Oil Painting Syllabus



Mia Merlin, Instructor

Georgia State University

Fall 2010

Prerequisites, AFND 1010 & 1020 or 1030


Course Description: DP 3300 is an introduction to oil painting with an emphasis on methodology, technique, color theory, and composition. The class time will be divided between in-class painting, lectures and demonstrations.

Course Objectives: The overarching goals of this course are as follows: To learn an observation based approach to image making that is unique to painting, and requires a shift from solving drawing problems with line to shape–more specifically through expansion and contraction of abutting shape;. To discover the extreme plasticity of form in oil paint and how to best bring out this quality in oils;. To learn about paint surface as an active, expressive component within the language of painting; To build a sensitivity to a full range of color contrast categories, and an understanding of local and universal causes of color; To begin to combine observation and invention when composing; And finally establish a standard of excellence which allows for a broad range of stylistic, technical, and philosophical differences among painters.

Attendance: Attendance at every class is mandatory and is taken at the beginning of
each class. If you are enrolled in a class and do not attend the first and second class meetings, you will be asked to drop the class. Classes begin at stated times and lateness is unacceptable.  Leaving early or arriving late is counted as a half absence. If you come to class late, it is your responsibility to notify me after class that you were late, not absent, and to request a change in the attendance record from absent to late. If you fail to do this, be aware that your attendance record remains as an absence. Your final grade will be reduced by one letter grade for each and every absence after the third absence. There are no “excused” absences. It would be wise to save your 3 allowable absences in anticipation of emergencies.  It is your responsibility to inform me in advance of a class that you know you must miss. You will be
held responsible for the material covered in the missed class and must consult with your fellow students to receive all instruction and information covered in the class. 

Grading: Three equally weighted grades, each reflecting combined performance on class work and homework for each assigned project, will be given during the semester. Grades will be based on the students’ ability to successfully apply the specific principles presented for each project, to carry forward lessons from preceding projects, and to gain insight and expertise through their use. The final grade will consist of an average of the three individual grades, adjusted for attendance and attitude. Assignments turned in after the announced due date will be reduced ½ letter grade for each class datelate.


Titanium white (or Utrecht white), Payne’s Gray, Yellow ochre, Cadmium yellow (or hue, make sure this is fairly light, lighter than yellow ochre), Raw sienna, Burnt sienna,, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium red medium (or hue), Raw umber, Ultramarine blue (or hue), Phthalocyanine blue, Mars black.


Windsor Newton Liquin, Gamblin Neo-MegilpStand oil, and Low odor or odorless turpentine or mineral spirits. (low odor is less toxic) Optional: small bottle of damar varnish.


Use natural bristle hog hair brushes for oil painting. Utrecht brand are fine. It’s helpful to have many brushes because they will wear down.


# 12

# 10

# 8

# 5

# 2 (only one of these is enough)


Reflective object (such as tea kettle, big metal spoon, etc)

(1-2) Clip lights (at the hardware store)

(2) Metal palette knives

Pad of disposable palettes

Cotton rags

Plastic jars or soy sauce type bottle for mixing medium or cleaning brushes.

Lava soap (from grocery store)


A series of small studies of the head (4-5 or more), on canvas board or panel, approx. 9”x12” will be the first graded assignment. You can buy some slightly larger, nicer pre-stretched canvases for later in the quarter (approx 16” x 20” or 18” x 24”) You can also paint on wood panel, but you need to buy acrylic gesso and a gesso brush to prime it.

Art Supplies are available from: Binders on Piedmont across from Tower place, Utrecht at 8th and Peachtree. Pearl Art Supply is on Roswell Rd. at Powers Ferry and Sam Flax on Northside Dr. just south of 75.

Recommended text (optional): The Painter’ Handbook, by Mark David

Gottsegen, published by Watson Guptill.


Distorted reflections:

A series of small studies of the head (4-5 or more), on paper or cardboard supports, approx. 9”x12” will be the first graded assignment. We will work from distorting mirrors to de-emphasize problems of likeness and to create an observational challenge. We will focus on issues of concept and methodology. These studies will utilize only black, white and mixed grays. We will use paint straight from the tube, with little or no additional medium, stressing the physical qualities and viscosity of the paint. After toning the canvas, we will premix paint on the palette with a painting knife. We will make a distinction between line (a progressive graphic element) and shape (a dispersive graphic element), and work toward a dispersive application of paint to realize shape and form. We will work from large to small shapes in laying out the image initially. Apply paint in a nearly circular, shape-generating manner. Utilize expansion and contraction of shape to attain definition. Create distinct, traceable shapes that may be softened later.

The shape of the support, rather than the shape of the head, is the compositional format. Generally, work from a middle value, gradually moving toward the extremes. Discipline the eye to see the head and its surroundings as a continuous topography of adjacent shapes. Avoid arranging a set of preconceived symbolic shapes representing features. Line may be added only as an accent, late in the process. Work wet in wet. Utilize peripheral vision to ascertain value (and later color) contrasts. Aerial and linear passages: encouraging the eye to move through the composition, to interconnect numerous complicated shapes and thereby create larger, simpler, more coherent compositional patterns.

Lecture on color, and setup of next assignment:

The 7 color contrasts: complements, temperature, simultaneous, value, saturation, extension, hue. Explanation of primary, secondary, tertiary colors, tints (color + white), tones (color + gray), and shades (color + black), and analogous colors (colors next to each other on the wheel). Review local vs. universal conditions of color and light. Modulation of value and color within shape. While revising paintings, avoid preserving existing shapes—to keep paint fresh you have to continually revise previous decisions. Move from a broad, macroscopic view to a zoned, microscopic view, as if working on smaller individual pictures within a larger picture. Consider far to near approach in building image. Start out with the complete spectrum on your color wheel. In addition to contrasts between visual elements (line, shape, value, texture, color), consider contrasts in surface from transparent to opaque, contrasts of density, and other issues of surface as active variables.

Remember: contrasts of color, value, texture, temperature, etc., which may satisfy you from a close working range may not carry, or project over distance. It is important to make decisions from afar! A good rule of thumb is to apply paint as freshly as possible, whether thick or thin, and not to overwork it. Glazing can modify and enrich a paint surface, but it is not a substitute for the fresh application of opaque body color.

Still Life:

Our second problem will be an extended still-life painting with objects of your choosing. We will begin with simple compositional drawings (thumbnails) to establish distance, point of view, eye level, framing, orientation of the support, etc.

Start by painting thinly, using flat shapes, and working from large to small. Make sure you work toward clear contrasts of shape, size, color and value, and that the paint application is rather thin until later stages, at which time surface can become active and varied. Pay particular attention to the need for defined (even if softened) borders of shapes, modulation of color within shapes, etc. The object of this assignment is to heighten color perception, to gain insight into the process of translating effects of light into effects of pigment, to make distinctions between local and universal color conditions, to develop interesting compositions through selective observation, paying attention to the whole as well as the individual parts of a composition. All issues discussed during the first project should be carried forward to this assignment.

Observation + imagination:

Our final project will be larger in scale, and will be more subjective with a focus on content. An important goal in this assignment will be to connect ideas about perception to imagination. Unfortunately, students of painting often take an either/or approach to perception and imagination, leading to spiritless imitation, or to derivative or clichéd invention. We will try to combine these two concerns by painting from observation while constructing and conveying something metaphorical and narrative around the subject. Translations of color, value, temperature, and other technical issues will be discussed in the way they shape meaning in the painting. In this assignment, you may incorporate perceived elements from various environments, including imagery from other works of art, from photographs, or from your own drawings.

These paintings should be personal, inventive, well crafted, patiently and thoughtfully devised, and should exploit the qualities of your medium. Homework will be a combined with class work for this assignment. Grades will be based on the depth and quality of the narrative as well as your ability to carry forward the lessons of the previous assignments.