Taking my first look at 140-lb. Arches oil paper, described as needing no preparation or ground for painting oil paintings on paper, I considered all the possible ways I could work with it. At first I thought of tinting the paper both transparently and opaquely with watercolor, gouache, acrylic—and oil. Then it occurred to me that what would make the most sense was to explore the fundamental attribute of this paper; that is, its ability to transmit light through the color. There’s nothing more beautiful than the transparent washes of a watercolor on paper. Would oil on Arches oil paper be as beautiful?
What I found was that this paper has a lot of advantages: absorbency, brightness of surface, slight texture, and archival integrity. There’s no need to prime it with gesso or anything else. And it’s economical (hence, good for studies), lightweight, easy to store, and easy to cut to size. Unlike works on watercolor paper, works done on Arches oil paper can be framed without glass, as the surface can be varnished (which may increase the perceived value of the work). And lastly, Arches oil paper does not cockle when you flood on the solvent; instead it remains perfectly flat.
While the absorbency is basically an advantage, it can be a disadvantage if you’re reckless by nature. The paper is so absorbent that it requires you to think in advance about exactly what you’d like to do. You need a set plan, in other words. An oil wash with a staining color, for example, I found very difficult to lighten by scrubbing and, because of this, the only way to go lighter would be to go opaque. For some, that could be a drawback, but for me it was reminiscent of my days as an illustrator when I worked on unprimed illustration board. I liked that superabsorbent quality that allowed for quick progression on a piece. As an illustrator, my concerns at the time were expediency, but the Arches oil paper that we have today is totally archival.
Now if you’re a traditional oil painter and love the texture of canvas, this paper is not going to mimic that. Arches oil paper has its own charm, one that I look forward to exploring more over time. In the future I’ll be trying larger sheets and working with rolls to make a finished piece and to explore the possibilities of transparent oil color.
Working in Oil Paint on Paper
1. Arches oil paper is made from 100-percent cotton; it features a barrier that absorbs water and solvents but allows pigments to sit on top of the paper. It’s a versatile surface that, In the right hands, will yield outstanding work. For my experiment, I used a 140-lb, 12×16 sheet; at the start, I did a minimal drawing with yellow ochre to define the space.
2. With mineral spirits as my medium, I chose to start my painting with transparent oil washes that indicated the sky color and ground plane—keeping the general atmosphere in mind. I knew that second and third washes, combined with final opaque passages, were at my disposal. Because the Arches oil paper is very absorbent, I noted that once the washes were in place, they were there to stay.
3. Since this paper allowed me to make decisive marks, I didn’t have to go back to strengthen them. As a result, I could go very far transparently. Drawing is key here. Bear in mind that the marks you make will stay in place until an opaque passage is introduced over it.
4. In the second stage, I brushed in the distant shoreline in a semitransparent manner, using terra rosa and cobalt blue and a hint of opaque orange over the wash to give me the depth that I needed.
5. As the painting progressed, I worked forward in space—the snowy ground plane, the foreground hillside, and then on to the trees, bushes, and all the little touches of warm and cool that create a sense of light falling upon the landscape.
6. I used a lot of drybrush, knife work, and scumbling back and forth to create the textures and depth that I needed to complete the painting very much the way I would have if I’d worked on primed canvas.
7. Here you see the final painting: Morning Sun, Newbury (oil on Arches oil paper, 12×16).
A frequent winner in The Artist’s Magazine’s Annual Art Competition, Peter Fiore is an acclaimed landscape painter. He studied at Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of New York. He has been on the faculty at Pratt Institute, Syracuse University, and currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Visit his website at www.peterfiore.com.
- “Mounting Oil Paintings on Paper Onto a Board” – (free online article) Artist Michael Chesley Johnson’s step-by-step demonstration
- “A Case for Oil on Paper” – (Brushing Up article in the March 2014 issue of The Artist’s Magazine) Michael Chesley Johnson explains the advantages of creating oil paintings on paper and demonstrates how to prepare a paper surface for oil.