I am freezing my ears off!! Because I believed the lying thermometer in the window off the back entrance that looks onto the patio when it said it was 40 degrees out. It may well be 40, but the stupid thermometer doesn’t have a clue about a little thing called “Windchill”, so when I went out in my windbreaker to walk to the post office, I FROZE!!
Okay, that wasn’t what I wanted to blog about. This has been bugging me ever since I finished the book last night, and will continue to bug me till I vent, and you are my vent-ees of choice.
So. As pretty much always, when I went to town yesterday I stopped at Barnes & Noble. And I bought a book off the remainder table. The story–a historical romance–was pretty good even though I skipped all the redundant love scenes, as I usually do with this author, but I paid less than paperback price for the hardback, so that didn’t bother me so much. What jerked me right out of the story was something I probably wouldn’t have even noticed a few years ago, but really caught my attention now. Basically, it was this:
Oil paints do not dry overnight!!!
A major part of the plot to this book was the painting of a portrait. A full-length painting in oils on canvas in what we would call a “photo-realistic” style. The kind of portrait artists did back before we had photographs, back before the Impressionists came into fashion. One in the style of the Old Masters. And it made me CRAZY. Because the artist decided the painting needed to be done in a hurry, so he was working like mad on it every day.
You cannot do that with oils.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t paint an entire painting in one sitting. You can. There’s even a special term for it: alla prima. Which is Art-ese for “all at once.” But see, if something has a special Italian name, you can bet it’s a special sort of technique, and it’s a technique that really didn’t come into its own until the latter half of the 1800s with the advent of the Impressionists, after this story was to have taken place. And it’s something that has to be carefully done, because it can very easily turn into muddy smears. The Old Masters mostly did not paint alla prima, unless they were painting frescos on walls–and that was done with egg tempera or other water-based paint (which dries quickly), not oils.
However, the Old Masters’ techniques in oil were based on layering paint, sometimes in transparent glazes where the colors beneath glow through and sometimes using the opacity of certain shades, like white. When one is painting wet into wet, it is almost impossible to get truly bright highlights and truly dark darks, because the paint blends with what’s already on the canvas (and often turns into dull, ugly, muddy colors when it does). I like painting in oil because of that ability to blend on the canvas, something that is impossible to do with acrylics because of their almost instant drying time. Oils stay wet for days which means that you can continue to blend the colors, almost as long as you want to. That can be a good thing. However, there usually comes a time when, if you do another thing to the paint, you’ll mess up what’s already there. You have to just stop and let the paint dry.
See, this is another benefit of painting in oil. Once it dries, you can paint over it and it won’t disturb what you’ve already put down. You can layer in highlights, punch up darks, intensify the brights, and it won’t mess anything up. (You can also paint over mistakes.) But if you don’t wait for the paint to dry, it will just make a big mess. And oil paint doesn’t dry overnight.
Depending on the paint used (white takes the longest to dry), the ambient temperature and the amount of humidity in the air, it can take five (5) to seven (7) days for an oil painting to become dry to the touch. This is why, in my weekly art classes, I usually have two or three paintings going at once, so that when I reach that “time to stop and let the paint dry” point with one painting, I can pull out another and work on it. By the next week, the next class, the paint will be dry enough to put on the next layer. And this is in warm, dry West Texas…
If you touch the paint before it’s dry, not only will you get paint all over you, you could smear the paint and ruin the painting. And it really ought to dry for the minimum of a month (in my warm, dry climate) before you frame it, because at only one week, the paint’s usually still tacky enough to stick to the frame when you nail it in. Artists won’t varnish paintings until they’ve been drying for a minimum of six months, preferably a year. Yes, it can take that long before an oil painting is really, truly dry.
Which is why it blew my mind when, in this book, not only did the artist have a “great unveiling” of this very important portrait the Very Next Day after it was completed–without ONCE saying “be careful of the paint, it’s still wet” (something I say frequently to my spouse and house cleaner when I bring a new painting home, especially if anything more than the highlights are wet)–but they apparently framed the sucker and transported it cross country on a carriage!
Now there are–and have been for the past two hundred years at least, maybe even since Carravagio–specialized shipping boxes for transporting still-wet paintings. But you’d think the author would have mentioned having to take special care with the wet paint, or have the characters worry about the villain smearing the paint and thus destroying the value of the portrait, or something!! But no! Nothing!! It wouldn’t have taken a lot of explaining, not much alteration to the story to give the painting time to dry here and there… Really, I’m pretty sure this is the primary reason portraits can take months to paint, because there’s so dadgum much Drying Time that has to be built into the process.
Just a sample of the silly little stuff that authors don’t realize can cut into a readers’ enjoyment of the story. Makes me worry about all the things I haven’t researched all that much that could mess somebody up. But really, for such an important part of the plot, don’t you think she could have at least interviewed somebody about painting in oils, instead of just reading a book about it? Books don’t have space to talk about drying time…
Oh, and I only got 7.5 pages written today. Couldn’t get to sleep last night till way, way, WAY too late. Slept late this a.m., then my mom called, so I got started late. But I still got halfway to my 15 page goal. I know. Excuses, excuses… Tomorrow is another day.