Oil painting is a nasty business. I personally admire people who can do it. People who have the patience to deal with the stickiness, the solvents, the fact that their work doesn't simply dry are of a far more patient ilk than I.
During one of my painting studio classes at UGA my professor, Margaret Morrison, was able to have a visiting lecturer, Vincent Desiderio, come to our class and speak about rendering figures in oil paintings. I liked what he had to say. If you have a look at his paintings, it´s quite obvious that he is devoted to creating oil paintings in a classical style.
Super simple summary of the process: first, the painter lays down a ground on the canvas. These days painters generally use gesso, a thick, chalky paint. Gesso works to prime the canvas and seal it, protecting it from the oil paint which, if given enough time, will eventually eat through the fabric. (To visualize it, think of the effect a greasy burger and fries have on a brown paper bag.) After this, a traditional painter will begin to build their painting by painting a thin layer of color. Usually a brown or an umber. Then the painter will build up color by painting in layers. Paint a layer of shadows, wait for it to dry. Paint some midtones, wait for it to dry, etc. This is why so many classic oil paintings (and the works of those inspired by the old masters) tend to have very dramatic lighting. They´re often building the lightforms emerging from the darkness.
Even though I don´t like using oil paint, I enjoy the work of skilled oil painters. Every time I see a traditionally rendered oil painting, it reminds me of Desderio's comments about the importance of light. He referred to the the point where a curved shape shifts from light to dark as "the turning." Capturing The Turning makes all the difference.
I was reminded of this the other day when I was introduced to the work ofMitch Griffiths.
According to the press release for his upcoming show, The Promised Land:Griffiths uses a traditional, almost forgotten style of painting, inspired by the light and composition of Old Master paintings, but he uses this style to depict the issues concerning 21st-century British society. His main subject is the transient and throwaway nature of contemporary culture, which is held in stark contrast to the permanence and indelibility of oil paint on canvas.
Griffiths says: “Once you paint a MacDonald’s burger box in oil paint, it becomes important and immortal. It’s a permanent mark of the disposable.”
This exhibition references 21st-century Britain and, taking the Union Jack as the recurring theme, it explores the inflammatory nature of what the flag represents alongside what Griffiths perceives to the overriding concerns of today’s society: consumerism and self-obsession followed by the need for redemption.
Griffiths cleverly employs the painstaking method of traditional oil painting to chronical the downfall of an empire. He builds these beautiful narritives about the middle class using a medium which was once exclusively reserved for capturing the idealized likenesses of royalty.
Desiderio, on the other hand, uses the uses traditional oil painting to elevate his subjects and the moment in which they exist. His investment of time and materials express the depth of emotion within the picture plane.
Seeing the works of both painters makes me want to get better at painting and rendering the human form while telling a story.