Oil Paint in the Palm of Your Hand

Q. After many years of painting watercolors en plein air, I’d like to try oil sticks. Can you tell me a little bit about them? How should I prepare a sheet of 300-lb. paper to keep the oil from soaking through it?
Dot Luttrell
Plano, TX

A. As their name implies, oil sticks are in a form that resembles a crayon. They’re created with oil paint—which is pigment combined with a drying oil, such as linseed oil—and enough wax to allow the paint to be molded into sticks. While the first commercially prepared oil sticks, also called paint sticks, were introduced to the art market by the Markal Co. in 1966, artists had been fashioning their own oil sticks before this, modeling them after the lithographic crayon that was introduced in the late 18th century.

Oil sticks allow you to apply marks that range in character from the scumbled line of oil pastel to the thick impasto surface of a worked-up oil painting. Like oil paint, the oil stick can be diluted and blended with the addition of mineral spirits, and it can even be diluted into watercolor-like washes. The sticks get softer as they warm up through handling, and as this happens they deposit greater amounts of material. With the addition of still more heat, they can be carved into, scraped or even melted to create a substance similar to encaustic paints.

As with many art materials, the characteristics that give the oil stick its prized working qualities can also provide some of its greatest drawbacks. Oil sticks reputedly dry over-night, and while the drying oil in their makeup should lead to a tough “paint film,” the addition of waxes and proprietary materials typically results in a surface that remains soft. This puts the painting at risk of being easily marred and attracting dust. Hence the soft surface that can be easily modified in the creative process can also—if not handled carefully—be inadvertently flattened later on.

Also, the wax that solidifies the oil and pigment mixture has been known to undergo transformations that can create crystals, which appear on the paint surface like a white bloom. At the same time, the drying oil, as you suggest in your question, is absorbed into the paper, potentially staining and embrittling it. Applying additional size to your paper may help to limit this absorption, but you’re unlikely to eliminate it altogether without heavily sizing your paper, or perhaps even varnishing it. Either of these applications, however, will greatly alter the appearance and handling quality of your paper. Likewise, you could apply a ground layer to your paper but it would so greatly alter the nature of the support that it would seem impractical to use paper at all.

You can take comfort, though, in your choice of 300-lb. paper. If a lightweight paper is impregnated with a drying oil, the resulting embrittlement could be devastating. Heavier paper supports may absorb some of the oil from the oil stick, embrittling the upper portion of the paper, but it’s unlikely that this absorption will penetrate the entire page, so healthier paper fibers will still be present to support those that have been weakened.

Finally, always start with good quality rag paper and don’t use mineral spirits in the application of your oil sticks, as this may drive the oil deeper into the paper.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.





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