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Jun 2, 2009

In Praise of Dirt and Oil . . .

It is always refreshing to encounter a painter capable of transforming what is essentially dirt and oil into a compelling image. But most artists give little thought to where their pigments come from. Most of it begins by being dug out of the earth, from all over the world, and finely ground into tiny bits, before being mulled into an oil – usually a flax, walnut, or poppy seed oil. Anything else added to the mix is done largely out of convenience, or shelf life, and not out of necessity, as demonstrated by the masters of old who worked to the point of genius with less than we have today. Of course, if you include the (relatively new) synthetic dyes and industrially heated oxides now available, and cram it all into a squeezable metal tubes instead of  goat bladders, then perhaps we are indeed talking about something fancy. Perhaps. Possibly even high-tech, if compared to materials of the 15th century. But what was once considered advanced technology then is now seen as something quaint, romantic, and mysterious. Almost like alchemy. But is modern paint mysterious? Nope. Our paint remains little more than glorified dirt mixed with a drying oil.
Ultimately it is what we painters do with our dirt and oil that counts.
With regards to today’s technology, there are times when it would be nice to have multiple “undos” built into a paint brush. It would be handy. But a palette knife and a rag works well for oil painters. “Not happy with that left eye?” Scrape. “Not content with the skyline?” Wipe. I have learned when working with dirt and oil, simple is best. Besides, what would collecting paintings be like if every artist could click a mouse to modify their work? We’d all have the same clicks at our disposal and likely produce similar work. 
On the other hand, pushing paint around on a canvas is a physical and highly individualistic activity. There is a certain amount of unpredictability involved. Controlled chaos even. Paint reveals the hand of the painter. The painter throws down something wet and squishy and continues to pile more on top. If the painter makes a mistake then he must fix it -- or at the very least, recover in some way from his miscalculation. Or, if he choose to make a significant departure midway through, and head off in another direction entirely, he must find a way to do it without revealing indecisiveness. A painter who works with dirt and oil is forced to use many different tactics. There is under-sketching and over-painting, scumbling and glazing, and scraping and blending. There is the insetting of big expressive marks against smaller and smaller ones. There is a need to work out an interesting arrangement of shape against shape, light against dark, and color against color. A need to knock down some edges and build others up. A need to choose the right tool for the right task: a stiff brush to push around thicker paint vs a softer one to lay down a transparent veil. The artist even has to contend with an evolving surface dictated by  the dimensional aspect of the underlying paint. But enough. You get the idea.
All from little more than dirt and oil.

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