Cupcakes for breakfast may sound delicious, but they aren’t. I know, it’s 7:20 in the morning and I just ate one left over from my niece-in-law’s baby shower. Not even my coffee can make it taste better.
What I mean by that silly subhead is there is a time and place for everything, and when you are working away at a painting it is not a good idea to jump into the fun sugary part until you have finished up the chore work. As a good painter-friend likes to remind me, “Don’t try to frost the cake until you’ve first finished baking it.” Arrrg! He is right.
It’s tempting to throw down thick paint from the outset and it really feels like you are being an artist if you do. But prematurely laying down big, fat, juicy strokes can only cause trouble later as the work develops. Once the juicy strokes go down anything else you might want to lay on top has difficulty gaining traction, or coming off your brush, or sticking to the layer below without stirring it up. This can become a big problem for the plein air artist, or anyone who is interested in alla prima work.
So my general advice to the newbie painter out there is simple: make your mind up at the outset and stick to it. Keep your underpainting thin, transparent, and accurate. Layout your full-dark values with as little paint as possible, and, if possible, keep your highlight areas bare of any paint at all until late in the game. Exploit the white of the canvas for as long as you can. Then, and only then, work your way up the value scale, going from dark to light, carefully building your cake layers up from thin to thick. It’s what oil paint wants to do anyway.
And never forget, your palette knife can be your best friend. Get to know it. Not just to mix or slather the colors on. It can save your painting from turning into a mud pie. If things get too thick, too fast, you can always scrape the sludge off and start over again. Even the incomparable J.S. Sargent was known to scrape and wipe his works in progress, before building them back up to what we see today. Some of Sargent’s sitters would complain how he’d scrape the entire day’s work off at end of each session to make it ready for the next. And if a brilliant draftsman/painter Sargent that felt he had to do scrape things that many times, then we probably need to do it as well.