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!
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:
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.
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.
This is a recent portrait commission, which I really enjoyed painting! Particularly, organising the group composition was a great challenge. I started with a photoshoot, taking a lot of photos of everyone relaxing together and interacting as a family. Obviously we could spend days doing this, going through many combinations and settings, making sketches etc. But this can also be achieved in a relatively short time over a morning or afternoon. At the time the sitters and artist selected some of the best photos to use as references to and later in the studio I organised the painting, working out the composition by sketching various configurations. Usually the photos chosen initially concern how the image captures the likeness and character of the individual sitters. Using these as a starting point I then found ways to combine those images with others where the poses of the figures worked in terms of an overall whole. My aim was to lead the eye of the viewer around the canvas and so hopefully the composition flows naturally through various echos and parallels in the sitters poses.
Working out the composition of a group portrait is a collaboration between the client and artist, where the client can see the photos, offer criticism and request certain photos to use. They may make suggestions based on each person’s character, or that a particular setting or viewpoint is desirable. Who is the portrait commission for? Is it a gift, and if the recipient will be in the portrait painting how do they want to be situated? Do they have a favourite chair or room where the painting will be set? The artist then takes these decisions as a starting point, and then attempts to bring all these diverse elements together. Here I wanted to create a harmonious unified composition, one that brings out all of the sitters characters without being overly formal or rigid. Working with the images already provided, and these images are primarily decided based on how they are felt to give a good likeness and sense of the sitter, the artist might then use other references with different poses, ones that will help the overall composition. The finished painting is a combination of all these many different elements, the space, the furniture, each individual and their relationship to each other. Sometimes the image references can be many for even an individual sitter; the image for their face was initially decided, but then their pose may be from a different reference, their hands another, another for their chair and how they then relate to the space around them and the other sitters..
From my original training as a sculptor, and one who was interested in abstract sculpture and carving, I can’t help see a painting in terms of its abstract qualities. How the forms create a sense of space and movement around them, how the eye is led around the picture surface, and how the colour palette is balanced across the painted surface. A portrait is a painting first and foremost, not a copy of reality. Its an invention. This moment in time did not actually happen, but the painting is a combination of many small moments, interactions, pauses, light reflecting and shadows passing. All of these moments are compressed and gathered by the artist, and then united into a single pictorial ‘conceit’. It is not a photograph, although for convenience photos were used for a reference. This painting is oil mixed with pigment and brushed onto wood board. But it is also a true reflection of the lives of the sitters, achieved through likeness painted by the artist’s brush.
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.
I reworked this drawing a bit today and realised again how much I love working with willow charcoal! I’m hoping to start a new series of work inspired by dance using this medium. I have always loved life drawing and working from the figure and its nice to have something to work on between painting portraits.
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.