Posted on September 25, 2018
I wanted to paint some more using Raw Umber and Titanium White to paint the underpainting for portraits. Looking back over some earlier work from a couple of years ago inspired me to start using them together again. This is a detail from a recent portrait before the glazing. I wanted to approach it with a more fluid, perhaps bolder (for me) style. The underpainting took a couple of hours and when painting it I wanted to allow the brushwork to show a bit more as you get more of a sense of the process of painting it. I also started the painting on a ‘ground’ which was a middle tone of the 2 colours. You can see I left it in the space on the left side of the painting by the chair. Soon I hope to do a video on my youtube channel exploring how Caravaggio used grounds in his oil paintings.
I will also post a video of me doing the glazing for this portrait in the near future.
My hope is to paint freely, without really worrying too much about it, without being a slave to technique or overthinking it. I’m presently attempting to return to a simpler process, where the focus is on the drawing, the underpainting. Working in the grisaille holds and extends the moment when I feel I am most deeply connected to pure painting, whatever that is. It helps in sustaining the emotion I feel when pushing paint around, drawing with paint and attempting to conjure a likeness. It removes any other distractions to painting, like choosing the right colour! At the moment I enjoy breaking this process into the two stages, drawing and colour, hence grisaille and glazing. As a sculptor my first love was always drawing, and grisaille fuses the two, becoming like a bridge between drawing and painting.
When starting to paint portraits seriously a few years ago I looked hard for a way of working that suits my disposition and the need to paint as efficiently as possible so as to make it a viable career. I wanted to work with technique, without becoming its slave. To be able to work efficiently so as not to waste time, but to paint with feeling. There’s a certain emotion I get from a painting when it is going well, and I have felt that emotion disappearing by degree the more I have focussed on technique. I think this is something I can correct easily but I need to work through it a bit to maintain the pure pleasure of painting portraits. Its a fine line because I still believe technique is important. If there is a way to do it I want to somehow get lost in the emotion of painting. I see this after finishing a successful portrait, but then the ‘how’ disappears and I can’t recall what happened exactly to make the painting work.
I was happy with this Umber grisaille, but when I tried to recreate the same quality it has in the next painting, I couldn’t do it. There are a thousand, an infinite number of variables and I think I am narrowing in on what I want to do. Hopefully work will reveal it slowly and I can record that on this blog and youtube.
Incidentally, speaking of emotion or feeling in a work, a famous quote from Van Gogh goes: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.”
I landed on the technique, or method, of painting with grisaille as I thought it covered all bases. The magic of painting a portrait is found in the way brush marks can transform inert paint into something that can conjure a likeness, even a character or personality on a canvas. I don’t want to fixate on recreating reality, or paint in a photorealist style. I love paint, making a mess with paint, and to leave a painting as a record of this experience.
Posted on September 20, 2018
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.
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.
Posted on September 14, 2018
Heres a detail of a recent portrait. I painted this using the usual process of working over a grisaille. Her skin tones were very subtle and perhaps the rendering is not so easy to see in a photo. I painted about 5 or 6 glazes over the grisaille, and it was a challenge to capture the translucency of the skin. This is exactly what glazing does so well though and in the way it allows light to shine through it functions in a similar way to skin, which is essentially translucent itself. I’m not after the most polished look and like to have a painterly surface where brush marks are still visible, as I think this adds to the magical illusion of painting.
One thing I love when glazing an oil painting is painting hands, and here is another detail:
Up close they are rendered in a fairly loose way, and with about 3 or 4 glazes as I remember.
Here is the finished painting:
I loved painting the Chinese dress and glazed it a few times with a mixture of Cadmium Red and Rose Madder, then added the details as a final touch to the painting. I decided not to paint the chair she was sitting on, wanting to simplify the format. I like the vertical tautness this gives the composition – perhaps it has echoes of a Chinese portrait. I like to ‘declutter’ the background that appears in my reference photos, most of the time. It depends on the relevancy to the portrait of an individual as a whole. I felt here that there were enough references to the sitter here without any additional details, and these weren’t discussed during the photo session.
Artists have always provided visual clues about the character of a sitter in their paintings – for this painting the client asked that a favourite teddy was involved, and the child chose her favourite dress. Clues that represent the social life of the sitter are included by the artist to show the sitter’s ‘relational self’, the self that is seen by others and relates to others in a social context. To give an extreme example, royalty are often portrayed with all the trappings of their position, personifications of the ruling power, before they are portrayed as individuals (Brilliant, Portraiture P. 104). Despite having the odd reference here and there, I am always focussed on the sitter as an individual, before any externals. I want to focus on the sitter’s uniqueness and their shining humanity. I believe that if the artist looks long enough and hard enough, that humanity is visible in a person’s face and can be captured in paint on canvas.
Posted on August 24, 2018
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.
Posted on July 17, 2018
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.
Posted on July 4, 2018
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!
Posted on June 29, 2018
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!
Posted on June 21, 2018
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.
Posted on June 12, 2018
I’m embarking on another short series of videos on my youtube channel showing the process of copying this part of a Bouguereau painting from start to finish. I hope to use this as a way to learn about his process and to improve my own glazing technique. Bouguereau primarily used grisaille and glazing as a method of painting and his glazing has a beautiful translucent quality. This first video focusses on how I prepare a canvas or board and using a grid to transfer a photo or drawing to the surface.
Here is a link to the first video in the series:
Posted on June 5, 2018
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.