Learning to love black

Henri Matisse, View of Collioure and the sea, 1907 - Met Museum

At school in art class I was taught that black paint is evil, (my teacher was a hardcore impressionist) and that to make a black you need to mix it from other colours, and the required colours were Burnt Sienna and Cobalt blue. It’s taken a LONG time to get this out of my system and in my paintings I still like to mix optical blacks, usually now with Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green, and Burnt Umber with Ultramarine or Pthalo Blues.

Matisse said ‘black is a force’ and he painted some amazing paintings using blacks. You can see what he’s getting at looking at his paintings, but it was his rare skill not to overuse them and just use them to anchor his compositions. I learnt from Louis Smith that for very dark shadow skin tones Alizarin Crimson and Sap Green work really well together. I have mixed black with other colours to darken them and am getting better at using it, although sparingly.. I also learnt to mix Alizarin Crimson with black as this gives it more depth – just another kind of optical black really.

Here’s one of my favourite Matisse paintings and one of my all time greatest paintings; View of Collioure and the sea, 1907 – from the Met Museum, as I remember about 60 x 90cm. Its a lateish Fauvist work known, according to the Met Museum, as “Le Vitrail” (“The Stained Glass”) by Matisse’s family as the black lines of the trees and the colours resemble a stained glass window. Its painted with such economy of means – the photo doesn’t do it justice of course. Fabulous snaking tree trunks and green blobs for foliage, through to the view of the sea beyond. I saw it in Tate Modern a few years ago in some show or other, such a beautiful painting. I  still remember clearly how it took my breath away.

Titian’s Ecce Homo – underpainting and glazing

This beautiful painting by Titian from the Prado Museum is the reason I wanted to try and learn the technique of painting with a grey layer, or underpainting in grisaille, a technique that Titian pioneered.

The flesh appears both taught, as if it was carved out of marble, and fluid at the same time. Titian painted this in Rome, and you can clearly see the influence of Michelangelo in the rendering of the forms and their monumentality. Another interesting fact is that he painted it on Slate. You can see the colour layers as applied over the grisaille and they seem to dance and flicker on the picture plane. It is as if Jesus Christ is illuminated from the inside, and the strokes of glaze glow like flames burning in a furnace. The cloth Christ is wrapped in has an extraordinary quality which maybe I could get to the bottom of by copying.

I don’t paint portraits with this kind of chiaroscuro and extreme passages of light to dark, but maybe I should. Chiaroscuro as seen here feels like it belongs in a different age, but it would be interesting to see if you could do it today, and make it something worth looking at, without pastiche.

These paintings of Christ on his way to the crucifixion were meant as devotional images, painted in such ways to elicit empathy from the viewer. You can feel the depth of Titian’s religious faith in this painting. There is more information on the Museo Del Prado’s website about it.

It feels a bit shallow chatting about it in this way, or that I’ve somehow understood it when I don’t think I have at all. Perhaps the only way to come to terms with it is to try and copy the painting, but the subject is so raw that personally I don’t think I can. I am able to admire this painting, but not as a devotional object and certainly only in a small way appreciate it in the way Titian intended. But as much as being a devotional object it is also celebrated because of the skill and grace he displayed in handling the paint after all. I do believe though that it was his religious faith that gave rise to his superlative technique here.

fb994100-587a-45db-8672-0160d39e273d

SaveSave

Underpainting

Tommy- underpainting in progress. Underpainting is a technique used since the renaissance. It usually refers to a monochrome foundation or base layer, and layers of paint are applied on top. This one is a grisaille or grey, but there are various different kinds, and not always of the monochromatic variety. Titian used coloured underpainting. The idea is that it supports further layers of paint, as a foundation supports a house. For me it is purely a pragmatic solution where I can be confident that the drawing is correct and can continue applying further colour layers without having to backtrack and amend the drawing as I go. If I’m painting a portrait to commission I like to work as efficiently as possible, and in the past I have found myself in tricky situations where I have had to keep going over the drawing because its not right, and this can be very time consuming. As I have said elsewhere, you can throw a lot of good painting after bad if the drawing isn’t right first.

The other type of underpainting I have used is called ‘verdaccio’, which is a green version, and usually made by mixing black, yellow and white #realism #contemporaryart #underpainting #art #oilpainting #grisaille #portrait #portraitpainting #oiloncanvas #devon

Jack in umbers

Jack detail, Oil on Canvas, Matt Harvey Portraits copy
Jack, oil on canvas

When I began investigating Old Master techniques I had some brilliant instruction from James Scrace, a portrait painter who was trained by Pietro Annigoni (see his fantastic self portrait). He learned every traditional painting skill from Annigoni, including fresco painting, and he taught me to use Burnt Umber as a wash to draw the portrait first, and then build up layers of slightly opaque ‘half-pastes’ using colour and a little white. Also I was taught to add white with small amounts of blue and then glaze over it with flesh tones. This was one of my first attempts, of my cousin Jack. Of late I have been focussing on a strict grisaille underpainting but looking at this I think I prefer the slightly more fluid quality burnt umber can achieve with thinner washes.

Portrait painting and glazing

Tom, Matt Harvey Art

Here is a recent portrait commission using the grisaille method, where the colour glazes overlap and create an optical effect as the light passes through each layer. This one has around 6-8 layers of oil glaze over the grey underpainting. As I have mentioned before, I use M. Graham’s walnut alkyd medium, which dries quickly enough and doesn’t give me a headache.  I was constantly repainting and working into the drawing as I went, and the main problem in the end is the risk of over-working it, so at this stage I decided to call it a day.

Drawing practice

The most intense ‘drawing’ experience I have had is when I am carving directly into marble. This piece was done from photos with some simple measurements I took with a set of callipers as a guide (not easy with a baby – generally done while she was asleep!) With marble carving any wrong move would ruin the whole thing and a months work, making it pretty stressful but a great discipline. Because of that pressure I think I improved my ‘looking’. For me drawing is about making a mark, and then checking it, and checking again, and deeply looking at the subject. I even feel that the depth of the looking etches the subjectivity of the artist on the media they are working, be it drawing, painting or sculpture. I don’t know what that subjectivity is but its an emotion, and its possible to embody that emotion in a work of art. Making a sculpture in the round is like doing hundreds of drawings simultaneously. Without drawing, or when the drawing is lacking, the painting’s ruined.

In my experience CUTTING CORNERS with drawing is the biggest waste of time and I have probably wasted YEARS of my life throwing good after bad in paintings, going over and over attempting corrections when all the effort could have been saved with earlier checks. Its the ultimate false economy..

‘Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting… Drawing contains everything, except the hue’. (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres) from Art Quotes

Revelation with colour glazing

One of the most important things that has happened to me in all the years I have been portrait painting was going on a course run by Louis Smith in 2014, learning about glazing. Looking at his website I thought this would be about glazing as I understood it where you have a very thin translucent layer of paint and you go over a grey underpainting, or dead layer, like Caravaggio or Ingres. We learned to glaze over an underpainting, but the glazes felt more like ‘half-pastes’ as they were not entirely transparent. Even so it transformed the way I approached colour mixing for portrait paintings, and I learned amazing colour combinations of reds and greens which are now the foundation of my approach to painting a face. I’ll write about them in another blog post. I found out about Louis Smith from Jonathan Jones, the Guardian newspaper art critic.

On the course, which was over a weekend, we used a monochrome print from another portrait and went step by step through the process of building up areas of colour, slowly refining and blending each.

Portrait of Florence, oil on canvas

For this portrait as usual I used a canvas on board, and cropped it slightly to fit the subject. I started with a grisaille underpainting using Raw Umber and Titanium White and a little medium. I’m still swinging between a straightforward Ivory Black and White underpainting, and other versions, mainly Raw Umber and White. I’ve looked around online and you can see people painting with blacks which are made up of reds mixed with greens, e.g. Alizarin Crimson and Viridan Green, or again blues and browns. At school I was taught by my militant impressionist teacher Mr. Baines that using black was sinful and one should only EVER mix blacks optically, and his chosen mix was Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue. You can mix a nice black from these two, but I went off Burnt Sienna a while ago and I think you can achieve a deeper black mixed from Burnt Umber and Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue.

Having said all that, in the name of efficiency I have stripped back all of my processes to avoid unnecessary headaches so I generally I use Ivory Black and Titanium White! I have also learned from Louis Smith that a little Alizarin Crimson mixed in with Ivory Black gives it more depth, so I also do this on occasion.

The thing is that I can achieve this depth at a later stage by glazing darker colours over the underpainting so again the Alizarin Crimson gets ditched when I want to simplify the process. I’m possibly lazy, but if you are working on something over a few sessions and have to mix the colours each time inconsistencies can creep in and so thats just another layer of process that can be removed.

You can see an example of the depth achieved through glazing in the image below where the grisaille is actually quite bland in comparison. Dark glazes in and around the eyes give huge depth (generally I won’t use black at this stage and mainly use Alizarin and Sap Green or Cadmium Red and Viridian, or blues or browns or whatever..). This is the first glaze and already it has transformed the tonal range of the portrait.

First glazing over grisaille portrait

I’ve put the first colour glaze put on this portrait in 2 stressful hours! A few more glazes needed and I’ll add them over the coming days. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium which dries overnight – or to be extra sure within 48 hours. I enjoyed painting his ear and chuffed with the result! It felt good to achieve some economy of handling with the paint, and not get bogged down in it. #ear #chuffed #figurativeart #contemporaryart #portraitpainting #portrait #grisaille #underpainting #oilpainting #oiloncanvas #realism #art #painting #glaze #devonartistnetwork #devonopenstudios #devon

Portrait of Bea, final glaze

Portrait of Bea. After feeling around what might work for the background I settled on this regal blue, and I gave the painting a few glazes of Michael Harding’s Ultramarine, which is both warm and sharp, and has a depth while also firmly hovering on the picture plane. Ultramarine blue was discovered around 1820. Before that the only available version of this blue was the extremely expensive Lapis Lazuli, from Afghanistan. Duccio and a whole lot of 14th century artists would have loved to use it to save some cash #oiloncanvas #oilpainting #portrait #portraitpainting #art #contemporaryart #figurativeart #bandana