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!

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.

 

 

 

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!

Oil painting as alchemy – Dry brush blending in portraiture

Dry brushing and blending in oil portrait painting
Portrait of Violet detail, oil on canvas

I was able to practise my dry brush blending with this portrait of a beautiful girl called Violet. This portrait commission was a staging post for me in developing my understanding of the grisaille technique. I’m now much more comfortable marrying techniques of glazing with my earlier familiar method of building up solid planes of colour. I took a lot of care over the blending and modelling of the glazed areas, and I hope that they also have a painterly quality. My goal isn’t to create a facsimile or exact copy of the photographic reference, but using that reference as a starting point I am first and foremost concerned with creating a painting using oil paint. Oil paint has its own qualities and follows its own transformation as the painting progresses. The delight of an oil painting is how this empty picture plane can somehow come to harbour all these rich layers of paint and medium, which swim around on this surface, again somehow crystallising into a likeness of a person.

Dry brushing an oil painting gives more of a ‘soft focus’ effect, but personally I don’t want to overdo the blending as (in my work) the paint gets a sort of sickly quality, especially if done in areas with more painterly underpainting. Its like more of a stain than a glaze and glazing needs a little backbone, some substance! This painting was done a while ago when I was still in the early stages of portrait painting but looking at it again I feel that I was able to create the kind of effect I am now trying to capture and that I lost somewhere along my journey into oil painting. Parts of it I would now rework but sometimes less seemingly accomplished work has a more desirable quality. I am still trying to find the space between the finished, polished oil painting and the accidental – I read somewhere about the ‘completeness of ‘incompleteness’, sounds good but I don’t know what it means. It might mean something though.

I’m still trying to find a way of using brushwork. I love the sensation of pushing paint around with a hog brush and literally feeling the paint slip around on the picture plane. More than that, paint shudders when you turn the brush this way and that, it ripples and folds and dances on the surface. The wet brush flips and turns as it goes, collecting the paint, hoarding it, spreading and stretching it, round and round, a beautiful moment during each glaze where just wet enough, the surface has a thin layer of oil paint I push and pull around, feeling it fold and eddy under the brush like butter.

I think generally very fine blending is done with sable brushes but I only use these for extremely fine details, like the line of an eyelid, as somehow when I do it the paint loses its painterly qualities. It would work if all of my brush mark-making was done in the same way but a lot of what I do leaves a painterly effect. I need to be shown how to do this by someone who knows. But I don’t want to be too fussy about the blending, again probably because my instinct is to let the paint ‘blend’ in the eye of the viewer. I’m not after a perfect finish. There’s more of a sense of the alchemy of painting and the transformative qualities of paint when it’s a bit rougher and more painterly.

The art historian Richard Elkins wrote a brilliant book titled Painting is Alchemy and he writes about how painting isn’t an exact science, but more akin to alchemy. The specific qualities that individual artists look for in paint can never be written down and aren’t formulaic. It’s transformative

 

 

Portrait painting commission – grisaille layer waiting for the first glaze

This is the first stage, the grisaille. I will be posting a video of the first glaze in a few days. The sitter is the sister of the earlier portrait posted. I will be able to continue modelling the forms as I glaze. I have talked about this elsewhere but the drawing never stops while glazing is taking place, each glaze revealing new areas to develop in the painting. The grisaille is not perfectly formed but is enough to form an anchor for the rest of the painting. Hue or colour is in itself drawing and form and all the imperfections and flat areas are transformed with the glazes.

There are many different ways to make a grisaille underpainting; with black and white as here, or you can make a ‘verdaccio’ which is monotone green and white, or burnt umber and whites. In the future I would like to do some paintings with very limited palettes, like the Zorn palette which has Yellow Ochre, Black, red and white. Or like the one I used at school, Burnt Sienna, Cobalt Blue and White. Just thinking about it is so nostalgic and I fondly remember swimming in warm and cool tones back then.

Grisaille portrait commission in oil paints, before first glaze.
Portrait of Ruby, grisaille painted in oils, Titanium White and Ivory Black

New video on youtube of the grisaille and glazing process

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.