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Oil Painting Techniques and Materials

Oil Painting Techniques and Materials

by Harold Speed, Speed

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"In any exhibition of amateur work . . . it is not at all unusual to find many charming water-colour drawings, but . . . it is very rarely that the work in the oil medium is anything but dull, dead, and lacking in all vitality and charm." — Harold Speed
Such provocative assertions are characteristic of this stimulating and informative guide, written in a


"In any exhibition of amateur work . . . it is not at all unusual to find many charming water-colour drawings, but . . . it is very rarely that the work in the oil medium is anything but dull, dead, and lacking in all vitality and charm." — Harold Speed
Such provocative assertions are characteristic of this stimulating and informative guide, written in a highly personal and unique style by a noted painter and teacher. Brimming with pertinent insights into the technical aspects and painting in oils, it is also designed to help students perfect powers of observation and expression.
Harold Speed has distilled years of painting and pedagogical experience into an expert instructional program covering painting technique, painting from life, materials (paints, varnishes, oils and mediums, grounds, etc.), a painter's training, and more. Especially instructive is his extensive and perceptive discussion of form, tone, and color, and a fascinating series of detailed "Notes" analyzing the painting styles of Velasquez, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Franz Hals, and Rembrandt.
Nearly 70 photographs and drawings illustrate the text, among them prehistoric cave paintings, diagrams of tonal values, stages of portrait painting, and reproductions of masterpieces by Giotto, Vermeer, Ingres, Rembrandt, Titian, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hals, Giorgione, Poussin, Corot, Veronese, and other luminaries. In addition to these pictorial pleasures, the author further leavens the lessons with thought-provoking opinion.
Clear, cogent, and down-to-earth, this time-honored handbook will especially interest serious amateurs studying the technical aspects of oil painting, but its rich insight into the mind and methods of the artist will enlighten and intrigue any art lover.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Art Instruction Series
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5.40(w) x 8.45(h) x 0.72(d)

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Oil Painting Techniques and Materials


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1987 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13269-3



THERE to teach and the other is not to teach. One is to train the faculties and perceptions that art employs by hard drilling, so that the student may be a thorough master of the means of expression, and have his perceptions trained to accurate observation ; and the other is to leave the student to the guidance of the intuitive impulse that is impelling him to be an artist, letting him rub along by himself and stumble upon a means suited to his needs. Great artists have been produced by both methods. The danger of the first system is, that he may become so absorbed in the technical side of his art, which is very engrossing, that he may stifle his native perceptions; the expression of which can alone justify him as an artist. The artist must master his technique before he can express what he wishes to, but he may in gaining this power become so enamoured with it, that he may be prevented from launching out into any newer forms of expression (which are always at first rather crude, demanding some sacrifice of technical accomplishment), and be content to dazzle by the display of his ability. If one is too exquisite about the means of expression, one often ends by expressing nothing in particular.

And the danger of the second method is that his intuitions may not be sufficiently strong to carry him very far. He may be bursting with artistic matter seeking expression, but inadequacy of means may prevent him producing anything effective. Although it is surprising how rapidly the artist of strong intuition picks up the knowledge necessary to expression. There are advantages in both methods, and I think it is possible to combine them. The childish attempts that are made by the young artist, it is usual to put aside when he enters upon a course of training, as he is always very shy about them ; and the art school systems in the past have given him little encouragement to continue them. For here you cannot teach ; but you can encourage and praise whenever any evidence of the real thing, however slight, begins to show itself. And this side of his development should never be allowed to be neglected, but he should be encouraged to continue attempts at expressing the pictorial matter that will be bubbling within him if he is an artist, and told not to mind if the result is halting and very immature at first.

There is at the start of every work of art a nebulous—let us say " idea " for want of a better word, in the mind of the artist. And it is the clothing of this nucleus with appropriate form, tone, and colour, the giving it expression, that is the business of the artist. His technical training is necessarily concerned solely with developing the means by which this can be done in the most complete manner. It is not necessary in these days to explain that by " ideas " one does not mean any such ideas as can be expressed in literature, for which art is used as a form of illustration ; motives would perhaps be a better word than ideas in this connection. Literature is often quoted as the so-called subject of a picture, but this is not really so, the real subject being a new set of ideas connected with form and colour that are incapable of any other expression. The expression of these "ideas" will be very halting for a long time, but this will improve as training develops and it should never be neglected. And the student should keep in mind the fact that his training is only of use to him as it gives him a more adequate means of expression ; and that however perfect a technique he may achieve, it is only of account as it enables him more adequately to convey in his work the things that are moving him. If this is well understood, and the time given to training is not allowed to interfere with the free exercise of his fancy and imagination in any direction it may prompt him to take, there is little danger in a very thorough training. And there is every advantage to be gained by it, for however strong your intuitions, a thorough knowledge of the craft of painting will alone enable you to create a complete work of art. But we are all somewhat lazy and like things done for us, and it is so much easier to do the tasks set by a master than to create something from within. And the results are so much more impressive to one's friends and relations. But do not be deceived, no school teaching can take the place of the natural impulse which must develop from within.

Artists have always been conscious in doing their best work of something outside the range of consciousness that was, as it were, taking the matter in hand for them. The influence upon our actions of the subconscious mental activity that goes on within us is very important, and it is undoubtedly from this source that the artist draws his main impetus to creative work. The best definition of a genius I have seen, is that in which he is described as the man most under the influence of these mental uprushes from the subconscious. The activity of the intensely conscious mind tends to shut the door against these influences, and this is not the state of mind that produces a work of art. The genius is the man whose subconscious is continually bubbling with a rich stream of matter that he is the means of expressing.

After a spell of painting in which " something has come " the painter awakes to the realisation that he was not fully aware of what he was doing, not so fully aware as when he has been working badly. Self-conscious painting is not to be compared to the spontaneous quality that is the mark of all good work. This must not be taken as an excuse for lazily whiling away the time until an inspiration comes. These moments of inspiration, as they may be called, in which the subconscious and conscious work in perfect harmony, come more frequently when at work than when idling, and seldom come to those who wait for them.

It might make my meaning clearer if I took an analogy from the game of golf, which most people play in these days. There are an innumerable number of things that have to be thought of in learning to swing a golf club, but when one is playing well the conscious mind is no longer aware of them, the control of all the movements has passed to the subconscious.

Or take the musician; with what conscious labour does the pianist practise the control of his fingers on the keyboard. But when he comes to play well this control is still there, but no longer by the conscious mind, it has passed to the subconscious. It is not until he can control his fingers unconsciously, or rather, subconsciously, that he can play well. And it is so with the painter. He builds up his technical facility and develops his perceptions by laborious training, fully conscious of what he is doing ; but when he comes to doing good work, his conscious mind is centred on what he is trying to express. The control of the means of expression has become almost automatic, has passed to his subconscious.

We are beginning more fully to realise that our conscious mind is not by any means the sum total of the mental happenings that go to make up our life. Consciousness itself may be considered as one of the many processes that the divine creative urge within us has developed in the course of our long evolutionary march. And it may well be that in those uncharted regions of the mind, are perceptions and faculties whose scope immensely transcends that of our ordinary consciousness. Perceptions that are not amenable to the narrow process of conscious expression, but that may find an outlet in the wider scope offered by intuitive artistic expression.

Art is like religion in that it is one of those things " no sensible fellow talks about." One can talk about points of view, as one talks about creeds, because the sensible realise that the sacred gist of the matter is safe from harm in such discussions. Art at its best lifts the veil that obscures reality in things seen, and gives us a glimpse of things more harmonious and permanent than the fleeting images that pass upon our retina. More permanent because they satisfy the deeper and more permanent elements of our being, in much the same way that the deep correspondence set up by religious ecstasy does.

No artist can claim to do his work consciously. The conceptions of it are thrown up in his mind from some mental source outside his conscious control. If he is an author, sentences will come into his conscious mind as he is walking along the street or sitting on the top of a bus, or lying half awake in the morning. The musician finds themes running in his head at the most inconvenient moments. And the painter in like manner will find motives for his work surging up in his mind more or less unformed. Let him early acquire the habit of attempting to put something of all this down. It is a habit most young artists have, before they take up systematic training, but which many drop afterwards. Any medium that is congenial should be adopted, and little heed given to completeness. The general emotional flavour is the important thing to grasp in these early attempts. They will help to develop the habit of composing pictures in the mind, and may be useful later on to stimulate the inventive powers when ideas do not come so readily. The same idea will probably occur at intervals with added development. The nucleus of a fine picture often occurs quite early in an artist's career, although it may be years before it arrives at the state of development when the picture results. It is this capacity for subconscious working that is meant, when it is said that an artist is born, not made. No amount of teaching will give this faculty. Although as the subconscious seems to have a more perfect memory than the conscious mind, the more one feeds on the best examples of art and nature, the richer may be the product.

The sources of art are, as the sources of all things, hidden from us, and it is not for the artist to bother about them. But while conscious of the rhythmic vitality that sustains all life and art, this " music of the spheres," and that his concern is not to inquire into the mysteries of aesthetics—to dissect the lily—let him sustain himself reverently in the simple receptive attitude of mind, that alone will enable him to catch some echo of it in his work. Perfecting his powers of expression, and observation, so that he may more worthily give expression to whatever it may be given him to express. But knowledge will not take the place of intuition in art.

Having been asked to write a book on the art of painting, I feel it necessary to make this quite clear at the start, and not to hold out any hopes that anything that can be taught, particularly in a book, will be of much use except to those already running over with natural ability. Nor, in speaking about art, is there much hope of being understood except by those who have already experienced what one is trying to talk about. It is something like talking about the taste of sweetness, you are only likely to be understood by those who have already experienced it, and they won't listen to you. So I shall confine myself in the following pages as far as possible to the subject of the craft of the painter, where there is more hope of being of some use.

Most people have some artistic instincts in them, and it is the misfortune of this age of machinery, that the exercise of this faculty, which should be given scope in most occupations, now practically only finds an outlet in what are called the fine arts. The fact that this is the only field open for the exercise of this widely distributed faculty, tends to crowd the ranks with those whose capacity might have been sufficient to infuse the artistic impulse into many of the minor crafts, but is not adequate to the production of those flowers of the crafts, pictures and sculpture and the finer forms of architecture. So that the instinct of the fond parent who discourages the idea of an artistic career is quite sound, and every obstacle should at first be put in the way of the aspiring artist, as it is only those you cannot discourage who are worth encouraging.

I commenced these introductory remarks by stating that there were two ways of teaching art, to teach and not to teach. But both are necessary, and it is only when what can be taught, is working in perfect harmony with what cannot be taught, that a work of art results.



IT is impossible to write on the art of painting at the present moment without saying something about the crop of strange works that have arrogated to themselves the name of "modern art." I can call to mind no time in the past history of painting, when any considerable body of artists have deliberately set aside the traditions of fine craftsmanship in order to express themselves more freely; or when there has been such a fashion for the crude methods of savages and primitive peoples. There was the archaistic period in Greek sculpture, but the work was always beautifully wrought, and never crude in the sense that so much of this so-called modern work is. It was a return to the severity of treatment of earlier work ; a protest against the enfeebling influence of too much naturalism. There is something unique about the modern outburst in its rebellion against fine craftsmanship that demands some inquiry at the outset.

I propose to give a hurried glance at the Social and Technical Influences that have brought about this state of things.

Social Influences: The evolution of culture is an interesting subject of inquiry that has not yet received the study it deserves ; but it is enough for our immediate purpose to know that there appears to be a dominant cultural note in every age, and that it would seem to follow along lines of some logical evolution. It is possible that the type of authority governing at the time, may have had some influence upon it. In the early days of the Renaissance in Italy, when the Church was the great power in the land, the art of the period is a reflection of this influence. And the art of Holland, which grew up with such rapidity on their establishing a republican government, is a reflection of the home life of the people. Coming nearer our own time, there has been a fairly logical development since the eighteenth century, which has roughly followed the evolution of political power from the aristocratic classes to the masses. In the eighteenth century the cultural note was aristocratic. These were the spacious days of the Grand Manner in art. The life of courts is everywhere reflected in the art of these times. Following on this, we have the nineteenth century, with the rise to political power of the middle classes. The realistic movement in art may not unfairly be set down as a middle-class movement, with its practical desire to get at " real facts," and its suspicion of grand manners. The other nineteenth-century movement in art, the romantic movement, is not perhaps quite so easy to bring home to the door of the middle classes, although it is possible it received its greatest support from them. It is interesting to note as a characteristic of the English temperament, with its love of compromise, that the Pre-Raphaelite movement is a combination of both the realistic and romantic movements.

And what of the twentieth century ? The political power is passing from the middle classes to the masses ; we have now universal suffrage. And the cultural note that we would expect in art is that of the masses. And there seems little doubt that a great deal of the unrest and fretful violence that is disturbing the traditions of culture in all directions, is due to the coming of this new cruder element into the cultural feast. The added vigour in all this is a great gain, but the danger is in the amount of destruction that may be unwittingly wrought, before the perceptions of this crude element are developed sufficiently to see the beauty of what they, in their ignorance, would destroy.

There is another modern fact of great significance. For the first time in the history of the world the masses are articulate ; they can read and write in a great many countries. When only certain more leisured classes could read and held political power, the culture of the time was apt to centre in those classes. Now nobody waits until he has developed his mind before expressing an opinion, sure of a large audience on his own level of understanding. The effect of universal education may be to give opportunity for many more individuals to rise in the scale of intellectual culture, but at the same time it creates a demand for the cruder forms of expression that could never have thriven in more exclusive times.


Excerpted from Oil Painting Techniques and Materials by HAROLD SPEED. Copyright © 1987 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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