Oil painting as alchemy – Dry brush blending in portraiture

Dry brushing and blending in oil portrait painting
Portrait of Violet detail, oil on canvas

I was able to practise my dry brush blending with this portrait of a beautiful girl called Violet. This portrait commission was a staging post for me in developing my understanding of the grisaille technique. I’m now much more comfortable marrying techniques of glazing with my earlier familiar method of building up solid planes of colour. I took a lot of care over the blending and modelling of the glazed areas, and I hope that they also have a painterly quality. My goal isn’t to create a facsimile or exact copy of the photographic reference, but using that reference as a starting point I am first and foremost concerned with creating a painting using oil paint. Oil paint has its own qualities and follows its own transformation as the painting progresses. The delight of an oil painting is how this empty picture plane can somehow come to harbour all these rich layers of paint and medium, which swim around on this surface, again somehow crystallising into a likeness of a person.

Dry brushing an oil painting gives more of a ‘soft focus’ effect, but personally I don’t want to overdo the blending as (in my work) the paint gets a sort of sickly quality, especially if done in areas with more painterly underpainting. Its like more of a stain than a glaze and glazing needs a little backbone, some substance! This painting was done a while ago when I was still in the early stages of portrait painting but looking at it again I feel that I was able to create the kind of effect I am now trying to capture and that I lost somewhere along my journey into oil painting. Parts of it I would now rework but sometimes less seemingly accomplished work has a more desirable quality. I am still trying to find the space between the finished, polished oil painting and the accidental – I read somewhere about the ‘completeness of ‘incompleteness’, sounds good but I don’t know what it means. It might mean something though.

I’m still trying to find a way of using brushwork. I love the sensation of pushing paint around with a hog brush and literally feeling the paint slip around on the picture plane. More than that, paint shudders when you turn the brush this way and that, it ripples and folds and dances on the surface. The wet brush flips and turns as it goes, collecting the paint, hoarding it, spreading and stretching it, round and round, a beautiful moment during each glaze where just wet enough, the surface has a thin layer of oil paint I push and pull around, feeling it fold and eddy under the brush like butter.

I think generally very fine blending is done with sable brushes but I only use these for extremely fine details, like the line of an eyelid, as somehow when I do it the paint loses its painterly qualities. It would work if all of my brush mark-making was done in the same way but a lot of what I do leaves a painterly effect. I need to be shown how to do this by someone who knows. But I don’t want to be too fussy about the blending, again probably because my instinct is to let the paint ‘blend’ in the eye of the viewer. I’m not after a perfect finish. There’s more of a sense of the alchemy of painting and the transformative qualities of paint when it’s a bit rougher and more painterly.

The art historian Richard Elkins wrote a brilliant book titled Painting is Alchemy and he writes about how painting isn’t an exact science, but more akin to alchemy. The specific qualities that individual artists look for in paint can never be written down and aren’t formulaic. It’s transformative

 

 

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