I wanted to share the magical transformation an oil painting undergoes, glazing oil colour over a monotone underpainting.
I filmed myself painting the glaze and velatura over this portrait for one hour, in 3 short videos – this being the first. Its the first glaze and there will be a few others to finish the portrait, but this video shows the process, and I hope shows why I find it such a rewarding method to work with. It shows the dramatic results you can achieve in a relatively short amount of time.
This is Amy’s portrait, glazed in oil paints. I filmed myself doing this and it will shortly be on my youtube channel. Its still in the early stages, and when this layer is dry I’ll go over it again, up to 3 or 4 times. I don’t know if I’m going to film those other stages – they might be a bit boring as its just a lot of tinkering. In the early stages its quite dramatic how a few glazes of colour changes the grisaille into a very nearly finished portrait. Stay tuned!
Here is a double portrait I worked on from a photo, to give an example of the process. I originally painted Anna in a grisaille, and went over the face in colour, having changed tack and wanting concentrate on a single opaque colour layer. It was worked into over a few sessions with additional glazes of colour.
In contrast I painted Simon’s face in colour directly onto primed canvas. I painted a ‘ground’ (or colour stain) on the canvas first, using a couple of coats of acrylic Burnt Umber. You can also see where I drew the grid. I had to leave some of the background unpainted so I could still follow the gridlines! It was one of those rare occasions where I was able to get the drawing right on the first attempt.
When doing commissions this has been something I have avoided trying too much, because when the drawing doesn’t work I can spend many hours going back over the painting, needlessly, because if the drawing was all correct in the first place it wouldn’t have been a problem. Many bad experiences trying to fix paintings like this led me to use the grisaille method, because that is a great way of ensuring the drawing is right before attempting colour.
When I say drawing I’m talking about drawing with the paint. I’ve written about this before, especially here regarding the utmost importance of getting the drawing right first. Drawing is all of painting – figurative painting that is. That’s why even though I trained as a sculptor I could try painting portraits, because I had done a lot of drawing already. Working to commission means I need to make sure there’s no wasted effort.
This is a portrait I painted of my brother Tom a few years ago, and I wanted to share it as I love the composition. I don’t know if its obvious but he’s reading, and enjoying a cup of tea at home. I feel the composition of the painting has a compactness to it, whilst having three distinct spatial areas – himself in the foreground, the room behind, and the window and world outside. There’s also the added dimension of the other window on his right, shedding light on his hand and cheek. And you could include the space I sat and painted in. I think I spent an hour or so on it and it was a good likeness, so decided to leave it as it was.
I was quite free with colour at the time and that’s something I want to renew and develop further, as another discipline to complement grisaille painting. I think some of the paintings I made in the years before I learned traditional techniques have a freedom and spontaneity that I don’t want to lose sight of. I’ll share more of these on this blog soon.
I’m hoping to start going a drop-in life class to specifically do some oil sketches and Alla Prima portraits so we’ll see how that goes. As I post this I will be at a portrait class in Topsham, Devon, and I will post again about it. Alla Prima is a technique I’ve had a little instruction in, but I’m feeling the need to go back to Bristol to have a chat with James Scrace about it. I’ve mentioned before but he worked for and trained under Pietro Annigoni, so he knows what he’s talking about! Alla Prima is Italian for ‘first attempt’ and is also called wet-on-wet. You basically try and finish the painting in a sitting, rather than painting layers of oil paint on top of paint that has been allowed to dry. I’d love to do one of Louis Smith’s courses on it as he provides brilliant tuition in all things academic in oil painting and portraiture.
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.
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.
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.
The portrait has a rather serious quality that I like. There was a lot of revising and correcting, but the head looks as if it could be carved out of marble. As a sculptor by training I definitely enjoyed painting this head with its beautiful symmetry. It’s one of those things but I would rework it if I could get it back now, but actually I couldn’t because it lives in its own time and I correct it in further paintings. Each painting is part of a long chain of work that link one to the other, and each painting has its own quality, for better or worse. Actually I would have loved to carve a portrait sculpture based on this portrait.
There was a lot of correcting while painting the glazes, because the grisaille was probably not complete at the time of the first glaze. But as Philip Guston said, painting should have a moral aspect, and somehow all the effort spent in painting a picture or portrait is stored as a kind of moral force. The opposite would be something like doing it with a photoshop app and a click of a button. This is absolutely true and you can always sense this in a painting, and in the most subtle way all the effort, all the revisions and alterations, all the agony and effort, and joy, show in the final painting. Philip Guston was a true hero of art.
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.
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 hovering between a straightforward Ivory Black and White underpainting, and other versions, mainly Raw or Burnt Umber and White. Burnt umber has a little more warmth. 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 different 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 (I’m sure I’ll come back to it – at the moment it just has a bit too much character, like someone talking very loudly at a party, so you can here them wherever you’re standing!). 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.
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