Jim Mott: Test Drives Water Soluble Oils

One of the great benefits of the new DANIEL SMITH Water Soluble Oil paints became clear the first time I took them for a test drive. I had stopped to paint a set of powerline towers that march picturesquely through a field near my home. As usual, I got lost in the process and didn’t notice paint getting all over my hands. There was paint on the steering wheel where I rested the canvas. And there was even a little paint on my good flannel shirt, despite my use of a protective apron.

As I was trying to figure out how to drive without really using my hands and thus not spreading more paint around, it struck me: Apparently I could just step outside with my water bottle and rinse the paint off. It was a startling thought, and I was surprised when it actually worked. Surprised and pleased and suddenly much more interested in the new paints. I could even rinse the paint off my shirt with no trouble. I left the new paint marks on my steering wheel, though. Knowing they could come off so easily somehow allowed me to enjoy them more. Why not leave them there? It’s a painter’s car.
I should add that, whether I’m painting outdoors, or inside, or in the car, I’m always absent-minded. Paint often goes where it shouldn’t. It’s nice to be able to clean it up so easily, and with water as the only solvent.

So how did the DANIEL SMITH Water Soluble Oil paint work as paint? Like some of the other paint testers, I was a little bit apprehensive about this at the outset. First of all I’m a traditionalist about many things, including art materials. I’d never had any particular interest in water soluble oils. What if I didn’t like them?

Even before I opened my first tube of DANIEL SMITH Water Soluble Oil paint I felt reassured that I was in the presence of serious paint. These may be a superficial details, but something about the heft of the tube and the look of the label put my mind at ease. Squeezing out some of the colors, I was impressed by the rich pigmentation. I mixed some on my palette, and they seemed pretty much like high quality traditional oil paints.

ds_powerlines To find out how they worked, I tested them first on the “Powerline” canvas and then on a few plein air panels. After that I decided to recreate a painting I’d done with traditional oils to see how the results compared – a side-by-side match up.

Most of the paintings I’ve done over the last several years are small-panel landscapes painted with regular oil paint, straight from the tube.
I make the panels from conservation board primed on both sides with gesso; most of my panels are primed with black gesso. Traveling the country as an itinerant painter, I’ve completed several hundred of these paintings and developed an approach that relies a lot on reflex, suggestion, and quick, responsive interaction with the subject and the paint. I count on the paint feeling and working a certain way.

I chose to copy one of my favorite images from 12 years of IAP tours – a painting that was created not far from DANIEL SMITH headquarters in Seattle. In fact, it’s the first painting I completed after giving a talk at the DANIEL SMITH store near the start of my 2007 tour (probably the most challenging, interesting tour I’ve done). I chose “White Pickup, Lopez Island” also because it features a lot of white paint, and it’s done on a black panel. So I thought it would test the paint’s covering strength and general performance in a straightforward way. It was a given that a painting done from another painting would not perfectly duplicate the original. But texture, color, tinting, blending and so on could all be compared and assessed.

DANIEL SMITH Water Soluble Oil Colors used in the “White Pickup” painting:

  • Mixed White
  • Burnt Sienna
  • French Ultramarine Blue
  • Manganese Blue Hue
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue
  • Hansa Yellow Light
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Quinacridone Red
  • Cadmium Red Medium Hue

This is pretty much my regular field and travel palette. I mix all my greens.

jim_mott_step1_080513Step 1. One reason I like to work on black or other dark grounds is that they allow me to compose by blocking in the light areas. For some reason I usually find that to be a more natural or intuitive way to start a painting. For the White Pickup, I used mixed white (here and there tinted with yellows and grays) to sketch in the shape of the truck, the wall of the house, and a little cloud that had floated by at the right time. I also marked the placement of the trunk of an apple tree that would somehow balance all the well-structured white on the left side of the panel. Working with DANIEL SMITH ‘s water soluble white, I was impressed by the feel and the covering strength, which seemed at least as good as DANIEL SMITH ‘s regular mixed white, which is my standard.

jim_mott_step2_080513Step 2. Much more so than most of my paintings, the White Pickup is built with big shapes of relatively flat color that are close to primary hues. After getting the main white areas down, I identified the main color areas in the scene and brushed them in. Again, in mixing and handling, the paint worked well. It felt pretty much like using regular oil paint. The blue in the sky covered the black nicely. And, as I often do, I ended up adjusting the color after it was down by mixing right on the panel – in this case more white and manganese blue into the ultramarine.

ds_truck3Step 3. In step three I added reds and grays and generally broke up the simple areas of color with a suggestion of shadows and other particulars. In most of my paintings I rely a lot on grays and on a very dark “black equivalent”– all mixed from a base of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, with white added to tint the grays. When experimenting with different paints many years ago, I found that the burnt sienna and ultramarine blue from DANIEL SMITH gave me the neutral shades I liked best. I was pleased to find that these colors in the DANIEL SMITH water soluble line work just as effectively.

jim_mott_step4_080513Step 4. To complete the painting, I made some adjustments, fleshed out some areas and suggested more details. I rely a lot on suggestion and gesture to develop an image, rather than careful delineation. Sometimes the character or build-up of marks helps to carry emotional content, a sense of involvement, into the painting. Getting the right feel and touch with the paint is very important. I thought the water soluble oils responded well to the brush.

I expected at least subtle differences in feel and behavior between DANIEL SMITH ‘s water soluble oils and their traditional oils. I did not expect the new paints to be identical but hoped they would be similar enough for me to want to paint with them. After three days and four paintings, my conclusion was yes, they are, although it took me a few sessions to make the shift. These high quality water soluble oil paints are comparable to and generally seem to perform as well as traditional oils, but they are not identical. Some painters will discern slight or subtle differences in feel and behavior, and I think it wise to approach them with that expectation.

For example, when working on my first test painting, the powerline scene done on a small stretched canvas, I thought I felt less drag than I get with regular oils. The paint seemed to flow more readily when brushed across the surface. For working on canvas, I found I actually preferred that quality. Of course oil paints of any kind tend to vary a bit in viscosity, from color to color and tube to tube, and I may just have been experiencing normal variation. At any rate, whether I’m using traditional or water soluble oils, if I want a stiffer or drier paint, I just put the paint I’m going to use on paper or cardboard for a while to absorb some oil.

The water soluble oils have a slower drying time, as well. Again, I found that to be an advantage with this particular painting: I was able to rework the sky and some other areas the next morning without it looking like a second session; the changes blended right in.

The finished canvas is now dry, and it looks just like a regular oil painting. The color and sheen are nice, and areas of impasto still hold up, with brushstrokes intact. I would not hesitate to show or sell it. The same is true for the panels. Meanwhile, the subtle differences in handling I noted on my first days of test painting seem something like the differences one feels when getting glasses with a new prescription. The old glasses are familiar. The new ones are going to be great, but they feel different for a few days while you adjust. That was my experience with the new paints. By the time I did the White Pickup, I was working in a normal fashion and not noticing any appreciable difference between the water soluble paints and regular oils, just painting and focusing on the work.

I look forward to doing more paintings with my DANIEL SMITH water soluble oils, especially when working in my car, when camping, or in any other situation where the convenience of quick clean-up with water is a consideration. However, I would also feel comfortable enough now to trust them for more substantial studio work – larger canvases, for example.

If the ease of clean-up or any other aspect of water soluble oil painting inspires you to try them out, I’d certainly recommend the DANIEL SMITH Water Soluble Oils line. I frankly wouldn’t have been interested in trying anything else.