My husband and I enjoy watching good courtroom dramas in films and on television. In each, there’s always that moment where the judge turns to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury and asks, “Have you reached a verdict?”
I’m asking myself that question now as I look back over my experience in using water-soluble oil paints. Do I like them? Do I really want to continue using them? Or would I rather switch back to the traditional oils I started with?
Like a good juror would do, I’m examining all the evidence available to me through my paintings. I’m also reading testimony given — in the form of the blog posts I’ve written. But unlike a juror in a legal case, I have one other resource for my judgment. I can get inside my own head to explore my motives and reasoning.
So, have I reached a verdict? Actually, I’m still not sure.
I first bought a small 8-tube set of Mont Marte water-soluble oils about a year ago, although I didn’t use them for quite some time. I’d read about water-soluble oils, and I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical about them. I probably wouldn’t have given them a second thought had it not been for two members of our local art club who began using water-soluble oils for our “art time” at meetings.
I loved the beautiful results they got, but, of course, they’re both very talented artists, and both were using very high-quality water-soluble paints. Now, that’s not to say that the Mont Marte paints are not good. I am enjoying them. But, let’s not mince words. They’re inexpensive paints. I bought the first set — pictured above — for $12.95, less than I might have paid for a single tube of traditional oil paint.
I was curious. I wanted to try water-soluble oils, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. This set was a perfect choice for me.
One of the reasons why I wanted to play around with the water-soluble oils was because of the terrible time I have keeping my brushes clean, plus the inconvenience of mixing mediums to use with traditional oils. And since I’m painting in my kitchen and doing my brush cleaning in the kitchen sink, I worry about all those nasty toxins from paints, thinners, and cleaners. How much easier it would be to just use water!
This is also a concern at some of the club meeting sites where our groups hold demonstrations and “open studios” — no toxic materials allowed. So, learning to work with water-soluble oils seemed like a very good thing.
Initially I wasn’t too pleased with the paints. They were different. The consistency of the paint felt different. The way they looked on the canvas when I played around with them was different. Sometimes I liked the difference; sometimes I didn’t. I played around a bit, closed the box, and set the paints aside. I wasn’t ready to make the switch.
My first attempt at completing an actual painting with my water-soluble oils came about a month later when I did a playful, colorful look at the island and village of Korcula.
I called this a “Radical Departure” because it was so far afield from my usual landscapes, and also because it was my first real venture away from traditional oils.
It was fun, but I didn’t feel too comfortable with the water-soluble oils, and once this canvas dried, I did go back to do a bit of touch-up with my regular oil paints.
Now, at this point, I definitely had oddly-mixed feelings about the water-soluble oils. Even from doing only a single painting, I’d already seen how easy it was to clean my brushes and wash the paint from my hands. Oh, I definitely liked that!
I wasn’t sure, though, about the colors, about the consistency, about whether or not I could achieve good results with water-soluble oils. I put them aside again and went back to my traditional tubes of paint.
Last winter I struggled with oil painting, so much so that I finally cleaned up my corner of the kitchen, put my canvases aside, and simply stopped painting. It began as a “holiday break” — but extended for months into the new year. I kept busy with other things, spent hours practicing and performing my favorite classical piano pieces, and I did a lot of reading. I just couldn’t handle any more of the frustrations and disappointments I’d had as I’d struggled to learn oil painting techniques. Everything sat untouched for a long, long time.
But finally my desire to paint began nagging at me again. As winter gave way to spring and spring then blossomed fully into summer, I wanted to be painting. I wanted to capture the colors of earth and sky and sea. Yes, I wanted to pick up those paints and brushes again and get back to my easel.
I gave it a try, realized I’d all but forgotten everything I’d ever learned about oil painting, and nearly gave up again. My brushes were in a deplorable state. My oil paints were mostly dried up. I needed to mix up mediums again. It all seemed like so much work — and all for such little reward.
Instead, I turned to my little set of Mont Marte water-soluble oils. If I were going to re-learn oil painting, why not start with this interesting new medium? Why not play around with these different oils, and see where I could go with them?
Water-soluble oils definitely made art simple for me. I did this seascape painting and enjoyed playing with the colors. But all I did was play with colors. I wanted to do more.
At this point, I was starting to like water-soluble oils, and I bought a larger set of 36 tubes.
Now, of course, many of you will point out that no one needs 36 colors on a palette. I agree. I’ve studied enough about color-mixing to know that good artists should create their own colors, that all we really need are the basic primaries, a black, a white, and maybe an earth color thrown in for good measure.
Yes, that’s all true. But I was not a good artist. I was horrible at mixing colors, and at that time what I needed most was to make art as simple for myself as possible.
Buying this larger set didn’t change my life. It didn’t even change my art. It didn’t do anything for me because I didn’t do anything with it. I think I was a little bit intimidated by all those neatly-arranged tubes of gorgeous colors, so I just looked at them and did nothing more.
Finally, a few weeks later, I opened the set and painted my Summer Leaves – a scene of trees as viewed from our front porch.
At that point, I decided to keep using the water-soluble paints, to try them out during the upcoming months, and then decide if I wanted to continue with them.
I am now using my water-soluble paints exclusively — still working with the inexpensive Mont Marte set. I rarely use any of the pre-mixed colors from that 36-tube set. Usually I just reach for those basic primaries and mix my own secondary or tertiary colors. Gradually I’m learning how much — or how little — water to use to get the right consistency, and I’m beginning to like the results I’m getting, at least some of the time.
In thinking about pros and cons with water-soluble oils, the advantages of quick and easy clean-up is an overwhelming advantage over traditional oils. For this reason alone, I will probably stay with the water-solubles. I feel better, too, knowing that I’m not filling the air with toxic chemicals, and that’s an important consideration.
Are there disadvantages? Yes, I think so… but maybe it’s all in my mind. As irrational as this sounds, I sometimes wonder if I can ever think of myself as a genuine artist if I’m using water-soluble oil paints. Will anyone ever take my oil-painting seriously if I’m using water-solubles? Like I said, it’s an irrational thought, but there it is. Somehow in my head I have this idea that water-soluble oil paints aren’t real oil paints, that any painting created with them is going to be lesser in some way than paintings done in traditional oils. I have this inherent feeling that water-soluble oils are in some way inferior to traditional oils, and that artists who use water-solubles might also be looked down upon and considered lesser, or inferior artists.
Perhaps what has bothered me most is the fact that since I’ve started using these water-soluble paints, I haven’t turned out any paintings that I’m really proud of. I have a few paintings I like, but nothing I consider truly note-worthy, nothing I would happily frame and enter into any art competitions.
But in all honesty, that’s largely because I’ve done very little painting in the last year. Instead, I’ve worked on my drawing skills, practicing graphite techniques, doing pen-and-ink drawings, and working my way through poster-paint on newsprint exercises.
I’m only now beginning to get serious about my landscape painting again, and I’m starting to like what I’m doing and where I’m going. I’m happy with the spacious skies I’ve been painting. I’m seeing progress in the woodland scenes I’ve done.
So, for now, as I go on learning oil painting techniques, I’m going to stay with my water-soluble oils. The very thought of going back to the messiness and inconvenience of traditional oil paints makes me cringe. But, that doesn’t mean there won’t come a time when I choose to go back. Another thing I might choose to do in the future is to move to a higher-quality (and more expensive) brand of water-soluble oils.
But at this stage of my artistic journey, the Mont Marte set is probably a good fit for me. I can play with these paints. I can try different things with them. I can work with them as I develop various techniques — and I can do it all inexpensively and without making a mess of my brushes.
Writing this post has been helpful, indeed. When I sat down here this morning I had not reached a clear verdict. Now, having walked myself through the case for and against my water-soluble oils, I know where I stand — at least for now. As I said, maybe a time will come when I’ll re-think this decision, but for now I’m happy with the choice I’ve made.