence. Assessing structure and calculating proportions. Detecting movement - even in static things. Understanding volume, analysing light (tone) and assessing local colour.

My tutor converted the instinctive to insight. Then, insight into the problem‑solving activity that is: making art.

This new deep understanding turbo-charged my development. My figure drawings went from pretty poor to so good I could not believe I'd done them – all within a year. Insight made instinct gold.

The boost to my confidence was huge, and I embraced colour with delight rather than fear. At first, I used coloured pencils which happened to be water‑soluble. After adding water, the next step to Watercolour paint – and to becoming a painter – was easy. I progressed through the mediums in harmony with my skills. Again, most ateliers work this way. An Atelier is a high‑level art workshop/course teaching classical art methods.

The rest of my art course, if I'm honest, was of minimal value. The academic life drawing module was priceless.

Oil painter: A natural destination

The progress I'd made while at art school was exhilarating. It's why I was reluctant to stop attending life drawing classes, after leaving. I was painting and drawing obsessively. By day, I was a professional illustrator working with Gouache. In my evening classes, I was exploring Acrylics for fun.

Frustration with the limitations of other media prompted me to try oils. I'd always admired them while intimidated by them. Though oils were frustrating at first, I loved the way they behaved and the effects I was able to get. I'd found a medium I could grow into. I became convinced I'll never discover its limits, no matter how hard I pushed it. I've been an oil painter for a short time only. It's felt as though the pieces have fallen into place though. A natural progression and slow building of skills have brought me to where I belong.

Where other media has limited me, oils beckon onward. What better reason could there be to use them?