The Art of Colin Murray – Film
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This short film features me talking about two of my recent pictures. It also contains a brief chat about paints and brushes and there’s a demonstration of how to make some paint medium and Dammar Varnish.

I was 12 years old when I began oil painting and by the time I was in my mid teens I could have used some serious advice. I read some self help books and then I went on a 2 year Art Foundation Course. However although I learned a lot about drawing I learnt very little about oil painting that was of any practical use.

In this blog I’m going to be talking about some basics of oil painting. If you haven’t done oil painting before it can all be a bit intimidating however it is quite easy to get started.

The techniques I use when oil painting are not dissimilar to those used by artists hundreds of years ago. Of course all artists develop there own techniques and ways of doing things however the use of ground colours, painting medium and varnishes are constants in the work of nearly all painters up until the advent of Impressionism.

Because oil paint is quite thick when it comes out of a tube it needs to be diluted so it can be spread around and the image can be drawn in. I draw using thin paint if it doesn’t look right it’s easy to wipe off. In order to work on a paint film throughout the day we need a medium that will stay wet all day and then dry fairly quickly after that. I have tried many of the manufactured mediums but they aren’t as effective as this mixture of Original Liquin, Refined Linseed Oil and Genuine Turpentine.

Although some artists may seek to complete their picture in a single film of paint, they used to be rare. From the time when oil painting was first invented in the 14th century (up until the mid 19th century) most artists have developed their pictures in layers of paint called glazes. After several glazes have been built up (each paint layer must be thoroughly dry before the next one can be applied) one begins to notice that parts of the picture have dried flat. This is when we need Dammar Varnish which is also called Retouching Varnish to bring the picture back to life.

Now I would like to offer some basic information about oil painting that is not mentioned in the film.

Get yourself a good easel, for studio use the radial easel is the best. With the radial you can paint pictures up to about five feet square. A lighter more portable easel is useful for painting outdoors.

Palettes are required to mix the paint on. These can be purchased and many of them come with a hole for the thumb so that you hold it whilst standing. For painting whilst sitting I mainly use palettes that I have made myself. They are made from hardboard approx 12” x !8” and about 3 mm thick which has been covered with greaseproof paper. I have probably a dozen of these, they are easy to make and last for years. Simply take some greaseproof paper 2” wider than the palette all round and glue down the overlap on the palettes rear side. After a few usages the palette will begin to have a neutral tone. Before or after painting I always transfer any unused colour to the next palette. I like to paint on a clean palette so I can see what I’m doing.

Other useful props are the Mahl stick which is used as a hand rest. The one I use the most is about 30” long. I also have a small mirror to hand. I find that it’s always interesting to see what I’m doing in reverse. A dipper is needed for the medium and a jar for the white spirit also a rag to wipe the brushes on after they have been cleaned in the white spirit.

I prefer to paint on canvas as it absorbs the paint in a more subtle way that you get with board. Readymade canvases are quite cheap. If I use a readymade canvas I usually add another 2 coats of my own primer using Gesso, then I will probably add 2 layers of ground colour.

It’s fairly easy to assemble canvas stretchers oneself. Having put it together and made sure it is square one cuts a piece of canvas about 2-3” wider all round and then pulls it across securing it on the back with staples from a staple gun. It’s best to get a gun that uses 6 mm staples. There’s no need to use canvas pliers to stretch the canvas, as long as the canvas is pulled reasonably tight that’s ok. The glue size will tighten the canvas. After the first coat of size has dried the wedges can be put in. I usually apply 2 coats of size. I mix size approximately 5 parts water to one part glue size, this mixture is then left to stand for about 12 hours so that the crystals can dissolve, then it’s warmed up but not boiled before use. The size is very runny and best applied with the canvas flat on the floor.

Some manufacturers of primer say that sizing is unnecessary. This is bad advice. The use of size when stretching one’s own canvases is crucial in getting the canvas to tighten.

After the size has thoroughly dried I apply 2 coats of gesso primer. Between each coat I lightly sand with some fine sandpaper.

For grounding I use a medium that is approx 60% Liquin and 40% Refined Linseed Oil and Genuine Turpentine in equal measure. I usually do this with the picture flat on the floor. I use a 1” brush to mix in some colour with the ground medium. These days I often apply the ground using a brush and spreading it thinly however you can use a rag. I like to apply 2 layers of ground colour to create a tone that is even. The tone I want will depend on some extant to the picture I wish to paint. Nowadays I tend to use greys although once I preferred grounds that were based on earth colours such as raw sienna and burnt sienna. Experience will tell you the kind of tones you want your grounds to be.

The use of a ground colour is different to using an under painting which is what some artists do. Under painting means tinting different sections of the picture with different tones. Some artists just like to use a white ground. If you use white then you have to mix a lot of white into all the colours which makes them more opaque. When painting onto a tinted ground much less white is used and white becomes like a colour itself. Because I’m working onto a mid tone background dark and light can be brought into play very quickly. Also the ground colour helps to hold the picture together. If I’m working on a painting and a part of it needs to be completely repainted than I have to paint that section back to the ground colour before I can paint over it again. This is demonstrated in my blog on the Green Man.

I mainly use sable, hog and black squirrel haired brushes, you can see these in the film. I take great care of my brushes, not only are they very expensive but I also wish the sables to retain there points for as long as possible. After each painting session I brush them with soap and then soak the brushes in warm water for about 5 minutes before rinsing, then, as they are by now thoroughly clean I lick each brush into a point. I also soak hog hair brushes in the same way then I put some saliva on my fingers and flatten the hairs into shape. In view of ‘health and safety’ it’s probably best to use your fingers when cleaning brushes.

The use of colours is discussed in the film so I won’t go on to much about them now. Suffice to say that I don’t grind my own colours as I don’t use sufficient amounts of paint to justify it. There are many excellent paint manufacturers but I mainly use Windsor and Newton artists’ quality paint and Old Holland. I tend towards a simple palette based on the 3 primary colours, red, yellow and blue plus a few earth colours and white. The reasons for this are discussed in the film however the choice and use of colour is a very individual thing that artists discover through experience.

I shan’t say much here about the use of glaze medium and dammar varnish because it is featured in the film. The glaze medium contains Liquin which is a kind of translucent varnish that dries quickly. I mostly use Liquin as part of the glaze medium already described, consisting of 3 equal parts, Liquin, refined linseed oil and genuine turpentine. Towards the end of a picture I sometimes increase the amount of Liquin I’m using to make the paint more transparent or else to encourage quick drying.

If you have read this far I hope you have found the information useful. Remember that the only rule is that there aren’t any rules. Artists are always finding new ways of doing things. Some of the techniques I have discussed could be doctored or combined with other techniques. In any case technique is developed through practice.


Some artists like to express themselves using thick paint however before the mid 19th century this was quite rare. Almost everybody that was doing oil painting was using some kind of medium. Before the development of photography artists had a monopoly when it came to creating ‘realistic images’. By the 1850’s high quality photographs were being produced and inside 30 years cameras were on sale so that anyone could take pictures. This had the effect of making many artists question the function and purpose of realistic art. New movements such as Impression came into being and there was a feeling that paint can be used in all kinds of different ways. Artists began to have fun with impasto, strong colours and loose brushwork. The Impressionist painters were high on life and most of them were good at drawing so their pictures hold together.

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