Paper Trail

Recently I wanted to explore painting with water miscible oils on paper. The traditional supports for oils are canvas or wood panels and several reasons given for this include the rigidity of the support stops the painted surface from cracking, oils can cause paper to disintegrate and issues with framing oils behind glass. However, a lot of those issues have been overcome with more experimental work and improved materials. One of the reasons given for using paper is that it is a cheaper support to sketch out ideas with the oils. I also like the way with paper you can crop a painting to get an improved composition. I also wanted to try a smoother support without going straight to wood panels. And anyway, why not? It would be interesting to explore how to overcome the issues with painting on paper!

I used paper specifically made for oil painting – Daler Rowney Georgian Oil Painting Paper 250g and paper designed for acrylic – Galeria  Acrylic Pad 300g. Although the blurb that comes with the paper adverts says you can paint directly on to the surface without any preparation I decided to give the paper two coats of gesso like I normally do and I tried a mix of lightly coloured gesso and just gesso on it’s own. The gesso provides a further barrier to the paper absorbing too much of the oil paint with the paint going through to the reverse side. About 18 months ago I attended a water miscible oils portrait workshop where we used heavy cartridge paper with two layers of gesso and the oil still hasn’t come through to the reverse of the paper so the gesso seems to work really well but I can’t attest to longevity (yet). I have read about some painters using heavy watercolour paper with gesso.

Both papers I used came with a linen-like texture on the front side which raised its own interesting issues for me which I am still undecided about. This linen effect remained even with the two coats of gesso, so maybe if I want a smoother surface I should try more layers of gesso first. In the meantime I also tried painting on the reverse, smoother side of the paper to see how that would work. Again there seemed to be no problems with the paint coming through the paper.

For the first couple of paintings I fixed the paper to a board with masking tape which held the paper fine for about a day but then came away from the board. I also found with the thinner paper that there was buckling occurring quite quickly with the volume of paint going on. For later experiments I tried wetting the paper, attaching to the boards with brown tape, and letting it shrink with drying, like I would for watercolour painting and this seemed to hold the paper nice and taut once it had dried.

I tried painting with the paper on a board flat on my workbench or on a desk top easel set at a slight incline. Both positions work quite well for me and allow me to have a different painting posture in sitting when the old knees start to complain or I just wanted a more relaxed position at my workbench.

I also took this opportunity to try using a pencil sketch to draft in the basic composition to see if there were problems painting over the pencil or the pencil coming through the paint like some report. So far, I haven’t noticed any issues but it might be too early yet. However I can see that sometimes there might be a need to use this process and I won’t be so worried about trying it.

The first thing I noticed when painting on the paper is the way the paper immediately grabs the paint which dramatically changed the way I needed to paint. Normally on canvas for the first layer or so I like to use old bristle brushes and really work the oils thinly into the canvas with a bit of blending on the way. Once the initial layer is dry I work a lot with scumbling / stippling techniques in building up colour transitions and texture. It’s quite aggressive in those stages! This approach didn’t really work at all on paper – I needed to use quite a lot more paint that is lightly thinned with painting medium, stroking the paint on with the brush in a more horizontal position and a light stroke. My favourite brushes for working this way on paper are the Ivory range from Rosemary and Co – the bristles have enough spring and snap to give me the feedback I need but are also smooth enough to lay strokes of paint down. If I apply the paint too thinly the linen look of the paper comes through too much for my liking. I also found some of the cheaper, soft brushes I had were great for blending once the paint had gone a little tacky or laying down thick dabs of paint.

The paint does tend to slide around a bit more on the paper surface, particularly when using the smooth side, but a more gentle approach works well laying the paint down rather than scumbling it in. Because of the slip and slide I found it better to paint an area such as the sky moderately thickly and then leave it for about 20 mins whilst I worked on another area before I go back into the sky with a softer brush to gently blend areas together. I had wondered whether doing an acrylic underpainting first might be worth trying on paper and then using oils for just the top layers. So for this painting of Malham, after the initial sketching with pencil, I blocked in main areas of colour with acrylic.

This proved to be a useful way of checking the composition and, because the acrylic is so quick drying, adjustments to the layout can soon be made before starting on the oil painting. The extra layer of acrylic seemed to add a further barrier to the oil paint so that I didn’t have to use as much. This is still a work in progress but shows the effects of the first layer of oil paint. There are still some work to do on foreground bushes and trees and some bits of detail.

The main learning point for me in painting on paper was the need to use different approaches both with the brushes I use and the way I applied the paint. It made me explore both more and I can use learning from this to develop my skills, improve my current approach and help me be more experimental as I want to really stretch how far I can go with oils.

The other thing I noticed early on is that the oil paint dries much quicker on paper, I think it may be because of the way it is absorbed by the paper and maybe because of using more oil medium. A painted area can be touch dry within a couple of days and even dry but just a bit tacky a day later which meant I could gentle lay over a bit more paint to adjust colours and tones.

Researching how I could present the originals has given me some ideas of how I might frame them with double mounts so that the paper is not touching the front mount, and because the paint on paper dries much quicker I could have the paintings framed earlier than I would normally do with canvas paintings.

I don’t know yet if I have a particular purpose for painting on paper other than sketching things out but I still feel that there is so much more to explore now that I have got over any nervousness in using paper with oils. The key thing for me is that it made me use brushes I hadn’t been using a lot and made me lay paint down differently to what I have done before now. I have to confess that, for my work, I am not a particular fan of laying down very thick and busy marks but I do admire paintings by people who are happy working in this way. However, in my quest for some looseness and expressiveness in my work I have some more tools and approaches to consider. I am looking forward to starting a new painting on canvas soon to see if I can actually bring some of that learning into the work.

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