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Painting in Oils

In an article based on one written in 1989, when I lived in Suffolk, I describe my approach to oil painting, an exciting painting medium with great creative potential.

This article discusses the challenge of working in oil on canvas before a living and vibrant landscape.

This is followed by technical advice on the preparation of paints and canvas and ends with a clear illustrated outline of the stages of an oil painting.

1. Introduction to Painting in Oils

I first painted the Suffolk landscape as a child in Bury St Edmunds.

‘Those distant days provide the foundations to my artistic development. Many hours were spent exploring the quiet beauty of a landscape swept by ever-changing skies and bathed in a magical light. What seemed to me then most wonderful of all was  possessing the ability to express in paint my feelings towards this landscape, a sentiment that has remained with me. I returned to Suffolk with my family in 1984, after an absence of 16 years.

Living now near the coast has heightened the magic: the countryside retains its quiet and dignified beauty with the sea just beyond the fields adding so much more. There is much variety in the landscape here, embraced by a purity of light or shrouded in soft-coloured mists. Painting it is a challenge.

The quiet beauty of Suffolk remains, but today there is a disturbing undercurrent which has come to dominate my work. Countryside, which for centuries has provided solace and succour to man and inspiration to art, is crying out in mortal danger.

This new dimension to the Suffolk landscape and seascape, the increasing threat from development and pollution, can no longer be ignored by the landscape painter.

I have always believed in the importance of working in front of the landscape. Breathing the air of the site as work progresses gives life and reality to the painting, vitality to brushwork, vibrancy to colour and an opportunity to become deeply involved in the motif.

Of course, there are problems: the transportation of equipment, bringing home a wet canvas and the variable weather. The only conditions I have found impossible for work are driving wind and rain. Certainly a sturdy easel is essential. In the summer, insects will inevitably walk across areas of delicate colour which are the most difficult to repair!

2. Searching for a Location to Paint

The search for a quiet place where there is sufficient peace to achieve and maintain concentration is becoming more difficult. There is always the threat of disturbance from tourists, dog walkers, ornithologists, fishermen, aircraft and endless farming activity.

My best paintings have been completed on site in either oil or gouache. There is then a spontaneity, freshness and truth in work which cannot be achieved in the studio. But interruption often threatens vital concentration, and painting can become mechanical rather than inspired. Paintings without passion are dead, and landscape painting to me has always been a love affair with nature. The making of a painting is a fusion of this passion with technical skill.

I will often complete several gouache paintings of the landscape before attempting an oil. Gouache is a fast medium, ideal for sky and sea and capturing fleeting effects. A gouache is a like a quartet and an oil  a symphony: each is important in its own right, but the latter brings into play a broader range of colours, textures and emotions. Occasionally I have interpreted gouache paintings into oil paintings in the studio, when a different set of problems presents itself. I have done this with several sea paintings where the sky and the light upon the sea could only be captured quickly in gouache.

In analysing the development of a painting for this article I have chosen an oil painting which will become the eighth in a series I have completed recently on site. I often work this way. The purpose of this series of paintings is to capture the seasonal variations of the landscape, the changing light, colour, wildflowers and grasses and the forms of the elms which Orwell considered the redeeming feature of the East Anglian landscape.

The site is near my studio  which reduces transport problems. It has been untouched for years and is covered in wild flowers and grasses.

3. Working on a Landscape

The first step is selecting the landscape for painting and preparing the canvas. I use a ready primed canvas which I under paint with a green/brown mixture of oil paint and turpentine; This provides a tonal foundation in harmony with the image which will come to cover the canvas. A white canvas is often difficult to work with and painful to look at in the open air. I have several canvases ready of different sizes from 16x12ins to 30x20ins. Larger canvases are difficult to handle outside the studio.

The second stage consists of laying compositional foundations which will largely disappear under layers of paint. Paint is applied thinly and quickly. The canvas will dry over three to four days. During the next stage the image emerges on the canvas. I use brushes ranging from a small watercolour brush to a one and a half inch brush for texturing larger areas, and palette knives for constructing foreground forms. I often draw into the paint with the sharp end of the brush. The textures created earlier are used in building more textures. The painting will then be left to surface-dry, for about 12 days.

A large brush is used to spread thick colour across certain areas of the canvas, building upon textures and highlighting individual forms. The paint used is the colour of the light embracing the landscape. This is intense work which may result in the completion of the painting. There can be the need to add more detail in which case the above process will be repeated. The canvas will be reworked until the image created comes close to the inner vision.

4. In Defence of Landscape

Painting is essentially a lonely  activity, I must be left alone to work. There is, perhaps, a further stage to consider, placing the completed painting in front of an audience and awaiting their reaction. This is where a team of people has come to play an important part in my painting, the support of which has been vital in establishing my painting career.

Painting the landscape and seascape of Suffolk is fundamental to my artistic existence. I have painted in many places but have always wished to return to painting the landscape here. I see my painting developing in two directions: firstly as painting in its own right in the studio I have established, and secondly as my contribution to the defence of landscape under threat. A number of visitors to my summer exhibition at Aldringham pointed to the likelihood of my paintings becoming a monument to a Suffolk that no longer existed.

I must work to prevent this happening to a landscape that has always been the life blood of my art.

5. The Stages of Oil Painting

1. I setup the canvas before the landscape I have carefully selected. I use a ready-primed canvas which I under paint with a green/brown mixture of oil paint and turpentine. This provides a tonal foundation in harmony with the image which will cover the canvas (see above).

2. After laying compositional foundations, when decisions are made which will determine the structure of the painting, paint is applied thinly and quickly and allowed to dry (see above).

3.The image emerges on the canvas  as  work on the background and foreground detail  (see  above).

4. Foreground detail is further developed using a palette knife and brushwork (see above)

5. Finally, a large brush is used to spread thick colour across the canvas, the colour of the light embracing the landscape (see above).


A gouache is a quartet and an oil is a symphony: each is important in its own right, but the latter brings into play a broader range of colours, textures and emotions.


The tools and equipment used for the oil painting above are shown below: