Studio Views: Why I Use Oil Paints So Much

sv_zelinsky_paintI like to think that the story I’m illustrating tells me what medium to use on it. And I have used quite a few materials over the years. But there does seem to be a preponderance of oil paints on the roster. Could this represent an actual preference on my part? I’ve had to sit down and assess my feelings toward the many materials there are to choose from.

They don’t stay where you put them. You lay down a nice, beautiful wash, and five minutes later it’s all collecting in pools and drying like rings under a coffee cup. Then you rush in and swab the dark patches just slightly, lightening them to match their surround. It’s instinctive; you can’t help it, even though you know all the while that so many white blobs will soon appear, sending new rings of color flowing out from each botched repair. I would have illustrated E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle in lovely watercolors, but ended up corralling all those unruly washes within more dependable pen-and-ink lines, and even punching up their tonal gradations with ink hatchings.

I have a great, big set of pastels that I bought in college. Though they’re thick sticks and clumsy for details, they can create some marvelous effects. One of my earlier books, Mirra Ginsburg’s The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, had soft clouds of pastel rubbed into watercolor in many places. But pastels do send up clouds of dust — and some of these colors contain terrible toxins. So these days the chalky sticks just sit in chromatically ordered rows within their futuristic plastic case, unused. I’m afraid of my pastels.

Colored Pencils:
I really don’t like the kind of color a colored pencil produces unless it reaches near solid coverage. If you have any area to cover, this can mean a tremendous amount of work. You scrub and scrub and scrub until you’ve laid down a solid layer of color. Mrs. Lovewright’s green argyle socks, for example, in Lore Segal’s The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless, Her Cat. Then you close up shop for the night, and in the morning, you see that you haven’t done such a good job: white specks of paper show all through the dulled-out green. So you go over it again, day after day. Even simple lines, like the paisley of Mrs. Lovewright’s house dress, break up. For the longest time I thought my eyes played tricks on me, and wishful thinking made me see a stronger color than was there. But some other artist, I forget who, recently confirmed my experience. So now I hold the paper responsible for this dirty trick: decompressing overnight, and undoing the day’s work.

Then there is the disastrous situation when one particular color (say, the blue-gray of her dress’s shadows and her walls’ wainscotting) is discontinued in mid-book. Your one remaining pencil grows shorter and shorter, you husband it all you can, no store carries that color anymore — in fact, the company has gone out of business, or merged with another — and you can’t create it by blending other colors. Pencils don’t blend. Nor can they be erased.

As part of my art education, I was taught to disdain acrylics. And from what I’ve done with them, I haven’t been convinced otherwise. They are excellent, though, for ease of wash-up.

I think the computer is an excellent collage machine, but for actual drawing — well, it doesn’t exactly meet my needs, or perhaps I don’t meet the computer’s. I’ve taught myself Painter 4, and have yet to create even a doodle worth saving.

And then there are oils. There’s nothing like them for emulating Old Master oil paintings, which accounts for my three Grimm tales, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Rapunzel. Also American primitive paintings, as in Anne Isaacs’s Swamp Angel. My only other oil picture book, I think, is The Wheels on the Bus. Candy-colored, thick and almost chewable, spreading thin but still brilliant, showing brushstrokes or smoothly hiding them, and always staying exactly where you put it, oil paint was the only choice. On top of which, I could come home from work with the wonderful scent of linseed oil and turpentine in my clothes.

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

Paul O. Zelinsky
Paul O. Zelinsky is the Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and reteller of Rapunzel and a three-time Caldecott Honoree. His illustration work includes Swamp Angel, The Wheels on the Bus, the Toys Go Out series, and Z Is for Moose.
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