Goosefare Brook Marsh 6"x12" oil on canvas panel
Have you ever wondered when visiting an art museum why there are so many oil paintings? It’s probably because they're the most likely paintings to have survived through the years. As you know, I’m partial to oil paintings. I started working in oils about 20 years ago, and I still love them. But I didn’t start collecting oil paintings until I started painting them. I’m a huge fan of how the internet has opened up the art market to all of us, and I've bought paintings having only seen them online. But I do enjoy seeing paintings in person, with my own eyes, and love that we can do more of that now.
The appeal of oil paintings to me is both the bold colors and the textures. I often want to touch them because of these characteristics! Oil paintings are also easier to frame than watercolors or pastels, which require glass. That allows me to collect unframed oils that I see online and at open air art shows, and frame them myself. Here’s a blogpost on how to do that.
Mini Landscape #16 3.5"x3.5" oil on treated paper
Oil painting has a reputation of being more difficult to master than other mediums. I doubt that’s true. Mastery of any medium takes time and dedication. But most of us would be happy to be competent, and I think it’s easier to do that with oil paints than with watercolors or acrylics. There are a few reasons. Mostly it’s because oil paints dry relatively slowly, and because of that, you can scrape off your mistakes before they become permanent. There are two approaches to painting with oils; called direct and indirect. In the direct approach, or wet-in-wet, the painting is completed before any of the paint is dry. In the indirect approach, the painting is created with thin layers of paint, and the layers can be somewhat transparent. It's a time consuming process, waiting for the paint to dry between each layer. The indirect approach is also used for watercolor, where transparency is key.
Nature's Grace 5"x7" oil on panel, painted with a knife
I prefer the direct approach, maybe because I’m pretty impatient. I can finish a small painting in a few hours, and a larger one in a few days. The paint stays wet enough to make that possible. And, when I do make mistakes, I can remove them quickly and easily and try again. Also, that approach is perfectly suited to painting out of doors, where the direction of the sun and the level of the tide are not constant. Watercolors and acrylics are more challenging to paint out of doors, because they dry so fast.
Some contemporary oil painters whose work I admire and collect are Colin Page, Carol L. Douglas, Mary Gilkerson, and Peggy Kroll-Roberts. You will probably find that they have influenced my work, since I’ve studied with all of them!
Three Leaves - 7"x10" watercolor on paper
Have you every felt overwhelmed by the many types of paintings you see at an art show or gallery? And maybe asked yourself "how are they different, which ones would be best for me?". Those are good questions!
In the next four blogposts, I'll try to answer them for those of you who are looking for artwork for their walls and for those who would like to start painting, but don't know which medium would suit them best.
What do we mean by medium? When talking about painting, mediums refer to the different types of paint used. The most common are watercolor, oil, acrylic, and pastel. The substrate is the surface that the paint is applied to, for example, paper, canvas, and wood, and most painting mediums can be used on several different substrates. I have painted in all of these mediums, and our art collection includes works in all four as well. I'll talk about water color first and leave the others for future blog posts.
Cloud Study IV - watercolor on paper (wet on wet technique)
What's the appeal of watercolor? Watercolor is inherently transparent, which lets the white paper shine through. A light area of paint is made by adding more water as the paint is applied, so that more of the white paper shines through. It's a beautiful ethereal look, and for me means that some scenes just cry out to be painted with watercolor. I'm thinking particularly of Winslow Homer's Caribbean boat paintings, and example which you can see here.
Watercolor also lends itself to texture, using different application approaches, like wet on wet, and dry brush, or leaving some marks in the pencil sketch showing through. And there is nothing whiter in a painting, than unpainted paper, and so the watercolor painter leaves the lightest values in a painting unpainted to take advantage of that. And watercolor is often combined with pen and ink to create to beautiful line and wash paintings, the line provided with the pen, and the wash with the watercolor. They can be magic, for example those in this blogpost by British painter Rob Adams.
When looking to buy a watercolor painting, you need to think about framing. Watercolors are more complicated and expensive to frame than oils or acrylics, both because they require glass and because of the need to seal the back of the frame. Neither of those is required for oil or acrylic paintings, which makes them easier to frame yourself. Glass comes in many levels of glare and UV protection, from hardware store window glass (lots of glare and low UV protection) to museum quality glass (minimal glare and high UV protection). Glass towards the museum end of the spectrum will let you see your paintings better and preserve them from UV damage for many more years.
Green and Orange Leaves - 6"x9" watercolor with pen
Many artists began their painting journeys with watercolor, me included, because to the uninitiated it's thought to be easier to learn than other mediums and is definitely easier to clean up. However, as most of us learned the hard way, it's in fact one of the more difficult mediums to master, because you mostly can't fix mistakes without damaging the paper, so you usually have to start over, which can be quite frustrating.
Some of my favorite watercolor painters working today are Poppy Balser, Robert Joyner, and Michele Clamp. The later two teach online, if learning watercolor is on your bucket list. Poppy teaches wonderful in person workshops in Canada, one of which which I had the pleasure of attending. I recommend all three.
Vinalhaven Reversing Falls 24"x30" oil on canvas
Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company. - Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill starting painting as a distraction from his duties as Prime Minister. He believed that change is what’s important to avoid worry and mental strain, and recommended that we pursue two or three hobbies to create this change. His preference was for hobbies that use both hand and eye, as well as our brains. He found that painting fit the bill.
In his charming little book, Painting as a Pastime, Churchill listed the benefits he found from leaning to paint. They resonated with me! I'll illustrate them below with paintings from my first years with oil paints.
Green Ledge, Vinalhaven 15"x30" oil on canvas
Churchill says that painting gives us a heightened sense of observation, especially of nature. The first way this hit me, was in observing the landscape in different light situations. I had not before realized that as we look into the sun, we lose our color perception. Try this yourself. It’s easy to observe as you are driving. When you're looking into the sun, the scene before you is almost black and white, while when the sun is to the side of back of you, the colors show brilliantly.
He also points out that painting helps us to appreciate masterpieces of art in a new way. This is true not only of masterpieces, but any fine work of art. As an student of art you become more knowledgeable and interested in how the work of art was created, and what makes it a masterpiece. And you can appreciate the skill even if you are still working towards it.
Laudholm Fields 13"x16" oil on canvas
Churchill says painting helps us develop an accurate and retentive memory. Who doesn’t want this benefit, especially those of us who have to wait a beat for our brains to return the information we are requesting? You may not be able to take a look at something, and then turn your back and paint it from memory, but you will start to go down that path. I'm up for improving my memory!
He says painting is a spur to travel. For me this has been one of the key benefits of learning to paint. I have created trips that were centered around painting in a particular location, and been on many others where painting in this new place was a wonderful addition to my travel activities. It made the trip more fun and created tangible memories in paint that are far better than postcards.
Apples oil on canvas 6"x6"
And most important of all, Churchill says that learning to paint is a way to make new friends. This has been the biggest benefit for me in learning to paint. Most of the friends I’ve made in my life have been from people I went to school with, worked with, or people I met because I paint. I’ve met some of my best friends in art organizations, at painting classes I took, at galleries where I show my work, and as students who take my painting classes. This is especially important after retirement when there are no more new work friends to make, or when you move to a new area and don’t know anyone there.
In my next blog post, I’ll talk about several popular painting mediums that will be of interest whether you're thinking about learning to paint, or in furthering your appreciation of the artwork being made today.
Double Mandarins 5"x7" oil on linen panel
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. - Chuck Close
I've thought about this quote a lot, it's one of my favorites. The quote is inspirational to me, because it means the way to get better at something is to work at it, and I can do that. And that seems more straightforward than something less tangible like talent. I believe that talent is mostly the result of being interested enough in something to spend a lot of time doing it, which leads to proficiency.
Pears in Blue 6"x6" oil on linen panel
But inspiration does have it's place. Those of you who follow this blog know that I am often inspired by boats and coastal scenery. I also love color. Something colorful will catch my eye, and I'll think "Would that make a good painting?". I'm a foodie, I'm always on the lookout for the best produce, cheese, meats, bread, and wine. Oh, and don't forget chocolate!
Peppers 6"x8" oil on canvas
In the winter, I often find appealing color in the grocery store produce section. There's a special place in Acton, MA, which inspires me both to cook and to paint. It's called Idylwilde Farm, and I've been shopping there for over 30 years. I imagine there are people there who wonder who the crazy lady is who sets pears on the counter to see if they will stand up and leaps into the pile of mandarin oranges to find those that whose leaves would look best in a painting.
Blueberry Pie 12"x12" oil on cradled wood panel
I've found inspiration at Idylwilde Farm for many years and I wanted to show you some of the results with the paintings in this post. It's too bad I can't give you a taste of some of the delicious food I've created from their offerings as well.
Nick's Poppies - 9" x 12" - oil on canvas board - Bobbi Heath
I love teaching painting, especially to beginners. Giving someone the pleasure of learning something new and becoming proficient at it is so rewarding.
It was when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school that I realized how much I was learning while teaching. As a TA we were limited to supervising lab work and grading lab reports. But I knew then that I wasn’t really learning until I had to teach what I knew to someone else.
One point perspective from Ernest R. Norling's book, Perspective Made Easy
I’ve been teaching painting for 10 years, and in doing that I’ve learned this lesson at a whole new level. Developing a curriculum and lesson plans to introduce people to a new subject means you have to think about which concepts to cover, the order to explain the concepts in, and how to explain the concepts to people who learn in different ways.
My approach is to introduce one or two concepts in each lesson and reinforce them by walking the students through completing a painting that uses those concepts. In a recent class we learned how to make a field of flowers look like it is receding into the distance. First, I explained the concept of one point perspective as described in Norling's book, above.
Reference Photo by Nick Fewings from unsplash.com
Next we looked at the poppy field photo by Nick Fewings, see above, which I downloaded from unsplash.com, and we observed the pattern of the flowers. Then we looked at a simplified version I made to illustrate how the flowers clump together the farther away they are until they combine into a swath of red in the distance. See below.
A simplified version of the flowers receding into the distance to illustrate one point perspective
Then we started painting. I demonstrated each step and the students painted at each step. I was very impressed with the their results. Several have allowed me to show their work, see below.
Three paintings created by students in my class. Aren't they great?
And a final comment on unsplash.com. There you can find lots of beautiful photos, made available to download for free, as long as you are willing to acknowledge the photographer on any derivative work that you create, such as our paintings above. Using the site provides an example of the use of copyrights.
Dick's Dinghy 6"x8" oil on gessobord
Sometimes I paint a boat because I’m asked to do it for a collector, but I often paint boats simply because they're pretty. And there are a lot of them in Maine, it’s a great hunting ground for classic boats. Usually I don’t have to go far to find good ones, because my friends have such pretty boats!
cropped photo with grid lines for Dick's Dingy painting
This boat belongs to my friend Dick, and I’ve been wanting to paint her for a long time. She’s got great lines. I’ve taken pictures of her for years. I would snap one as we went by her mooring in our boat or when I saw her out and about. But to get a really good picture for a painting, I needed to go around her slowly, in our dinghy, taking lots of photos. That way I could get her at a good angle with respect to the sun, and also get an interesting reflection. I was lucky to have the opportunity to do that last summer.
toned board with sketch in oil paint
From there it was a matter of getting a decent drawing from the photo, and laying in the initial values. First I toned the canvas with thin burnt sienna, a transparent brown that I like to use for underpainting, followed by drawing the basic structure with a brush. I used the grid lines on the photo above to help me get the drawing right. I don’t always do that, but it can be helpful as long as everything in the photo is about the same distance away from me, otherwise there is too much distortion in the photo. And for those of you who've been reading this blog for a while, you'll see the clear figure 8 this boat makes siting in the water.
Then I paint from the inside out, starting with the boat, then the reflection, and finally the background, which in this case, is the water. You can see that I take liberties with the water, but I always try to make sure the boat will float and also pass inspection by my mariner friends, who can spot a badly drawn boat a mile away!
Canary 5"x7" oil on panel
The Naming of boats is a big deal, especially for the owners!
When I paint boats, I often change their names, unless I’m painting the boat for its owner. And for me the naming of boats is fun. I can choose whatever name I want, and it gives a bit more mystery and a little bit of a story to the painting. At this point, I like bird names, they are often short and very descriptive. What could be more yellow than a canary?
The Owl and the Pussycat 10"x10" oil on canvas panel
So, how do I paint the names onto the boats? There are two approaches. Since I paint alla prima (wet paint into wet paint) the first option is to paint the name into the wet paint, the way I do the rest of the painting. I did that for the Owl in The Owl and the Pussycat, above. Alternatively I can scratch the name into the wet paint, like I write my signature. I’ve tried this, but haven’t so far liked the look. Perhaps a bright color to scratch into would help.
The Sternman 16"x20" oil on canvas
The tried and true method is to wait for the painting to be dry and paint the name over the dry paint. This is the easiest approach. And If the paint is really dry,the name can be wiped off if it doesn’t turn out right the first time. I used this approach for the Osprey in The Sternman, above. And with this approach I can make a pattern for the name and tape it to the painting, so that I get it straight with even spacing between the letters. I used that method on some of the boats in Rafting Up, in the example below.
Changing the name of a boat is an even bigger deal than naming it in the first place, with special rituals to remove any bad luck that could be associated with doing that. For example, I’ve heard of people scraping off the name, throwing the scrapings over the transom and backing over them, to remove the bad luck from changing the name. And you need champagne to do this properly!
If you’re a boat person, you’ve probably seen a boat that grabbed your interest and held on. The same can happen if you’re a car person or a bird person. You catch a glimpse of something interesting, and then pow! It’s just so perfectly proportioned, a wonderful color, and you want to get closer and see more.
That’s what happened to me when we picked up our morning for the night in Buck’s Harbor last summer. I fell in love with someone else’s dinghy. But that’s OK, because I don’t want to own it, I want to paint it! I’ve shown you some drawings I did of this special boat a few posts back. It’s time for some paintings.
Lapstrake Dinghy 5"x7" gouache on paper
My first attempt was a gouache on paper study that was a blast to work on. Gouache is a water based paint, a lot like watercolor, except that it’s opaque. I’ve used it on and off for years, and it felt right for my first painting of this boat. I took the liberty of changing the color of the big sailboat that she came in with for a more interesting color scheme.
Next I decided to go bigger with a 9”x12” oil painting, and started with a value underpainting, above. While that was drying a few other boat paintings came and went, and when I got back to this one I was in knife painting mode.
First, I painted the boat, and then started on the reflection. In the video above, I show how I work with the knife to paint the reflection, using a jig I made to hold the painting so that I can turn it around while I work.
And in this video, you get a closeup view of the painting so that you can see the texture created by the knife strokes. To me, they add a whole new dimension to the work.
The Owl (and Maybe) the Pussycat 10"x10" oil on canvas panel
Last time we visited the town of Ilseboro on Little Cranberry Island I got a good photo of this lovely rowboat with a nice lobster boat behind her. The rowboat is quite the classic. When I posted the finished painting on Instagram, I learned that she's a Jarvis Newman design built by the Newman and Gray Boatyard on Great Cranberry Island, just across the passage. It's always a treat to find out these details. Sometimes, I change the color of boats when I paint them, but these two looked interesting as they were. And I also sometimes change the boat names, as I did here.
My value underpainting with revised drawing
I frequently start a complex painting with a value underpainting. That's a monochrome painting where the shapes have different levels of light or dark, which we painters call values. Having the value shapes rather than a simple drawing makes it easier to apply the colors with the correct values. In this case, I put the piece aside for a while, and when I came back to it, I decided the shape of the rowboat wasn't quite right, and adjusted it with the blue painted lines.
A video showing how I paint from a black and white photo.
Painting from a black and white rather than color photo is another approach that helps me to get the value of each color right. I generally start with the darkest colors and the most complicated shapes in the middle of the painting, in this case, the boats and the reflection, and work my way outwards.
Testing the values in color of the water and sky
Once I have the boats and reflection done, I start on the water, testing the values in the nearest and farthest water, and begin filling in the darkest colors first. In this case, I also put in the farthest land to make sure the value was right against the boat, and tested some color in the sky.
Having decided to name the rowboat Owl, it was pretty clear that the lobster boat will become the Pussycat. I'll wait until it's dry before lightly painting the name.
Harbor Sweets Seaside Garden Candy box for Valentine's and Mother's Day 2021
Little did I know in 2014 when I painted Bev’s Garden that the painting would have multiple lives. My friend Bev is quite the gardener, and she has a beautiful location to work with.
The view from Bev's backyard over part of her garden
It was my second year at the Castine Plein Air Festival and I’d found my rhythm. During the 2.5 days of painting at the festival, I created 9 paintings. Some were better than others, but Bev’s Garden was my favorite.
Bev's Garden 5"x7" oil on canvas
Things didn’t start out too well, with a rainy morning the first day. I painted from the back of my minivan until the weather improved. The real treat though, was working on the two paintings that I did in Bev’s backyard. It was my first year to stay with her, and her dog and cat, and that was such a treat. I stayed with Bev for the festival every year after that. She’s one of my favorite people, and I met her through painting. How great is that?
Sentinel 7"x5" oil on canvas, also from Bev's backyard
Last fall, I was contacted by the Harbor Sweets company from Salem, MA, whose wonderful chocolates and Sweet Sloops (toffee) are my special treat and “go to” for a wonderful hostess gift. They do a couple of special candy boxes each year with paintings from local artists on the boxes, and they wanted to use one of mine. I sent them several to choose from, and Bev’s Garden was the one they chose. I licensed the image to them, and the rest is history.
To get your own Seaside Garden box full of Harbor Sweets chocolates, visit Harbor Sweets here.
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.