Erin Farnsworth Studio



Monthly Newsletter
November, 2019
Watercolor VS. Oil
Want to be an artist? There's a lot of choices to make: digital vs. traditional, 2D vs. 3D, representational vs. non-representational, and on and on. With such variety at our fingertips, why would artists keep coming back to art media that were invented hundreds of years ago? Are there perhaps qualities in these media that are worth exploring, even in our age of unlimited options?
Because I've been spending a lot of time lately switching between watercolor and oil paint, I've spent a lot of time considering their similarities and differences--and which one I think is "better" or "harder" to master. For my November Newsletter, I thought I'd share my thoughts with you about the two most common and most popular painting media: watercolor and oil.
First, the Similarities:
Okay, there are some obvious similarities between the two: they are both 2D painting media, and they can be used in a variety of ways to make both representational (objects or people look like objects or people) and non-representational (they don't) art. Also, since they both have strong ties to the history of painting, an artist has to get pretty 'out of the box' for either of them to feel anything but traditional.
Next, a word about hierarchies:
The older I get, the more commonalities I see between different fields of knowledge or study. One phenomenon I've seen over and over again is the development of a hierarchy within a field. The art world is not immune to this, and a strict, usually unwritten code of what is worth more, harder to do, or just more worthy of attention certainly exists. 
Usually, at least in the Western art world, the art hierarchy puts watercolor on the bottom, and oil painting on the top (acrylic is the crazy aunt who never knows where to fit in). This makes watercolorists bristle and oil painters smirk. This ranking seems unfair to many, but there are actually a few historical reasons for it:  
1) In the Western world, watercolor on paper (not frescoes) began as a kind of sketch medium. It was meant to be a quick way to paint a colored plan for a much larger, more involved oil painting.
2) After watercolor started to become popular for what it could do unique to oil painting, it took a hit for its lightfastness: unfortunately, some painters had taken to using pigments mixed with petroleum derivaties, which had a bright effect--but they faded quickly when exposed to sunlight. This led to a reevaluation in the value of watercolors, and the permanence of their pigments.
Oil paint: Pros and Cons
Above is the "Arnolfini Portrait," an oil painting by Jan van Eyck, one of the men credited for inventing oil painting.
Now that you've taken in the magnificence of this very early oil painting, it's time to review a few of the great things about oil paint, and a few of the stinky ones. Pun intended.
So, in no particular order, here are some of the things I love and some of the things I do not love about oil painting:
  • Oil stays wet for a long time, so you can continue to work on your transitions, blending, etc.
  • Oil can be painted over. You can always go in and re-work something, change something that is wrong, or just plain paint it over.
  • When properly composed and properly cared for, an oil painting can last a long, long, long time (see above painting, made in 1434).
  • Oil paintings don't need to be framed under glass.
  • They can be cleaned (not like you can just wipe them with whatever you want, but it is possible).
  • Color consistency. The color you put down is going to look very similar to the color in the final painting (as opposed to watercolor, which dries much lighter than when wet).
  • Jewel-like color. Because of the way the particles of pigment are suspended in an oil binder in the paint, light can penetrate the paint and make for a jewel-like, luminescent appearance in your finished painting.
  • Oil painting is just plain more of a time commitment than watercolor. When I get up in the morning and I know I've got an hour to get work done before the kids get up, it's a whole lot easier if I'm working on a watercolor than an oil. Oil paints need specially prepared surfaces (you could buy the pre-primed ones, but they tend to be terrible!), and just getting them out and cleaning them up takes a whole lot more time.
  • Oil is messier and more of a potential health hazard. Got a little white oil paint on your jeans? Be prepared to spend the next 30 minutes cleaning it off, or just decide you like the white spot. Oil paint is harder to clean off of things, and messier when it gets on them. The pigments used aren't any more toxic than in watercolor paints, but you use a much greater volume of them. So if you're using some beautiful real cadmium oil paints, please don't hold that brush with your mouth! The solvents, thinners and mediums used with oil painting tend to be pretty health hazardous, and care needs to be taken to choose better ones and paint in a well-ventilated area.
  • They're just darn more expensive overall! Add up the paint support, gesso, brushes, mediums, thinners, and finally the paints themselves? You could buy a little set of good watercolor paint, some cheap but decent brushes and a small pad of good paper for a fraction of the cost.
Watercolor: Pros and Cons
Above, J.M.W. Turner’s ‘Whitby’ (1824) watercolor from the Tate Gallery. Left, an in-process watercolor currently in my studio.
I stuck almost exclusively with watercolor for years, and these are the reasons why...
  • Watercolors are so easy to set up and take down. They take seconds to clean up after, and you can leave mixed paint to dry on your palette and use it again later. This makes watercolor ideal for small spaces, traveling, and painting around kids (when you have to clean up just to go to the bathroom).
  • No harmful fumes, less worry about toxicity. Which, again, means easier to paint around other people, including kids.
  • CHEAPER! Though you should make sure to use good quality paint, paper, and brushes, you can get good quality at a reasonable price.
  • A whole lot less wasted paint.
  • The transparent quality of watercolor makes for a uniquely luminous end product. Instead of the light bouncing around in the paint like with oil paint, the light goes through the pigment layers and hits the white paper underneath. The pigment glows almost like stained glass on top of the paper.
  • Faster to use. No long drying times. This is especially helpful when you have a deadline for a show or a commission--paint right up until you need to frame and deliver.
  • There's not as much technical knowledge required. Ever heard of the Fat over Lean rule? Or know anything about which oils are slow drying and which are fast drying (and when to use them)? No? Those are all oil painting things. Like it or not, if you don't understand and follow the technical rules of composing an oil painting, you could end up with a painting that splits and cracks within its first year. Maybe this one should've been put in Oil cons...
  • Honestly, one of the cons of watercolor is that it won't be taken as seriously or be worth as much money as an oil painting. Regardless of the technical ability displayed, time taken, or end product. I'll save the story of the Dutch gallery owner that goes along with this for Instagram, since I've gone on too long here.
  • You can't really paint over it. This is the comment I've heard most often over the years from oil painters, and the thing they consider "hard" about watercolor. The reality is that it's not 'harder' exactly, just different. It's true, watercolor works best when you get it right the first time. But when it's so much easier and cheaper to get started, you can afford to make lots and lots of mistakes.
  • It is, let's face it, inferior as far as conservation goes. If you get a finished watercolor painting wet, it's probably ruined. If you get a finished (and dry) oil painting wet, you can probably just dry it off. Watercolor is more fragile, though a properly framed and cared-for watercolor should be something you can confidently pass on to your grandchildren.
The final word
So, which one wins?
Wouldn't it be great if we could have a knock-down, drag-out fight with one ultimate winner? If you've read all this way, you'll know that there can't be one, becuase we're really comparing apples and oranges here. They are both wonderful and hard, compelling and exacerbating. That's the beauty of it. Find the medium that fits you and your personality, your lifestyle, your circumstance, and your art, best.
Even if it turns out you're the crazy aunt.
From the Studio
Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!
(Or should that be Turkey dinner?!)
Well, we may not be able to figure out the winner between watercolor and oil paint, but we did have two winners of my contests last month for a choice of fine-art print, shipped for free!
The Instagram giveaway was won by @malloriem54. She chose a limited edition print of "Reeds, Leaves and Picture Jasper," shown on the left. Good choice, Mallorie, that's one of my favorites.
The winner of the giveaway drawn from email newsletter recipients has been notified! So check your inbox to see if you have another email from me. I'll update you on who the winner was and what they chose next month.
The Holidays are coming up, and I wanted to give my email subscribers a fun bonus:
If you buy a print from my online store between now and the end of November,
I'll give you 10% off and still free shipping!
Use the Coupon Code: 10THANKS 
The link below will take you there!
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Erin Farnsworth Studio
Mountain Green, UT
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