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The Art of Oil Painting


Look at a radish. Really look at a radish.

Its uniformity disappears. Colors within colors reveal themselves. That first blush of pinkish red dissolves into cool blue and purple and warm yellow and orange.

A composition of irregular shape, form and texture emerges. Pitted here, curvaceous there, the radish, resting on a saucer, becomes an invitation to a still life.

With an intuitive mix of color and a flurry of brush strokes, the humble root vegetable can grow, layer by layer, into a boundless study of beauty. Even novice painters may explore the shifting tones and textures and discover a new world.

For those who ordinarily leave oil painting to the Old Masters, rendering a radish -- or any simple subject -- is a liberating exercise. Grab a brush and let those thick, saturated paints lead you, almost unconsciously, into the flow of form, composition and color.

Never mind Rembrandt. If anything comes to mind during this process, it's the word "therapeutic." All else, from hassles to loved ones, falls farther away with each dab of color.

"There is that kind of meditation about it that slows you down and makes you relax into it," says painting student Mary Mosner. "You can't be like you are all day, doing chores and tasks for work."

Fledgling oil painters can find plenty of how-to books and online tips, but those are no substitute for taking a class, where feedback and group support, as well as instruction, are part of the experience.

In the introductory oil painting class that she teaches at School 33 in South Baltimore, artist Maureen Forman instructs with a light touch rather than overwhelm students, including Mos- ner, with information. Instead of being bogged down by procedural details -- stretching and priming a canvas, conquering color theory -- it's best to start by painting. Throughout the six-week course, Forman, a recent graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, gradually familiarizes students with the more technical aspects of oil painting.

First, though, she has the class, a group of five women who have rushed in after work, quickly sketch with vine charcoal a still life from a tableau of vases, cups and other vessels arranged on a table. Don't obsess over the drawing, Forman cautions during the three-hour lesson. It will soon vanish under layers of paint anyway. What's more, trying to perfect a drawing "can really inhibit you," she says.

Before she entered MICA, Forman had never worked with oils. She grew to love the medium, in use since the 11th century, for its expressiveness and the way it "picks up light." Lately, Forman has gravitated from creating large portraits to tiny interior scenes in her Bolton Hill apartment that are as much an interplay of colors as they are figurative studies.

Made with powdered pigment and linseed oil, oil paints are highly pliable. With the use of thinning mediums and glazes, a painter can achieve endless effects either glossy or matte, smooth or textured, opaque, transparent or translucent.

Although widely perceived as rigid and permanent, oils are "really forgiving," Forman says. Is that one eye too far from that nose in a self-portrait? With oils, it's possible to paint over it and move it to the right, where it belongs. For that reason, "there is less anxiety," Forman says.

As for knowing what to paint, "It takes a lot of time to develop your own sense of things," Forman says. With experience, each perception leads to a new perception that draws a painter closer to a singular vision. "It's really good to look at the art other people are doing," the young teacher says. "It sort of clarifies your ideas."

After Mosner received a bachelor's in fine arts from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 1992, she discovered "that I didn't have the discipline to work a full-time job and come home and paint in my free time."

Now a kitchen and bath designer with Thomson remodeling company, Mosner enrolled in Forman's class, thinking, "Let's see if it kind of jump-starts me again."

It was a wise move, even for an experienced artist like Mosner. "We went right back to the fundamentals, so it was stripping it down, taking all that stuff away and getting back to the basics, which was really good," the Hoes Heights resident says.

The six-week School 33 class costs $125. Materials for getting started cost around $130, and before each class, Forman sends her painters to the art-supply store for new colors (which can be pricey) and thinning mediums.

Most students in the class paint on inexpensive canvas board instead of linen canvas stretched over wood. First, they apply an "underpainting" coat to their drawings with mixes of black and white acrylics to lay down value -- the lightness or darkness of a color.

Color comes next. Using trial and error, students learn to replicate the hues, values and intensities discerned in their subject. Their paint mixes, blended with a palette knife, are created from a small selection of mostly primary colors: cadmium red and yellow, ultramarine blue, titanium white, black and burnt sienna. "If you start out with 7 million colors and white, you won't know how to mix them," Forman says.

At their easels, some students work with highly thinned paint; other with clots of color. The first layers capture basic color values and a bit of detail. With successive layers, the students' paintings acquire depth and definition.

"Transitioning from drawing to painting, from a line to a mark" poses another challenge, the teacher says. A paintbrush is not a pencil. "Neglect the urge to work with lines instead of filling space," she says. "Free yourself to not be so linear."

During the course, students will move from still lifes to self-portraits and painting from a model. No matter what the subject, "Keep your attention balanced all over the painting and [don't] get focused on one thing," Forman continually advises.

Drawing, composition and color are constant considerations, she says. "It's really easy and fun to get lost in your painting and not know where you're going with it. It's all about keeping a balance."

A painting may be finished, Forman says, when you've determined that each portion has received "the same level of your attention."

When Forman pins each completed work to the studio wall, the unique hand of each artist suggests the marvelous versatility of oil paints, no matter who holds the brush.

Art classes

If you're interested in learning to paint with oils, here are some places to check for classes:

School 33 Art Center

1427 Light St. Baltimore 410-396-4641 (During a three-month renovation of School 33, art classes will be held elsewhere. Contact same number and Web site for information.)

Towson University

Community Art Center 8000 York Road Towson 410-704-2351

The Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center

40 S. Carroll St. Frederick 301-698-0656

Holt Center for the Arts

34 Elmont Ave. Overlea-Fullerton 410-887-5307

Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts

801 Chase St. Annapolis 410-263-5544

Maryland Institute College of Art

1300 Mount Royal Ave. Baltimore 410-669-9200

Howard Community College

Continuing Education Office 10650 Hickory Ridge Road, Suite 100 Columbia 410-772-4659

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