A comparative study on choosing a painting medium

The ‘triptych’ I’ve used as the cover image presents the three works I’ve made around the idea of ‘Madness’. Besides covering my experience as a beginner artist working with these mediums and discussing the results, I also want to share my thoughts on the meaning and composition of this work. I have touched previously in my article on ‘The Value of Art‘ on the frustration artists feel not having their work understood and appreciated. I want to address this simply by explaining my own art. It seems sensible that the person best equipped to provide such commentary is the author themselves. My feeling is contemporary artists are inclined towards ignoring the issue of explaining, or altogether refuse to comment when asked to. Conversely, all art deserves a bit of attention, and commentary should not be reserved for museum masterpieces having their descriptions written by art historians. It is all about making art accessible.

Before doing any painting, I spent a lot of time working on drawing the linework for a template. I don’t have such great ability with portraits, and I wanted the model to be consistent so I could explore colours and effects. The idea behind the composition is simple. Madness is our mind turned against us, disconnected from ourselves, blown out of proportion and alien. That is why the body is seen from the back, disconnected from the massive head looking down onto it.

‘Madness’ – Ink wash on watercolour paper

For the first version I painted using ink: an ink wash. I am thankful for my art class teacher having taught this. I used black writing ink, which I found worked just fine, and I quite liked the hues developed by the ink separating as it ran in and on the paper. If you want to see more on this, here is a Youtube video of me playing with markers and paper chromatography. Working in black and white was a good way to explore giving the face and body features through the use of light and shadow. I then used this as a further model to develop the series. My scientist training was showing itself off in the experiment design. I left the background white to ensure I had contrast.

‘Madness’ – oil pastels on watercolour paper

I then moved on to using oil pastels (which I had never used before) to explore some colours. I wanted plenty of strong contrasts and intense colours to support the theme of the work. If you want to do some quick exploration on colours, this is the medium, out of the ones I have worked with, that I would recommend. It is so easy, and so bold, and I only used some beginner grade materials. The yellow body gets lost in the sea of orange, which contrasts with the light blue of the upper background, again indicating separation. The peachy, fleshy tone of the head, perhaps not miles away in colour from the body, stands out on the bright blue background. I chose the bright green/brown combination for the eyes, both because mixing these pastels is not easy unless you have a broad space on your support and I didn’t have many colours, and because I wanted to bring the added touch of uncanny to the face of madness.

‘Madness’ – oil paint on paper primed with acrylic gesso

Finally, I moved to using oil paints. Using this medium I was able to return to working on the more intricate construction of shading (failures all mine, not the medium’s), as I had done using the ink wash, and continued exploring colours. A striking, gaudy mix of colours was what I was after. Right now while writing this, I like it. I feel it’s better than the oil pastel version. My opinion varies. Working in oil, I had the option of adding brush marks for texture in the background. The circular ones around the body are an experiment abandoned. I liked them, then changed my mind, but didn’t do anything about it. Boredom installed. They build on the idea of separating self from madness, but not really going places. I found building the face in this dark, intense colour really hard, made more challenging by the sheen of the oils under uneven artificial lighting. I started by applying a coat of the base colour, then added white or black, and did most of the mixing on the painting. Perhaps, this is what caused the trouble; I worked the other way round to how I had done for the ink wash, when I built the colour gradually using mostly heavily diluted ink. I added the extra detail of making the pupils the same yellow as the background under the face to indicate the emptiness of madness: it lies, distorts, appears massive and believable, but there is no substance to it. It is a mask.

What have I learnt? If there is an idea you want to put out, it might be worth exploring different mediums, especially if you are a beginner like me. If you also get easily bored, like I do, it can be a difficult experiment. The only downside I find to using oils, as far as the artwork is concerned, is how long they take to dry. They mostly don’t and you have to work around that. That is why I have separately explored acrylics. I will write about that in the future. I think the ink or the oils could be used to produce finished works even by unskilled hands like mine. The oil pastels however are just too rough for that, they might be limited to making sketches.

And yes, I am aware none of the faces have eyelashes. For the tonal work, I have no excuse really. I could have drawn them in, but assumed they wouldn’t show up in the photo anyway. Lesson learnt. With pastels, I guess I could have scratched them in there, if I had used a coloured paper. With oils, same, or I could have waited for the eyes to dry, and then painted them over. And if you think it’s weird I did all this, just to then cut corners on the details, read my article on “Analysing the ‘It’s good enough‘ mentality” for clarification.

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