Learning to use water mixable oil paints

After painting for a couple of years in acrylics, I had the itch to be able to blend and leave paints wet long enough to play with them. Something of the softness of face edges in portraits and hazy skies in landscapes appealed to me and I knew I had to try oil paints. After a couple of ill-informed experiments with linseed oil for the DIY store and turps which turned the back of my throat into 2 day raw snot waterfall, I realised that traditional oils wasn’t going to work for someone that works as thoughtlessly as I do and spends too much time working in Denmark in the winter with closed windows.

So, naturally came the temptation to try water-based oils before giving up on oils entirely. I’m missing the experience of palette-knifing buttery wads of oils over thinned underpaintings that oil painters wax lyrical about, so maybe some of the complaints I hear from their corner fall on deaf ears in my case. I don’t mind the slight stickiness when putting down a quick underpainting or sketch to paint over – the increased drying time when using water mixable oils with water as the medium can help avoid needing to work on multiple rotating pieces. Then, when you need you colours to pop, stay wet, workable and blendable the next day, switch over to your oils based mediums which will tolerate a bit of water from a wet brush before starting to turn tacky or chalky. I like the Talens Cobra range of fast-drying medium, painting medium and glazing medium – they each do what you’d expect them to respective to similar traditional oil medium mixes. If you need a bottle which is small enough to take outside in a french easel or pochade box, buy the smaller size (75ml) as it will lie flat in the drawer nicely. You can always buy the larger, slightly more cost-effective bottles (250ml) to use in the studio or to top up your smaller bottles. I haven't tried the W&N quick drying medium pistured yet - I'll report back when I do.

As for the paints themselves, I have started with the Jackson’s own starter set which seem to sit in a student-plus / artist grade-minus area with regards to consistency and pigment levels. When I picked up some of the Windsor and Newton and Holbein paints afterwards to fill in the holes in my personal palette setup, I could feel that the Jackson’s paints are a bit stiff straight out of the tube and need a fair deal of working on the palette if you want some smoothness. The pigments are all fairly rich, although the Cadmium red seems a bit underpowered compared to similarly ‘cold’ yellows and blues. The titanium white in the big tube is the standout for me from Jackson’s range. Again, stiff and a bit dry before adding a medium, but a great, neutral white with strong tinting power for half the price of the premium brands. If Jackson’s keep developing their range, it would be nice to find a replacement for a slightly mellower, warmer lead or titanium buff type white to get creamier skin tones and a little less chalkiness.

I have a couple of Windsor & Newton Artisan paints which flow smoothly and mix a bit more readily than the Jackson’s paints. The Cobra paints I have behave similarly, but seem to have separated out a bit in the tube, so need a little kneading on the palette to get an even consistency back. I have Holbein Duo Aqua "grey of greys" which is really nice and buttery straight out of the tube, and is handy to neutralise slightly bright mixes to pull a colour back towards the middle of the colour circle. The Duo Aquas are probably the brand I'd most like to explore more of when I'm feeling rich as the Jackson's paints do the job for a good deal less so long as you don't mind mixing on the palette a bit longer.

As for brushes, I use bristle brushes for thicker mixtures and synthetics for when I want to sketch, wash or glaze with a thinner paint mix.

Here’s a couple of portraits done with a mix of the above brands…

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