The client initially made enquiries about commissioning a portrait because they had a portrait painted of themselves as a 13 year old, and wanted to commission a portrait of their son at the same age. It was agreed the portrait would be in oil on board, and I went to the family home and worked on the painting from life for a day before taking the painting back to the studio to continue working.
Because of time restraints I used a grid method which can work very well for portraits of fidgety younger people! After having a chat and getting to know the sitter I took a photo and after copying the outline onto the grid I completed the drawing. Then I could paint the sitter with a degree of confidence, and have the opportunity to observe the skin tones in real life. I used a fairly limited palette but didn’t paint with a grisaille so I could get a feel for the skin colours while I had the opportunity to do so.
I got to this stage after 4 hours and took it back to the studio to wait for it to dry and continue working. After another 3 or 4 glazes the portrait was finished.
It is also possible to use a sitting like this to make sketches and colour studies, so that I can then work from a photo and use a grisaille later in the studio.
I finished the 2nd glaze last week and have added a voiceover to my video, so it is all up on youtube now.
This is the last video in this short series, using a copy of a Bouguereau painting to learn about the glazing technique. I chose to make it the last video because my main aim is to demonstrate the technique – I don’t know how interesting it would be to show all of the potential glazes for this painting on video.
But if I do a 3rd and 4th glaze then I’ll post it on here.
Showing the 2nd glaze unedited (well very slightly edited) and in real time, I hope it will be valuable to anyone interested in this technique. I hope it shows that this is quite a straightforward method of working with oil paint that has beautiful results.
It is a method that can also be used with any approach to oil painting, i.e. it can be used to further enrich and deepen any oil painting that has been started in colour. You don’t have to do an underpainting in grisaille or brown to achieve these effects and can work up a painting however you like.
Grisaille underpainting and underpainting generally is my preferred method because I like painting in monotones, I guess because I was originally trained as a sculptor.
I feel glazing over grisaille or grey shows with great clarity the wonderful transformative qualities of glazing very clearly, so it lends itself to this kind of demonstration.
This is one of my favourite portraits, carved in beautiful Carrara marble from Italy. Looking at it here I feel its got a nice sense of the person as well as a simplicity and wholeness. This was a bit of a fluke but I’m hoping to use it as a benchmark for future portrait sculptures. Its a challenge trying to capture eyes in monotone like this, and too much detail doesn’t usually work making the portrait appear ghoulish. Here though I was pleased with the result, and its something to explore in further work.
At first I had made a clay portrait of the sitter which I worked up from photos, but I abandoned the clay portrait and it lay in my studio for a good few months. Then I suddenly had the desire to carve the portrait, so using the clay model as a reference I carved directly into a block of marble I had lying around in the yard. I don’t use a pointing machine or anything when I carve, but I do use callipers to measure distances between say eyes to bottom of nose, width of mouth etc. There is an image below of some preliminary drawings I did for another sculpture in marble with various measurements of distances across the face. I’ve got no other ‘work in progress’ photos of Jamie’s portrait sculpture unfortunately.
The only problem I had with it was that I had bought the marble from a reclamation yard in Oxfordshire so it had already been out of the ground for over 100 years. This meant it had hardened to the extreme and was very difficult to work, or at least a lot harder than recently quarried marble. I’m not sure of the physical processes marble undergoes when it comes out of the ground, but freshly quarried stone has what masons call ‘sap’ in it. This is water embedded in the stone, and it makes stone softer to carve. Once it is dug out of the ground stone gradually loses this quality and hardens further, and with marble this gives it a very hard brittleness. Good marble has an almost buttery quality to it, and is very consistent, making it a joy to carve. Marble is definitely one of the harder limestones, but once you’ve got going its lovely hammering away and feeling the chisel cut into it! My neighbours didn’t like it too much after a while but all is forgiven now.
I hew off large areas first, for example from the side of the block the area between the head down to the shoulders can all come off at right angles, then the distance between the projection of the nose and the rest of the face, then down to the cheeks. You can see an example of this in the photo below of another portrait sculpture where the tip of the nose is still square. I carved down to the cheeks first and then began to round them.
This is a method I picked up when working as a stone mason in the Wells Cathedral yard, where I worked while taking a year out of art school. It’s a typically pragmatic way of working for a mason, and it helps a lot when working only from photos. Further on you should discard it and focus on the roundness and wholeness of things, so that a sculpture doesn’t get too mechanical. For a portrait you need to have a sense of precision and exactness to get a likeness so its a good method to use for that. I’ve been painting a lot recently and am looking forward to carving a portrait in the near future!
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 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.
Après le bain, oil on canvas 178 x 88.5 cm W-BOUGUEREAU – 1875
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.
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.
This is a detail of a painting that I have shown before of the effect of glazing over a grisaille underpainting in a short time. You can see the first glaze which took around an hour to paint, and the effects are dramatic. It is something I wish I had filmed at the time along with the other short film I made of glazing the arm, my first video!
It also shows a detail of some decorative motifs I was experimenting with which in the end I discarded. Just the sleeve of his pyjamas had some tiny star decorations on, and I enlarged these stars to create a free floating design that ran across the painting. Its certainly good to have a record of this, even though it was scrapped. I’m still interested in the idea of playing games with the picture plane. Of course the realism of the portrait is an illusion, and it felt like a good idea to juxtapose that with something that flaunted the illusion.
The portrait is of my son and it was my wife who decided she didn’t like this design! Its something else I would like to investigate more in the future though.
The palette I used here for the glaze was fairly limited: Titanium White, Indian Yellow, Vermillion, Alizarin Crimson, and Sap Green.
It shows what can be achieved with glazing just a few colours over the Black and White underpainting, but strictly speaking Ivory Black is on the palette too, it was just painted beforehand and already dried as the grisaille. You don’t need umbers or ochres for the hair necessarily, and just a mix of reds and the Sap Green will do, as it did for the shadow tones. Like in a Zorn palette the Ivory Black mixed with white gives a cool bluish hue to the skin tones where it shows through.
I used a hogs hair brush to start and then blended colours using both that and then a sable brush to finish. There was an additional glaze to this but in the main I was happy with this first glaze, and it demonstrates the efficiency of the grisaille technique. Get the drawing right first, and the correct value tones, and then the glazing can achieve very quick results. Even though its quick to paint, every glaze is painted very slowly, very carefully, never committing too much paint.
Here is the final painting which is still not completely resolved. I think I preferred the earlier version and its just been left which is sometimes the only way I finish paintings. I may go back to it one day, but can’t now though because its being exhibited. Paintings though pass into one another in a linked chain of learning where all past failures and successes are handed down and carried through to future works. The point is to keep moving forward!
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.
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.
I’ve always loved that. To be able to say ‘Its painting today’..
Sap Green is a generic name for a warm, deep green. Perhaps its difficult to tell, but the above detail of a portrait painting was made possible with the invaluable Sap Green and even though impossible to see really its all over it! Sap Green cools reds. Red and green are complementary colours so together they neutralise each other. People generally aren’t that green, but they are greener than you might imagine.. skin in shadow is invariably greenish in hue. Maybe greenish is too strong a word (it might not be a word) but generally when I paint shadows there are always greens silently working their magic.
There a lots of different Sap Greens made by different oil paint manufacturers as each develops their paints in their own way. I love Michael Harding’s oil paints and I love his Sap Green, but it doesn’t have the particular warm quality I am generally after when I reach for it, in the context I want it. It is good for cooler shades and hues but I haven’t yet been bold enough to use it in a portrait. Michael Harding’s website says that it would be ideal for the plein air painter which is true.
The Sap Green I worked with when I studied with Louis Smith was one of the warmest greens I had painted with (Lukas studio oils), and I discovered mixing with Alizarin Crimson is brilliant for cooling down reds in shadow tones. It served this purpose in the portrait painting shown. I painted this shortly after I did a glazing workshop with Louis Smith in Manchester and it was a revelation for me. The sap green I generally use is the Winsor and Newton Winton variety, but I’m sure there are a lot of other ones out there including the Lukas one. I have just been going through what I already have in my paints box. I also have an old tube of water-mixable Duo Aqua sap green which I can use as its also warmish.
The one colour I can’t live without at the moment is sap green. What a discovery that was! All credit to Louis Smith for introducing me to it back when I was starting to seriously paint portraits. For me all skin tones seem to flow from there when this green is mixed with alizarin crimson or cadmium red. In my case I generally add both, or start with a dark mix of crimson and sap green. I have found myself recently mixing a deep colour using these two and working from there on the palette in various directions, adding white here, blue or yellow there and seeing where I end up.
If I mix Sap Green and a red for a shadow and it’s still too warm I mix in a bit of blue. It could be any blue but the blue I have on my pallet is Ultramarine. This again is a warm blue, but its cool enough to dampen the fires of Cadmium Red or Alizarin Crimson. I have to be careful not to add too much blue or it overpowers the other colours.
Honestly I think I would struggle to paint a portrait without it these days. The description on the Winsor and Newton website says Sap Green is a bright mid-range green with a yellow undertone. Originally Sap Green was a lake pigment made from unripe Buckthorn berries. Here is a picture of some Buckthorn, also once used as a ‘purgative’ which sounds nice. Perhaps its a good thing its not used anymore as its very toxic.
My palette is a fairly warm one when seen all laid out, and I’m sure at any time I could dispense with some of the colours. I generally don’t use umbers (browns) in my palette except when I’m doing drawing or underpainting. I have found its convenient to have a bit when I’m painting hair, but I usually mix my browns from various other colours, typically starting with a red and sap green together. Here is a video starting at the moment I have prepared a glaze mix on my palette using these colours, and I use it for the hair:
When mixing colours I’m always back and forth, correcting and adjusting as I go. I never get it right first time but have come to see it as a process of guesswork where I try a colour, see it in context, and then try again. I was never taught any formal method like you might see on an academic painters palette. Sometimes when I have a very warm hue for a highlight, where I have used a lot of red, it can work very well to just add some blue or a sharp green like Viridian. I want to try and get the values to remain the same with the two colours, but the cooler hue bounces off the warmer and creates the subtlest shadows. It still takes a bit of time when painting to get to the point where I can find this balance, and often I do it by accident. That is part of the pleasure of painting though, where we are constantly surprising ourselves.
Reference, taken in a setting with artificial and natural light
Grisaille underpainting, painted in titanium white and ivory black
Finished painting in oil
I have been reworking a long standing grisaille portrait painting in oil and experimenting with a more colourful painterly approach. I am still using the glazing technique, but with a more complex palette than some of my other work. The original photo reference was taken in an interior space under a combination of artificial light and daylight. This gave the skin in the reference a rich multi-hued surface, where the face was illuminated artificially and was only slightly in any shadow. Looking at it one can see oranges, greens, blues, yellows, every colour imaginable but with only the slightest variation in value, or light and dark. It has some beautiful cool shadows juxtaposed against warm (very warm) highlights.
I was pleased with the grisaille underpainting, and it worked because I am now more attuned to the very subtle changes in value when painting portraits. In the past I may have mistakenly exaggerated the changes in value, or light to dark, but I have come to see that these changes are only very minor and actually best left to the overpainting and colour glazes. It appears best to take a ‘paint by numbers’ approach and work in larger areas of grey values, what they call ‘blocking in’, and to use colour to build the shape of the face. Unless a sitter is very brightly illuminated with a strong chiaroscuro effect, then even the differences between shadow and highlights in a portrait can be quite subtle. Working in colour as opposed to modelling light to dark is something Cezanne called ‘modulation’ – where colour alone creates the sense of the form. He said ‘When colour is richest, form is most complete’.
I have painted a few grisaille portraits where the grisaille is too dark, and this was the problem here. Unfortunately I can’t show a photo of the first glaze which didn’t work, but the colour glazes I used over the initial grisaille made it all too dark. This has happened in some other portraits I have painted. Oil colours themselves can have different values depending on how much paint you put on, so when I tried to colour his cheek using a little alizarin crimson with sap green this was too much and ended looking unsightly. When I squint my eyes at the reference it looks the same as the grisaille in terms of the values, so in order to make room for the colours on top I needed to lighten it first. I don’t actually like painting too methodically in this way, as it seems to suck all the joy and spontaneity out of it so I need to develop it so it still feels natural. By natural I mean the relationship between me and subject is one of looking and responding in the most unaffected way, without calculation. Here is a portrait from 15 years ago, painted before I got stuck into the grisaille technique and trying to find the best formula to paint with. I still love the freshness and simplicity in the drawing and colour rendering. My goal would be to combine this with a more rigorous technique if that is at all possible.
When I attempted to glaze it I found I couldn’t do it, the hues were just too subtle. This was in the early stages of my learning the glazing technique and was beyond me at the time. So the glazed version was shelved for a good while. I have a bad habit of giving up on paintings when actually nearly all paintings are redeemable. As Camille Pissarro said though, you have to keep working until you get it right. When this happens paintings just end up marked ‘fail’ on the fail shelf, and they gnaw away at me. This is a weakness I am trying to overcome, and in that spirit I went back to this portrait and reworked it, specifically after looking at Bonnard. He is such a gorgeous painter who has a rare magical ability with colour, always surprising and new.
Looking at Bonnard fuelled the desire to just let go a bit and love colour, love painting again. Sometimes working on the grisaille technique has made me work in a narrow way and I felt I lost my earlier naive jollity. That’s not what I was taught though by Louis Smith amongst others, who all used many different colour hues when glazing. I just got to a point where I found a way that was working and stuck with it. Having said all that, I was happy with the grisaille paintings that I glazed, I just felt I wanted to let go a bit. It wasn’t working in this particular painting anyway, so I needed something different. I can’t just ape Bonnard in his beautiful loose technique, which you can see was always his sensibility when you look at his early work. I love colour but also love ‘polishing’ the drawing, which is something I get from my love of stone carving.
Here is a Bonnard self portrait to give an idea of what I mean.