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Written by Doug MacBean

Over the past ten years I have been pushing myself to be more direct with my oil painting. I try to cover a canvas 30x40 inches within one hour. I should have all the elements of my composition in place in that time. On this, my favourite size and proportion of scale, I use a 4 inch cheap house-painting brush, from Canadian Tire.

My oils are thinned to a stain, rather than a covering layer. The trick is to get the essence of my work down as quickly as I can, to force spontaneity and build confidence in the brushstrokes. I have also been experimenting with acrylic, for this purpose, lately. No longer do I draw with pencil nor charcoal to establish my elements. My brush is my pencil, and I force my hand to put down in block, as one would draw in a life drawing session. Scary at first, but this forces the larger work to maintain a fresh, non-laboured look.

I use my digital camera as a quick sketchbook. I have no patience for plein-air sketching. The new technology helps capture every nuance of lighting and subject, so that I may peruse at my own leisure, and again at anytime for future reference. I am a fellow who likes the comfort and reliability of a studio (room). Since my subject and genre are realistic, I am acutely aware of how certain elements display colour and cast shadow in photography. Using this medium has helped a great deal when it comes to subtle variations in colour, dimensional illusion and building a composition within my camera lens using light and deep shadow. I do not slavishly copy my photos, for that, as we know, would be redundant. The trick is to interpret the best of what my initial composition was, through the viewfinder. Then, adapt that hard science to a work of art, within itself; My recollection, of why I shot a particular scene.

For this project I have taken my digital camera image, transferred to my computer, and opened in Photoshop. The boat was in a different photo, so I imported it and re-sized to fit the perspective .Photoshop allows me to work in many layers and isolate each element. I play around with composition, size, angle and colour of a secondary object, foreign to the original scene. This, I often do with my clouds.

  Step 1:
The first evening I put down a very thin layer of oil, thinned with mineral spirits. Draw with my wide brush, to keep from sweating the minutiae. If the composition is weak, this is the time to step back and reconsider. Tonality is the target. Colours are of little concern at this stage.
  Step 2:
When the first layer is dry, often the next evening. I begin, again with a large brush to define what I think is working for me, in this stage. Vanishing point and perspective are now important considerations. Does the boat look and feel like it is resting in the water, at the correct distance from the viewer? A better sense of colour and tone is developing for me. So I drop in a few strong colours, to "test the waters".
  Step 3:
Now I correct sloppy work in my boat perspective. I feel it needs to come closer to the viewer. I go over the previous boat area completely. I may do this several times, until I am convinced my perspective is believable. This boat was re-painted six times. Small adjustments often require complete overhaul of elements. My darks are getting bolder as I mix colour on my canvas. I do not mix colour on my palette beyond achieving a warm/cool, light/dark hue.
Colour does not work properly until juxtaposed to the next colour, touching on all sides. This is only apparent after applying the next brushstroke onto the canvas.

Step 4:
Now the details are much easier to lay in. I am confident the composition and perspective are no longer in question. My palette becomes much richer at this time. My mixing pad has twenty different colours, laid out in a circular formation. I try to keep the concept of the twelve step colour wheel, when squeezing out my oils. Many colours differentiate an original painting, from a conventional reproduction, of four-colour process, on a printing press.

  Step 5:
This is the nail-biting time. Now I fuss with the depth, tone, opacity, shadows, reflection and of course that old perspective thing never allows me to rest. A few water lilies and dead leaves help give the water a believable surface. Reeds on the right keep the middle plane interesting and add a variable to the same plane. The boat is ok, but not to my liking. It appears too skinny. I re-do it for the umpteenth time. Harden the shadows on it, put some reflection of water on and play with the tone on the left side.
  Step 5:
My final effort. Back and forth with brush and sneakers. Cover up the bow of the boat with some reeds. All that sweat I put into making it just right, now I slap vegetation over it. I am hoping this is building my painterly courage. Obviously this does help to give depth to the main subject here. I fiddle with many more minute details. Back and forth, until I feel the information I have imbued this canvas will convey what I feel, to the viewer.

This oil, on canvas 30x40" was purchased by Hugh G. Lissaman, Barrister & Solicitor (Avenue Rd.), Toronto, Ontario

I hope this may help a few understand my method of painting in oils and my methodology of process.