Underpainting using Titanium White and Ivory Black oil paint on canvas

grisaille portrait painting of a boy by British contemporary portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey from Devon, UK

Tommy, grisaille portrait painting, oil on canvas. Painted with Titanium White and Ivory Black. This is a typical grisaille underpainting before the colour glazes of oil paint

Tommy- underpainting in progress. Underpainting is a technique used since the renaissance. It usually refers to a monochrome foundation or base layer, and layers of paint are applied on top. This one is a grisaille or grey, but there are various different kinds, and not always of the monochromatic variety. Titian used coloured underpainting. The idea is that it supports further layers of paint, as a foundation supports a house. For me it is purely a pragmatic solution where I can be confident that the drawing is correct and can continue applying further colour layers without having to backtrack and amend the drawing as I go. If I’m painting a portrait to commission I like to work as efficiently as possible, and in the past I have found myself in tricky situations where I have had to keep going over the drawing because its not right, and this can be very time consuming. As I have said elsewhere, you can throw a lot of good painting after bad if the drawing isn’t right first.

The other type of underpainting I have used is called ‘verdaccio’, which is a green version, and usually made by mixing black, yellow and white although I think a nice version would be with Michael Harding’s Sap Green and Titanium White only.  I never used black as my art teacher at school was a hardcore impressionist with a love of purple who could not abide it. Honestly it took me 20 or more years to get over that – just couldn’t use the stuff.

Anyway there were a lot of impressionists or those painting at the same time who loved a good bit of black, think Manet and Degas. But we were taught to mix optical blacks with reds and greens or browns an blues and these are very beautiful, and deeper than your average black in a tube. When I learned how to mix oil paint for skin tones from Louis Smith using reds and greens, that struck a chord with my earlier learning and its stayed with me as the basis of all the glazes I’ve found the most useful when painting portraits.

In every portrait painting I paint using the grisaille method, I use the same mix of Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red and Sap Green to start off (has to be a warm Sap Green – Michael Harding does a beautiful but cooler version which is different to the one I need). I have a Winton Sap Green that is good for now. Maybe a little Raw Umber as well.. All the other glazes I mix hover around this mix on the palette, depending on the person I am painting of course.

Jack in Burnt Umber and Titanium White

Portrait painting commission by Matt Harvey, British portrait painter, Devon, UK

Jack, oil on canvas. Glazes over a burnt umber underpainting

When I began investigating Old Master techniques I had some brilliant instruction from James Scrace, a portrait painter who was trained by Pietro Annigoni (see his fantastic self portrait). He learned every traditional painting skill from Annigoni, including fresco painting, and he taught me to use Burnt Umber as a wash to draw the portrait first, and then build up layers of slightly opaque ‘half-pastes’ using colour and a little white. Also I was taught to add white with small amounts of blue and then glaze over it with flesh tones. This was one of my first attempts, of my cousin Jack. Of late I have been focussing on a strict grisaille underpainting but looking at this I think I prefer the slightly more fluid quality burnt umber can achieve with thinner washes.

Portrait painting and glazing

Portrait of a boy, oil on canvas using the grisaille method by British portrait artist matt Harvey

This boy had a head with a great symmetry and the final portrait had an almost hieratic quality. There was a lot of correcting while painting the glazes, but as Philip Guston said, painting should have a moral aspect, and somehow all the effort spent in painting a picture or portrait is stored as a kind of moral worth. The opposite would be something like doing it with a photoshop app and a click of a button.

Here is a recent portrait commission using the grisaille method, where the colour glazes overlap and create an optical effect as the light passes through each layer. This one has around 6-8 layers of oil glaze over the grey underpainting. As I have mentioned before, I use M. Graham’s walnut alkyd medium, which dries quickly enough and doesn’t give me a headache.  I was constantly repainting and working into the drawing as I went, and the main problem in the end is the risk of over-working it, so at this stage I decided to call it a day.

The portrait has a rather serious quality that I like. There was a lot of revising and correcting, but the head looks as if it could be carved out of marble. As a sculptor by training I definitely enjoyed painting this head with its beautiful symmetry. It’s one of those things but I would rework it if I could get it back now, but actually I couldn’t because it lives in its own time and I correct it in further paintings. Each painting is part of a long chain of work that link one to the other, and each painting has its own quality, for better or worse. Actually I would have loved to carve a portrait sculpture based on this portrait.

There was a lot of correcting while painting the glazes, because the grisaille was probably not complete at the time of the first glaze. But as Philip Guston said, painting should have a moral aspect, and somehow all the effort spent in painting a picture or portrait is stored as a kind of moral force. The opposite would be something like doing it with a photoshop app and a click of a button. This is absolutely true and you can always sense this in a painting, and in the most subtle way all the effort, all the revisions and alterations, all the agony and effort, and joy, show in the final painting. Philip Guston was a true hero of art.

Drawing practice

The most intense ‘drawing’ experience I have had is when I am carving directly into marble. This piece was done from photos with some simple measurements I took with a set of callipers as a guide (not easy with a baby – generally done while she was asleep!) With marble carving any wrong move would ruin the whole thing and a months work, making it pretty stressful but a great discipline. Because of that pressure I think I improved my ‘looking’. For me drawing is about making a mark, and then checking it, and checking again, and deeply looking at the subject. I even feel that the depth of the looking etches the subjectivity of the artist on the media they are working, be it drawing, painting or sculpture. I don’t know what that subjectivity is but its an emotion, and its possible to embody that emotion in a work of art. Making a sculpture in the round is like doing hundreds of drawings simultaneously. Without drawing, or when the drawing is lacking, the painting’s ruined.

In my experience CUTTING CORNERS with drawing is the biggest waste of time and I have probably wasted YEARS of my life throwing good after bad in paintings, going over and over attempting corrections when all the effort could have been saved with earlier checks. Its the ultimate false economy..

‘Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting… Drawing contains everything, except the hue’. (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres) from Art Quotes

Revelation with colour glazing

One of the most important things that has happened to me in all the years I have been portrait painting was going on a course run by Louis Smith in 2014, learning about glazing. Looking at his website I thought this would be about glazing as I understood it where you have a very thin translucent layer of paint and you go over a grey underpainting, or dead layer, like Caravaggio or Ingres. We learned to glaze over an underpainting, but the glazes felt more like ‘half-pastes’ as they were not entirely transparent. Even so it transformed the way I approached colour mixing for portrait paintings, and I learned amazing colour combinations of reds and greens which are now the foundation of my approach to painting a face. I’ll write about them in another blog post. I found out about Louis Smith from Jonathan Jones, the Guardian newspaper art critic.

On the course, which was over a weekend, we used a monochrome print from another portrait and went step by step through the process of building up areas of colour, slowly refining and blending each.

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Portrait of Florence, oil on canvas

 

For this portrait as usual I used a canvas on board, and cropped it slightly to fit the subject. I started with a grisaille underpainting using Raw Umber and Titanium White and a little medium. I’m hovering between a straightforward Ivory Black and White underpainting, and other versions, mainly Raw or Burnt Umber and White. Burnt umber has a little more warmth. I’ve looked around online and you can see people painting with blacks which are made up of reds mixed with greens, e.g. Alizarin Crimson and Viridan Green, or again different blues and browns. At school I was taught by my militant impressionist teacher Mr. Baines that using black was sinful and one should only EVER mix blacks optically, and his chosen mix was Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue. You can mix a nice black from these two, but I went off Burnt Sienna a while ago (I’m sure I’ll come back to it – at the moment it just has a bit too much character, like someone talking very loudly at a party, so you can here them wherever you’re standing!). I think you can achieve a deeper black mixed from Burnt Umber and Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue.

Having said all that, in the name of efficiency I have stripped back all of my processes to avoid unnecessary headaches so I generally I use Ivory Black and Titanium White! I have also learned from Louis Smith that a little Alizarin Crimson mixed in with Ivory Black gives it more depth, so I also do this on occasion.

The thing is that I can achieve this depth at a later stage by glazing darker colours over the underpainting so again the Alizarin Crimson gets ditched when I want to simplify the process. I’m possibly lazy, but if you are working on something over a few sessions and have to mix the colours each time inconsistencies can creep in and so thats just another layer of process that can be removed.

You can see an example of the depth achieved through glazing in the image below where the grisaille is actually quite bland in comparison. Dark glazes in and around the eyes give huge depth (generally I won’t use black at this stage and mainly use Alizarin and Sap Green or Cadmium Red and Viridian, or blues or browns or whatever..). This is the first glaze and already it has transformed the tonal range of the portrait.

First glazing over grisaille portrait

I’ve put the first colour glaze put on this portrait in 2 stressful hours! A few more glazes needed and I’ll add them over the coming days. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium which dries overnight – or to be extra sure within 48 hours. I enjoyed painting his ear and chuffed with the result! It felt good to achieve some economy of handling with the paint, and not get bogged down in it. #ear #chuffed #figurativeart #contemporaryart #portraitpainting #portrait #grisaille #underpainting #oilpainting #oiloncanvas #realism #art #painting #glaze #devonartistnetwork #devonopenstudios #devon