Inspiration: This oil painting was inspired by a recent trip to Crescent Moon Oasis and the desert dunes surrounding it. Located near the city of Dunhuang in western China, the region is steeped in history with the oasis being one of Marco Polo’s stops along the Silk Road. A photo of the oasis is below.
Idea behind the painting: I wanted to capture the heat emanating from the sun-scorched land and the hidden ferocity of the sand dunes. In my mind, I pictured an explosion of blistering lemon, saffron, and crimson melting across the canvas to form a landscape liquefying under the sun. Within this setting, four camel riders struggle forward to reach their destination, Crescent Moon Oasis. Fueled by unrelenting effort, they persevere onwards.
Turning an idea into a picture: The idea of four travelers braving the searing sand dunes popped into my head one night, and I quickly sketched out my mind’s image onto a small 5.5 in. by 8.5 in. sketchbook using watercolors to see how the color scheme and composition would look. Intrigued by the initial doodle, I sketched out a more detailed and bigger 10 in. by 14 in. watercolor to fine tune the color layout.
Making initial watercolor sketches: Making preliminary watercolor sketches prior to jumping into creating an oil painting is a quick, cheap, and easy way to ensure that you are satisfied with the big picture, e.g. composition, color, orientation, rhythm, harmony, and more. Any dissatisfaction at this point can be easily addressed. Once an oil painting is underway, elements such as rhythm can only be judged when the piece is near completion, at which point significant changes are difficult to make. For this reason, an initial sketch is a simple and time saving test to see if the image in your mind’s eye is worth pursuing on a grander scale.
Beginning the oil painting: This painting was done in multiple layers (at least 5-6 layers). The first layer or underpainting is a wash of paint with the goal of simply covering most of the white canvas. I’ve thinned down the paint to the consistency of pulp-free orange juice by mixing in odorless turpentine. The watery paint allows for a nice dripping effect.
A common first step is to use charcoal to sketch out an outline of the piece, as I have done in “Boston Common in Spring.” But because I am using a pale wash and intend to leave parts of this wash untouched in the final piece, the underlying charcoal would remain visible. As a result, I forgo the charcoal and freehand the painting.
Once the underpainting is dry (1 day), I add thicker layers that are heavier and more opaque. These paints are thinned down with linseed seed oil rather than turpentine because I want them to dry glossier.
Thinning paints with linseed oil or turpentine? Linseed oil and turpentine will both thin paint, but oil thinned paint and turpentine thinned paint behave very differently. Linseed oil thinned paint will dry slower (drying time can increase by several days) and be more viscous. Because oil is thicker than turpentine, the resulting paint will have more body and have a melted butter feel. The resulting finish will also be slightly glossy. Turpentine thinned paint tends to be more watery and will dry more matte, with the paint itself having a greater tendency to separate from the turpentine.
Using a palette knife: Must of this painting was created using a palette knife, as seen below. A palette knife allows one to drip thick dollops of paint onto the canvas and create for example, the jagged edges of the scarlet sand dune below. When choosing a palette knife, it is important to pick one that is flexible and bends, as this will give you more control when wielding the tool.
Using unconventional tools: A palette knife and paper towels were used to create the midnight sky. Similar to how I created the sand dunes, I used the palette knife to drop ultramarine blue, indigo, cerulean blue, and cobalt violet onto the sky. To blend the colors, I used small (2 in. x 2 in.) pieces of paper towel dipped in linseed oil. I used paper towels in lieu of paintbrushes mostly for convenience. Due to the multitude of colors, it is easy to over-blend and muddy the sky. If I were to use brushes, I would need to change them or wash them frequently to prevent this. Using paper towels achieves the same effect without the hassle.
Sweeping the painting: At this point, the painting is too wet, and any additional paint applied would smear and mix with what is already on the canvas. As a result, I let the painting dry for a couple days. During this time however the painting, like any film of oil, is very sticky, and tends to collect dust. Before painting any additional layers, it is important to remove these dust particles, otherwise they will become embedded within the painting. I do this by taking a dry bristle brush and lightly sweep the painting, as one would use a broom to sweep the floor. A brush with stiff hairs is best as the hairs need to be strong enough to dislodge any particles that may have gathered. A short video demonstrating the technique is below.
After a few more touchups, the painting is done.
- Assortment of oil paints including Rembrandt Artists’ Oil Colors, Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colors, Gamblin Artists’ Oil Colors, and Schmincke Mussini Oil Colors
- Utrecht Alkali Refined Linseed Oil
- Weber Odorless Turpenoid (Link)
- Palette knife
- Various brushes
- Canson Disposable Palette, 12 in. x. 16 in.
- Yarka St. Petersburg Professional Watercolor Set (Link)
- Strathmore Sketch, 400 Series, 5.5 in. x 8.5 in.
- Canson Arches watercolor block, cold pressed, 26 cm. x 36 cm. (Link)