Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sequencing: A Creative Exercise for Oils

The River Gallery School sells a booklet on the process for $15.
A couple of weeks ago I plunged into a painting class while visiting friends in Vermont. I hadn't planned on it, but I enjoyed being the student for a change, and I encountered an exercise called "sequencing" that's great for total beginners and veterans alike.

Workshop leader Lydia Thomson explains the process. "These are oils, and therefore .... they're beautiful," she said.
Developed at Brattleboro's River Gallery School of Art, "sequencing" involves painting three small pieces at once. We made seascapes on card-stock - the cheaper the better, as this is about enjoying the process.

It goes like this: put on latex gloves, scoop up a dollop of cold wax medium, and kneed it into the surface of three small pieces of canva-paper, card stock, or whatever. Start on the left canvas and work to the right, making similar gestures each time.

These three little guys were taped down to the board at the start.

Here's the setup: a stick, a few rags, a razor for scraping off "mistakes," three pieces of card stock taped to a sturdy surface and latex gloves, as your fingers do the painting. The palette consists of a spectrum of paints surrounding two transparent earths and a generous dollop of COLD WAX MEDIUM. We used Dorland's Wax Medium:

Dorland's is wonderful stuff. Cold wax is smooth to the touch, takes paint in a manner that allows good control of layering and blending, and acts as a drying agent to boot. I loved the meditative, tactile experience of physically massaging the lush oil colors into the silky wax medium.

As soon as someone finished a sequence, he or she would tape all three to the wall. Click it to see them up close.

Once you've got wax on all three, you rub on a transparent earth color to tone the wax under-layer, blending until it's covered completely (we used a transparent brown-pink, but you could also use something like transparent oxide, Indian Yellow, or burnt sienna). This, explained workshop leader Lydia Thomson, acts as a metaphor for sunlight (she encouraged us to use all our colors metaphorically rather than literally).

After you've toned the paper, you compose your seascape using whatever colors you feel, working them over and into the wax on each piece, moving from left to right, doing the same thing each time.

At work at the River Gallery school

There's a meditative quality in the repetitive nature of working on the three pieces at once, introducing a color to the first one, then the same color to the second and then the third, and so on, leaving traces of the same gestures on each painting.

It's great for beginners because it involves no solvents, no brushes, no mixing, and minimal mess. Experienced painters will relish it as a reintroduction to the sensuous nature of oil paints and a fertile field for the development of new ideas for larger work.

One of my sequences.

This one had a Richter-like vibe.

Working fast is good. We all had time to make multiple sequences.
This is something we'll be trying with my Tuesday painting workshop in Lowell this week. It's an excellent way of unleashing creativity and a very refreshing way of experiencing oil paint.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I ALREADY have cold wax medium. Not to mention encaustic wax. Might ask Hubby to make me lots of little birch panels!

  2. It was such a fun and meditative process. Encouraging oneself to keep going and actively ignore from the inner vampires that feed on and can destroy creative experimentation was the heart of the process for me. The sense of abundance of having plenty of paint,and working on inexpensive card stock took away the precious factor, freed the "just keep going" spirit and I learned more with each sequence set I completed. It was transformative for me.

    The River Gallery School also hosts teacher training weekends on the Sequencing method for those who want to bring it to their students. Contact the Gallery directly as they schedule it periodically when there is enough interest.

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