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.
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!
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
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.
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.
I was recently commissioned to do a drawing of two twins. See if you can spot the difference.
I worked very closely from the photo provided but the client didn’t like the way the tongue looked in the end, so I had to do a bit of human photoshopping. In hindsight it was never going to work, but I followed the brief and was still happy with the drawing at that stage. Its the first pencil drawing I’ve done for over 20 years and, ahem, nearly 30.. Still working with a crosshatch style. Old habits really do die hard with art. As I wrote in another blog, Learning to love black, it took me years to shake off the idea that black in a tube was a crime against art.
This is Amy’s portrait, glazed in oil paints. I filmed myself doing this and it will shortly be on my youtube channel. Its still in the early stages, and when this layer is dry I’ll go over it again, up to 3 or 4 times. I don’t know if I’m going to film those other stages – they might be a bit boring as its just a lot of tinkering. In the early stages its quite dramatic how a few glazes of colour changes the grisaille into a very nearly finished portrait. Stay tuned!
Here is a double portrait I worked on from a photo, to give an example of the process. I originally painted Anna in a grisaille, and went over the face in colour, having changed tack and wanting concentrate on a single opaque colour layer. It was worked into over a few sessions with additional glazes of colour.
In contrast I painted Simon’s face in colour directly onto primed canvas. I painted a ‘ground’ (or colour stain) on the canvas first, using a couple of coats of acrylic Burnt Umber. You can also see where I drew the grid. I had to leave some of the background unpainted so I could still follow the gridlines! It was one of those rare occasions where I was able to get the drawing right on the first attempt.
When doing commissions this has been something I have avoided trying too much, because when the drawing doesn’t work I can spend many hours going back over the painting, needlessly, because if the drawing was all correct in the first place it wouldn’t have been a problem. Many bad experiences trying to fix paintings like this led me to use the grisaille method, because that is a great way of ensuring the drawing is right before attempting colour.
When I say drawing I’m talking about drawing with the paint. I’ve written about this before, especially here regarding the utmost importance of getting the drawing right first. Drawing is all of painting – figurative painting that is. That’s why even though I trained as a sculptor I could try painting portraits, because I had done a lot of drawing already. Working to commission means I need to make sure there’s no wasted effort.
This is a portrait I painted of my brother Tom a few years ago, and I wanted to share it as I love the composition. I don’t know if its obvious but he’s reading, and enjoying a cup of tea at home. I feel the composition of the painting has a compactness to it, whilst having three distinct spatial areas – himself in the foreground, the room behind, and the window and world outside. There’s also the added dimension of the other window on his right, shedding light on his hand and cheek. And you could include the space I sat and painted in. I think I spent an hour or so on it and it was a good likeness, so decided to leave it as it was.
I was quite free with colour at the time and that’s something I want to renew and develop further, as another discipline to complement grisaille painting. I think some of the paintings I made in the years before I learned traditional techniques have a freedom and spontaneity that I don’t want to lose sight of. I’ll share more of these on this blog soon.
I’m hoping to start going a drop-in life class to specifically do some oil sketches and Alla Prima portraits so we’ll see how that goes. As I post this I will be at a portrait class in Topsham, Devon, and I will post again about it. Alla Prima is a technique I’ve had a little instruction in, but I’m feeling the need to go back to Bristol to have a chat with James Scrace about it. I’ve mentioned before but he worked for and trained under Pietro Annigoni, so he knows what he’s talking about! Alla Prima is Italian for ‘first attempt’ and is also called wet-on-wet. You basically try and finish the painting in a sitting, rather than painting layers of oil paint on top of paint that has been allowed to dry. I’d love to do one of Louis Smith’s courses on it as he provides brilliant tuition in all things academic in oil painting and portraiture.