Artwork Mondays: the aura of oil

The aura of painting exists in the mind of the viewer, and in some cases the mind of the illustrator when seeing their own work reproduced. The idea of paintings having an aura or presence is something that has fascinated me since university, as discussed last week. Some excellent comments were made by artists Sean Craven and Chris Zenga, check it out.

Okay so from my non-scientific anecdotal samplings and personal experiences (oh the sins against science I commit! I will say ten ATP-->ADP reactions in penance), I doubt the existence of original paintings having a quasi-mystical aura or emitting a presence to the viewer. You can read a bit more about this "aura of authenticity" from an art historical perspective
here, and from the side of new age-laced artsy language here (10th paragraph), and here. It's head-shakingly amazing how fear for loss of the aura is dovetailed with a fear of technology.

Is there anything special or unique then, about an original painting that does not lie entirely within the biases of the viewer? In case of oil paintings, I say yes. And looking at last week's comments, Chris Zenga guessed the point of this week's Artwork Monday while thinking about a D.N.A Candle Vanitas painting I gave to him and his wife for their marriage (at right, original post here).

I love oil painting. I enjoy the scent of the oil, and the buttery consistency flowing
together under a horizontally-held fan brush. And most of all, I love the depth glazing can bring about in the final work.

Oil painting differs from other types of painting in many ways. Oils do not evaporate as they dry like watercolour or acrylic painting; instead they absorb oxygen from the air. This is called a siccative quality. The way I think about this, is like the oxygen molecules are pineapple chunks being added to Jell-o in a confined bowl. Adding more will increase the density and stop the Jell-o from jiggling. I don't know that this is a chemically-apt description, so please feel free to tell me there's not room for Jell-o in the comments if I am mangling the science of siccatives.

For this reason, it's important that oil paintings are painted in thin layers with an increasing amount of oil in successive layers. It allows the oxygen to permeate evenly over the course of six months to a year after painting, and helps prevent cracking. The rule is referred to as "fat over lean".

So oil paintings, particularly by Renaissance and Baroque masters, contained many thin, mostly transparent layers of paint, each tinted with a little pigment. And herein lies the aura of a painting viewed live versus online.

When light hits all these layers of oil, it permeates each oily membrane and begins to reflect back out. But some photons will bounce back into the oil layers off of the pigments, and back to the lower layers before pinging back out of the painting, and onward to the viewers eyes. This optical effect literally creates a glow. It's also the reason for the incredibly deep blacks often found in the backgrounds of portraits.

So the illusion of depth in an oil painting can be profoundly eye-catching, and similar to looking at objects in water, the oil-glazes draw our eyes and captivate our pattern-seeking centers, making the paint feel alive. No unscientific aura necessary, just wonderful chemistry interacting on our biology.

- -

All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.
Please visit my blog, gallery and reproduction store.

D.N.A. Candle - Vanitas II


This oil painting was done for my good friends A & K for their wedding.

I have
blogged previously about the symbology behind this image. It is a concept I use sometimes mixed with other elements, as in my Symbolist-era-inspired, gigantic, thematic, magnum opus The Forever Painting. I attempt to make each D.N.A. Candle Vanitas a little different from the others, and some colours seem to suit certain couples, or perhaps my mood while painting.

They are a joy to do, and I hope the happy couple enjoys this one.

All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.

D.N.A. Candle - Vanitas




This oil painting was done for my good friends Michele & Chris for their wedding.

The DNA Candle image is one I began using with Symbiosis, a painting of mine recently featured on the online magazine, The Eloquent Atheist. It's one of my favourite concepts that I have come up with. Back in March 2007, when I was frustrated that I had not done anything with my art and I started this blog one blustery day, I almost chose the name "DNA Candles" instead of The Flying Trilobite. Yeah, I'm proud of these.

Vanitas painting is an old tradition, especially popular in the Northern Renaissance. Usually, it is a still life, depicting perhaps a skull, a broken watch, a candle just snuffed out with the smoke trailing in the air, a book half-read, a tipped over water glass....Pieter Claesz, trained by Franz Hals, is one of my favourite masters of this art style.

The image is one of mortality, with a kind of knock-you-over-the-head symbolism. The message intended is a kind of carpe diem, or "seize the day".

After reading about how telomeres may play a part in the aging process, and that their ends snip off when they replicate, I started coming up with the DNA Candle image. I remember reading something in the 90's that suggested if one could extend telomeres, one may be able to stave off death. The candle melting and the telomere shortening just seemed a natural image. I used DNA as a wick since it is more readily recognisable by most people.

So the ultimate message of the DNA Candle Vanitas is one of seize the day, life is beautiful but finite. The candles are lit and glowing, a loving image and the wax has melted together in union.

Variations of this image will return to The Flying Trilobite from time to time. The banner below and in my sidebar give a detailed view.