Portrait painting in oil – underpainting in grisaille

 

I have been  reworking a long standing grisaille portrait painting in oil and experimenting with a more colourful painterly approach. I am still using the glazing technique, but with a more complex palette than some of my other work. The original photo reference was taken in an interior space under a combination of artificial light and daylight. This gave the skin in the reference a rich multi-hued surface, where the face was illuminated artificially and was only slightly in any shadow. Looking at it one can see oranges, greens, blues, yellows, every colour imaginable but with only the slightest variation in value, or light and dark. It has some beautiful cool shadows juxtaposed against warm (very warm) highlights.

I was pleased with the grisaille underpainting, and it worked because I am now more attuned to the very subtle changes in value when painting portraits. In the past I may have mistakenly exaggerated the changes in value, or light to dark, but I have come to see that these changes are only very minor and actually best left to the overpainting and colour glazes. It appears best to take a ‘paint by numbers’ approach and work in larger areas of grey values, what they call ‘blocking in’, and to use colour to build the shape of the face. Unless a sitter is very brightly illuminated with a strong chiaroscuro effect, then even the differences between shadow and highlights in a portrait can be quite subtle. Working in colour as opposed to modelling light to dark is something Cezanne called ‘modulation’ – where colour alone creates the sense of the form. He said ‘When colour is richest, form is most complete’.

I have painted a few grisaille portraits where the grisaille is too dark, and this was the problem here. Unfortunately I can’t show a photo of the first glaze which didn’t work, but the colour glazes I used over the initial grisaille made it all too dark. This has happened in some other portraits I have painted. Oil colours themselves can have different values depending on how much paint you put on, so when I tried to colour his cheek using a little alizarin crimson with sap green this was too much and ended looking unsightly. When I squint my eyes at the reference it looks the same as the grisaille in terms of the values, so in order to make room for the colours on top I needed to lighten it first. I don’t actually like painting too methodically in this way, as it seems to suck all the joy and spontaneity out of it so I need to develop it so it still feels natural. By natural I mean the relationship between me and subject is one of looking and responding in the most unaffected way, without calculation. Here is a portrait from 15 years ago, painted before I got stuck into the grisaille technique and trying to find the best formula to paint with. I still love the freshness and simplicity in the drawing and colour rendering. My goal would be to combine this with a more rigorous technique if that is at all possible.

Portrait painting by Matt Harvey, British portrait painter and artist. Oil on canvas
Portrait of Tom – painted in a sitting without any knowledge baggage! I hope to return to this way of working, without losing everything I now know about colour, value etc.

When I attempted to glaze it I found I couldn’t do it, the hues were just too subtle. This was in the early stages of my learning the glazing technique and was beyond me at the time. So the glazed version was shelved for a good while. I have a bad habit of giving up on paintings when actually nearly all paintings are redeemable. As Camille Pissarro said though, you have to keep working until you get it right. When this happens paintings just end up marked ‘fail’ on the fail shelf, and they gnaw away at me. This is a weakness I am trying to overcome, and in that spirit I went back to this portrait and reworked it, specifically after looking at Bonnard. He is such a gorgeous painter who has a rare magical ability with colour, always surprising and new.

Looking at Bonnard fuelled the desire to just let go a bit and love colour, love painting again. Sometimes working on the grisaille technique has made me work in a narrow way and I felt I lost my earlier naive jollity. That’s not what I was taught though by Louis Smith amongst others, who all used many different colour hues when glazing. I just got to a point where I found a way that was working and stuck with it. Having said all that, I was happy with the grisaille paintings that I glazed, I just felt I wanted to let go a bit. It wasn’t working in this particular painting anyway, so I needed something different. I can’t just ape Bonnard in his beautiful loose technique, which you can see was always his sensibility when you look at his early work. I love colour but also love ‘polishing’ the drawing, which is something I get from my love of stone carving.

Here is a Bonnard self portrait to give an idea of what I mean.

self-portrait-pierre-bonnard

2 Replies to “Portrait painting in oil – underpainting in grisaille”

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