Glazing a portrait from grisaille to colour

Commissioned portrait of a young cellist by matt harvey uk portrait artist and painter. painted in grisaille using raw umber and titanium white
Portrait of a young cellist. Grisaille painted in Raw Umber and Titanium White, oil on board

Detail of a portrait painting showing the first glaze over a grisaille underpainting by UK portrait artist Matt Harvey. The subtle glazes reveal the character and life of the sitter, and give great depth to this portrait commission

This was a commissioned portrait of a young girl and here are before and after images to show how I developed the underpainting. Grisaille underpainting was completed first and then I added some layers of colour glazes. With this method, rather than mixing the colours on the palette the colours are ‘mixed’ optically through progressive glazes – very thin layers – of oil paint with a little medium.

Someone asked me the other day how much medium I use when painting in oils. Firstly I should explain that I always ‘oil out’ the painting surface before each painting session. Some people call it ‘oiling in’ by the way, but essentially it just means taking a little of the medium you are using and applying it to the painting surface. You can apply it any way you want, but I prefer to brush it on (any brush will do but I use a short wide sable brush) and when the surface I am working on is covered I rub the medium off very gently so there should be a very thin layer of medium left. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd Medium because it has an alkyd resin in it so it will dry in 48 hours. You could use plain linseed oil, it just takes longer to dry. There are quick drying oil paints out there and also siccatives but they are usually made using mineral spirits which I don’t like.

You can see me demonstrate this on one of the videos I put on youtube:

Oiling out is something you just get the hang of with practice. Sometimes I have left too much medium on and sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough. I do it between every glaze, so when a glaze is dry to the touch and I am starting the next I just repeat the process. Once all this is done the paint flows on the surface more easily, but I still add some medium to the glaze as I mix it on the pallet, being careful not to add too much otherwise it gets sloppy and ugly. Having said that I can always pull it off an area of the canvas by using a dry brush. It really depends on what kind of result you are after as a painter, everyone is different and is seeking a different quality in the paint they use.

In the portrait of the girl with a cello I used Raw Umber and Titanium white to do the underpainting, which has a nice warmth to it. Looking at this painting again has inspired me to rethink how I produce portrait paintings. I have found myself pulling against the overly finished and polished style of some of my work, so I want to revisit this way of working with a Raw Umber grisaille. I’m looking for something cruder, looser and freer from the constrains of technique. Sometimes too much knowledge and technique can get in the way of painting. My goal is to be able to paint with more naivety, as well as with good technique.

Florence final, oil on canvas, Matt Harvey Art SMALL
Portrait of a young cellist,70x50cm. The palette was fairly limited after painting the grisaille. Painting the cello was surprisingly done in just a 2 glazes, I guess because glazing is very similar to the polishing or lacquered finish a stringed instrument has.

I was interested in this painting again because I have been struggling with how to complete backgrounds, and finding myself overworking them. I like the simplicity of this background, completed at the underpainting stage. Raw Umber and white has a warm neutrality which works well. I painted this without really worrying too much about it, without technique or overthinking it. I’m presently trying to return to this simpler process, where the focus is on the drawing, the underpainting.

Video of 1st glaze on underpainting ‘After Bouguereau’

copy of a bouguereau painting by matt harvey UK portrait painter and artist

I have just finished the first glaze in oil paints on my grisaille underpainting. This short video project was all about trying to work out how Bouguereau made his paintings, something I have often wondered about.

His works have a particular translucent quality and it was my mission to try and fathom the processes behind this. I think the only real way one can do that is to use the glazing technique over a grisaille. Of course you may get an idea of how it was done using different painting methods or materials but I wanted to stick as closely as possible to his generally agreed method of glazing.

The only real way to understand another artist’s technique is to try and do it oneself. I have not copied many works in my art practice but this has been an invaluable exercise in understanding glazing generally. That is my real and only goal actually; to find a way to develop my own practice with glazing in my paintings. But in the process I hope to leave a course of videos that might enable anyone to achieve similar results to Bouguereau with a little practice. I feel that actually this technique is deceptively simple, but I am still trying to work out the most efficient way of doing it. If you look at Caravaggio’s paintings you can see that once the underpainting was done it was a small step to add some colour, although being able to do it is another matter entirely.

I still feel that anyone can begin to approach painting in the same way as these artists, it just needs practice.

This piece obviously needs some more work to get close to Bouguereau’s, but its only the first glaze, so I’m really looking forward to doing the second glaze and more. I’m thinking of getting a print of the grisaille and trying all over again, and that way I think I might actually crack it, based on lessons learned so far. It was never about making a perfect copy, only trying to come close to the original so as to learn the process generally.

I’m still getting used to filming myself working. The hardest thing about it is making room for the painting and the palette, where I would normally be much closer to the painted surface. I normally spend the whole time panicking!

After Bouguereau grisaille underpainting

This is a grisaille underpainting by UK artist Matt Harvey, after Bouguereau. Painted in Titanium White and Ivory Black. Matt Harvey provides tuition and demonstrations in his videos about glazing oil paints.
After Bouguereau – grisaille underpainting 30x40cm

After drawing in this Bouguereau I painted the grisaille. I’m not normally used to modelling the forms so thoroughly but I found that to be a very valuable experience, because I don’t think I have ever done it! I have found in the past that as long as the drawing is correct in the grisaille then the glazes and half-pastes (with white) will continue to refine the modelling.

I was also conscious of not painting the grisaille too dark to begin with as the later glazes will darken it further. Also it is difficult to tell wether it is purely a glaze that creates the shadow tone here or if there are thinner glazes over the grisaille. I can’t actually tell if the shadow area on her neck below her chin is a thicker rich glaze or the result of the shadow painted in grisaille, showing through the glaze. It doesn’t actually look like there is any grisaille showing through. I recognise the glaze as a mixture of green and red (which ones I’m not so sure). My hunch though is that it is created from Sap Green and Cadmium Red or Vermillion. I left it as a compromise with a little shading in the underpainting. The sharper transitions can all be softened with glazes and I will show this in my next video.

The whole point of the grisaille is that you don’t lose touch with the drawing and it is visible through the glazes. Its a chicken and egg scenario trying to work out which came first. Only time will tell, and when I do the glazing I should have a much clearer idea of how Bouguereau did it.

In the grisaille I have deliberately left some of the transitions between light and shade a little sharp, and some of the lighter areas quite flat. This I hoped would enable me to concentrate on modelling the forms with the colour glazes which is what I think Bouguereau did.

All the modelling around her shoulders could have been created with glazes only over a fairly flat underpainting. Also I have not really darkened the area on her left cheek as I’m sure this has been created with a red glaze. I once saw a photo of one of his paintings where the glaze was flaking off but unfortunately I can’t find it again. This proved though that so much of the modelling was done with glazes alone, and that these glazes gave the work that translucent quality.

 

Commissioned portrait painting

Commissioned portrait painting in oil on board by Matt Harvey, UK portrait painter. Prices for portrait commissions are included on my page commission a portrait
Portrait of a girl. Oil on board. 30x40cm

These images (the 1st 2 are film stills) show the first 3 glazes as they went on, alongside the initial underpainting. This portrait was a challenge in the sense that I underestimated how light the reference was and how light the final painting would be,  so the grisaille was too dark to begin with and the glazes darkened it further. It is still a challenge to find this balance in the grisaille and resist the temptation to paint it too darkly.

When the values are a bit dark in the grisaille it can take a while to lighten them, although this can be a blessing because repeated glazing has an unrivalled quality compared to only a few glazes.

Philip Guston described himself as a moral painter, and said the effort a painter puts into their art is still there in the final painting. Sometimes where the path of least resistance has been taken, paintings can have a shallow quality sometimes. But all the effort and struggle, corrections, reworking, repeated revising etc. carry a moral charge that one can intuitively feel and perceive in the final painting.

The video I made of the first glaze going on the underpainting is here on my videos page.

Portrait painting in oil on board by Matt Harvey, UK portrait painter. Prices for portrait commissions are included on my page commission a portrait
In the end I felt that it worked better to declutter the background, but I kept the colour suggestion of the chair, a warm light green.

Drawing is the foundation of portrait painting – Ballet lesson

Portrait painting of a young ballet dancer by matt harvey, UK portrait artist. Commissioning a painting is a collaboration between the artist and the sitter. Please contact the artist for further details about commissioning a portrait painting of your loved ones.
Ballet lesson, oil on board

Here is a portrait of my daughter at ballet class that I painted before attending Louis Smith’s glazing workshop. To begin I painted the whole thing in a ‘dead layer’ or monochrome using Burnt Umber, Ivory Black and Titanium White. Then I did some very thin coloured oil glazes and some ‘half-pastes’ where you’ve got a bit of white mixed with the glazes, which are more opaque and not completely transparent. See my videos page for examples of this. Working in glazes is very methodical, and is sometimes called ‘indirect painting’. Initially I found working in this way too removed from earlier observational painting I had done in the past and at first I found I couldn’t get my early schooling out of my head.

The most crucial point in painting anything is the drawing, and drawing is paramount to painting a portrait. Without correct drawing, drawing that conjures a likeness of the sitter, the painting can fail as a portrait. It might still be a good painting though, but here we are concerned with painting a portrait. And if it has been commissioned the person who commissions the portrait expects a likeness above all. Surely a good likeness is the sine qua non of a portrait painting. The reason I developed an interest in indirect painting and working first in the grisaille is so that I could finish the drawing. Everything follows from there.

Generally in the past I would prefer trying to paint all the colours directly, drawing as I went, but occasionally this method is a bit hit and miss. If I got the drawing wrong initially there was always so much back tracking, and in this painting I saved myself a lot of messing about by getting the drawing right first. Rushing ahead without completely resolving the drawing is like building a house with a wobbly foundation.

In the long run there is no wasted effort in art, as we are always growing and developing as artists, and we grow through work and effort. But my project has also been an attempt not to waste any effort! Hence a focus on drawing first and foremost.

As well as painting is a grisaille, there is also a lot to be said for diving straight in and drawing with colour directly onto the canvas, which is what I did here:

detail of a commissioned portrait painting by UK portrait artist Matt Harvey
This was the first stage of the portrait, painted in approximately 2 hours. It is difficult to see the sap greens but they are all there mixed in with the reds. Without the sap greens the reds would be far too warm.

Looking back at the above portrait, it is one of the occasions I got both the drawing and the colour right at the same time. There were a few further glazes to refine the drawing but its all finalised in this first glaze. Its a case of taking the time to get it right and not rushing or guessing in any way. Its like sudoku. You can never guess what number should go in a particular square, and when you do you are doomed to failure. Drawing a portrait requires an extremely high degree of concentration which I am better at maintaining now. In the past I might have just let myself slip, guessed the line or the proportion, and continued in a shallow self-satisfied way. You can never assume you’ve got it right until you’ve checked and checked again. Of course you can go back over it but why not get it right first time? Its much harder to go back over it, and for some reason if I’ve committed to having an eye in a particular place for example, its hard to admit to myself its wrong and change it. This is something I did here when I realised I had been happily going along with eyes which were wrongly spaced:

 

On the left the eyes were too far apart so I had to take a deep breath and repaint her left eye, moving it over by about 1cm. It was the ‘full stop’ on this painting. It wasn’t a nice thought having to repaint it but it only took around 30 minutes in all. This is what I mean by not settling for a shallow version of the painting, and oneself, complacently self satisfied or just plain avoiding the discipline required. I think the problem arose because much of the drawing was incorrect in the first sitting and everything had to be adjusted. In the end I was happy though and could draw a line under it as finished.

 

 

 

My palette, limited palettes and extreme limited palettes

Detail of grisaille underpainting, on a portrait painting in progress by portrait painter Matt Harvey
Detail of a group portrait showing the grisaille underpainting painted in acrylic

I like to use disposable palettes. I like to start with them looking nice and clean, a clean slate. I can’t leave the colours on the palette to dry and then work on top. I find its just good to start afresh with each session, so I’m always miserly about how much I squeeze from the tube, although there is always some waste.

At the moment my palette consists of: Titanium white, indian yellow, lemon yellow, brilliant yellow, raw sienna, cadmium orange, vermillion, cadmium red, red lake, alizarin crimson, rose madder, ultramarine blue, viridian green, sap green, raw umber, ivory black. 16 in all, but a few of them I could live without, and generally don’t use too much. It all depends on the portrait I am painting at the time. I find rose madder is invaluable for painting lips! But only that. I have used it in the past for a brightly coloured shirt or dress. I can happily paint with only one of the yellows too, but it helps to have a few others rarely used that I can turn to.

I’m still trying to find the most efficient palette to use, and am more and more tempted by very limited palettes. Something yellow, a red, a blue and a green. And white of course. My very first training in oil painting at school was using palettes of cobalt blue, burn sienna and a white, and this created some beautiful colours together. I’ll have to experiment and will show the results here. Possibly also: Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber, White, Cadmium red, and a yellow. If using a blue you would still be able to create beautiful optical blacks mixed with the Umber. For me my palette doesn’t extend much beyond 15 or 16 colours, depending on what I’m painting. There don’t have to be more than this in my own experience. Sometimes though I have ‘guest’ colours that come in for one night only if a painting requires it, like the Rose Madder.

I read that Cezanne used brilliant yellow and red lake so I bought some Old Holland Brilliant Yellow and Red Ochre. I love the fact the names are in Dutch which alone seems to channel the spirit of Rembrandt!

Speaking of limited palettes, the ‘Zorn’ palette, named after Anders Zorn, is a very restricted, you could say austere, colour palette. Consisting of white, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and Cadmium Red or Vermillion. I didn’t know about Zorn until I started investigating whether to mix optical blacks or if I should stick to Ivory Black from the tube when underpainting or painting in a grisaille. I still haven’t settled on any specific formula for this, but the most pragmatic method is to stick with the black on its own. Mixing a little Alizarin Crimson into the black from the tube gives it more depth, and sometimes I do this, although not all the time.

If using black for grisailles,  straight from the tube is the most paired down, straightforward method. It is the most limited palette there is after all, assuming you ought to have at least 2 colours on your palette. That’s pretty severe. The kind of palette Samuel Beckett would use, but then maybe he would only use black. There were some conceptual painters in the 70’s who only painted in blacks or greys, and then only painted stripes, and then only horizontal or vertical stripes.. But they wanted to reduce painting to a historical fact alone. Something was painted at a certain time and place, and in a certain context, and that was that. No answers ‘nor consolation nor certainty nor enlightenment are offered’, and ‘the viewer is forced to confront the fundamental truth of the questioning process itself.’ (Buren- quoted from Conceptual Art by Tony Godfrey). Thats not what we are trying to do here though.

self-portrait-in-a-wolfskin-1915.jpg!PinterestSmall
Anders Zorn. A life of chromatic austerity, but no stripes.

For Zorn, Black and white could create a blue which was blue enough, seen relative to other colours on the canvas, and Black and Yellow Ochre creates greens – some people use only these two colours for greens when painting landscapes. Mr Jeremy Baines, my ultra-impressionist teacher at school, wouldn’t countenance the use of black in any painting. It was viewed a kind of heresy, and it literally took me decades to get it out of my system. Although free of these taboos against the colour black, it doesn’t mean I’ve flipped the other way. Instinctively I would always use a broader palette than black and yellow ochre if I was painting a landscape or anything else. If I used black, I would love to use black like Matisse, the true master of black in painting. He said ‘black is a force’, and I don’t know what that means but you get a sense of it when you look at his paintings.

Henri Matisse, View of Collioure and the sea, 1907 - Met Museum
Matisse, view of Collioure by the sea. Tate Modern. Go to see it if you can.
parmentier SMALL
A historical fact. Buren, Mosset, Parmentier and Toroni worked together around 1970 each painting their own signature style paintings. Parmentier’s, above, was horizontal stripes. They said ‘To paint is to give aesthetic value to flowers, women, erotieism, the daily environment, art, dadaism, psychoanalysis and the war in Vietnam, we are not painters‘. Definitely not fans of grisaille underpainting. Buren said that ‘now we can say for the first time, that “it is painting”, as we say, “it is raining”. When it snows we are in the presence of a natural phenomena, so when “it paints” we are in the presence of an historical fact.'(Buren- Conceptual Art by Tony Godfrey)

I’ve always loved that. To be able to say ‘Its painting today’..

 

 

Glazing over acrylic underpainting video

Here is a new video of me working on a first colour glaze in oils, over an acrylic grisaille underpainting, which is a new medium for me. I’m trying to speed up the process a little bit. It took a while to get the hang of acrylic, something I’m still progressing with. The grisaille is done using raw umber and titanium white, but hopefully the video is self-explanatory.

Portrait painting step by step, glazing over grisaille

I’ve nearly finished this portrait painting. Its had 5 glazes over the initial underpainting. This picture shows the grisaille, the first glaze (which I filmed and is on youtube) and then the 5th glaze which is almost the last one. I still intend to go over the hair and background again amongst other things. The background was a dark green the glaze before this! It still shows through and gives it a nice depth. The lovely thing about working in this way is that everything can change with just one glaze. This portrait has been through many stages while painting each glaze. Sometimes I misjudged a colour or hue or the values of light and dark weren’t right. In each case I was able to correct the painting in the following glaze, either lightening or darkening.

I love painting highlights in a portrait so I guess I overdid it somewhat and the lightest light ended up too bright by the 4th glaze, but in the latest glaze which you can see here I went over the whole portrait again with a darker glaze just to soften it a little. In areas where it was too dark again I just used a dry brush to pick off the paint and continue blending. I can always keep adjusting a portrait at a late stage if the client commissioning the portrait feels there is something that needs changing.

It is surprising just how close to the original grisaille the painting is, even when its possible to see how much refining and drawing has gone into the portrait over all the glazes. Its strange to see later very finished versions of a portrait where the grisaille is like a ghost, still very present but disguised under veils and glazes of colour. The grisaille functions like an anchor that holds the structure of the portrait in place, and many many changes can occur but the painting is still held firmly together by the initial drawing. Its the main reason I started learning how to paint using the grisaille method.

I always use the same mixes when I paint portraits using the grisaille method. All my glazes start with various quantities of the same colours: Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Raw Umber and Sap Green (a warm Sap Green). All the later glazes are mixed with these colours but with other additions, like Ultramarine Blue to cool it down, a bit of Titanium White to make a velatura or semi opaque glaze, some Cadmium Orange.. but always hovering around the same original mix. Of course this depends on the commission and the sitter having their portrait painted.

Portrait painting commission in 3 stages by British contemporary portrait artist Matt Harvey, based in Devon, UK
Portrait painting in 3 stages: The grisaille, the 1st glaze, and the 5th glaze. The glazing process is the same each time, and the portrait just gets steadily refined as it progresses

Portrait painting from grisaille underpainting to fourth glaze

Here are a selection of photos showing the completed glazes done over the grisaille underpainting in this portrait commission.

Custom portrait commission of a girl laughing, child portrait in oil paint by portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey
The first layer, called a grisaille as its painted in grey, using Titanium White and Ivory Black
First glaze over a grisaille underpainting, oil on board by portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey
The first glaze which was painted in roughly an hour. This is the subject of a film in 4 parts, showing the 1st glaze being painted in oils
Second oil glaze on a commissioned portrait painting by British portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey
The second glaze, painted after a couple of days when the first glaze had fully dried. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium. The alkyd accelerates the drying, otherwise the oil takes at least a week to be dry enough to paint the next glaze.
3rd oil glaze on a grisaille portrait, from a portrait painting commission by British portrait painter Matt Harvey
The third oil glaze shows the colours getting richer. I continue to model the forms of the portrait while I paint the glazes.
Ruby 4th glaze, oil on board, custom portrait commission by portrait painter Matt Harvey,oil on board
4th glaze

Portrait painting video demonstration

My latest film, another shot while putting on the first glaze over a grisaille underpainting, is now finished and on youtube. Here’s a link to the first installment:

It’s been an interesting experience filming myself working, and quite strange to watch it back as I’ve never seen myself working before. I wanted to make an authentic account of working with this method, and create the film I was looking for when trying to learn how to do it myself. Of course thats a process that never stops!