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.
The drawing before
The drawing after adjustments
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!
Before and after glazing over grisaille. The first oil glaze took roughly an hour to complete. The grisaille underpainting was painted using Titanium White and Ivory Black oil paints, and the glazes are mixed from Alizarin Crimson, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Red, Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue and Sap Green, to name a few
Anna and Simon final version
Anna and Simon progress 3 – refining details and adding glazes for depth. I was trying to be economical about the details of Simon’s jumper
Anna and Simon progress 2 – here I have blocked in all the areas of colour, like a ‘dead layer’
Anna and Simon progress 1- at this stage I abandoned the grisaille and worked colours straight onto the canvas
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.
At school in art class I was taught that black paint is evil, (my teacher was a hardcore impressionist) and that to make a black you need to mix it from other colours, and the required colours were Burnt Sienna and Cobalt blue. It’s taken a LONG time to get this out of my system and in my paintings I still like to mix optical blacks, usually now with Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green, and Burnt Umber with Ultramarine or Pthalo Blues.
Matisse said ‘black is a force’ and he painted some amazing paintings using blacks. You can see what he’s getting at looking at his paintings, but it was his rare skill not to overuse them and just use them to anchor his compositions. I learnt from Louis Smith that for very dark shadow skin tones Alizarin Crimson and Sap Green work really well together. I have mixed black with other colours to darken them and am getting better at using it, although sparingly.. I also learnt to mix Alizarin Crimson with black as this gives it more depth – just another kind of optical black really.
Here’s one of my favourite Matisse paintings and one of my all time greatest paintings; View of Collioure and the sea, 1907 – from the Met Museum, as I remember about 60 x 90cm. Its a lateish Fauvist work known, according to the Met Museum, as “Le Vitrail” (“The Stained Glass”) by Matisse’s family as the black lines of the trees and the colours resemble a stained glass window. Its painted with such economy of means – the photo doesn’t do it justice of course. Fabulous snaking tree trunks and green blobs for foliage, through to the view of the sea beyond. I saw it in Tate Modern a few years ago in some show or other, such a beautiful painting. I still remember clearly how it took my breath away.
This beautiful painting by Titian from the Prado Museum is the reason I wanted to try and learn the technique of painting with a grey layer, or underpainting in grisaille, a technique that Titian pioneered.
The flesh appears both taught, as if it was carved out of marble, and fluid at the same time. Titian painted this in Rome, and you can clearly see the influence of Michelangelo in the rendering of the forms and their monumentality. Another interesting fact is that he painted it on Slate. You can see the colour layers as applied over the grisaille and they seem to dance and flicker on the picture plane. It is as if Jesus Christ is illuminated from the inside, and the strokes of glaze glow like flames burning in a furnace. The cloth Christ is wrapped in has an extraordinary quality which maybe I could get to the bottom of by copying.
I don’t paint portraits with this kind of chiaroscuro and extreme passages of light to dark, but maybe I should. Chiaroscuro as seen here feels like it belongs in a different age, but it would be interesting to see if you could do it today, and make it something worth looking at, without pastiche.
These paintings of Christ on his way to the crucifixion were meant as devotional images, painted in such ways to elicit empathy from the viewer. You can feel the depth of Titian’s religious faith in this painting. There is more information on the Museo Del Prado’s website about it.
It feels a bit shallow chatting about it in this way, or that I’ve somehow understood it when I don’t think I have at all. Perhaps the only way to come to terms with it is to try and copy the painting, but the subject is so raw that personally I don’t think I can. I am able to admire this painting, but not as a devotional object and certainly only in a small way appreciate it in the way Titian intended. But as much as being a devotional object it is also celebrated because of the skill and grace he displayed in handling the paint after all. I do believe though that it was his religious faith that gave rise to his superlative technique here.