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Feb 17, 2012

Making Turtles – Or Saving Your Grays...

I've been squeezing a lot of paint out onto my palette over the past week because I took a workshop from a guy who likes to paint fast and thickly. 

I chose him because I wanted to learn how to paint fast and thickly too. And I learned the secret to doing so is simple: empty your tubes out before you begin pushing it around. Why be so excessive? Well, any oil painter like myself who wants to work at a large scale en plein air, or using alla prima methods just doesn't have time to be uncapping and capping tubes all day. Plus, there are color effects that only happen if you slather it on. (Think Sargent, Sorolla, or Zorn...) But it has only been seven days since that workshop and at the rate I'm going to start buying paint by the pint. Or gallon. Clearly, this will get expensive.

Question: I want to lay out a lot of paint but not waste what laid out at the end of the day when I go home. How can I keep my leftovers from prematurely setting up?

Answer: Make turtles.

If you are like me, you tend to stab your brush into a pile of color – which means that by the end of the day you are left with a spread out and peaky area like this:

The problem with leaving your paint this way is it leaves a lot of surface area for oxygen above to do its business. (Oxygen is what causes your oil paint to 'dry', not evaporation.) So, the less surface area you create, the less the paint is exposed to oxygen. Get it?

So, at the end of the day it is helpful to shape your color piles into what a friend of mine likes to call a 'turtle'. If you minimize the surface area it will significantly inhibit the drying time. And if a pile of paint sits around long enough to skin over you can peel it back to get to the fresh(er) paint below. Of course, should that happen there will be some shrinkage, but not as much if you leave your paint all peaked and flattened out like the top image. You can even pour a little walnut oil on top of your turtles to further slow the drying.

Here an example of me making a turtle, using a medium-sized palette knife on a paper palette. The gray you see me pushing around is one of my working mud piles. It started out as pure tube colors squeezed out seven days ago. Yes, you read that right, I said one week ago. It is this fluid because I've been making turtles at the end of every day. All my other piles are the same. Pretty nifty, eh?

I should admit  I've been using walnut oil instead of linseed oil as a paint medium this past week. Walnut oil 'dries' more slowly than linseed oil does. Something to consider if you want a longer open time to work.

So go ahead and start painting like a millionaire! Squeeze generous piles of your color out onto the palette! Stop starving your brush and canvas and get expressive! Because now you know how to save that leftover paint for your next session!

– Thomas

4 reader comments:

Mary Byrom said...

Also if you want it to really stay open for a while a drop of clove oil on top of each pile works well. I don't know if clove oil stays open longer than walnut oil...

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Hi Mary. Thanks for the comment!

I used clove oil back in the mid-80s to keep my paint open longer -- kind of a multi-prima workflow -- but I stopped painting with it once I learned from several conservators it can cause the paint to blacken. (Please feel free to post this as a question on AMIEN.org for corroboration...) One of the conservators even went so far to tell me that clove oil fumes (say, in a sealed container but not on the paint itself, also a common paint-saving practice.) can do the same. So on the experts' say so I removed it from my not so secret sauces...

That being said, I think an artist should paint the kind of painting they want to paint, in the manner they want to paint them, and let future conservators figure out how to keep them in good shape. Assuming someone wants to pay for it to be done...


Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

And Mary, my apologies. I didn't really address your implied question. Clove oil will definitely take longer to dry and you'd never use it in the quantities you find in paint. I'm not even sure that clove oil does actually dry/cure, in the manner of a drying oil like linseed/walnut/poppyseed oil.

Artist-grade walnut oil generally will take twice as long to dry as linseed oil. But many other things affect that comparison,such as what colorant is being used, the amount of oil vs fillers in which brand of paint, and what not.

Sometimes it seems what we do lies closer to alchemy than chemistry, IMHO... (grin)


Quin Sweetman said...

So kind of you to share this, especially via video, Thomas! n It took me about two hours to squeeze and whip-up all that paint (with a little cold-pressed linseed oil) in the workshop but I am now enjoying my turtles. The gray mix from cleaning your mixing area was also a valuable lesson. Happy painting!