Learning How to Paint in Oils by Elaine Ostroot

Archive for September, 2011

value and color

Value and Color

I can remember my difficulty with both of these concepts.  The books I read are the same ones you’re reading.  A lot of words I didn’t understand and ideas I didn’t know how to implement.  So, let’s demystify these terms.  VALUE:  think of nine boxes.  Label them 1 to 9.  Put white at one end and black at the other end.  Now add all the shades of gray leading from black to white in the appropriate boxes. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a color.  HUE is simply another word for a color family name, for example BLUE.  CHROMA; is the relative brightness or intensity of color. I suggest that you go to your art supply store and purchase a value index card (if you order paint from Daniel Smith ask them to send you one.  It’s free and it is 4” X 6”, small enough to carry around) and a color wheel.  

I’m gong to tell you what I did to implement these concepts.  Go into your closet.  Take out a shirt, pants any clothing item (not black or white).  Take the item to the nearest window with light from the sky (no overhanging green branches or patio covers to change the quality of the light).  Now really look at your item.  My pick is a green shirt.  Ask; what color is it? – Green, what value is it? – Middle, like 5 or 6, how intense is the color? – Very bright green, what temperature? – Toward the blue (cool).  Put your shirt back in the closet.  Go to your easel and mix up that color.  Now, go back and get that shirt and take to your easel and compare your mixture to the shirt.  Now mix up the color till you get it right. If it’s too yellow add blue, (add these modifying colors a little at a time – sneak up on it) too blue add yellow.  If the color is too intense add it’s opposite.  In this case, the opposite of green is red.  If you will do this every day for at least five days a week, by months end you will be very good at it and you will understand color.  You will also learn how to mix color, what works and what doesn’t.

 Now let’s take each color on your palette, learn how to mix it with all the other colors and what the results might be.  I say, “might” because you are going to have to do the mixing.  My little camera just doesn’t have the capacity to show you all the possibilities.

Besides, you would not learn a thing if I did all the mixing. 

We will start with yellow.  Take a half-dollar sized pile of lemon yellow.  With your palette knife, separate that pile into 17 smaller piles.  Now take ultramarine blue and permanent red (a small amount of each, say, a pea sized amount) and mix them together.  Do the same with cerulean blue and permanent red.  Notice the difference?  Do the same with ultra blue and cad red, then with cerulean blue and cad red. To see the difference more clearly, add a little white in the corner of each pile of purples.  What’s this? You ask, I thought we were going to play with yellow.  We are.  Purple is the opposite of yellow and we need these colors to modify yellow.  So – you should have a group of small piles of yellow spread out on your glass palette and 4 smaller piles of various colors of purple.

We begin.  With your first pile of yellow add a small amount (pea size) of cad yellow.  Notice how much warmer that cool lemon has become.  Now add a small amount of cad red to the second pile of yellow.  We now have a cool orange.  Add a small amount of permanent red to the third pile of yellow.  We now have a totally different orange.  Continue down the colors, mixing a small amount of each of your palette of colors into your piles of yellow (one color to each pile of yellow).  We will end with lemon yellow by adding white to one pile of yellow and black to the last two piles of yellow.  (We do not include black in this palette because it’s just too easy to make.  The same is true of browns; I include the browns for convenience.  When we get into portraiture you will understand why.)  To make black (again black comes in cool and warm) take a pea size each of ultra blue and burnt sienna and mix them.  Your black should be warm.  Do the same with ultra blue and burnt umber.  This should be much cooler.   Now add a small amount of each of the black colors to the last two piles of yellow.   What you should have are two very interesting colors of spring green.  (I view black as a “blue” for this reason.)  Look at the array of beautiful colors you have created!  Compare all these beautiful colors to your value card, especially your two oranges.  Note the difference in value   You’re on your way to becoming a “colorist”.

 Do this same exercise with all of your palette colors.  You will learn a great deal about your paints.  When I buy a new color or buy paint from a manufacturer that I haven’t used before, you can bet I will do this exercise with all my other colors before I use it.  The time spent doing this will save much time and tears, believe me.

 You are probably thinking – what good is the value card?  Take your value card in hand and match the living room rug, your daughter’s dress, your son’s hair, the coffee pot, the tree outside your window, and the orange lily in your garden.  Do this exercise often, at least once a day, until you can match the object with a patch on the card effortlessly.  Look outside – you will find a lot of different values in the scene you are observing.  Light against dark, dark against light, contrast, warm against cool.  These are concepts you will be implementing in your paintings.  You need to see these concepts before you can implement them.  I keep my value card underneath the glass on top of the table beside my easel.  I refer to it often to get my values right.

 One more thing before we close this post.  Most of my beginning students put out tiny dabs of color when they are laying out their paints.  They are so aware that their new paints cost money.  Then,  half way through their painting, they run out of paint and it’s almost impossible to mix up the exact matching color.  So, you wind up repainting a good bit of what you’ve already painted so it will match.  No cost saving there.  So, set out at least a nickel sized amount. 

 Next time we will talk about chroma.


A Little Philosophy

Some Philosophy

 There are a lot of ugly paintings out there.  Since I’m not a reporter, I don’t have to paint the ugly, hurtful and sad views of this world.  I can choose to reveal my vision of this beautiful world God has given us to live in.  I realize that I’m most fortunate to be able to live in the gorgeous Ozark hills.  My home is halfway up a mountain with a beautiful view.  We have very little crime here in comparison with a big city.  I do most of my “shopping” on the internet (thank heaven for amazon.com).  I have a wonderful husband who supports my efforts (whatever they might be), frames my work and does innumerable things to make my life easy and very enjoyable (he makes me laugh a lot).  So, I am sheltered and blessed.  Nonetheless, I still do not believe that I am here to paint the uglys of this world.  So I don’t. 

 People seem to be the subjects of most of my paintings.  I started out as a portrait painter.  Now my concentration seems to be more tuned to people as paintings.  There is a difference.  As a portrait painter, my focus was to please the client.  Now I please myself.

It’s much more fun and freeing.  When I do paint a portrait it seems to have more of the qualities of a “painting” rather than a portrait.  Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but that’s the feeling I’m after.

 I am not formally trained.  I started painting in my forties (kids grown, mostly).  I painted a lot.  My art library had over 100 books, these were my teachers.  The little child seen in my first blog is my tribute to Harley Brown.  You will see my husband, Gerry, in this blog as my “John Howard Sanden”.  So, I studied with some really good artists.  I hope I’ve done them justice.  My only claim to teach is the fact that I have been painting now for almost 40 years. I do have some experience.

There is a lot of controversy as to what constitutes “art”.  Harley Brown has some tart words to say in his latest book “Harley Brown’s eternal truths for every artist” (I highly recommend this book).  Robert Vickrey wrote a quest editorial column in The Artist’s Magazine some years ago (November 1987) in which he cries “whatever happened to “Is it any good?” Why has that been replaced with “Is it new?” and “Does it influence other people?

He quotes John Canaday, a critic for the New York Times, says the cult of the new has replaced the worthy. Vickrey calls most of the art he sees as TV dinner art: frozen, emotionless, flavorless.  I admit, a lot has changed since then, but I still see Urine filled glasses with crucifixes in them, urinals hanging in museums and huge tracts of land decorated with “whatever” and calling it “installations”.  I am a committed follower of Jesus of Nazareth and as such, most of this stuff annoys me a lot.  I write this blog to honor Him as well as to pass on the hard won truths I have learned to the next generation of artists that share my delight in our world and want to represent all that beauty realistically. 

 I confess I love realism in art. Not necessarily photo realism.  I love seeing a soft painterly style.  There is a place in “realism” for imagination and vision.  There is enough space in realism for all of us, no matter how we paint, even those of us that use a little abstraction in our work.  Abstract, after all, in most cases is really nothing more that squinting your eyes to fuzz out the details.  I am not against abstract art, I’ve been known to do a few of them myself.  Having said that, I do consider them “decorative ” fun and colorful, but not art.  This is my opinion, there are many artists that would disagree, but they aren’t writing this. 

 So – there you have it – the world according to Elaine.  Next time we will look at Value and Color.   









Let’s Paint A Picture

Choose a small primed panel (canvas) – say an 8 x 10.  With a pencil,( a plain yellow #2) will do, find the center and draw a line (lightly) horizontally.  Make another line in the same way vertically. 

There are many ways to divide your panel but for now we will stick to simple.  Choose three” something’s”. Apples, onions, pears, peppers or  similar fruits or vegetables will do nicely.  Find a cloth napkin, a piece of cloth you like or even a scarf.  Arrange your still life on a table with your fabric under it. Position your table with your still life arrangement close to your easel.   Step back and tweak the arrangement until you are satisfied.  Those lines going through horizontally and vertically are there to help you in the placement of your objects.  You do not want a horizon (or a table) or a strong vertical line on these lines. 

With that same #2 pencil draw your still life on the panel.  A tip on arranging your still life might help here.  If you overlap some objects it adds depth to your painting.  Place your table (horizon) either above your horizontal line or below it.  Draw your objects, do not hesitate to erase and redraw!  Keep looking at your drawing and evaluating it compared to the still life,  changing it until you are happy with it.  A little more time in this step will be rewarding.  When you finish you will need to spray your drawing with a fixative in order to keep the lead in the pencil from changing your color mixtures.  (Krylon crystal clear matte or satin will work very well).

Now we are ready to paint.  Lay out your paints on a smooth surface.  I use a piece of glass (with the edges taped). A white sheet of paper under your glass will allow you to accurately judge your color mixtures.  Glass is easy to clean.  After scraping most of the paint off,  I clean my glass with a little denatured alcohol – works great.  Lay out at least a nickel sized amount of paint.  Start with white, then each color in its turn.  Note the example picture – I have left a couple of empty spaces.  It will help you to learn to place your colors in the same place.  You will become so used to reaching that particular place for a color it will become automatic.  So – I will not need these colors for my still life so I will leave those spots empty.  It does not matter in what order you arrange your colors.  This is the way I arrange mine.   Some artists arrange all their warm colors together and their cool ones in the same manner.  It only matters that you arrange them in the same way each time.

After publishing this blog, I  realized that the paint names on the illistration picture cannot be seen, so to avoid confusion, starting with WHITE, the colors are:  LEMON YELLOW, CAD YELLOW, CAD RED, PERMANENT RED, ULTRA BLUE, CERULEAN BLUE  SAP GREEN (left empty), THALO GREEN, YELLOW OCHER, RAW SIENNA (left empty), BURNT SIENNA  and BURNT UMBER.

I have chosen to paint some nectarines.  The beautiful warm reds, oranges and yellows will contrast nicely with the blue napkin under them.  A small note about color (we will go into that subject in detail later – one step at a time).  Blue is opposite of orange.  Remember our list of colors and the temperature headings of warm and cool?  Contrast is one element of a pleasing painting.  Cool (blue napkin) and warm (orange fruit). 

Let’s begin.  For this painting I will mix up a cool bluish grey in varying values (the lightness or darkness of color) for the background.  With your palette knife mix a small amount of yellow ocher into a somewhat larger amount of cerulean blue.  Work your ocher in in small amounts into your cerulean blue until you have reached your desired color.  Now step down the values with white as shown in the example picture.  Working around my fruit I will vary the values.  Please note where the light is coming from.  In my painting the light is coming from my left.  My shadows will be on the right and the lightest lights will be on the left.  Also note that the darkest shadow is the “cast” shadow from the fruit.  That shadow will be darkest and sharpest closest to the fruit.  That shadow softens out the further it is from the fruit.  Now let’s paint the fruit.  Take each color you see in the fruit and mix it in a pile separate from each other.  Mix a little Yellow into your warm red to achieve a nice orange. My little trick is to imagine each shade of color as a small “tile”.  Paint the “tile” in, one “tile” on top and overlapping the other.  Then smooth the colors together with a separate brush.  (Some artists like the look of the separate colors and do not do the smoothing bit.)  Hold your brush closer to the top end – the closer you clutch up to the ferrule the less control you will have.  Paint your fruit as you observe them.  Looking closely will help you find the nuances of color that will make that fruit look like you can pick it up and eat it! Now the napkin.  Same idea.  Mix up all the shades you see and paint them in.  I used the background color adding a little ultramarine blue and a touch of permanent red.  Notice I have used a little more white in my lightest” napkin” color to accent the lightest lights.  If your table shows,  we will do the same thing – mix up the shades, “tile” them in and smooth with your brush.  In most cases you would start painting your darks first and progress to lighter colors ending with your highlights.  In this technique, I find it easier to do the reverse.  For the fruit It makes for less muddy colors and less cleaning of the brush.  You should not have to clean your brush in turp unless you are clearing out warm colors for cool. ones.  When we get to the napkin we will do it the usual way, darks to lights.

 I’ve led you into deep water.  I assure you it was deliberate.  There are many ways to paint a picture.  This style is called “alla prima” which means “all at once” We are going to paint this small painting in one sitting.  We will get to the other ways later.  I wanted you to have the experience of a finished painting in the shortest amount of time.  I won’t desert you, I promise.

I can hear you howl all the way to Arkansas.  “Every time I paint a “tile” I mess up what I painted before!” OK, make sure you have a paper towel in your left hand.  Wipe your brush often – almost after every stroke. It will help if you start with your lightest color first, then on to the lightest orange and so on to the darks… The stippled look is achieved by loading the very end of your brush with small amounts of color and lightly tapping the color on.  Then smooth with a clean brush.  I find it useful to keep my “fruit” colors on one brush and the” background and napkin” colors on another.

Continue on until the entire canvas is covered. You have just painted your first painting!

Now, stand back, admire your painting, and then sign it proudly! (Usually somewhere at the bottom, either left or right, wherever it looks best to you.)

One final word on this subject.  What pleases you and makes your painting work for you is the important thing.  This is your work, your expression.  It’s fine to copy some famous artist’s style to learn how to do it.  You will find your own personal style.  You can’t avoid it.  It will show up.  Your very own “look”, unmistakably your style.  Someone someday will show up and say to you “I knew it was your painting the minute I saw it.”

Now on to the next exciting step!

First Things First

 Most art instruction books start with “D”, not realizing that most people do not know where to begin.  They need the “ABC’s” to start their first painting.  So –this missive is to help with those problems.

 Do you know how to draw a strait line without a ruler? There is a trick to it. You’ll never be able to do it by watching the tip of the pencil. Imagine trying to drive a car by looking at the front wheels.  It would be a disaster!  You need to concentrate on where you want to go.  The same is true of drawing a strait line (or even a curved line).  You must concentrate on where you want the line to go.  Your eyes need to be ahead of your pencil.

Now you need to practice until you can master this simple procedure.  You may think you can draw, bit there are tricks and techniques to developing drawing skills.  That’s the first step in learning how to paint well.  Fortunately, there is a very good book on drawing available through amazon.com entitled “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook” by Betty Edwards.  If you complete all of the lessons in this book, you will be able to draw anything!  (I think Amazon has it for under $15,00) 

 Understanding the frustration of many of my new students, it was suggested that I try to address that with a blog outlining what to do first.  Putting first things first, you will need a place to work.  Hopefully, well lit by a window with light from the sky, or full spectrum lights.  Place your easel with the light over your left shoulder (if left handed – reverse). This allows you to work without shadows from your hand being cast on your work surface.


Next we will deal with art supplies and sources.

  • Portable easel (or table easel – a plastic book holder will work for a small painting)
  • Brushes; art catalogs will show you a dizzying array of brushes – stick to flats (for now),
  • Sizes 2,4, 6, 8 & 10. (I use Daniel Smith fake mongoose)
  • Painting Knife (I use daniel Smith “J”)
  • Odorless Turpentine (Weber)
  • Liquin  (this is an oil medium made by Winsor Newton – I use the fine detail to thin my paints, I also use this to varnish my paintings – some purists deplore this practice, but I do not think I will ever hang my work in the Louve – so, who cares – it works.)
  • Krylon Crystal Clear spray paint – matte or satin

 Stretched canvas or painting panels

 Paint (color is divided into temperature – cool or warm – more about this later)

 Warm                                                                           Cool

Ultramarine Blue (a lovely reddish blue)                Cerulean Blue

Sap Green                                                                    Phthalo Green

Vermillion (or Cadmium Red)                                    Permanent Red (or any cool blue red)

Hansa yellow (or Cadmium Yellow)                         Lemon Yellow


Warm Earth Colors                                                    Cool Earth Colors

Yellow Ocher                                                              Raw Sienna

Burnt Sienna                                                               Burnt Umber


There is a lot of paint out there. All of it must conform to US standards.  Through much experience and hassle, my choices are Daniel Smith Original Oil Colors and Lukas 1862.  Both brands are good – Lukas paints are softer, more buttery (and dry in three days) but don’t have the opacity of Daniel Smith.  I use both. Daniel Smiths Mixed White and Permalba (made by Weber) are my choices for whites.


aswexpress.com   Art Supply Warehouse  flat $7.95 standard shipping rate

danielsmith.com   Catalog of Artist’s Materials  shipping varies – based on dollars spent

jerrysartarama.com  Jerry’s Artarama   shipping varies – based on dollars spent