Painting with Raw Umber and White

I wanted to paint some more using Raw Umber and Titanium White to paint the underpainting for portraits. Looking back over some earlier work from a couple of years ago inspired me to start using them together again. This is a detail from a recent portrait before the glazing. I wanted to approach it with a more fluid, perhaps bolder (for me) style. The underpainting took a couple of hours and when painting it I wanted to allow the brushwork to show a bit more as you get more of a sense of the process of painting it. I also started the painting on a ‘ground’ which was a middle tone of the 2 colours. You can see I left it in the space on the left side of the painting by the chair. Soon I hope to do a video on my youtube channel exploring how Caravaggio used grounds in his oil paintings.

I will also post a video of me doing the glazing for this portrait in the near future.

Jacob, grisaille DETAIL, oil on board, Matt Harvey Art copy
Portrait of Jacob, grisaille in Raw Umber and Titanium White, detail
Jacob, grisaille, oil on board, Matt Harvey Art SMALL
Portrait of Jacob, grisaille in Raw Umber and Titanium White

My hope is to paint freely, without really worrying too much about it, without being a slave to technique or overthinking it. I’m presently attempting to return to a simpler process, where the focus is on the drawing, the underpainting. Working in the grisaille holds and extends the moment when I feel I am most deeply connected to pure painting, whatever that is. It helps in sustaining the emotion I feel when pushing paint around, drawing with paint and attempting to conjure a likeness. It removes any other distractions to painting, like choosing the right colour! At the moment I enjoy breaking this process into the two stages, drawing and colour, hence grisaille and glazing. As a sculptor my first love was always drawing, and grisaille fuses the two, becoming like a bridge between drawing and painting.

When starting to paint portraits seriously a few years ago I looked hard for a way of working that suits my disposition and the need to paint as efficiently as possible so as to make it a viable career. I wanted to work with technique, without becoming its slave. To be able to work efficiently so as not to waste time, but to paint with feeling. There’s a certain emotion I get from a painting when it is going well, and I have felt that emotion disappearing by degree the more I have focussed on technique. I think this is something I can correct easily but I need to work through it a bit to maintain the pure pleasure of painting portraits. Its a fine line because I still believe technique is important. If there is a way to do it I want to somehow get lost in the emotion of painting. I see this after finishing a successful portrait, but then the ‘how’ disappears and I can’t recall what happened exactly to make the painting work.

I was happy with this Umber grisaille, but when I tried to recreate the same quality it has in the next painting, I couldn’t do it. There are a thousand, an infinite number of variables and I think I am narrowing in on what I want to do. Hopefully work will reveal it slowly and I can record that on this blog and youtube.

Incidentally, speaking of emotion or feeling in a work, a famous quote from Van Gogh goes: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.”

I landed on the technique, or method, of painting with grisaille as I thought it covered all bases. The magic of painting a portrait is found in the way brush marks can transform inert paint into something that can conjure a likeness, even a character or personality on a canvas. I don’t want to fixate on recreating reality, or paint in a photorealist style. I love paint, making a mess with paint, and to leave a painting as a record of this experience.

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